An Open Letter to Our Students: Sexual Violence, Awareness, and Academic Lives

[Editor’s Note: Drs. Shulist and Biittner frankly care a whole lot about their students so this post is quite different than those that have come before. This post is a letter written to their students. It is a meant to address some of their nuanced understandings of how inequality exists in the academy, something they frequently talk about especially in the context of their roles in the Academic Women’s Network at MacEwan University. But really this means they want to write about some topics that are hard for them – hard because they are personal, they require reflexivity, they are triggering, they represent the very worst of the academy as an institution, and as such they require tact and care.  This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering for the reader.]

Dear students,

If you are here at MacEwan in person, you know that this has been our first ever Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Among the events taking place this week was a roundtable panel, organized by the Academic Women’s Network, on Sexual Violence in the Academy. Both of us were involved in that panel, as executive members of the network, and in Dr. Biittner’s case, as a panelist. Between these local events and the explosion, on social media, of people sharing their stories or just their ‘#metoo’, it’s been a difficult week for us. We have been thinking a lot about our own experiences, about the literally countless stories we have heard over the years, and of the fears we have for women in the future. In some ways, Sexual Violence Awareness Week is frustrating, because many of the people paying enough attention to attend these events (including ourselves) are already deeply and painfully aware. At the same time, it reminds us of how necessary it is to recommit ourselves to learning more, to paying attention more, to reflecting more, on how the pervasive myths of rape culture intersect with and reinforce oppression in multiple forms. As we think about these things, and particularly emerging from the panel about academia, we have a few things we want to say to you.

  1. Academia is part of the world, and the world is patriarchal and unsafe, especially for women, trans, and nonbinary folks. On yesterday’s panel, we heard statistics about everything from rates of sexual violence in archaeological fieldwork (see also this update here) to patterns of negative judgment on student course evaluations. We also heard personal stories and reflections on experiences that have happened as we go about our lives and work in the academy. The statistics are horrible. The rates of sexual assault and harassment are heartbreaking. The personal stories are affecting and enraging. Some of this is the product of being part of a world that is so full of violence it can hurt just to look at it. Some of it is also the result of specific structures and patterns of academic culture. We are profoundly hierarchical. Rank and status matter, and institutions are inclined to protect those who bring in money. Our lives are deeply embedded in close relationships of trust, and our careers can rise and fall on the favour of our PhD supervisors or the Principal Investigator on a major grant project, which gives these people immense power to silence and control us, and some of them abuse that. And we often work in ways and in places that blur the boundaries between personal and professional, in which we lower our guard, and which can give predators ways to attack without being noticed by outside observers. Academia isn’t the only type of workplace where we see this, and other environments include different types of practices and standards that predators exploit, but these aspects matter and are meaningful to how we talk about what to do about it. We wish we could counsel you on how to move forward in or beyond academia without talking about this, but we can’t. Because…
  2. We want you to be safe. Just as we know that these experiences are hard to carry in our own work, we see how hard it is for you to carry them. We are committed to making you safe in any way we can. We try to do this by advocating for better policy, by warning you away from people we know to be dangerous, by getting training in ways to support you, by reflecting on how our own privileges require us to pay attention to our own roles in the perpetuation of patterns of abuse and disbelief of those who do not share those privileges. This is a pedagogical commitment for us, and we think it should be for everyone, though we know it’s not. It is almost frustrating to have to say that of course people who are dealing with trauma, who are anxious or fearful, or who are unable to safely attend their classes, cannot learn to the best of their abilities. Some people see this as being overly protective of people who should be adults. We see it as our responsibility as educators and human beings. At the same time…
  3. It’s hard to admit we can’t make academia safe for you. We really, really wish we could. We wish that we could do more than whisper these warnings. We wish we could guarantee that when you go to a place to get an education, that is, in fact, what you will get. But the problem is so big, and it’s so hard, and we can’t. We wish we could be the Carrie Fisher in this story, and maybe, in a few decades when we are more secure and established, we will be, but for now, the only thing we can say is…
  4. We want you to talk to us. But we also want you to realize this is hard for us. This is not easy to articulate, because we do not want it to seem like we are claiming your traumas and experiences of violence are too much for us. They aren’t. Far from it. We are not counselors, and we are not friends, but we care about your success and your ability to do your work with as much focus, energy, and even joy as you can. At the same time, when we think and talk about the impact of sexual violence in academia, we need you to know that some of us are hearing these stories, checking up on those of you we are concerned about, and spending time and mental energy thinking about how, exactly, to protect you and others from known predators. Others around us are not doing that. And this is not to say you should go to them, necessarily – they may not be safe, this is a real thing. We just want you to consider this when you look at who is successful in academia, and when you plan, for yourselves, an academic life. We do this instead of writing another research paper, because this is far more important, but we also must admit it is the research paper that will get us a job, or a promotion, or a grant. As it is women profs (and especially, women of colour profs) who do the majority of this…
  5. This has a big impact on how many people, especially women, trans, and nonbinary people, are able to do their jobs. You, students, may or may not see everything that is involved in our work as your professors. We teach, we prepare classes, and we grade, yes; we also write our own papers and presentations, apply for grants, conduct original research, and serve on committees that make the university run. None of this is easy to do if we are also dealing with the symptoms of trauma, or the anxiety that comes from dealing with a harassing supervisor, or the distraction and shame of an abusive partner. It’s not that we don’t want to provide you with the support you need, it’s that we are more frequently asked to provide this much needed support from our students than our male colleagues because we are female, while knowing that students are also more likely to be biased against us as instructors also because we are female. Add all of this to the emotional labour that is overwhelmingly required of women in our society and you have not just for poor job performance but a high risk for the development of serious mental health issues (anxiety, depression, etc.). So we have to take care of ourselves meaning…
  6. We may only be able to listen, to acknowledge your feelings, and then send you off with options for additional and/or ongoing support. We can and will provide you with academic accommodations – the anniversary of your assault is the same day as your due date so you need to just take off somewhere and might not be able to hand that assignment in on time? Ok. Not a problem. As stated above we cannot be your therapist, your friend, or your confidant (though we will try to make sure that you have all of those people in your life), but we can let you know of what resources are available for you as our student, because…
  7. We know of resources! As instructors we learn the ins and outs of our institution. We also try to make ourselves aware of additional resources nearby that we can suggest may be able to help you – especially those that provide low or no cost counseling services, because it’s horrible to realize that financial barriers prevent many people from being able to access support. Here’s a list of some valuable resources available to you at our campus and in our city:
  8. Together we can try to change this. During the panel one of our students, one of your classmates, maybe you, asked “what can I do to change this?”. Any answer we give to this feels inadequate in the face of a problem of this size, but as anthropologists, we firmly believe in the importance of understanding and imagining the possibility of a radically different world. We know, from our research, that the way things are is not the way they have always been or the way that they have to be. And so we know that they can be changed, and that they have to be changed from the ground up. We have to challenge pervasive assumptions that dismiss the importance of consent and minimize the damage that occurs when we violate other people’s boundaries, that make light of intimate partner violence, that perpetuate toxic notions of masculinity and authority. We have to reflect on our own assumptions about what victims look like, act like, and feel like, and honestly interrogate whether we are more likely to believe some than others. And as the week’s keynote speaker, Dr. Rachel Griffin, reminded us, we have to show up, and be open to listening, because that act could be the thing that saves someone’s life. This is not abstract. This is not a courtroom in which we must hear evidence and be fair to the accused. It really is that important just to say…
  9. We believe you. Because we do. We will. We know.

In solidarity and hope,

Dr. Biittner and Dr. Shulist

 

 

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