The Talk

I am finally getting around to blogging about some things that were heavily on my radar LAST semester, both because I ran out of time and also because I thought some perspective might make them easier to write about.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “The Talk.”

“The Talk” is the one I got – and one that I’m sure a lot of female academics got as young scholars. As far as I’m aware, though, no male academic I know ever got the “The Talk.”

Here’s where I got “The Talk.” I remember it very well. I was a third-year graduate student attending my first academic conference, the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association in Philadelphia, PA, in 1992. It’s a great organization of likely minded folks who study law and society issues interdisciplinarily. The conference is relatively small, and they have a graduate student professional development workshop that runs alongside it, which I was attending for the first time. I had met up with some like-minded feminist graduate students and junior faculty, and we had gone out to dinner.

We were swapping stories about teaching, bitching about surviving grad school, and generally just having a good time. I had worked as a TA for a few semesters, and was getting ready to teach my first course on my own. We were touching on various classroom issues. But then the conversation turned a little grim.

Just wait, said one woman. Just wait until you get your first student who explains why she hasn’t been coming to class and failing your exams: because she was raped several weeks ago, and it was by someone she knew, and the guy is too well known, too popular, too connected, to report it. In fact, she hasn’t really done anything about it, and is suffering in silence.

“Does that happen often?” I asked.

Of course. It happens all the time, they say. You know that. One in four, or one in five, or one in six — it doesn’t matter, the odds are pretty high. You know that. Sooner or later it will happen. And they come to us more, because we’re women, because we teach courses in gender studies, because we’re more approachable, because they know where to find a sympathetic ear.

I did know that. But I hadn’t yet thought about it as being part of my teaching role. For some reason, I hadn’t thought about it happening to my students.

“What do you do?” I said. “How do you handle it?”

That’s the kicker – although they did offer some strategies for what to do, and how to feel about it, they also made it clear that sometimes there’s not much a professor can do. You can listen, you can offer advice, you can suggest she go to the police anyway, you can suggest she get counseling, any number of things, but there’s a lot of powerless and anger in the situation. It happens, it happens a lot, and it also happens that nothing is done about it.

And then you get to wonder about every young women who DOESN’T come to you when she stops coming to class or starts failing exams for no clear reason.

I’m grateful to those women – I don’t remember who they were now, or what schools they were from. But I was prepared when it eventually did happen to me, and although I reeled from the experience, I wasn’t completely unprepared. Still I’m sad, reflecting on the events at the University of Virginia and news from other schools, that we must continue to have to have “the talk” with graduate students, and I wonder how many male graduate students — if any — now get to hear that talk.

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