By TLC Staff
In the wake of the unfolding sexual assault and misconduct scandals, we at the Teaching and Learning Center have had several closed-door (and yes, whispered) conversations about what sexual harassment means in the academic workplace. The staff of the TLC thanks the Graduate Center students who shared their stories with us and trusted us to represent them in this piece.
The continued revelations of sexual harassment in the news and entertainment industries have spurred conversation across institutions of all kinds. Today, we’d like to focus specifically on sexual harassment of contingent faculty. As adjuncts, we’re mostly subject to semester-by-semester appointments, and lack job security. We struggle financially and are often treated as second-class faculty. Though we constitute 50-75% of faculty, we are barely represented in aggregate reports like the US News and World Report rankings. This is all to say: we are highly dependent on word-of-mouth networks and reputation for our job security, and we are easily replaceable.
And this easy replaceability is a recurring theme in the reporting on many of the victims of Weinstein, Lauer, and others. The coverage of these incidents has repeatedly stressed that the abuse happened there—in the news and entertainment industries—because they are fields that rely on replaceable, transient, and contingent labor. Like the reports of sexual harassment by people who work in these fields, our conversations with colleagues in recent weeks yielded similar disclosures. This was not a surprise; in the notoriously patriarchal and gender-imbalanced culture of academia, it’s not shocking that sexual harassment persists. What was shocking was the fact that contingent faculty so often did not seek support from their departments, and that when they did, they were regularly met with confusion from their supervisors. Consistently they were ignored; consistently they were punished; consistently they were told by the person to whom they reported it: well, there’s nothing we can do, or I’ll have to check to see what the procedure is or hmm, have you talked to anyone else?
The #metoo stories spurred by the Weinstein scandal have brought these conversations about harassment into our classrooms and offices, and prompted conversations about sexual harassment in academic workplaces. We are thankful for each person who has publicly shared a #metoo story and join others in acknowledging these brave women for breaking barriers of silence. We also recognize the many valid critiques of #metoo, one of which is that the burden remains on the harassed to reveal the extent of sexual harassment as well as to solve the epidemic. And yes, while many have come forward with their stories, many more remain silent, or choose to share anonymously on crowd-sourced documents circulating within private communities. While HR departments and, in our field, the Title IX office, share policies and encourage people to speak out about harassment, the #metoo stories brought to the forefront the range of scenarios in which filing a formal complaint is difficult or impossible, as well as instances when people have sought advice from supervisors or mentors, only to have their story doubted or dismissed, or to be discouraged from filing a complaint.
Today, we address the people responsible for shaping and regulating our institutional environment. We recognize the efforts of the Title IX office to support students and faculty post- harassment or assault, but there is more that our institutions can do, specifically our department chairs and course coordinators. Most contingent faculty do not even know where to begin if they are harassed, or know what their options are. Part of this ambiguity stems from an assumption made by department heads that contingent faculty have access to institutional knowledge about these procedures. This assumption not only yet again fails to recognize the hazards and realities of of contingent and replaceable labor, but also relegates reports of harassment to unofficial back channels and obscures the magnitude of incidences.
We need those in power—administrators and senior faculty, especially—to realize that the lack of transparent, readily available procedures from our departments stigmatizes and alienates a person before she even announces herself. These realities make it seem like harassment rarely, if ever, happens, and makes us anxious that the response will be: she’s too young, she’s too friendly, she doesn’t have control of her classroom-—it’s her fault. She’s just contingent faculty, you know. The lack of procedures makes us doubt coming forward and second-guess ourselves: is this the email I need to tell someone about? Or should I wait, because there may be a worse situation around the corner, and the semester is almost over, and I’m not on the schedule for spring yet and I can’t risk not receiving a course assignment, and I probably won’t be taken seriously, and whom would I even contact? Where would I even begin?
While an ideal solution is collectively to work together towards a world where women’s bodies aren’t on the table for consumption, at a minimum, contingent faculty need to know that our departments, our unions, our schools have our backs and will act proactively to make us safe. There are specific practices possible now that could eliminate the ambiguity we face when we are harassed about what to do and who to turn to. Support us by including documents detailing existing procedures and policies for when and if an instructor is threatened in our semester orientation packets (along with the existing lengthy procedures on how to use the copy machine, who to contact for A/V support, what to do when students plagiarize, etc). Circulate this information via department listservs, post it in public spaces. Make clear the channels not only for formally reporting incidents, but identify someone within our department who acts as a point of contact for us to troubleshoot, ask questions, navigate difficult situations before they escalate. Open dialogues that not only acknowledge harassment as common in the workplace but also address procedures or options for managing incidents of harassment.
Yes, the problem is complicated. What isn’t complicated is recognizing that this problem needs to be addressed, and that instructors, departments, and schools should have ready-at-hand strategies for navigating these difficult situations. We’re writing this in hopes of starting a conversation about the sexual harassment of contingent faculty, and about how we move forward. We welcome your feedback and ideas and stories in the comments section, or in an an email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Graduate Center students looking for support: “Better to Speak” is an activist group whose mission is “to create spaces in which women and gender non-conforming CUNY graduate students and adjunct faculty members share experiences and support, opening an ongoing dialogue that addresses the unique positions of all women instructors who struggle with intimidation, campus safety, and sexual harassment; navigating administration and administrative responsibilities; assessing and being assessed in humanities classrooms; and how to feel empowered in an environment that strips each of their bodies of authority and competence in very specific ways.” You can join the group by visiting groups.google.com and searching for “Better to Speak.”