In her compelling, if not totally agreeable, manifesto on college-based sexual harassment policies, Jane Gallop reminds us that it was feminists, not managers or administrators, who fought for harassment to be made a political and professional issue, rather than a personal problem. This fight was grounded in the understanding that sexual harassment in the workplace discriminates against women and other marginalized people on the basis of their sex, race, and gender and inhibits their ability to do their work, just as sexual harassment in the streets interferes with the ability to move freely and safely in the world. Gallop thus clarifies the goals of sexual harassment policy in order to challenge administrative concerns around teacher-student relationships in a number of ways. Most important is that the criminal nature of sexual harassment is not that it relates to sex or to amorous or erotic relations, but that it is discrimination — the unfair application of power used by someone against another.
Gallop’s book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, arose out of her own experience as a university professor charged with sexually harassing two female graduate students with whom she had developed close and difficult relationships. She describes in detail the history of her student-teacher sexual encounters, which involved her sleeping both with teachers as a student, and with students as a teacher. She reports these engagements as being generally positive and reasonably friendly, arising out of mutual desire for sex and intimacy rather than an abuse of power by the teacher. Although she had ceased sleeping with students at the time she was accused of sexual harassment, her teaching and learning relationships had been, and continued to be, amorous, personal and sexual. It seems, from Gallop’s telling, that for her and her students, the close nature of these relationships was, initially, personally and academically productive. One student’s academic work, for example, involved writing love letters to a fictional older woman teacher, certainly modeled at least in part after her relationship with Gallop.
This book does not present the two students who accused Gallop of harassing them as being upset because of the erotic relationship they shared with their teacher, but rather because they felt Gallop wasn’t giving them the feedback they desired and felt they deserved. It was the withdrawal of her ability to please these students pedagogically, rather than the structure of a relationship with erotic pleasure in it, that troubled them. At least from Gallop’s perspective, this is a story about jilted lovers who manipulated university-based sexual harassment policy to seek revenge for their dissatisfaction with an unruly relationship.
Gallop revels in the amorous relationships she shared with these two students: she describes a "spectacle" of a kiss she shared with one of them at a bar after a conference. Simultaneously, she assures us that she could not have sexually harassed these students, not because she never slept with them but because she didn't discriminate against them. She argues exactly the opposite, in fact, that as a teacher who is also a person, that far from sexually harassing these women, she engaged in deeply personal relationships with them both as students and as people. Each of the women (Gallop included) was flawed, lonely, desirous, egotistical, nervous, excited, and interested in working together academically. The decision to work in intimate ways reflected Gallop’s commitment to feminist pedagogy and the possibilities raised by women's studies education, rather than a hope for teacher-student seduction.
Reading about Gallop’s experiences with her graduate students (who, she once remarked in a joke that fell very flat, were her sexual preference) makes me think about my own relationships with teachers. As a doctoral student, I’ve never been theoretically against teacher-student relationships and have watched as my friends seduced and were seduced by professors both intellectually and sexually. One of my closest undergraduate friends dated a professor for a number of years, and although their relationship was at times professionally and socially troubling (since it seemed inappropriate for her to accompany him to faculty luncheons or for him to join us at keg parties), it would denigrate their very real relationship to call it "harassment." I’ve never dated a teacher (or, now that I teach at a college, a student), although I recognize that some of the ways I want my professors to love me (and some of the ways my students want me to love them) reflect erotic desires for knowledge and for close human relationships, which often end up being rich and difficult.
In general, my teachers make me nervous. I worry about what I'm going to wear when I'm going to see them. If I see them unexpectedly, I feel flustered. I sometimes get feedback I hate, am pushed to be better, and resent being told I'm not already good enough. I often, embarrassingly, cry during meetings with them. I want my work, which is about sexuality, desire, and literature, to bring my teachers pleasure, and I feel frustrated when it doesn't. I want approval, of course, but I also want to please the brilliant women I work with, the way their work pleases me. The point is not that I have crushes on my teachers but that these crush-like feelings become part of my academic work, part of the conditions of my thinking and learning.
The crushes I feel for my teachers are related to the kinds of crushes I have on my classmates and friends, crushes where I want to stay up all night drinking beer and talking about things we don't quite understand, which delight us all the more for being incomprehensible. Where we wonder what it might be like to grasp difficult knowledge together and thrill when it seems that we might. Where I wonder, in abstract ways, what it might be like to do this thinking lying down, to put the theory together with the practice. That scholarly relationships might become erotic, between students and teachers or passionate thinkers and learners of any position, seems natural — even unavoidable — to me.
This doesn’t always, or even often, mean there are sex acts involved. but that desire for knowledge is a very human type of desire. I usually fall head over heels in a class, whether my infatuation is for a teacher, a classmate, a text, or an idea. It's these infatuations that make me a passionate student. They're incredibly valuable, and I want to keep them going. I have more interesting ideas when I allow my desires to get a little wild, to exceed my expectations for what might be, and when I open myself to be taken aback by what ideas may do to me and to my relationships with others.
And so I’m troubled by anti-harassment policies that seek to limit the ways adult thinkers and learners can relate to one another. After all, we're adults. (Even as I write that, I’m confounded by the arbitrariness of the distinction. Don’t we all become teenagers in our crushes, regardless of age?) If we consent to participating in erotic or romantic relationships, if we seek them out or they sneak up on us, shouldn't we be able to enjoy them, free of meddling from administrative bodies? And by "enjoying," I don’t mean always having a good experience, since erotic and romantic relationships of all kinds, between all kinds of people, sometimes become bad experiences, for reasons that have nothing to do with harassment or discrimination and everything to do with the difficulty of human relationships.
Jane Gallop points out that anti-harassment policies that seek to limit even consensual teacher-student relationships actually discriminate against the students they seek to protect by removing from them the ability to give consent to, and enjoy, the emotional consequences, pleasurable and difficult, which accompany these decisions. Aside from how insulting it is for an intelligent and capable graduate or undergraduate student to be told that she or he has no right to consent to relationships she or he wants, I'm thrown off by the reductive assumptions around power that underlie these policies, which position all students, regardless of age, as being unable to make social and sexual decisions and as being in need of protection from the predatory advances of (not even always older and wiser) educators. These policies assume that power in relationships between teachers and students is dependably structured: teachers have it and students don’t.
Thinking about teacher-student relationships always brings me back to a scene from the movie Election (based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name), which revolves around a rivalry between Jim McAllister, a popular high school history teacher, and Tracy Flick, a very bright and driven student, during her run for school president. Tracy has recently had an affair with her English teacher, Jim’s best friend, Jack. The affair, which began as intimate conversations about the school’s yearbook, led to Tracy and Jack having (for Tracy) disappointing sex. When she withdraws her affection by telling her mother about the sex and sharing a particularly smarmy love letter he wrote her, Jack loses his job, his wife and child, and his home, but he remains utterly smitten with Tracy.
It's important to note that Tracy is young, a student, and a virgin and should therefore be extremely vulnerable to being injured in their relationship. Except she isn't injured. She’s not bitter or worried about the supposed loss of her innocence or disenchanted by, or distrustful of, her teachers. In a stand-off with McAllister, in which he alludes to her relationship with Jack and reprimands her for “stepping on people” to get her way, she responds, "I don’t know what you’re referring to, but I do know that if certain older and wiser people hadn’t acted like such little babies and gotten all mushy, everything would be O.K." In this exchange, and in her relationship with her teacher-turned-lover, Tracy is hardly disempowered, and she explicitly doesn’t demean her consensual relationship as discrimination. In the book version of this story, Tracy reports that "people kept using the term 'sexual harassment' to describe what happened, but I don’t think it applies. Jack never said anything disgusting and he never threatened me with bad grades. Most of our time together was really sweet and nice. I even cried a few times, it felt so good to have him hold me."
This example, by switching the usual trope of established, pompous male teacher preying on vulnerable female students who become ruined by the affair when the professor’s desire turns, offers us space to wonder what else might be possible in these kinds of relationships. Might students hold power in erotic or romantic relationships with teachers? Might teachers be thought of as human in their desires? It's tricky to think about Tracy Flick, since she's in high school, legally underage, and, therefore, legally unable to consent to a sexual relationship with any man or woman of her teacher’s age. I believe, however, that her own description of this relationship challenges commonly held beliefs about what can and does happen in the spaces between teachers and students.
In my doctoral research, I am fascinated by the ways desire, sexual and otherwise, saturates many teacher-student relationships and find myself working with a number of texts that push against the limits of the pedagogical relationship. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home each depict these relationships as offering more — more anxiety, more delight, more nuance, more frustration, more uncertainty — than we might initially think and certainly more than any blanket administrative policy could contain. These blanket policies, by demanding that complicated issues be treated simply (usually by banning them) potentially close down our thinking about students, teachers, power relationships, desire, and the eroticism inherent in learning. Problematically, these policies seem hostile to any kind of inquiry that tries to hold together desire and education.
While all people engaging in simultaneous professional and personal relationships should have protection against discriminatory action in the event of a conflict or a breakup (and this could range from students revealing personal information about teachers to teachers giving bad grades or writing damaging letters of support), we must be careful to investigate the assumptions about teachers, students, relationships, power and desire which undergird policies seeking to control the delicious, frightening, unruly relationships that often arise in teaching and learning encounters.
In its just-issued report "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" the U.S. Department of Commerce writes that while women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs.
The gender gap in STEM jobs persists despite the fact that more women now graduate from college than men and the fact that women in STEM fields tend to have more equitable wages compared to those in non-STEM jobs. Women major and earn degrees in STEM fields, creating a female talent pool, but they tend to pursue careers in education and health care.
Some may say, "Well, so what? There are some jobs men like, and some jobs women like." Or they may even argue that there are some fields for which one sex has a greater aptitude than the other.
As to the "so what," the answer can be found in the report's title. As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap. And in today's global economy, the countries that lead do so through fostering technological innovation. Creating an environment where women can reach their full potential in the STEM fields is possible and can have impressive results.
Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Our students are six times more likely to graduate with a degree in chemistry than college students nationwide and nine times more likely to do so in math. In fact, Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, beating out such science-oriented universities as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.
How do we do it? A large chunk of the credit has to go to the college’s founders, who from the beginning (when Bryn Mawr was the first institution to offer women the chance to earn a Ph.D.) offered women the chance to get an education that was the equal to the finest available to men of the era.
But our current success comes from more than just a history of access. Every year, students come to Bryn Mawr unsure of what they want to study, and many end up choosing STEM fields.
When we ask our STEM majors what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue these male-dominated fields we consistently hear two things – being exposed to role models among our faculty, alumnae, and their fellow students, and the positive effect of being in a classroom in which they aren't the lone woman.
Julia Ferraioli graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2007 with a degree in computer science. When she arrived she expected to major in archaeology and had even been steered away from some of the higher-level math courses at her high school. "Studying computer science at a women's college meant that I could concentrate on learning instead of being the representative of a gender," Julia told me via e-mail. "Gender became irrelevant instead of being something that defined me."
As a student, Julia got to know a Bryn Mawr computer science alumna who has worked at AOL and PayPal and is now a web development senior manager for Comcast. The alumna and Julia’s professors encouraged her to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, where she made the connection that led to a job at Microsoft after she graduated. Julia went on to earn a master's in computer science from the University of Rochester and was just featured as the "Geek of the Week" by the website GeekWire for her work as technical evangelist with DocuSign.
As a single-sex college, Bryn Mawr has, I believe, certain advantages in encouraging its students to succeed in fields that have been traditionally dominated by men. But all colleges and universities can learn from our practices and the best practices of others as they teach and mentor students, make hiring decisions and institute policy.
At Bryn Mawr we want to engage all types of students in STEM coursework and believe they all can succeed. Offering students a variety of entry points into the sciences allows those who arrive at college with advanced preparation to enroll in higher-level courses that immediately challenge them, while students who have had negative prior experiences in STEM coursework or poor preparation can take and enjoy courses at various points in the introductory level.
An institution can also use innovative pedagogy that teaches the applications of science to attract more students to STEM subjects. For example, in introductory courses in computer science at Bryn Mawr, students apply CS principles to create graphic design projects. Across the sciences, our lab exercises focus on problem-solving rather than the execution and replication of a series of instructions.
Finally, family-friendly policies encourage faculty to find balance between work and personal life, enabling faculty of both genders to pursue the path to tenure. Ultimately this means more women in the tenured faculty ranks in STEM fields. For example, in chemistry and math, 50 percent of Bryn Mawr’s tenured faculty are women.
Women have come a long way over the last 40 years in terms of educational attainment. Achievement in the STEM fields is one area where we can still do better. At this time, when progress in these fields is so important, it's an area where we must do better.