Nondisclosure Agreements Silence Survivors Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Sheila Liming is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota, where she teaches classes on American literature, theory and media history. Her public writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Silencing of Sexual Violence Survivors

Back when I was a freshman in college many years ago, something happened. This something involved someone who was a member of my college’s faculty and me, and it resulted in my filing a complaint relating to allegations of sexual assault. But now, 15 years later, I am compelled to rely on those kinds of ambiguous nouns — something and someone — in lieu of specifics. At the behest of college administrators and representatives, I signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents me from sharing anything more specific about that something and that someone.

At the time, I understood my silence to be a necessary cost levied in exchange for protection and support. I brought my complaint to a trusted faculty member who, in turn, forwarded it to the appropriate administrator. That administrator then told me that I had two options. I could take my complaint to the police, thereby exposing myself to a public trial, newspaper reporters’ inquiries and the scrutiny of our entire college-town community. Or I could let the college handle the investigation, as long as I was willing to aid that investigation by keeping contractually quiet.

I was 18 years old, living more than 1,000 miles from home. Save for that one trusted faculty member, I had not told anyone about the something, not even my roommate or my parents. So I agreed to a private, internal investigation and signed the nondisclosure agreement — before speaking to a lawyer, before receiving any impartial advice and before having the opportunity to tell my story to anyone who might have been in a position to offer me support.

What Are NDAs?

Nondisclosure agreements — or NDAs — are legal agreements that are employed with the aim of protecting sensitive information. In business, “sensitive information” may amount to trade secrets or specific details about a product. In higher education, colleges and universities have historically turned to NDAs when investigating allegations of sexual violence or misconduct.

NDAs typically mandate that both parties involved in the complaint remain silent so as to avoid impeding a college’s investigation (which sometimes includes the gathering of witness testimony). And in order to further discourage those involved from speaking, NDAs often specify that financial penalties and personal liability are likely to result if either party breaks the agreement. (See, for example, The Washington Post’s coverage of the subject in the context of former presidential candidate Herman Cain.)

But in recent years, critics of the practice have pointed out that such confidentiality agreements stifle student speech and prevent victims — be they the accusers or the accused — from speaking out and sharing their sides of the story. What’s more, as a 2014 Inside Higher Ed article explains, NDAs place comprehensive bans on speech that extend beyond investigative proceedings and remain in effect long after the details of a case have gone public.

That means that victims of sexual violence are unable to shape the narrative that gets told and retold about them — instead, they are held hostage by the whims of gossip and hearsay. This situation has prompted some people to ask whether there might be such a thing as too much confidentiality, since, as one expert explains in the Inside Higher Ed article, “Colleges and universities rarely if ever intervene to correct the public record — even if they were to obtain the consent of both parties.”

Citing those same concerns, in addition to mounting public pressure, some colleges and universities have recently moved to discontinue the practice of requiring NDAs for those people wishing to file complaints of sexual violence or misconduct. American University, for instance, announced last year that it would no longer require students to sign them when filing complaints of misconduct against other students.

But as a more recent series of articles in The Guardian points out, NDAs are particularly common — and thus particularly pernicious — where student complaints against faculty or staff members are concerned. In such cases, NDAs “allow alleged perpetrators to move to other institutions where they could offend again,” thus “masking” the very prevalence of issues of harassment, violence or misconduct — all in the name of confidentiality.

What to Know and What to Do

What all higher education professionals must understand, then, is that such practices governing confidentiality are still very much the norm today. Most institutions still rely on them, which is why it is important that faculty and staff members read and acquaint themselves with institutional policies regarding confidentiality and voluntary disclosure. But, even more important, they need to take an active role in communicating their understandings of those policies to students.

I am not saying that folks in higher education need to memorize their campus’s policies and approach all interactions armed with chapter and verse. Rather, now a faculty member myself, I am arguing in favor of a heightened awareness that may permit university professionals to engage candidly and responsibly with student victims. If a student approaches you with the expectation of confidentiality, you need to inform that person of your ability to listen and, perhaps, act in confidence.

For example, if you hail from one of the many professional disciplines that make you subject to mandatory reporting laws (like law, medicine or social work), or if you serve in the capacity of a campus security authority — which, under Title IX, may also require you to report — you need to be honest in explaining that you may be unable to comply with a student’s wishes regarding confidentiality. A colleague at my institution’s law school recently told me that she was thinking of putting a sign on her door to declare her status as a mandatory reporter so that students would be able to consider their options before approaching her. Similarly, if you know that official student complaints on your campus are likely to be met with secrecy in the form of compulsory nondisclosure agreements, you must be up front and explain as much to a student beforehand.

Here’s why a willingness to be both honest and informed matters: what followed my decision to sign that NDA some 15 years ago were, frankly, the worst four months of my life. I was removed from the course that I was taking with the faculty member in question and instead enrolled in an independent study course, conducted by another faculty adviser who had no experience in the topic and little direct interest in overseeing my studies anyway.

Meanwhile, my absence in the class had not gone unnoticed, and rumors proliferated — rumors that I was contractually bound to accept with good grace since I was not allowed to talk about what had happened. The administrator who had dealt with my case had warned me that my violating the NDA “could compromise the investigation or could violate someone’s privacy and expose me and the college to liability.” Those were not my college administrator’s exact words, but they are the words of confidentiality agreements used by higher education institutions today.

There are alternatives, though. American University, for instance, now favors a confidentiality agreement that includes a First Amendment rights statement. The statement is designed to assure victims that confidentiality is the responsibility of their university but not necessarily required by them.

Preventing sexual violence and misconduct on college campuses requires a sincere commitment to acknowledging that sexual violence and misconduct do indeed happen — that they have been happening for some time now, that they are happening right now. Nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements have historically helped to keep us, as university professionals, from acknowledging that. Yet in order to imagine better, fairer alternatives to NDAs, we must start by facing the facts concerning their ubiquity and prevalence on our own campuses.

Why Your Students Don’t Believe That Trump Is A Rapist

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Jamie L. Small is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. She studies the intersection of law, crime and gender, with a particular focus on adult male sexual victimization. She approaches sexual violence education and prevention from a sex-positive perspective.

Teaching About Sexuality, Violence and Power

Here is a fascinating paradox: in the abstract, most people believe that sexual violence is a bad thing. We largely agree that victim trauma is severe, that perpetrators should be punished and that our communities would be better places if we could somehow eliminate this evil. Yet, when we examine specific cases, that consensus unravels.

Adjudication is comparatively straightforward when the alleged perpetrator is a stranger. If the “bad guy” is an outsider, literal or figurative, we have no trouble bringing down the hammer and the full weight of the criminal justice system. But when the alleged perpetrator is an insider, or a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, it becomes difficult to label him as someone who would do such a thing. We start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience.

I regularly observe such mental gymnastics with my undergraduate students. Last fall, I taught a sophomore-level course on sexual violence. At first, I was pleasantly surprised when the students demonstrated clear concern about sexual violence. Many of them were moved by the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, and they were curious about hot-topic issues like child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

Starting with what I thought was a degree of fluency regarding sexual violence, we moved on to more subtle points about how we address it (or not) collectively. Why are victims reluctant to report sexual violence? How do race, ethnicity and social class matter for criminal prosecutions? Why do some offending men go unpunished, even as others are targeted disproportionately? My students seemed to get it.

But the 2016 presidential campaign season offered some unanticipated teachable moments. After the election, I asked the students how it felt to have a president-elect who, among other allegations, was in fact caught on tape making lewd, sexually aggressive remarks. It did not seem to bother them.

I was shocked. We had just spent three months learning about sexual violence. How could the sexual allegations against their new president not matter to them? But when the bogeyman is familiar, and when politics are involved, the waters become murky.

I pressed them further. Can we ever actually believe sexual allegations against a high-status man, especially if they come from a comparatively lower-status woman? One student brought up the Bill Cosby case and noted that it took dozens of victims before people really started to believe. With a straight face, I asked whether it takes 50 victims to come forward to counter the denials of a high-status man. They did not pick up on this horrific joke.

During recent sociological fieldwork, I interviewed 75 prosecutors and defense attorneys who work on sexual assault cases. I found that while they largely take sexual assault allegations seriously, they also tend to conflate sex offenders with lower-class men. They stereotype sex offenders as “creeps,” “mopes” and “hillbillies.” In essence, they focus on the man’s identity rather than his behavior. A defendant’s social status becomes a proxy for assessing the veracity of the victim’s allegations.

So when the accused looks like a “creep,” it is much easier to believe the victim, especially if her social identity aligns with dominant groups. But when the accused is a high-status man, we have our doubts. We start to do those mental gymnastics to explain away his alleged indiscretions. Now we are doing those mental gymnastics for the president.

I anticipate that teaching about sexual violence will become more complicated during the Trump presidency. We are likely to see a decrease in federal funding, which will affect college students’ baseline knowledge of the issue. Indeed, the symbolism of a sexually aggressive president may increase young people’s tolerance of similar behavior among their peers.

Action Steps

We must continue to engage college students in these difficult conversations about sexuality, violence and power. Regardless of how anticipated decreases in federal funding and prioritization of the issue play out in the coming years, we must maintain the grassroots momentum that has developed since the U.S. Department of Education issued the Dear Colleague letter in 2011. Here are some ideas.

My course is unusual because we devote the entire semester to sexual violence. But briefer units can be easily incorporated into a range of social science and humanities courses. Instructors might start with sensational issues like sex trafficking, which often captivate students’ attention but can then be used to generate critical analyses of power by focusing on dynamics of labor, immigration and transnational feminism. Frontline has several excellent documentaries on sexual violence that chart institutional responses: for instance, how sexual harassment cases among undocumented agricultural workers move through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. My students also enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Notably, I do not shy away from the students’ tough questions. (For example, they always want to know how consent is determined in cases where both parties are intoxicated.) In the sexual violence prevention field, there is a tendency toward teaching young people incontrovertible facts about the issue. It makes sense when trainers have one hour with a group to drill down to a couple of key anti-rape lessons. But if we want to provide young people with a comprehensive education about sexual violence, then we need to develop their critical-thinking skills. Complex social problems have no easy answers.

We also need to mobilize key networks of campus actors to achieve this comprehensive education. Student learning is not a linear process, and so they need multiple opportunities during their college years to engage with these ideas, both inside and outside the classroom. Those campus networks also need to be in place to ensure that lines of communication and mobilization are open, should there be funding cuts or programming shifts.

This pedagogical work is about much more than sexual violence prevention. It compels us to examine a range of structural inequalities, including those of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, nationality and sexuality. Ultimately, it is about guiding young people to be critical and engaged citizens.

These are important first steps among many acts of resistance.

Teaching Rape Culture

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  Dr. Cat Pausé (@FOMNZ) is a fat studies scholar at Massey University in New Zealand. She hosted Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections in New Zealand in 2012 and Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment in 2016, and her fat-positive radio show, Friend of Marilyn, is traveling the world this year.

Across the world, institutions of higher education are being forced to examine whether their policies and procedures reinforce a rape culture. As noted by Marshall University, “rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” Faculty members can push back against rape culture on their campus by lobbying the institution to ensure transparency in reporting statistics about rape on campus, developing orientation material on consent and advocating for student survivors of sexual violence. They can also push back in their classrooms by teaching about rape culture.

My students balk at the suggestion that rape is normalized, but I have found that asking them to recount the plot of the movie Superbad — young men hunt to secure alcohol so they can get young women drunk enough to have sex with them — is effective in demonstrating how normal rape is, especially among young people. I explain that part of rape culture is our reliance on victim blaming and how we teach people not to get raped rather than teaching people not to rape. These problematic efforts suggest that victims need to take steps to protect themselves from assault and says nothing to or about potential perpetrators.

Image credit: Tumblinfeminist

Rape Culture Activity

I have developed a classroom activity that I have found useful for teaching the concept of rape culture.

I begin by presenting my students with the following scenario, which I borrow from my days working as an undergraduate peer educator for a group now called Healthycats at Texas State University.

Mary and Bob know each other from class, and they decide to go out together one evening. They go to a bar, and each consumes several drinks. Mary goes to the bathroom, and when she comes out she has her shirt untucked and her bra is off. She suggests they go back to her room and order dinner in. They eat dinner and lie next to each other on the floor. Bob caresses her face and kisses her. Mary enjoys it and kisses him back. Bob then carries Mary to the bed and kisses her again. Mary realizes what is happening and says, “No, I don’t want to do this.” Bob removes all of her clothes. Mary mumbles, “No,” very softly and then realizes that she will probably have to give in.

Then I instruct the students to work in small groups to rank this scenario using a Likert scale that ranges from 1 (meaning “not rape”) to 5 (meaning “rape”).

When we reconvene as a class, I ask each group to report their ranking of the scenario with Mary and Bob, and I record them on the whiteboard. The rankings usually range from 2 to 5, with most numbers falling between 3.5 and 4.5. (Oh yeah, students always seem to want a 0.5.)

Next, I ask the groups that ranked the scenario with a score of 3.5 or below to explain why they gave the score that they did, to offer what about the scenario led to that score. As these groups share their decision making with the rest of the class, I take notes on the board. After we have exhausted their comments, I then ask those groups who offered a score of 4 or 4.5 what they would like to add to the list. And then, finally, I invite the groups that gave a 5 to share their reasons for this ranking.

The students who label the scenario as rape usually note that Mary said no (more than once) and explain that giving in does not sound like something she wants to be doing. Those groups prioritize what Mary has said when they gave a score of 5 (meaning rape).

Without fail, the responses given by those groups who offered a score below 5 include references to what Mary has done, what her behavior signifies regardless of what she actually says. Mary took off her bra; Mary invited Bob up to her room; Mary did not physically fight back. Sometimes a student will even suggest that Mary was “asking for it” or question what Mary expected when she acted in such ways.

With those rationales articulated, I then take time to unpack the students’ explanations by asking a few key questions. First I ask, “How many times does someone have to say no before it is rape?” The response is always once, but then I point out that Mary said no twice, yet most of the class fails to label this scenario as rape. The students usually push back, insisting that Mary’s nos were not very forceful or were part of larger mixed messages being sent.

Second, I ask, “Are there different levels of sexual engagement — kissing, fondling, oral sex, vaginal sex — etc.? Does giving consent to one activity, like oral sex, mean consent has been given for all sexual activities?” And always, “Does there have to be physical force for it to be rape?”

Highlighting Rape Culture

I have been running this scenario in my classes for 15 years, across two continents, and the experience has not changed much. Students’ rankings of the scenario between Mary and Bob are largely the same today as they were in the past, as are the justifications. What is different now, however, is my ability to bring the exercise back to the topic of rape culture.

Toward the end of the class activity, after we have spent a great deal of time parsing out whether Mary consented or was forced, I point out that a definite pattern can be found in their explanations for the rankings they gave. I suggest that they review what is on the board and identify the pattern that emerges. Sometimes they see it. Just as often they do not, and I have to point out to them that none of their feedback had anything to do with Bob. What Bob did or did not do. What Bob’s responsibility is in this situation.

As a class, we reflect on how this pattern is an example in and of itself of rape culture. While considering the scenario, and how to rate it, students paid the role and responsibility of Bob no mind and focused solely on Mary and what she did to bring this upon herself. Once this pattern is brought to the surface, we then discuss the responsibility that Bob has in the situation, but it often feels perfunctory on the part of the students.

For the most part, students do not want to hold Bob responsible for anything in the scenario. He was not the one who initiated the launch sequence, as they seem to view it. Mary initiated the events in question — inviting him out, taking off her bra, inviting him to her place, kissing him back — although they disagree about what exactly started the sequence. Once she started it, it apparently could not be stopped. Sometimes students even express pity for Bob, that he did not realize that Mary was not interested (if that is the case). “Poor guy,” they seem to lament, “she should have given him better cues than saying no twice.”

Every semester, I am reminded that more work needs to be done, but the value of rape culture as a schema, a way to organize various pieces of information and the relationship among them, cannot be overstated. Being able to bring back students’ responses to the elements of rape culture allows for connections to be made between a “real-life” scenario and the political and ideological intersections within rape culture.

While it is disheartening that the responses have not shifted much since the 1990s, I am glad that more of my students are familiar with the concept of rape culture. And I find real value in the exercise itself as it provides an opportunity for students to recognize their own values and beliefs in action — which I imagine they find quite different from their values and beliefs in theory.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia

blog-series

From March to November 2017, we will be featuring a series of weekly blog posts on our Inside Higher Ed column (and republished here) about sexual violence in higher education.  We received many submissions to our call for blog posts on the topic, ranging from personal experiences to teaching about and doing research on sexual violence, from critiques of how universities facilitate sexual violence to recommendations for structural and cultural changes on campuses.  We are especially pleased to note that this series is intersectional to its core, offering narratives that reflect on sexual violence as a manifestation not just of sexism, but also racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and fatphobia.  Through this series, we aim to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence that occurs in academic contexts, to aggravate the academic status quo that facilitates sexual violence, and to advocate for meaningful change in classrooms, research, departments, and at conferences.

We will continue to log new blog posts here as the series proceeds in case you are unable to keep up, and so that you can refer back to the entire series in the future.

Teaching On/And Sexual Violence

Failures of Title IX Policy and Programming

You may also be interested in our past blog posts on or related to sexual violence in academia:

An Introduction To Our Series On Sexual Violence In Academia

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Source: UMBC’s The Retriever Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 27.

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

Amplifying the Voices of Survivors

The photo above was taken during a Take Back the Night march at my alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in March 2005. It was taken by student, Matt Stockslager, and appeared in the university’s student newspaper, The Retriever Weekly. You can see me on the left, sporting a funky blue button-down Southpole shirt, dark blue jeans and Timberland boots, holding a sign that is hard to read and that my memory fails to recall.

In those days, I double majored in sociology and psychology while pursuing a certificate in women’s studies (now gender studies). My feminist and queer consciousness were just beginning to grow inside the classroom as I was exposed to critical writings on gender, sexuality, feminism, queer theory, race and intersectionality. And my critical consciousness was budding outside the classroom in this and other forms of feminist activism on campus, as evidenced by organizing for the creation of an LGBTQ campus resource center and hosting events to foster dialogue about diversity and inclusion.

I fondly remember marching alongside other students, faculty and staff to demand the end of sexual violence on our campus and in the local community. With slight embarrassment, I also recall being asked to share the megaphone that I must have been hogging during the march. Selfishly, I felt good about knowing that a booming, somewhat masculine voice shouting to end rape was significant and would capture others’ attention. Then, as now, I felt that white heterosexual cis women’s faces were those that typically represented anti-rape advocacy, perhaps to the detriment of the broader movement — women of color, trans women and queer women may hesitate to get involved where they do not see themselves reflected, and cis and trans men may struggle to find a place in the movement. So I shouted with pride, “Two, four, six, eight!” — or something along those lines — until I was politely asked to hand the megaphone off to someone else.

I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I understood. And in hindsight, I realize how problematic my behavior was. Sure, I could make a stink about what seemed to be the silencing of my voice — a voice that very well could be one of a survivor. (And it may be? I am not entirely sure.) Or I could emphasize the points that I just made above, about the power of representing cis and trans men in sexual violence advocacy, about ensuring that the cause is not seen simply as one for white heterosexual cisgender women.

But I believe it was just as important, if not more so, that I not steal an opportunity to hear the voices of actual survivors, especially those of women survivors. While I was proud of my participation, and recall it fondly today, that march was never meant to be about me (no matter my identities) — it was about a movement to end a crisis that affects too many people.

Amplify Their Voices

Over the past year, the informal mission and potential power for change of this blog, “Conditionally Accepted,” has become clearer to me. I have not yet said this publicly, and this is currently not much more than a half-baked idea, so please don’t quote me on this. But I see this blog’s mission as the following:

  1. advocate for justice in academe,
  2. amplify the voices of marginalized scholars and
  3. aggravate the status quo in the academy.

The appealing alliteration aside, I think these three A’s — advocate, amplify and aggravate — effectively encompass what we have been doing on this blog since its inception in 2013 (even before it became an Inside Higher Ed career advice column in 2016), as well as where we will likely go in the future.

Over a decade after the embarrassing megaphone incident in 2005, I now value the opportunity (and, I would even say responsibility) to amplify others’ voices. In gaining access to the megaphone, I had an opportunity to amplify that I did not take. Rather than selfishly projecting my own voice, I could have used it to tell the stories of those who could not speak or, more importantly, handed the megaphone off to survivors who could speak. I could have used my voice (without the megaphone) to echo what a survivor said with the megaphone.

Today, I have successfully established an online platform that features marginalized scholars’ voices and stories. Here, each of us can write in the first person, claiming our truth and our identities, our value and our experiences. I have occasionally opened up about my own experiences with sexual violence, particularly the difficulties inherent in teaching on the subject, I have written about my observations of academic organizations and institutions’ mishandling of sexual violence cases, and I have attempted to draw attention to other activists’ fights against sexual violence. But all of what I do as a well-intentioned advocate is secondary in importance to giving space to survivors to tell their own story, to use their own voices to speak for themselves.

It is more important than ever that we work to make space for survivors to tell their stories. In general, a silence surrounds the subject, with ignorance and complicity keeping bystanders quiet, and victim blaming and slut shaming keeping survivors’ mouths closed.

And even where there is dialogue is typically part of the problem, as well. Conversations about sexual violence — a hate crime, a tool of oppression, a social problem — are too often reduced to speculations about responsibility, intent and the veracity of survivors’ reports. The media qualify reports of sexual violence with the word “allegedly,” which veils the undermining of survivors’ voices with concerns about legal considerations. In some places, “devil’s advocates” — clueless, conservative, white, heterosexual cis men — are given more room to weigh in on something they have probably never experienced and on which they lack expertise.

Apparently, we do not want to hear survivors, we do not want to believe them, we do not want to recognize them as credible sources on their own experiences. So they have to find their own spaces to share their stories. (See also this Washington Post series.)

So in the spirit of amplifying the voices of the marginalized, “Conditionally Accepted” will feature guest blog posts about sexual violence over the next six months. Yes, we are devoting half the year to this oh-so-important topic, though we know six months is hardly enough. Several guest bloggers from different career stages and academic and social backgrounds contributed to our call for blog posts on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence in higher education. Some people reflect on a personal experience, some offer teaching and research tips, and others offer advice for effectively supporting survivors and ending campus sexual violence.

This series of blog posts will certainly not solve all the issues, but it is at least one way to amplify the voices of survivors — and, to be certain, that is an important first step.

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

When Your Work Becomes A Facebook Fight

nicole-bederaNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Nicole Bedera is a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on sexual violence and masculinity.

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When I realized that I wanted to be a rape researcher, I thought about deactivating my Facebook account — or at least unfriending many of my Facebook friends. It felt as though every time that I posted anything relating to my work on sexual violence, someone appeared to fight with me about it.

There was the guy I went to high school with who wanted to debate the accuracy of statistics on campus sexual assault. And there was the former teacher who left comments on my wall that blamed victims for drinking too much or dressing provocatively. Even my mom chimed in, wondering whether my new interest in sexual assault was an overreaction, reflective of an emerging hatred toward men. I frequently received unsolicited messages from friends who wanted to debate me on all of these issues privately in the name of keeping me from becoming an extremist or in the spirit of an intellectual debate where they could “play devil’s advocate.”

I am far from alone. For scholars whose academic work touches on contentious issues in the public eye, the internet can become a battleground where our contributions, and those of our respected colleagues, come under fire. In those moments, our aggressors do not treat us like experts in our field, but instead like the old friend, grandchild or relative stranger they know us to be. That is especially true for women and people of color, and especially true when our work has some relationship to the marginalized identities that we hold.

In the online world, people presume that all opinions are equal, regardless of how much thought someone has or hasn’t put into forming them. There is also little recognition that an issue one person views as an interesting story that just popped up on the nightly news is another person’s life’s work.

For those reasons, Facebook debates can be hurtful and exhausting, but there is reason to believe they are worth the time and effort. For every critic we face, there are plenty of people who appreciate the articles we post and who learn from the disagreements that unfold — and sometimes the critics are among their numbers.

Facebook can be an effective medium to introduce our friends and families to our academic work and to make social change more generally. But for these interactions to be successful, especially in the face of disagreement, we must break away from the common approaches employed in hostile online arguments. Below, I share nine tactics that I’ve developed to ensure that my online engagement with friends and family remains civil and meaningful.

1. Be kind — even in the face of hateful comments. It is easy to get sucked into the vitriol of internet trolls, but never forget that they get just as put off by your insults as you are by theirs. Obviously, some comments, such as violent threats, do not deserve a response at all, but if you are going to respond, make sure that you focus on setting a polite and educational tone. Plus, a little respect for someone with whom you disagree goes a long way toward opening them up to your ideas.

2. Empathize. We have all made ignorant comments, but academics have had the privilege of formal education to redirect us to more scientifically defensible or inclusive beliefs. Remember how you developed the ideologies that you have, and use your own learning experiences to bring someone along a similar path. The things that changed your mind-set might open someone else’s eyes.

3. Validate. When whoever you are engaging with hits on something you agree with, point it out. You can use those moments as a jumping-off point for the stuff on which you disagree. This is especially effective when you both feel aggrieved by something but disagree on the cause of the harm. For example, I share the belief held by most men’s rights activists that it’s terrible to punish someone falsely accused of rape. But instead of immediately arguing about the prevalence of false accusations, that shared belief can be a jumping-off point for how important it is to make victims feel comfortable during sexual assault investigations to make it easier for investigators to get the story straight. (And then we can have a whole conversation about victim blaming that will still tackle factually inaccurate beliefs about false accusation rates!)

4. Respect the other side’s intelligence. A Ph.D. alone is not enough to demonstrate that you are always right and that everyone else who disagrees with you is stupid. If you treat others that way, they may dig their heels in. Instead, treat the discussion like a topic you are learning together. It should be a shared intellectual challenge rather than an intellectual showdown.

5. Embrace subjectivity. As academics, it is tempting to stick to the facts, but in the era of partisan think tanks and Google, a back-and-forth battle of statistics misses the point. You have a distinct perspective — as do your “opponents” — and using it just makes sense. Combine that personal perspective with all those facts and data you learned in your graduate program.

6. Embrace vulnerability. If someone says something that hurts you, calmly explain why. People are generally empathetic folk who do not want to hurt others. Explaining how someone (probably unintentionally) caused you harm can be a powerful teaching moment and does wonders to save a friendship or ease tensions on the next family holiday.

7. Play the long game. You do not need to change someone’s mind immediately and probably can’t, even if you try. When dealing with friends in particular, you can post an article on the same issue you debated a week ago and they will likely read it, especially if you were kind and give them a nudge like, “After our conversation last week, I thought this might interest you.”

8. Pick your battles. Since you are playing a long game, do not feel pressured to respond to everything that riles you up. Sometimes it feels too personal and sometimes you are too tired, and that is OK. I have been known to respond to requests for my professional opinion on contentious issues with, “You know, this line of work is hard, and I’m just too tired today.” I also have more general rules, like, “I don’t argue about false reporting rates. I’ll tell you which study I recommend and why, but I’m stopping there.” Your mental well-being matters more than any single Facebook argument, and you should get to choose when you engage.

9. Lean on your allies. Not all Facebook altercations will lead to a rewarding resolution. Identify friends with whom you can talk about especially tough conversations, or ask them to chime in when you need backup. Your allies will help you heal from any harsh words that are exchanged and remind you that you have a strong support system that values your work.

Our online interactions have the potential to strengthen our support networks for our work — and change some minds along the way — but only if we are thoughtful about how we treat disagreement.