Ambivalent authority: Education and empathy
TW: Sexual Harassment
I was sexually harassed by someone claiming to be my student within the first few weeks of me starting to teach as a grad student in Buffalo. I shared the experience with my friends humorously to cope with the precarious position I found myself in as a young person hoping to begin a career in academia. I’m still unsure if there was a misunderstanding and the person harassing me thought I was someone else or if it was just a cruel joke. In the end, I tried to find support within the institution from advisors and offices dedicated to inclusion but that was disappointing.
That experience, among others I will get into later, left a bitter taste in my mouth about the limitations professionalism imposes in academic settings that deter empathy and support. When I asked for someone to come speak to my class about boundaries and appropriate interactions between faculty and students, I was left waiting. I made it clear I was uncomfortable having that conversation with my class due to the harassment and feeling as though my authority was already compromised. I was nervous about the possibility the person who aggressively sent me messages and demanded a response would be in that room. I reached out to those I was told to if something like this happened and I still ended up navigating through the situation on my own with little recourse and no follow-ups.
I was scared. I didn’t want this to become something that would hinder my ability to teach in the future and it brought up a lot of difficult memories. If I hadn’t taken courses and workshops about sexual violence prior to going to grad school I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it. It put me in a position where I felt as though I needed to isolate my life as an academic from my personal life, a strategy that reminded me of what it was like being in the closet and the aftermath of sexual assault where I would compartmentalize pain so I could function.
I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a professor who struggles to connect with his students because doing so would acknowledge they’re people who deserve care. Balancing compassion and understanding with authority and evaluation was something I had an extremely hard time reconciling with. Maybe it was because I was someone just coming out of an undergraduate program so I was intimately familiar with just how stressed students are, or perhaps it was because I’m a similar age as someone in their mid-twenties who is familiar with juggling classes alongside overwhelming personal revelations. Regardless, I really wanted my classroom to be a place where everyone was understood to be a person deserving of empathy and patience, a goal that I found surprisingly difficult to maintain in a post-secondary institution.
There were a lot of bumps over the two years I was teaching and I’m grateful that so many of my students were accommodating of that. Rather than just bombard them with pristine examples of whatever concept or technique was in the syllabus that week, I also tried to include personal samples of work where I was unsuccessful. It feels important to give students a clear perspective of what growth looks like, that it is a process that is messy and takes time. I shared work I was doing in my undergrad, even the portfolio I used to apply for college in 2012, and brought them into my studio to talk about the questions on my mind and the problems I was encountering in my practice.
When you’re doing performance art in underwear that can be a weird situation to navigate and one that I think I could have handled better. Similarly, openly discussing sexuality, gender, and trauma in a class that’s supposed to be about digital art or fundamental design concepts might have been a poor decision. But I wanted to establish a relationship with my students that valued vulnerability, one that showcased my mistakes and dilemmas front and center so they might feel more comfortable sharing theirs with me.
While noble, I was naive about the implications doing so would have within an institution. I wanted to be a mentor for students, a role that I realize I define differently than a professor, and that meant navigating complicated conversations with students that came to me for support. Being openly queer meant some students would come to me about Buffalo’s queer landscape with questions that I wasn’t sure I could answer. I would witness their disappointment firsthand when I’d have to establish that boundary and it exposed a deep frustration that I continue to have with post-secondary education.
I would get upset when I couldn’t show students more empathy when they were struggling because doing so risks being deemed unprofessional. It makes me think about when I’ve been in a dark place while in school, failing to keep up with the pressure to do well and complete projects, and how awkward and alienating I felt opening up about it to a professor. I realize it’s not necessarily in the job description, supporting someone straining against mental health, stress, or trauma is a heavy burden and it may not intersect with teaching. But if I’m in a position of authority and I am asking someone to commit energy to something for me, shouldn’t I care about the taxes that may have?
The distance I have had from post-secondary since graduating last year has provided an opportunity to reflect on what kind of relationship I want to have with educational institutions. University was somewhere I felt safe, it put space between the homophobic bullying I dealt with in school growing up and the knowledge I value learning so much. But universities have also been the site of some of the worst mental health I’ve ever had, somewhere that seemed unforgiving and cruel. Sometimes it felt like my education came at a severe cost, one that was financially gruelling and emotionally devastating. That dynamic is one that I don’t want to foster if I’m representing a school.
I’m not sure if with age I’ll be better equipped to distinguish my ability to support students and my responsibilities to adhere to a professional code of conduct. Right now, it feels like a lot. Teaching is something I enjoy doing but the topics and themes I want to invest in have significant weight, they relate to grief and trauma and those subjects deserve sensitivity. It would be unwise to ask students to confront these ideas and think about how artists address them without valuing empathy and ensuring student safety.
These questions and frustrations make me wonder what spaces enable these conversations right now and if post-secondary institutions will become more welcoming of emotion in the future. I think this criticism can be applied to museums and galleries as well, as many institutions rely on sanitizing feelings to validate intellectual and class elitism. I hope this changes because I think intellectual growth is stifled if a healthier relationship isn’t formed with emotions. The absence of it encourages a neoliberal mindset that is completely disengaged from the complexity of humanity, and instead, reframes subjectivity as objectivity and fact to manipulate narratives and gaslight people.
I’ll admit I don’t have a lot of suggestions or solutions. I’m trying to marinate in these observations and fears because it feels necessary and I’m cautious of proposing alternatives that haven’t received adequate consultation. Perhaps my feelings will change with time and I’ll find a balance that feels right. For now, I want to be critical of what I can do, what I want to do, and my capacity for disappointment and empathy. Surely there are folks who embody the ideals I’ve mentioned, I’ve likely even worked with them, and I just need more time and space to figure it all out myself. But if anyone has suggestions on where to go from here, who to look at as sources of information and guidance, I’m eager to learn.