June 09, 2015

Harassment and Power in the Classroom

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

California law requires that managers and supervisors receive anti-harassment training every other year. As a faculty member, I am considered a supervisor so I have taken this online training course several times now. I actually find it useful and interesting each time and always learn something new about workplace issues in the process.

The course teaches us how to recognize harassment based on state-designated protected categories, such as race, color, religion, national origin, age, health and disability status, gender, gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Through a number of scenarios, we see what constitutes illegal behavior, what we should avoid doing and what to do if we observe violations. As of this year, the course also provides a very useful number of vignettes about reporting sexual assault if students bring an incident to our attention.

We learn a lot about quid pro quo harassment, when someone in a position of power asks for something in exchange for something else; for example, sex for a promotion. The course also details what constitutes a hostile work environment, when, for instance, people are marginalized based on one of the protected categories listed above. This might include an environment where racist or sexist jokes are commonly made and the employer does not make reasonable attempts to rein in this behavior.

Because those taking this course are supervisors, most of the training vignettes appear to suggest that the more powerful an individual’s rank, the more likely they are to be a perpetrator, rather than a recipient, of inappropriate behavior. But within academia, power might not always be as clear-cut as one’s rank within a university.

Take teaching assistants (TAs) for example. They are typically graduate students who sometimes serve as instructors or graders. Their in-between status sometimes complicates their experiences in universities. Often close in age with undergraduate students, they might regularly be challenged or disrespected based on their status.

This can be exacerbated by issues of race, gender, age, and sexual orientation (as well as the other protected categories listed above). While students might not always be conscious of these factors, a young woman of color might find that some white male students have a difficult time accepting her authority in the classroom experience. A graduate student of color in our department had this happen to her when a student expressed negative racial stereotypes as part of the course discussion, seemingly aimed at her. He regularly challenged her authority and clearly created a hostile work environment for her. Our harassment training does not detail how to handle these specific kinds of classroom situations.

Other incidents are less clear cut, but colleagues have often suspected that their age, gender, or race contributed to students’ disrespect in the classroom. In one incident, a female student went into an expletive-laden rage against a young female teaching assistant. She was also disrespectful to her young male professor, although less so. He privately wondered if she would have behaved the same way if he were older. Colleagues of color report that students regularly comment on their teaching evaluations that they are “biased” about issues of race when teaching on the subject.

Sociology courses challenge students’ taken-for-granted assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and immigration status, bringing these issues to the forefront in ways that some students are not yet ready to address. The subject matter may be difficult for some students to process intellectually and in some cases may lead to emotion-driven comments. One colleague reported a student who was very argumentative towards her, wanting to debate some of the most basic concepts of sociology such as inequality and social structure, to the extent that it appeared he was trying to prevent her from moving forward and teaching the class.

It’s not clear whether this student’s disrespect was linked with gender or any other protected category, but instructors often suspect that such behavior might be. Nonetheless, students can create a hostile work environment for faculty and staff as well, despite the appearance of being less powerful. Perhaps it is this feeling of being less powerful that causes some to act out.

Students observing disruptive classroom behavior are affected as well. These disruptions take away from their learning, as the instructor’s time and energy is often diverted. Disrespectful comments may vicariously impact students who are members of groups who are disparaged by sometimes hurtful comments, even if the comments aren’t aimed at them. Several years ago, a female student confided that watching how I handled some disrespectful moments in the classroom gave her more confidence that young women could be leaders. Although I didn’t necessarily interpret the students’ misbehavior as linked to my gender, she did and internalized the incident.

Student-on-student harassment can happen in the classroom—intentionally or unintentionally—creating challenges for instructors. During one class, a female student got up to use the bathroom and a male student whistled at her loudly. She was clearly embarrassed, and I knew from my harassment training that even if she wasn’t bothered, if I failed to take action this could contribute to a hostile learning environment for her and others in the class who observed the incident. I asked the whistler to stay after class and talked to him about how his behavior was inappropriate. I also contacted the female student separately and let her know that I had spoken to him, and that she should let me know if she had any lingering concerns.

Of course, professors’ behavior in the classroom can be problematic as well, and that’s exactly what most of our harassment training focused on. Instructors, what harassment-related classroom experiences have you had that you wish you had more training to handle?


Oh! This article has suggested to me many new ideas. I will embark on doing it. Hope you can continue to contribute your talents in this area. Thank you.

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