Monday, April 25, 2016

Independent Studies and/vs Sexual Harassment

Last week, The Little Professor wrote in "In Which I Declare Independence" that she disagreed with Rebecca Schuman's Slate article suggesting that universities ban independent studies.

In her beautifully calm way, The Little Professor explains why independent studies are beneficial to students in her program, and not rife with sexual harassment problems, though she does note that most faculty aren't paid for the extra work involved.

Like The Little Professor, I also think independent studies have their place, especially for graduate students.  And like The Little Professor, I don't think independent studies are where most sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior are taking place.  That's not to say no one has been sexually harassed during an independent study, of course.  Rather, most independent studies are times when students can get extra help, delve more deeply into an area of interest, or have a chance to complete their degrees in a more timely way (especially in this era of budget constraints and cancelled courses).

Let me say this:  I probably wouldn't have made it through graduate school if it weren't for the kindness of a professor who was willing to do an independent study with me in my second term. 

During my first term, I'd taken a course on "The Renaissance" during which the instructor assigned an explication.  I'd never done an explication, never heard of one, even.  So, like a good little graduate student, I went to office hours.  Unfortunately, this one faculty member didn't think it was worth his time to explain what an explication was, and basically told me so.  He said, just explain how the verse is doing what it's doing, or something similar.

You should know, about this time in the story, that our program's qualifying exam included an explication which was reputed to be graded rather harshly.  And I was supposed to take this exam in the fall of my second year (I think that's the timing).

I asked other grad students, the ones from places where "explication" was a thing, including the one already deemed our crown prince by our Renaissance instructor.  But, of course, they were beginning grad students, and even if they could do an explication, they weren't inclined to teach me, or didn't know how.  So I muddled through, and didn't do very well on the assignment.

Before the next one was due, I went to another faculty member, one I'd felt comfortable with during my interviews the spring before, and talked to him.  And in an hour, he taught me the basics.  And on that one, I did much, much better.

And the next term, he agreed to do an independent study with me on reading poetry.  Each week, he'd set me a poem, and I'd work it up, and then we'd talk about it together. 

I credit that independent study with teaching me how to read poetry, how to explicate, and perhaps most important, how to teach others to read poetry.

So, while I now recognize how much of an imposition my request was on a junior faculty member, I remain eternally grateful for his help, his brilliant teaching, his kindness, and his willingness to take on a rather dim student.

But what about the other side, the sexual harassment?  The biggest sexual harassers in my graduate department didn't need independent studies.  One was the grad director of our program.  So he had power and the ability to call students into his office and wield that power or not (he didn't always, of course).

At mixed social events, the big sexual harassers would start drinking and park themselves at the drink table, and any woman who approached alone was pretty much assured that she'd be harassed.  The other male faculty who were hanging about didn't seem to think this was a problem.

Female students complained about both behaviors to other female students and to female faculty, but at the time, only two or three female faculty had tenure, and none was willing to stand up to the male faculty (for all the reasons you could imagine; the same reasons no female student went to the chair or beyond).  So the female students got the word out to other female students: no female grad student went to the drink table alone; we went in pairs.  And eventually he wasn't grad director any more.

I guess what I'm saying is that sexual harassers don't need independent studies to harass.  What they do tend to need is complicity from other faculty members, especially senior faculty folks.  I hope my old grad program has changed in that respect.  I know there are more senior female faculty.

But some students, people like me, perhaps, really do need some extra help to do well in grad school and beyond.

Now, even as I write this, I have to admit that I've said no to more requests for independent studies than not, especially in recent years.  That has to do with the increases in class size, in assessment paperwork, and so on that really force us to stretch our time in all sorts of ways.


  1. Not to mention, how would undergrads manage capstone honors projects where the whole point is to work with a faculty member on something fairly specialized? As you say, there are far better ways to address the problem of sexual harassment.

  2. Yeah, the problem I have is not with sexual harassment. It's with the fact that we don't get paid, and we don't get release hours, and we don't get recognition, for this work.

    In the past, I think, faculty did get release hours for independent study and for things like independent study. Or at least they got recognition for it. And -- in the past -- faculty were often teaching two classes a semester, or even a 2/1 load, and those classes had less than 20 students each in them.

    Now I'm teaching 4/4 (this year 5/4), and three of my classes have 28 students, while one has 35. The smallest, my fiction workshop, has 15 -- but a huge writing load.

    Yet my university would (often) like me to take on independent study students. This is one of the places I say no.

    As I think has been mentioned in other comments on other blogs, this means my colleagues get stuck with more work, probably. (Someone has to do the work if I won't, right? Right?!?) I'm still not saying yes. Until the universities return to more sane workloads, I'm not doing unpaid labor.

    Ideally, I'd like my colleagues to say no as well, frankly.

    1. Absolutely! Those are very good reasons for not doing independent studies. Totally valid!