‘The grapes of wrath are growing heavy’
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.