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Dismantling the Ivory Tower

October 24, 2017

 

 

Perhaps it is the nature of a writing program that creates in students like myself a lethal mixture of competitiveness, desperation for flattery and vulnerability from sharing personal writing. It is easy to take advantage of students like that.

 

It began harmlessly. My professor emailed me after class about how “great” he found my work and suggested I stop by his office to borrow books that could improve my writing even more.

 

I bubbled with confidence and excitement. A professional was investing in my potential. He could help frame my future and things were good.

 

I spent more time with him, my only goal becoming a better writer.

 

Eventually, though, the compliments of my writing veered into compliments on my looks, my outfits and my personality. He started telling me that I was cute and unlike any of his other students in my maturity and intelligence.

 

Occasionally after class, he would email me asking why I ran out of the room so quickly. He would jokingly ask what my parents would say if I brought him home and put winking faces in all his emails.

 

At all his inappropriate comments, I squirmed with a look of visible discomfort on my face, prompting his laughter as a form of cover. “Oh it’s only a joke!”

 

He would invite me to coffee, dinner and even suggested hanging out to watch a movie together. At one point, he invited me to go to Ann Arbor to visit his friends.

 

I turned it all down as politely as possible, rummaging for solid excuses in my head. After all, I would have to face this man at least twice a week. He would be grading all my papers. I might need letters of recommendation. I have been reminded countless times to get to know my professors because networking is oh-so vital for my success.

 

My stomach formed into a painful knot as soon as I stepped on campus. During class, my hands and legs physically shook with nervous energy.

 

I could not figure out what was happening. It made me sick. I was so exhausted from sorting out genuine compliments of my craft from those with ulterior motives that I decided to classify everything from his mouth as garbage.

 

It led to so much self-doubt and even mistrust of any other professors or classmates. Surely no one was genuine.

 

One day while revising one of my papers, maybe due to inflated confidence, he chose to swing the chair around next to me, instead of working in the traditional setting with a desk acting as a barrier between student and professor.

 

He pressed his knee up against mine and just stared down at our touching limbs in this moment of charged intensity. I jerked away and we went on with fixing my paper.

 

To an outsider it would look so insignificant. But to me it was the accumulation of a semester worth of little things that were gradually building up to something much worse.

 

It was not an accidental touch, but a test of his limits.

 

What could I do? Tell the university my professor is flirting with me so they could slap him on the wrist, translating to a smack in the face for me?

 

Or, at best, maybe it would lead to a drawn out he-said-she-said investigation while rumors trickled down to the rest of the department, generating pitying looks in my direction.

 

I did not want that. I did not want any of this.

 

So I did nothing. I simply existed and even that made me feel guilty. My silence, I thought, made me an accomplice. It balanced the blame between him and I. 

 

Last year truly was the most mentally draining year of my life. I do not exaggerate when I say I would rather skip the next three years of my life than relive the last.

 

The professor resigned last year on terms I neither know nor care about. While I can now breath easier on campus, I still shudder when classmates mention his name.

 

I’m not here to fight anyone on the definition of sexual harassment or whether or not this qualifies. Two years ago, I would not have considered this sexual harassment, but then it happened and I dealt with the psychological impact.

 

The word “harassment” sounds harsh and aggressive, but what I experienced was conniving and manipulative.

 

My experience is not severe and I don’t claim it to be, but the fact that I felt so miserable by such seemingly small actions only illustrates how devastating sexual harassment can become.

 

I’m not interested on focusing this narrative on my silence or inaction. I have already punished myself enough via feelings of humiliation, self-doubt and guilt for not speaking up for myself.

 

The issue is that professors should be decent enough not to hit on their own students and abuse their position. My hope is that this sort of situation is not happening elsewhere on campus, but my suspicion leads me to believe otherwise.

 

In a University of Berkley study, 30 percent of female students received unwanted sexual attention from faculty. A similar Michigan State study found 25 percent experienced sexual harassment at university.

 

Most of that goes unreported, which explains why I felt so isolated, as if this had never happened to anyone else before. I feel both a comfort and disgust at this shared experience. Comfort at not being alone; disgust that so many women deal with this.

 

It would be hypocritical for me to suggest that any student dealing with this should report it. I know it is much more complicated than that. The dialogue needs to be opened and these situations need to be addressed.

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