Let's play "Let's Pretend." On Tuesday, a T.A. walked up to a group of undergraduates he had taught in an introductory seminar. To keep this appropriately (maybe even legally) anonymous, I'd appreciate it if you pretended that the introductory seminar in which this particular T.A. had taught this particular group of undergraduates was MNE 1001. Micro-nautical Engineering 101. Or... The course doesn't matter. What matters is that this particular T.A. knows these students well. He knows the quality of their work; he knows their commitment to it; and he knows that they possess that rarest of all undergraduate traits: a disdain for the modes of accounting necessitated by the university system. Grades. They hate them. They don't care about them. But on this day, to the surprise of this T.A., these students seemed obsessed with their grades in an upper-level MNE seminar. Call it MNE 4001.
These kids seemed downright uncomfortable with their grades. They seemed to believe that whatever relationship normally exists between the letters that appear atop their papers and the work that they've submitted had soured. Gone horribly wrong. This T.A. listened to their complaints, and realized that they were right. Something had gone wrong. So this T.A. fished for information. This is what he learned:
...that the professor who runs the MNE 4001 seminar spends an inordinate amount of time talking about his personal life. About the millions nested in his bank accounts. About the legions of women who desire him.
...that on the first day of class, this professor asked the students about their current relationship status.
...that when the students talk about anything, the conversation often, if not always, becomes a monologue consisting of this professor's observations about single life. About how he's hounded by legions of women who desire him.
...that the entire class recognizes his designs upon a particular student, and that--pathetic though his performance is--the entire class finds the whole situation somewhat more than acceptably uncomfortable.
This T.A. cares about this group of students. He's taught some of them in two or three classes, and is concerned by what he hears. He decides to mention it to the head of the department in which he teaches. A shit-storm nearly ensues. A meeting is called. In it, this group of students talks to the head of their department and assures him that everything is kosher. They express gratitude for my concern; they acknowledge that there's something strange and off-putting about this professor; they express concern that something other than the quality of their work will determine their final grade. But they make no mention of sexual harassment. Neither they nor the department head nor the T.A. can really even say the word. The students so desperately want to believe that they aren't the victims of sexual harassment that they go to great lengths to convince the department head that they're fine. Because he respects their intelligence, he accepts their claim that they can handle themselves. And he's right to. But at the same time this T.A. can't shake the notion that he had witnessed (and participated in) a spectacle of mass denial; that he hadn't sat in a room with a group of highly intelligent people who had just convinced themselves that what sat so plainly before them wasn't there. Didn't exist. Or did exist but didn't sit right there. It's as if everyone agreed that the elephant not on the table certainly didn't inhale all the peanuts...certainly didn't litter the floor with shells...and most certainly didn't cause the untimely demise of the solid, sturdy cherry conference table on which it hadn't eaten any peanuts and from which it didn't litter any shells.
...the bull sauntered into the china shop, proceeded to shatter everything in sight, and now the proprietor insists that he's always sold nothing but fragments of glass fit for mosaics. But not only does he insist this, he believes it to be true...
As this T.A. left the meeting, so did he. He didn't recognize the elephant on the table for what it was until he was walking home. Not that this T.A.'s sure any of the students were being sexually harassed, but the whole situation smacked to him of one in which a person in the position of authority probes the bounds of acceptable behavior. "If they let me do X, then it's a small step to Y. If I can get away with Y, no one will notice if I press on to Z..." This T.A. compared it watching a canny predator--one smart enough to avoid detection, smart enough to convince his victims that they're blowing everything out of proportion; and smart enough to ensure that even if he is caught, his hands will appear clean--and found it infuriating. Because he too had convinced himself that nothing had happened. That everything was alright. That everything would be alright. And it will be. He knows it will. But that doesn't offer the comfort he'd supposed it would.