A week or so ago I asked Math graduate students the following:
The Climate, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the department of mathematics wants to ask the Office for Access and Equity to conduct mandatory in-person anti-sexual harassment training workshops. For now, it is intended just for the incoming graduate students in our program. This training will be in addition to the campus-wide mandatory online trainings.poll
As the rationale, the Committee opines that “the format of the current training makes it easy to just `click through’ without absorbing the material,” while the “examples included in the training are typically divorced from the situations encountered by graduate students in the mathematics department.” The Committee’s proposal states that “the university’s Office for Access & Equity (OAE) can provide training workshops in person that incorporate audience participation and deal with questions more germane to the graduate student experience.”
Tell us, comrades:
do you think such a workshop will be useful (options: Yes, Whatever, No), and in a few words, why?
By the end of 11.4 we have the results: 26 Yes, 2 Whatevers, 10 No.
Below I will discuss what rationales were offered, but first a couple of words on the numbers. I (somewhat intentionally) did not put any guardrails to ensure one grad student-one vote rule. I tried rather to calibrate the enthusiasm for the proposal. Clearly, the Yes group was full of passionate intensity, with some Facebook agitation, and some serial voting, – that goes for them. But with just about 20% of math graduate students voting, the participation is a bit lacking. We do want to hear from you, folks!
The narratives, why the training is needed or not were quite informative, however, and, I believe, reflect most of the spectrum of the views on this issue.
Let me start with a couple of facts.
First, despite all the trainings, there are clear signs of the general confusion about what to do in a bad situation. What is the commensurable reaction to this or that behavior? how to stop it reliably? who to talk to? indeed, above all, – who to talk to? (I added, meanwhile, a section to the FAQ page with some advice.)
Secondly, there seems to be a bit of misunderstanding of what different DEI-related offices on campus do. The Office of Access and Equity, – the one that is supposed to do the training, – is reporting to the Vice Chancellor for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and is dealing mostly with compliance with various statutes and regulations. Not surprisingly, it is staffed primarily by the lawyers and HR specialists (as is the Title IX office, specifically focussing on the gender-related compliance issues).
Now, let’s address the responses. (The file containing all of them, unedited, is here.)
What the supporters of the workshop proposal say?
First, that perennial argument that by conducting this training, the department will send a signal that it cares. This is literally a plea for a performative act, an act intended to impress someone. Who, though? the harassers? potential bystanders? some deity? I never see any clarification who all the messaging is aimed at, but the argument keeps reappearing.
Then there is the argument that the training will actually provide the information that is missing. The regular online training which we all undertake at least once a year covers (this line of reasoning goes) just a limited range of examples far removed from the specific realities of our department. Also, this training is delivered in a way that is not conducive to actually digesting it.
This is certainly true, but to accept this as an argument in favor of the proposal one needs to believe (and how plausible this belief is your guess is as good as mine) that the specialists from the office of Vice Chancellor for Diversity Equity and Inclusion will be able to develop training tailored to the needs of our department, and will be able to conduct it in a way that will make the information they present properly internalized by the students here.
And lastly, there is the argument that the proposed training will impact the students at some cultural level: by creating a collectively shared understanding of what is right and what is wrong, what is culturally acceptable, and what is not. Again, this argument is contingent, among other preconditions, on how much you believe in the persuasion skills of the OA&E folks.
Now, to the arguments of the opponents.
One quite general reasoning runs as follows: we are all adults here, and it is too late to inform our sense of ethical. Moreover, this should not be the business of the state (or of any official entity), to try to change tell us what is good and what is bad. This position (adamantly if unsuccessfully maintained by our own Lou van den Dries) certainly makes sense, but is a bit orthogonal to the purposes of the proposed training. The problem at hand is not about changing our own normative views, but about us respecting the views of others, and finding a way to respect boundaries. Adults can be taught that, or, in the worst case, coerced.
A more specific argument addressed the efficacy of such a workshop, by questioning what an outsider could bring to the table. By a contrast, the argument goes, a discussion internal to the department, driven by the students, with participation of the faculty has a chance to change matters for the better (the position I happen to share).
Altogether, the responses form an informative set of ideas that will benefit whichever body will be deciding on the future of anti-harassment training in the department. Thank you to all respondents, whoever you are!