‘Just as inappropriate’: Graduate student instructors face harassment from undergraduates

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A year ago, a history graduate student instructor, or GSI, found himself uncomfortable when his undergraduate student asked for a hug, saying the GSI was “more of a classmate” than an instructor.

The undergraduate student had approached the GSI with a simple question about makeup work, but the interaction ended with intense discomfort for the GSI. The GSI — who requested anonymity — declined the hug and offered a handshake instead.

“He then covered my hand with his left hand and said ‘that’s it for now,’ ” the graduate student said. “Over the next several weeks, the student continued to hang back after section, and if I tried to leave with the class, would call back to me for individual help. … He would compliment my appearance, express a wistfulness that we ‘probably shouldn’t date … should we?’ To which I responded very clearly, ‘no.’ ”

GSIs are typically close in age to the students under their instruction, and they often work to create an approachable atmosphere in their classrooms. But with this environment comes the stereotype — and sometimes, the meme — of undergraduates pining after their GSIs, raising questions among some academics about whether these feelings constitute sexual harassment.

The answer to this question varies among GSIs, with some believing that it absolutely is harassment and others explaining that it is more ambiguous.

For the anonymous graduate student, a student flirting with their GSI is not necessarily harassment until it becomes “obvious” that the GSI is “uncomfortable with these advances.” He added that the opposite — a GSI flirting with their student — is “probably always harassment.”

Eva Hagberg Fisher, a campus doctoral candidate in visual and narrative culture who taught as a GSI in fall 2017, however, said harassment is about “power” — in her mind, a student becoming “overly familiar” with a GSI is not considered harassment.

“In the absence of that power dynamic, I don’t see how a student can harass a GSI,” Fisher said. “As a GSI, I’ve experienced moments where I start to feel like a student is taking more of an interest in me than is entirely professional, and I was taught very early on that it was my job, as a person in power, to shut that down immediately and consistently.”

Fisher, who allegedly faced sexual harassment from campus architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad, said her history with AlSayyad made her “more aware” of her own conduct as an instructor.

“GSIs are more sensitive to power issues and power dynamics because … we are also vulnerable — we don’t fuck with it,” Fisher said. “We understand how harmed our own careers would be if professors would do that to us.”

Yet Rachel Roberson, the director of the Graduate Minority Student Project within the Graduate Assembly, said harassment is “any form of unwanted or unconsented advancements,” and that can include students flirting with GSIs.

“It’s still a violation of someone’s trust if it’s happening without the consent or the desire of the other party,” Roberson said. “While I recognize that power dynamics are different between students and a faculty member, at the end of the day, identities carry power as well.”

Roberson, who most recently taught in summer 2017, added that it is possible for an undergraduate student’s identity to hold power or privilege over a GSI — whether that identity is based on gender, ethnicity or even age.

Echoing Roberson’s views, Kena Hazelwood-Carter, president of the Graduate Assembly, said an undergraduate student’s behavior might not be as “loaded” as that of a faculty member, but it can be “just as inappropriate.”

Unwanted advances can “compromise the classroom environment” and can disrupt other students’ ability to learn, according to Khirin Carter, graduate prevention program manager at the PATH to Care Center.

“GSIs are often navigating (a) complex role where they supervise students and are also students under the direction of faculty members,” Carter said in an email. “When those boundaries are crossed it makes it difficult to be effective and may impact that relationship and the experience of other students.”

Roberson said she believes the discussion surrounding harassment in academic settings is geared toward undergraduate students and that graduate students are largely “erased from that conversation.”

Hazelwood-Carter agreed and said there is “a very strong culture of silence” in academia. She added that there is little data on sexual harassment on campus and that initiatives like the sexual harassment and violence survey introduced in January do not make distinctions between undergraduate and graduate students despite differing dynamics.

Similarly, Carter said in an email that prevention research, federal guidance and programming has historically focused on the undergraduate student experience.

In response to the undergraduate student’s ongoing behavior, the anonymous graduate student consulted with his professor “several times” during their weekly meetings. He said he made many suggestions to address the situation, such as moving the undergraduate to another section or filing an official complaint, but the professor did not consider it a serious concern.

“I’ve never heard anyone talking about grad students being harassed except other grad students who’ve been harassed,” the anonymous graduate student said. “I didn’t report except informally to two professors in my department, and their response was discouraging enough not to pursue it.

Anjali Shrivastava covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.