‘The grapes of wrath are grow­ing heavy’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

As well as rais­ing ques­tions about institutional pro­cesses, the #MeToo era poses dilem­mas about the ex­tent to which the past should now be re­assessed, not merely in terms of be­hav­iour but also cur­ric­ula. Here, we present four per­spec­tives on the is­sue of sex­ual abuse in academia

More than six months after the Har­vey We­in­stein scan­dal cat­a­pulted sex­ual ha­rass­ment to the top of the cul­tural agenda, academia is among the in­dus­tries still grap­pling with the ex­tent of the prob­lem that it faces, and what to do about it.

The #TimesUpA­cademia Twit­ter cam­paign launched last month by the Scot­land-based jour­nal­ist Vonny Le­clerc elicited a con­sid­er­able re­sponse. An open-source doc­u­ment cre­ated late last year by for­mer US aca­demic Karen Kel­sky con­tains nearly 2,500 re­ports of sex­ual mis­con­duct in mostly US and Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties. And a sur­vey by the UK’s Na­tional Union of Stu­dents, pub­lished in April, found that al­though most stu­dents ob­jected to sex­ual ap­proaches from aca­demics, fewer than one in 10 re­ported it when it oc­curred.

In re­sponse to the NUS sur­vey, cam­paign or­gan­i­sa­tion the 1752 Group, which was closely in­volved in the sur­vey, said that UK uni­ver­si­ties’ cur­rent dis­ci­plinary pro­ce­dures are un­fit for pur­pose, and it called on them to “in­tro­duce pro­fes­sional bound­aries that clearly de­fine the ex­pected re­la­tion­ship be­tween a staff mem­ber and a stu­dent”, that “re­flect the com­plex­i­ties of power and con­sent in the teach­ing re­la­tion­ship” and that pun­ish trans­gres­sors.

Mean­while, Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties are still scram­bling to re­spond to last Au­gust’s re­port by the Aus­tralian Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, which found that one in 10 fe­male uni­ver­sity stu­dents has been sex­u­ally as­saulted in the past two years, and that only 4 per cent of stu­dents be­lieve that their uni­ver­si­ties are do­ing enough to sup­port vic­tims.

But, as well as rais­ing ques­tions about institutional pro­cesses, the #MeToo era poses dilem­mas about the ex­tent to which the past should now be re­assessed, not merely in terms of be­hav­iour but also cur­ric­ula and read­ing lists.

Here, we present four per­spec­tives on this broad is­sue. In one, an aca­demic de­scribes her slow-dawn­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that her stu­dent re­la­tion­ship with her lec­turer and, sub­se­quently, PhD su­per­vi­sor, was an abuse of power. In an­other, a for­mer stu­dent finds her voice to speak out against the sex­ual ha­rass­ment that she was sub­jected to by an aca­demic after read­ing Sara Ahmed’s es­say on sex­ual ha­rass­ment. An­other con­tri­bu­tion re­flects on whether the schol­ar­ship of those ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct should still be taught. And a fourth re­flects on how gen­er­a­tions of lit­er­ary schol­ars over­looked the sex­u­ally preda­tory be­hav­iour of the “moral spokesman” of Stein­beck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

To­wards the end of the novel, Stein­beck writes: “In the souls of the peo­ple the grapes of wrath are fill­ing and grow­ing heavy, grow­ing heavy for the vin­tage.” He was not talk­ing about sex­ual ha­rass­ment, of course. But those words could eas­ily ap­ply to it.

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