Triggering, triggered ,tired…harassment in higher education, again, still

By now just about everybody in LA–and I can’t believe the Chron won’t be doing a story–about the latest harassment charge at USC. I won’t link to it because I won’t.

This story, from the NYT, highlights the bullshit that women in Sacramento put up with.

I lost all of Thursday and most of Friday being just confused and upset about the USC story. I didn’t know that I was losing the time; I was just swirling, dealing with thoughts wanting to do something, say something.

Wanting to quit, entirely–hand in my resignation, move on out to whatever is next.

Friday I turned to two of my colleagues, both men, both very good guys. They were not helpful.

I wrote a letter, one I had hoped that my colleagues might support it. I showed the letter to my colleague. His response was along the lines of: “who is, like, the audience for this?”

That response got me caving in on myself. I abandoned the effort and spent the day swimming in depression. I climbed out, slowly.

I figured out my problem Saturday morning when I was trying to write: I had been triggered. Of course. Given that I have been putting up with this crap since forever, it made sense. And yeah, forever: since I was 10 years old and some old perv pinched my butt in front of his friends at a July 4th, and his buddies giggled instead of saying “not cool.”

Interestingly, though I had trouble accepting this conclusion. I can’t be; this emotional reaction can’t be true, I thought. I’m too strong. My mind has always been reassuring logical; nothing happened to me on Thursday. I’m one of those people that other women look to fight back. This isn’t happening.

It was happening, and strength and logic have nothing to do with it. Conservatives who want to belittle triggering are wrong. No, I am not going to break down. Yes, I will survive. No, I am not a snowflake.

But I lost two days of work my male colleagues got to keep for themselves, nonetheless. Just another little gift from the patriarchy.

The individual cases are individual cases. Usual disclaimers: I’m talking for me, and not my employer, and I don’t know what happened in each case, and I don’t know the individuals involved except by arm’s length.

I do know the environment at USC and higher ed, and male privilege manifests in every aspect of university life for our students, staff, and faculty where, too often, we are told by our supervisors and senior faculty that bad behavior among tenured, male, or “star” professors is “no big deal” and “nothing can be done.” At its most egregious, this environment enables extreme cases of violent, predatory sexual harassment among those who have power and institutional protection towards those who do not. In less high-profile instances, however, this male dominance manifests in hundreds of everyday interactions in seminars, unequal pay, hiring bias, and student attitudes towards female instructors and peers. Even seemingly small encounters, such as undermining comments in seminars, leave a damaging impact by silencing women, creating a culture of disrespect, and punishing those who speak out–which only further perpetuates male dominance.

I have learned, coming through this process over the weekend–again–the following things:

1. I may be doing more harm than good as somebody who tries to create safe spaces for women and people of color in higher education. I can only make the university environment safe within the limits of my influence, which is very limited. By being a faculty member who will listen and support and try to help women and students of color stay sane…perhaps I am nothing more than a band-aid that keeps students in an institution that doesn’t deserve them or me.

2. I can’t really protect my students–not really. I can’t even protect myself.

3. My male colleagues have limited capacity to understand why this garbage distracts and hurts me and women like me. They do not understand, and they really aren’t terribly interested in understanding. They want to be supportive, within the limits of their comfort. Pick your battles, the old academic saw goes: most faculty only pick battles in their self-interest, and this is no different. Nobody wants to confront this garbage in seminars, nobody wants to discipline this behavior. The victims are supposed to fix it, by getting used to it and tolerating it.

4. With all the allegations coming out of conferences, the conferences are going to try to shift the disciplinary responsibility onto the universities, and the universities are going to do nothing because that’s, in general, what they do in response to senior male faculty bad behavior. They don’t protect their own employees from harassers; do we really think they are going to discipline harassers for creeping on grad students at other universities? Come on. But that’s what the lawyers will recommend, and these associations will crawl under that legalism like a soft, furry blanket–and leave women where they always are: without institutional support.

5. I find myself thinking about radical women’s collectives, like the Bloodroot Collective, where women share together spaces where they speak uninterrupted, unpatronized, free to grow into the light without all the shadows that men cast. I’m sure these places are not perfect and have their own problems, but I’d sure like to try it at this point.

6. Maybe it’s time to give up on the academy, on USC, on all of it. Perhaps my devotion to research and exploration and teaching has been quixotic. I have cherished these things; they have been the central values and joys of my life. I’ve always resented the trope of the skirt-chasing old git college professor, believing that endeavor of higher educations was a lot more than that. I’m no longer so sure about that belief. It seems lazy to retire. It seems futile to stay.

The environment and all its abuses, these are just bigger than me.

I am a very privileged laborer as a white female academic. I know this. Many women work in much worse, much conditions, but that strikes me as reason to elevate their work conditions rather than tolerate degradation in mine.

But at the same time…if I have this privilege, why can’t I make things better? Am I just incompetent? Too blind to see what I can do? Because it’s all feeling really hopeless.