"Teaching Naked" Blog Post Exposes College Sexism

by Carrie Murphy

Over at the blog Tenure, She Wrote, a Ph.D student named Gracie writes about what happened when she received the appalling suggestion to "teach naked" from one of her students on a mid-semester evaluation.

Gracie was, understandably, confused, angered and humiliated to read this comment about her body on an evaluation meant to help her become a better teacher. So she decided to address what happened... to the class itself. She writes:

Almost two weeks later, before giving an exam, I announced to my class: “I want to take the first couple minutes to call out the person who used the anonymity of the mid-semester evaluations as an opportunity to sexually harass me.” The class was suddenly at full attention. You could hear a pin drop. My voice trembled. I felt humiliated having to admit that some people see me as an object. I had decided not to make eye contact, so as to not implicitly accuse anyone, and instead stared towards the back. I proceeded with increasing audible confidence:

“Now, I’m going to give you the benefit of doubt and assume this was not a malicious comment. Now here’s where the teachable moment comes in: these types of comments, as well as things like catcalls, are not taken as compliments. They constitute sexual harassment, which is a form of bullying, and like any bully, you are a coward. An adult would own up to it and face the consequences. For those of you who may have heard about it afterward and snickered, high-fived, or didn’t in any way condemn it publicly, you are complicit in condoning such cowardly behavior. Now, here’s a good rule of thumb if you are unsure whether you are harassing or bullying someone — ask yourself: would you do or say this to your mother, sister, or eventually your daughters? If the answer is no, then, it is inappropriate to do or say to a person you do not know very well.”

I've taught at several different colleges, both as a graduate student and as an adjunct instructor. I never experienced any sexual harassment while teaching (Other than being asked repeatedly by students how old I was, as if I looked too young to be instructing a university level class), but still, I personally dread reading student evaluations. Not because I don't want to grow as an instructor, but because I'm terrified a small, petty comment will shake my self-confidence while teaching. Yes, I am very thin-skinned, which is something I need to work on in both work and in life. But had I received the comment that Gracie did on her evaluation, I would probably just have raged about it inwardly and possibly to some of my grad student/teacher friends. There's no way I would have addressed it openly in class, because I would have felt too scared, too awkward and too much like the power dynamic had been taken away from me. That's why I admire Gracie's decision to address the problem, outright, in class. It was a brave, badass decision and one that probably taught her students a great deal about respect and sexism.

Gracie's follow up post discusses what happened when she talked about her experience to a school newspaper reporter, and the public and administrative response to both her experience and her choice to speak out about it.

Was she commended for her actions? Far from it. Gracie's post details how the dean of her university basically downplayed the "teaching naked" comment and called her out for her comments to the school paper. Not exactly the support that you, as an instructor, hope to receive from the institution at which you're teaching. (Pretty sure that kind of attitude from the dean would not fly at UConn, which recently introduced strict rules about student-teacher relationships and sexual harassment).

As much as I admire Gracie for the way she chose to address the offensive comment, I'm equally dismayed to learn how the administration at her workplace reacted to it. Gracie's situation encapsulates the ongoing problem of sexism in academia; it's certainly not going to be solved with one blog post, but still, Gracie's clear, coherent writing about her her experience will hopefully open some eyes about what it's really like for many female academics, both in front of the classroom and with university higher-ups.