As graduate students, we are in-betweeners on our campuses: we are simultaneously students and employees. We are in positions of authority over our students while navigating relationships with advisors and mentors that can greatly influence our careers. These kinds of nebulous roles combined with the prolonged transient nature of our degree programs often mean that we get left out of the equation when it comes to campus policies and statistics. Subsequently, we are often overlooked in higher educational research on the intersections of academia and sexual violence.
With few resources at our disposal and scant knowledge about reporting systems and their impact on our careers, graduate students are often silenced about the abuse they endure in the profession. Yet, at high risk to themselves, graduate students have written poignantly about sexual violence during field work in social science and STEM fields. More recently – likely influenced by the building wave of allegations in and outside academia – there have been posts on the academic job market wiki, alerting candidates to particular complaints and institutional environments.
Sexual violence is pervasive in our profession as evidenced by peer-reviewed research on the topic, Conditionally Accepted’s series on sexual violence in the profession, and the crowdsourced survey on sexual harassment in the academy started by Karen Kelsky (of The Professor Is In). These accounts demonstrate the toll sexual violence takes on student learning, how vital it is to hold space for survivors, and the disproportionately high rates at which minoritized people are subjected to such violence. The Chronicle’s reports tracking higher ed’s Me Too moment further underscore how widespread such harassment and assault are.
New York-based activist Tarana Burke, who works primarily with women of color survivors of sexual violence, originally coined the phrase “Me Too” for her organization Just BE Inc.’s work with young women of color. She traces the virality of #MeToo as one part of a much larger strategy around addressing sexual violence and supporting survivors, noting that she began her campaign on MySpace in 2006. Speaking to the Washington Post about recent disclosures in Hollywood, Burke says “If I had to do it myself, we would be prepared to support people … that you are not obligated to disclose.” Following Burke’s lead, today I want to suggest a few ways we can learn more about the culture of sexual violence and steps we can take to redress the often toxic environments in which we as graduate students work.
What can we do to change the cultures of sexual violence in our own communities? Rather than placing the onus on survivors, those of us with greater privilege need to put in the work to make our professional spaces safer and more just.
To start, consider:
What are your professional organizations’ policies on harassment and assault? How do they protect survivors? When were they last updated and how can changes be made to them if they need revision?
- The American Historical Association’s Professional Division and Committee on Gender Equity sponsored a panel discussion at their 2018 conference called “Historians and Sexual Harassment: A Challenge for the AHA”
- The topic came up in a roundtable on “Precarity and Activism” sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession at the Modern Language Association’s 2018 meeting.
- The American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Gender Equity Issues in Anthropology hosted a roundtable called Sexual Violence in Anthropology.
What does – or can – your specific institution do to support survivors? This includes your department as well as the campus at large. For instance, on my campus, incoming undergraduate students complete a mandatory program called “YIS: Your Intervention Strategies” that educates them on the myriad ways of sexual harassment and violence manifest on college campuses. While specific graduate student employees receive additional training on campus resources, the majority of us whose assistantships are as research and teaching assistants do not have access to such training and subsequently the resources we need.
- A department working group of peers, or faculty and students combined can investigate current policies in the department handbook as well as faculty and student handbooks.
What does Title IX mean for your campus when it comes to reporting sexual violence and harassment? What is the difference between a mandatory or responsible reporter and a confidential source, who can help you navigate your reporting options more widely?
Begin a conversation with the Title IX officer on your campus, an on-campus center or office whose work may overlap with supporting survivors, or with a community organization that can share resources and strategies. One of the crucial ways that survivors are forgotten or minimized is because most of us lack the appropriate knowledge in recognizing how differently their experiences manifest and how to support them.
As we take up these conversations in our departments, institutions, and professional organizations, people facilitating the discussions utilize trauma-informed practices to create a supportive environment for survivors. Especially for those of us eager to have discussions that change the often toxic cultures of our profession, the imperative remains that we not increase harm and re-traumatize survivors.