There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

The following anonymous guest post is by a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States. In this post, she reflects on experiences confronting trauma and rape apologists in the evaluation of student assignments.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching – how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to try and grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender class.

It was the middle of the semester and we were covering rape culture. As any Feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they’ve been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they’ve actually committed rape, and struggle to reconcile this with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many Feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it’s like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few of the men in the class who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims including but not limited to the following:

In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of rapes have anything to do with clothing choice: “but don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”

In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”

In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media, and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”

In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they’re intoxicated:  “Well don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”

In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys.”

Every so often, however, male students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality.”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as non-binary people) to share their experiences with rape since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality reproduction that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender class, I hoped the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing a media example of a case where a woman on a college campus raped a man, and how poorly the campus responded. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a Men’s Rights Advocacy (MRA) group. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “students use terrible sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his “argument” quickly devolved into a tirade claiming – since he presented ONE case where a man was raped by a woman – Feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about “their problems.” He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about Feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example, but rather, he simply ranted against Feminism, women, and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something my rapist would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as the man who raped me – White, college male, between the ages of 18-22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I couldn’t concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he didn’t like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the “rational instructor” side of my brain could not overpower the “trauma survivor” part of my brain.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few Feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit, and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

“ZERO! YOU GET A FUCKING ZERO” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I wasn’t ready to return to grading papers yet so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a female instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I’ve had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath, and began to read it again. No one ever advised me about how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I have to navigate it.

What does teaching feel like?

In this post, J. Sumerau asks us to consider and reflect upon what teaching feels like and how such feelings may vary and / or be illustrative in relation to different people, approaches, and social locations.

This week I experience one of my favorite times of the year – the beginning of classes for a new academic year. As I walk to and through campus, all the signs are there that a new year has begun. Some of the students are excited, others are nervous, and still more seem just plain lost as they look around for some kind of guidance. Some of the faculty are bouncing around with glee, others appear annoyed beyond belief, and still more are arguing about parking. I always experience a mixture of fear and exhilaration personally, which I figured I’d write about for a bit since it makes me wonder about variations in how teaching feels for different people.

In terms of fear, I find myself locking up – physically, emotionally, and even mentally – this time of year with anxiety about the fact that I must talk to and deal with people constantly from this point forward after a summer usually spent mostly in isolation – or as some friends say “hiding in my cave.” While my students rarely believe it until they see me outside of school, I’m not very social and interpersonal interactions are often very difficult for me to navigate so when I’m able to I simply avoid interacting with people (I prefer to watch them from a distance so to speak as I roam around cities alone listening to random conversations and / or whatever records I’m interested in at the moment). There may be nothing more awkward in my daily or normal routines than the thought of speaking to a room full of people and / or making small talk in a given hallway, and yet these are two of the most common elements of my occupational experience.

Companions who understand this about me sometimes express surprise that I love teaching as a way to make a living and spend my time. The answer lies in the other side of the coin – constantly doing something terrifying is in many ways exhilarating and never boring for me. My life – especially the parts that require human interaction and communication not accomplished via typing – feels like a constant adventure, a kind of boxing match between my fear of people and my desire not to be ruled by fear. While I have friends who spend days and hours deciding exactly what to say and do in classes, I almost never have any clue which of twenty or more outlined directions any given class might go. If I try to be more specific than that – as I learned by trying to do so in graduate school – I lock up, have a panic attack, and can’t speak. For whatever reason, deciding exactly what to say ahead of time creates more anxiety because I then worry about going off script or forgetting something important so – in much the same way I approach presentations at conferences – I instead come up with a bunch of different possible scenarios and then read my audience for cues as to what might be fun and useful (i.e., the same way I navigate interpersonal interactions outside the classroom).

If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that there may be an unlimited amount of ways to teach well, experience classrooms, and manage the self and the class in educational endeavors. From the colleague I know that designs a specific game for each concept to the colleague I know that maps out every possible student response so ze has an example and / or resource ready at hand at all times, people prepare and experience classrooms in a wide variety of ways. From the colleague that giggles whenever anyone says “course prep” because ze does not do any of that “boring stuff” and instead uses improv experience to run classrooms based on topics ze already knows well to the colleague who spends the entire summer preparing detailed and sophisticated lectures with graphs and charts because the structure eases their own anxiety about talking in public, the spectrum of possible approaches suggests – and I admit I’ve benefited from personally thanks to countless conversations with others on the matter – a wealth of information to be found sharing teaching approaches, experiences, and styles with one another.

These simple observations about the experience of and approaches to teaching lead me to wonder how others experience these dynamics. While rarely mentioned or written about (that I have seen) aside from social media posts here and there and online groups where teachers share frustrations and celebrations during the year, the way it feels to teach is likely a fascinating topic and would likely reveal a lot about the ways educators navigate the world and their lives within it. As I continue enjoying the fear and exhilaration of my own latest week one, I thus ask us all to reflect on what it feels like to teach and what lessons we could learn about teaching and ourselves from such reflection.

All the Pain Money Can Buy: How Far We Haven’t Come with Pain Control

Editor Xan Nowakowski, whose own experiences with a painful chronic disease have inspired much of their own research, reflects on seven years of scholarship on clinical pain management, and what they have learned from lived experience along the way.

When I started doing pain management research as a graduate student at Rutgers in 2008, it was an exciting time for the field. New technologies as well as off-label uses of less recent ones like the Interstim device seemed to hold tremendous promise, and intrathecal pumps and ambulatory catheters were achieving significant penetrance among a variety of service populations. Especially in the world of post-surgical pain management, new reasons to envision a bright future were cropping up all the time.

In the long-term pain management field, pharmaceutical companies were racing to develop drugs to address underlying causes of chronic pain. At the time, I was taking one of those drugs—Elmiron, the much-lauded “wonder drug” for management of interstitial cystitis. Those of us with chronic conditions dared to hope a bit too, even as we rode the capricious waves of hope and despair that living with persistent illness always seems to bring.

The summer of 2009 was a watershed time for me. I was completing my Master of Public Health fieldwork, preparing to finish the program, and thinking about my next moves. Though I did not know it at the time, within six months of completing my research I would make the life-changing decision to move to Florida. I would leave behind the place where chronic pain had brought me to the brink of suicide, and where I had learned firsthand why pain and post-traumatic stress so often go hand in hand.

I drove all around New Jersey that summer, interviewing hospital providers and administrators about the pain management modalities they provided, and the barriers they encountered in offering alternatives to opioid narcotics. One of the most instructive aspects of my own experience with chronic pain had been the Scylla and Charybdis choice I faced for over a decade, trying to reconcile my fears of opioid dependency and functional disability with my equally pervasive fears of ultimately losing my will to continue living with intractable agony. I would later learn that I was hardly alone in these fears.

The hospital personnel I interviewed were many, representing about 35 percent of all hospitals in New Jersey. They held a variety of advanced degrees and came from a variety of backgrounds, with differences in beliefs and practices that reflected the variations in their training. But what stood out most to me was the levels and awareness and compassion I consistently observed in the people I interviewed. Every single person I talked to viewed chronic pain as a serious problem worthy of serious clinical attention.

Likewise, each and every one of them reported feeling frustrated with insurance companies’ lack of willingness to pay for non-opioid treatment modalities. According to my study participants, this was the most prominent barrier to providing what they viewed as truly effective and responsive pain management in accordance with national guidelines. We shared those frustrations—I told my story to many of those providers after we wrapped up our interviews, and learned a lot of things “off the record” that have informed much of the work I have done since.

The people I interviewed shared my frustrations over care practices not being able to keep pace with scientific innovations as a result of funding barriers. Predictably, these problems were often worst in hospitals with a high charity care population. Some of these hospitals found creative solutions for their patients with chronic pain from conditions like sickle cell anemia by working with local Federally Qualified Health Centers. But as often happens in low-resource communities, need for these services greatly exceeded clinics’ capacity to provide them.

We still had plenty of reasons to hope, though. With so many new medications and technologies hitting the market and starting to permeate best practice recommendations for clinical care, there was ample justification for thinking about a pipeline effect in which impactful innovations would reach more and more health care users with each passing year, becoming more affordable in the process. The promise of affordable health care legislation from the Obama administration gave additional weight to this vision.

The summer of 2015 is now drawing to a close, and once again I am wrapping up a study on clinical pain management. This time I had a partner in research and less driving to do, and a ready team of MPH students and undergraduate research assistants eager to assist. We conducted semi-structured interviews with university health care providers, working excitedly to fill a gaping hole in the published literature on pain management. We had a wonderful experience getting to know one another and completing our study, and I loved every moment of watching my students shine as they enhanced their key informant interviewing and qualitative content analysis skills.

Yet as we finish coding our data and begin writing up our findings, my happiness has become increasingly bittersweet. My students’ achievements mean everything to me, and always will. Their thoroughness, however, has proven to be a double-edged sword. What my students unearthed in their probing of our study participants was an old familiar tale that rang all too true: lots of good options offered up by science, but no functional translation of these modalities into affordable clinical care for people with chronic pain.

It is 2015, and I still have to carry a bottle of opioid medication everywhere I go. This mostly achieves the purpose of quelling the crippling fear of not being able to control my pain if nothing else works. Indeed, the literature suggests that often the most helpful aspect of opioid medications is their ability to confer a sense of mastery to people who live with painful conditions. I feel this restoration of personal agency quite a bit when sitting in relative comfort as I am now, typing away on an article or blog post that makes me feel like my own experiences are gifts that yield professional insight.

I do not feel it as much during those times every few weeks when I lie curled up beneath my desk, praying into empty air that my medication will kick in. I do not feel it when phenazopyridine stains the edges of the toilet bowl, or when bleach fumes rise into my nostrils as I wipe away the evidence of how far we haven’t come in providing real options for people like me.   I especially do not feel it when the phenazopyridine fails to enhance the effect of the diphenhydramine I have already taken, and I have to reach for the bottle of narcotic tablets that I still associate with defeat.

I also do not feel any mastery when I remember why I stopped taking Elmiron—the surreal moment of standing in my parents’ kitchen holding an absurdly dainty gingham-topped jam jar of my own urine, staring in suspicion at the rubbery threads of unidentifiable discharge that had started appearing with alarming frequency. I had a moment where I realized that urinating through a tea strainer to catch “specimens” was about my limit. One is perceived as deviant enough when one lives with a mysterious autoimmune disease, even without making a habit of urinating in jars to inspect the contents.

I should interject that these shortcomings in the field are not entirely the fault of insurance companies. As the Affordable Care Act was being developed and organizations like the Institute of Medicine were continuing to refine their recommendations for best practices in clinical pain control, a storm was brewing that set the field of innovative chronic pain management back substantially. The retraction of some two dozen published studies on multimodal analgesia crippled other clinicians’ efforts to incorporate integrative approaches using new therapies into their own programs of care. As predicted, the field has yet to recover fully.

Of course, when you live with a painful chronic disease, you learn quickly that you never truly recover. Your body changes; your life changes; and your brain changes right along with them. Illness management becomes the name of the game—one that often feels like Whac-a-Mole rather than a game in which one defeats a series of bosses and wins. Good science, conducted by people with curious minds and compassionate hearts, is one of the best weapons we have in this game. But abuses of research ethics—even by scientists who may have the best of intentions in mind—can leave us fighting fisticuffs against enemies we cannot hope to vanquish on our own.

Later this fall, I will be doing a follow-up post here about the 2009 multimodal analgesia scandal and its broader implications for ethics in medical research, adding a perspective of lived experience to the insights offered by other clinicians as they reacted to the news about Dr. Scott Reuben’s research fabrications. In the meantime, I know that when many of you Write Where It Hurts, you are doing so in the most concrete and literal sense possible! So I encourage all of our readers to share stories and insights about pain management, including any research you have done on the topic and any lived experiences that inform your work.

Teaching Where It Hurts

In this post, Xan Nowakowski and J. Sumerau reflect on their experiences personalizing sociology in the classroom (see their recently published Teaching Sociology article on this topic here) in hopes of facilitating dialogue and debate about the benefits and limitations of incorporating professor biographies into sociological curricula.

As people who write about, teach, study, and engage in advocacy related to chronic health conditions, social inequalities, sexual and gender experiences and identities, and managing trauma, we have become intimately aware of the potential personal experience and stories can have for facilitating learning and motivating concrete action among our students, colleagues, and communities. At the same time, we know all too well that structural factors regularly limit who can say what in classrooms in much the same way they do beyond the academy, and that academic traditions have long privileged rational or remote notions of instruction over emotional and personalized approaches. As we did in our recently published Teaching Sociology article, we would like to encourage our colleagues to consider these options and structural patterns in hopes of spurring dialogue about the potential of using our own experiences within inequitable structures to help students and colleagues see the pain created by social inequalities on a more personal level.

As we did with the establishment of ongoing conference sessions, an upcoming book project, and the creation of this site, our focus here lies in the potential of writing (or researching, teaching and advocating) where it hurts. When Xan shares stories of almost dying or struggles with doctors and other medical professionals unfamiliar with what to do to treat their chronic physical health conditions, for example, students come face to face with the results of our flawed healthcare system in the midst of their own lives and worldviews. Likewise, when J. shares stories of being physically assaulted for daring to go on a date with a cute boy or watching a lover die amidst both caring and supportive and judgmental and hateful medical professionals, students witness the concrete tears, pain, and sorrow that come from experiences within interlocking systems of inequality embedded throughout our society. In these and many other cases, we utilize our own pain to pull social inequality out of the abstract and into the actual lived experiences of the students and colleagues who interact with us.

As we advocate in our recent article and practice in our own classes and on this site, we seek to personalize social inequalities for our students. Rather than things they read or hear about in class that happen somewhere “out there” unseen to them, we use our own experience and narratives shared by other people occupying marginalized positions or experiencing traumatic events to translate “out there” into personal realities with actual faces, personalities, voices, and bodies in the eyes of students and colleagues. In fact, both students and colleagues regularly experience their own organic emotional reactions to social patterns in the process, and tend to very quickly make the link that if it could happen to “their professor” then it could happen to “them” or “their loved ones” as well. Not surprisingly, such realizations very quickly transform societal patterns of inequality into anything but abstract concepts. As a result, our willingness to talk about the pain or teach where it hurts often translates into incredibly passionate and engaged rooms full of students especially willing to discuss and consider concrete steps they can take toward more positive social relations.

As we note in our recent article, we developed these approaches – individually and collectively – over time by building the entirety of our class offerings around discussion, consent, and application of scholarly materials to personal experience. In terms of discussion, for example, our courses are organized – from the first to the last day – around personal or collected emotional narratives that we share with students in relation to each course reading and topic. In so doing, we ritualize personal narratives within the class so students become accustomed to this form of interaction and dialogue throughout the course. Likewise, our courses are built upon an emphasis on consent wherein students are never required to disclose their own personal experiences or use ours in their work, but they are allowed to do both of these things on any assignment or in any class meeting where such things are relevant to the given assignment or class topic or assigned material. We thus remove grading from the equation by giving students ample resources to do just as well in the class no matter their experience and / or interpretation of the personal content we or other students share. Finally, we strategically link every scholarly piece or activity in a given class to specific personalized examples so students are able to always see the real world (or applied) aspects of the materials we cover in their own lives, in our lives, and / or in the lives of other people. Our experiences – as well as some initial negative experiences others have had when first attempting styles like our own without these ingredients – tell us these (and maybe other) efforts to create classrooms where students get used to and feel safe with vulnerability may be essential ingredients in personalizing instruction.

With all this information in mind, we invite dialogue, commentary and discussion on the possibility of personalizing scholarly work through teaching and other methods. Whether one seeks to join this conversation on this site or in relation to our call in Teaching Sociology or in any other space, we invite and appreciate other educator’s perspectives on these matters. To this end, ask yourself what ways you do or could personalize sociology? What might be the benefits or limitations of doing so? What institutional and structural steps might we need to take to serve and protect those who share their pain in the service of education and advocacy by and for their students and other colleagues? While we will not pretend to have some “right” or “absolute” answers to these questions, our experiences to date within and beyond classrooms tell us these questions might be incredibly important and useful in many ways.