Friday, September 6, 2013

Undergrad Misery From Conan the Grammarian.

I am an undergraduate student at a mid-level university studying HRM (Hamster Resource Management) at a relatively okay business school. About forty percent of our professorship came through academia (you know, going to school to teach school), and the remaining sixty percent were successful in their fields (going to school to make money and then later going back to school to teach school). And you know what? They rock. I have not had a single professor in our business school that I had an issue with. They are all remarkably knowledgeable about their fields, classes are typically interesting, informative, and allocate time properly (I get annoyed when professors spend class time on basically anything other than teaching). They are kind and approachable, but still professional. All in all, they pretty much kick ass. But then there are my fellow students... This is a story from my first week of classes this semester.

The class was an upper level HR class, the Ethics of Hamster Resources. Our professor came highly recommended by the prof from one of my last year's HR courses, a large reason why I took the course. She is young. Remarkably so. We shall suffice it to say that, though I am male, I am not enticed by those of the opposite gender (seriously, I should have been an education major; so many good looking gay guys there), but that she was objectively attractive. One of my fellow students felt obliged to point that out near the end of the class.

Professor Professional: Any questions about the course or my qualifications?

Bronx-Accent Bill: (hand unraised) Yeah, professor, I just wanna let you know that us guys [sic.] might have trouble concentratin' and all cuz you're so gorgeous.

Silence. Some people look expectantly at the professor. Some people look at the student. Most people just act like a homeless man has asked them for money and that something very important, such as notes that don't exist, require their immediate attention. Now, I was willing to spot him one. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I genuinely believed that he was trying to pay her a compliment in a way that he thought would be humorous. It sounded good in his head, but didn't work when the words left his mouth. I didn't think he was actually a horrible chauvinist pig based on this comment alone. The professor was flabbergasted. And I totally sympathize with her. She went through a lot of school and worked ridiculously hard to get where she is. And you know what? She's probably had to deal with this before. It's probably a sore subject with her. And now, even her students, people she is supposed to educate are getting hung up on her appearance.

"Don't say anything, Joe. Don't say anything, Joe." I said to myself. But I didn't listen. Before my judgment could catch up with me, I turned my fancy business school swivel chair towards the back row where Bill from the Bronx sat and addressed him calmly.

"You realize that what you said was completely out of line, right?"

Everyone looks at me. Then back at him. Two of the guys near him seem to be backing him up with their conspiratorial smiles and a supportive elbow here and there.

"I was just paying a compliment." he fires back with a cocky smile. The professor is still silent. I realize that I should have been worried about insulting her by continuing (perhaps implying that she needed to be defended), but I just plowed ahead, feeling slightly redfaced by the fact that nobody in the class seems to be taking my side. I decide to appeal to something I know they will relate to.

"You're an HR major, aren't you? You realize that what you just said would be sexual harassment in a workplace. Not only will you probably be responsible for preventing that kind of behavior if you get a job, but you would be fired for what you just said."

At this point, I feel the tide turning, as it were. A girl in front of me nods and says "So unprofessional." Thank you. I see other heads nodding in agreement. He finally backs down and just sort of shrugs. Victory feels sweet. Because only four minutes remain in the class, the professor reminds us of our assignments and dismisses us, quietly exiting the room. My heart skips a beat because I'm afraid that I may have struck her the wrong way. But when I get home and check my email I find one from her. No "Dear Joe", no closing such as "Sincerely," or what have you, not even the strongly encouraged staff email footer was present. The email consisted of two small words: "Thank you." I think I almost cried.


  1. Yes, definitely the right thing to do. Well done, sir. Well done.

  2. Nicely done! Your reply benefited both you and the professor. I would, however, avoid encountering Bill in any dark alleys. Maybe it was just a clumsy attempt at getting on the professor's good side, but he could also be a deliberate troublemaker/bully (and possibly a homophobic one at that). I wasn't there, but this sounds like the kind of move a male student who doesn't like having a woman in authority over him might make to try to shift the balance of power in his favor. Is this ethics class, by any chance, a resented-by-many requirement for the major?

    1. That "us guys" business has me thinking he's a straight-up bully. He wants it known he's not acting alone.

  3. Well, yes. You took a risk and did the right thing.

    I'm slightly puzzled about the fact the prof allowed this exchange to go on without stepping in. At the very least, before moving on she could have said something like "let's leave it at that". Also, the "thank you" would have had greater teaching value if it had been said publicly, in class, on the spot. (Of course, that's easier to say in hindsight.)

    1. She was young, most likely inexperienced, and had just been thrown completely off her game. She'll probably get better at responding quickly to that kind of nonsense, but it's nice that now she knows she's not alone.

    2. I'm sure inexperience was it. The first 3 or 4 times I encountered this kind of open flirtation from students, I stumbled. I wanted to be nice! To show them that they could trust me!! But that dried up and eventually I learned how to convey displeasure and shut down inappropriate behavior without looking too bad.

      Sad to say, it takes practice.

  4. It's because I have students like you (Well, some are anyway) that I don't whine about, or bash, them. I have always saved my ire for college administrators.

  5. Good for you. Excellent, in fact.

    And could the exchange been any more appropriate for an ethics of HR class?

  6. I teach first years about the power and privilege of hamster fur weaving. Perhaps needless to say, every year, there are *a lot* of "teachable moments." (Translation: really problematic shit gets said pretty frequently in my classroom by people who've never had to think about, let alone check, their privilege.)

    Sometimes, I immediately shut that shit down (as it is, in that moment, "my job to teach them").
    Most times, I (at least initially) leave the space for a student to do what you did, because these are the moments when peer-to-peer learning really matters.

    I try to create as conducive as an environment as is possible for students to speak up, while at the same time not assuming or expecting that just because a student identifies a certain way, they need to take on the responsibility of educating their classmates. It's a delicate balance.

    So from that perspective, I want to say two things to you.

    The first is thank you. Thank you for sticking your neck out, and hopefully, for setting the tone.

    The second is that the work is nowhere near over, so please stick with it. Please continue to interrogate your own privilege ("Am I speaking over someone if I race to speak up now?"), be an ally when an ally is what's required (demonstrate to others that you have their back, understanding that they are totally capable of leading the charge)...while at the same time being reasonably generous in assuming that your peers are there to learn, and willing to learn (within limits, of course). Not all of the fucksticks are irredeemable. Please continue to be willing to put your body on the line when it matters. Please understand that you are going to work with Bills every day, and that even if a particular issue is "not your fight," that isms hurt us all.

    Yeah, I know, I'm not asking for much.

    Good luck.



  7. I only wish more people were as courageous as you. You're so amazing.

  8. I love you (and your headline moniker). In fact, you may be the only business major I have ever loved. In a perfect world, no dude would have to ride in on a white horse, because women would be empowered enough to speak out and men would actually listen to them. As it is, sometimes a bro-check is all that works. Good for you.

    1. (Conan the Grammarian)

      Haha. Yeah, I'm a dirty business major. I could lie and say "I'm only studying HR to make money so I can go back to school later and study what I love." But I find this stuff FASCINATING. And I also kind of want to be counter to the whole "HR is the enemy" thing. I think that HR should be an advocate for all employees and, in some cases, like at General Electric and other companies that have always been ahead of the curve in HR, that's the case. And for people who say "Yeah, well that's wishful thinking.", one of my previous professors made a successful career doing exactly that and I'd like to model my career after hers.

  9. (It's me, Joe, this is a wordpress I made for a dumb "Let's read things and apply meanings to them that the author didn't intend" class)

    Thanks, guys, you rock! I actually wasn't sure if this would make it on the site. And I love the picture, haha!

  10. If only this brave interloper had been there to defend a beautiful student who is also a model and who is just in class to learn, not to have her looks appraised by her middle-aged professor. Think how distracting it must be for her that the person whose job it is to educate her is hung up on her appearance.

  11. I think you did a nice thing and seem like a wonderful student to have in class. Bravo.

    One thing: Knowing a few folks with Bronx accents they can't shake, I have to point out that it is sad that the accent seemed a funny and effective way to further characterize a thoughtless, ignorant, macho fool. Not your fault, but you seem so sensitive to others. In that light, I invite you to remember that since everyone with such an accent does not fit the stereotype, pointing out those who do only reinforces it in a negative way for the rest.


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