Testing

Phil Ford

On occasion I’ve wondered just where on earth Terminal Degree is teaching. Now we know: a Mordecai Richler novel from the 1970s. Just read her story. I’ve never been at an academic gathering that got that badly out of control. But, as she says, nothing good happens after midnight, and we all know what happens when you mix alcohol and musicians.

We’ll just sort of assume that Loud Guy’s future in academia doesn’t look too good. But still, Terminal is left with a decidedly icky after-the-party vibe that has to do with the fact that she was a woman being hassled in that way that guys always seem to want to hassle women — shoving a stinky handful of crude up under her nose and seeing what she’ll do. Terminal asks a bunch of questions for which I have no good answer, but which I’ll throw out there for Dial M’s perceptive readership:

Do you laugh to show you’re “one of the boys?”

Or do you act disgusted by every crude statement?

Or smile and understand that “boys will be boys”?

Do you risk looking like a prude and leaving when the conversation gets too rough?

Or do you ask a bunch of half-drunk (or, in Loud Guy’s case, very drunk) guys to remember that you’re in the room?

Or do you wait for one of the guys to be a gentleman and change the topic, rescuing you from the discomfort?

And if you’re a feminist, and usually a strong woman, shouldn’t you be able to handle it yourself?

And why the hell are they grabbing your leg, anyhow?

Oh, right. Because you’re the only female in the room. And since you laughed at the first off-color joke, and since you’re willingly hanging out as the lone female in a room of men, your body must not be off limits, right?

Gene Simmons put Terry Gross to the NPR interview version of this; it’s interesting how she dealt with it. I heard an interview with her about the notorious Gene Simmons incident, and she said that she couldn’t just say “oh my goodness, Mr. Simmons, what a terrible thing to say!,” because that would have been to fall into the trap that Simmons had laid for her. I have to say, listening to the show, she’s pretty tough, and I suspect that Simmons has tried to suppress this interview not because he feels sorry for what he said but because he got his ass kicked. Like MF Doom says, he picked the wrong thug to test. But of course she didn’t have Simmons grabbing her leg in a room full of drunks, so the situation isn’t exactly parallel to Terminal’s.

My teaching assistant for the undergraduate music history sequence at UT last year used to talk to me about how students would test her in a different way. I’ve heard this from other graduate students — if you’re a woman, undergrads are constantly testing you to see if you’ll push back. My undergrad music history class had about 70 students, and the lecture hall had about three times that many seats, and of course they would always sit at the very back, which I hate, so I made them sit only in the first six rows. After a week they did this without my having to tell them to. But every time I went out of town and my TA would take the class, they’d be sitting at the back again, and she’d have to bring them down to the front all over. Of course, students are always testing their teachers anyway, whether you’re a man or a woman or a prof or a grad student, but this little detail stuck in my mind, because nothing quite like it ever happened to me in all the years I was a TA back in graduate school. I’m wondering what your collective experience on this is.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Testing

  1. Les says:

    Ugh. There’s no single right answer to these questions. There sort of can’t be because anybody asking them is under attack. The person who needs to be asking questions is the attacker, not the attackee.
    (Although, I’d like to hear Terry Gross’ reply to them.)
    There’s kind of an art to letting people know that they’re crossing a line without shaming them. I would say to History Prof, “Dude, WHAT are you doing?” and then respond to any answer he gives with an exasperated head shaking. Or, “I think you should be touching John’s leg instead.” This doesn’t preclude bringing it up later. And it’s kind of nicer to stop somebody from being an asshole right away rather then letting them dig themselves in further.
    But this is one woman in a room full of seven guys, so I think the guys reading this need to be asking themselves what to do if they think they see this happening. They’re a lot more empowered to intervene than she was. F-bombs are one way, but most guys aren’t too stupid to see this going on and they can try to prevent it before it gets out of control. This isn’t just the problem of the woman and loud guy and her partner. It’s the problem of everyone who was there.

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    Gaaah! Now I remember how bad academics can be, especially pissed.
    Is academia still that mysogenistic?
    Is still as bad as the 70’s, when a prof. I know got a job based on a justified grievance because the Dean asked her during the interview how did they know she wouldn’t go and get pregnant after they gave her the job?
    In a similar vein of stupidity, I remember when the son of a famous Canadian composer applied to get into grad school at same said university “up-here in Canadia” and was asked by a member of the interviewing committee if he knew any Canadian composers(!) His response was brilliant : “Know any?? I know what they drink!!”

  3. Jonathan says:

    I would hate to think this is typical. I have seen nothing like this since I was an undergrad (and am in no way proud of what I saw then). Terminal did in fact say, in her account, that there were times when she and her fiancé should have left. Here’s the deal: we have to act on these feelings–when you’re in the wrong place, get the hell out of there. If alcohol is involved, get out of there *faster*. Is any of it defensible? Of course not. Should women be made to feel uncomfortable in this miserable way? Of course not. Does this kind of alcohol-induced “bravery” demonstrate a deep-seated and wretched cowardice and tendency to bully based on insecurity of one’s masculinity? Duh. It is, apparently, sickeningly common, though I’ve not seen anything like it myself.
    But when things get uncomfortable, *just get out*. Then you’re not asking the questions and second-guessing and feeling as mistreated as you are. And you’re also not wondering why none of the rest of the “humanity” in the room stepped up.
    This is a disgusting story from any number of different perspectives.

  4. For some reason I’m feeling the need to defend my actions here. Things happened FAST at that party. And as soon as I got my wits together to leave, here’s what I did, as I stated on my blog:
    ***
    I turned to Unexpected and said, “We have to leave. Now.”
    ***
    And then we left.
    Thanks, by the way, for the Terry Gross clip. She had some classy responses to some ugly comments. It may not have been her very finest moment of broadcasting, but she sure out-classed Gene Simmons.

  5. Mark says:

    Being in the room at the time and writing about it later are two different, but connected, universes. Plus, I’m a man, but I’ll go ahead respond to the questions.
    Do you laugh to show you’re “one of the boys?”
    Not if it doesn’t strike you as funny.
    Or do you act disgusted by every crude statement?
    Not necessarily, that would also probably be an act. I think body language that says “disapproval” is in order, though, which is short of disgust. You have to realize that these are baboons you are dealing with, and even though they got a lot of book learnin’ in, they’re still monkeys underneath. (no offense meant to the baboons).
    Or smile and understand that “boys will be boys”?
    No. Hold them to higher standards.
    Do you risk looking like a prude and leaving when the conversation gets too rough?
    I don’t think you should stay if you wish you were somewhere else.
    Or do you ask a bunch of half-drunk (or, in Loud Guy’s case, very drunk) guys to remember that you’re in the room?
    This is a yes. And I think it should be done with a disdainful, mocking tone.
    Or do you wait for one of the guys to be a gentleman and change the topic, rescuing you from the discomfort?
    You would hope that it least one decent soul would read the situation correctly, notice the change in your body language, notice that the drunks are starting to act like fools.
    And if you’re a feminist, and usually a strong woman, shouldn’t you be able to handle it yourself?
    If you have the wits about you to do it at the moment: “Dudes, your attention is flattering, but if you harbor even the most remote hope that I would even consider getting freaky with you, well, you are sadly deluded. Now get your filthy mitt off my leg.”
    And why the hell are they grabbing your leg, anyhow?
    Why the hell are those losers groping you? Other than them being drunken baboons, I have no answer for this one.
    Oh, right. Because you’re the only female in the room. And since you laughed at the first off-color joke, and since you’re willingly hanging out as the lone female in a room of men, your body must not be off limits, right?
    I think getting up and leaving was the right thing to do.

  6. Phil Ford says:

    “Being in the room at the time and writing about it later are two different, but connected, universes.” This gets at something important here. In the moment that things get bad, your experience of things getting bad is colored by the moment before, when things were good. As Terminal remarked, it really was a good party before, and she hoped (not unreasonably) that the bad moment was just that, a moment. In retrospect, yeah, it was time to go, but no-one is privileged with knowing the significance of a moment — knowing that it is a turning-point to something uglier — the moment it unfolds. If we were, nothing bad would ever happen.
    I don’t think Terminal should reproach herself here. It sounds as if she did as well as anyone could have under the circumstances.
    One last thought — in vino veritas. A loud mean drunk is a loud mean person with inhibitions removed. I’d keep an eye on that guy.

  7. anon says:

    While I have been fortunate to work with colleagues who do not drink – and thus do not exhibit such behaviors “under the influence” – I have been subjected to the underlying mysogenistic attitude of my colleagues, who justify their attitudes, comments, and behaviors with the excuse that they were taught such things were ok.
    Just yesterday a male colleague prefaced a remark with “I know that this is sexist, but …” If you know, why on earth would you go ahead and complete the phrase? Especially in my presence? Are you daft? And, perhaps most troubling of all, how often are you completing that phrase around the students?
    Is this still a problem in academia? Definitely — being female (and not yet tenured) in the higher ed world is not as easy as it looks 🙂 Do those (men) around me want to acknowledge or deal with the issues? No. It is much easier to assume that it is a “bad moment.” The trouble is that all too often one bad moment without immediate correction leads to another and it becomes much harder to step in and correct an ongoing situation.
    Thanks to all the men, though, who have recognized such behaviors, stepped in, and stepped up. Please — clone yourselves!

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