At the Start of the Semester
Because it is statistically that there will be at least one survivor in any class of twenty students, it is important to let your classes know that you will be discussing issues of sexual assault awareness and rape culture in your course as soon as possible, either listed alongside the course description, in an email before the semester starts, on the first day of class, or some combination of those. This allows survivors to consider and decide whether or not they will feel safe discussion such issues in a room with their peers. Instructors should also make clear to students that, if anyone in the class feels that it would be a detriment to their mental health and well being to discuss a particular topic or reading in class, you will provide them with an alternative work for them to learn the skills of that day. This might be more work for you, the instructor, but it is necessary that any sensitive topic we bring into the room always privileges the well being of students who may have faced or be facing those experiences in their lives.
As part of this effort, it is good practice to remind your students that you will be discussing these issues on the first day of class, and to let them know that it is statistically likely that there is a survivor of sexual violence in the room, and that they should phrase their contributions to class discussion with that in mind. This is also a good moment to tell then that when talking about the experiences of survivors during class discussion, the students might hear you use language like, “Drawing on your own experiences or what you imagine you would feel in that situation,” not because you know there is a survivor in the room, but because research shows that class discussions that operate as if there definitely isn’t a survivor present, can make survivors feel even more alienated and alone.
Because the average assailant commits six assaults in their life time, it is not likely that a section of twenty students includes an assailant. When you tell your students this, you can use it as an important moment to lay out your goals and intentions for these discussions. Because there is not likely an assailant in the room, your goal is not to teach them not to assault people, but rather to help them question and change a culture in which a very small percentage of assailants are ever held accountable for their actions. Your goal is to help them understand the cultural forces that encourage and excuse sexual assault, while also considering how best to support survivors and intervene in situations that seem dangerous. Your goal is to empower them to protect the people they care about and to create the sort of change they want to see in the world.
Leading Class Discussion
When leading class discussions it is important to remember that most students have been steeping in gender norms and rape culture for their entire lives. Few if any of them will be aware of concepts you may take for granted: gender as construct and performance, heterosexism, homophobia, sexism, feminism etc. Because of this students may react negatively in class discussion. They might make comments that are victim blaming, entitled, sexists, or otherwise discriminatory; likely many of their comments will be examples of what we are studying. If you expect push-back from your students, it is good practice to assign short writing responses that ask them to reflect on the assigned reading or concepts. If they turn in these reflections a few days before the lesson itself, you can use these to see what sorts of assumptions your students are relying on, and the specific reactions you might get in class. Look at your students’ work as data that gives you a chance to prepare. Remember that often times the best responses to problematic student comments are responses that meet three goals: protecting anyone who has just been marginalized, critiquing the statement the way the students are already practicing, and if possible and appropriate calling the student who made the conversation back into the discussion.
If you are ever unsure about how to respond to a particular assumption or problematic statement, or simply want help addressing these issues, don’t be shy about talking with a teaching mentor, discussing the lesson with other instructors teaching the Campus Culture Project, or making an appointment with the educators at RVAP and WRAC who can help brainstorm and tailor lessons to fit your section’s needs. These resources are there to support you in sustaining positive classroom environments that can foster fruitful discussion of sexual assault prevention. Don’t think of these resources as last-chance options to use only in the case of classroom catastrophes.
To guide these class discussions you do not have to be an expert in sexual assault prevention, survivor concerns or self care, but it is important to have some knowledge of these topics. If you would like more information, there are articles and resources in the Campus Culture LibGuide (http://guides.lib.uiowa.edu/campuscultureproject). You’ll find pedagogical studies on teaching sexual assault prevention in the Instructors tab, and intelligent discussions of relevant issues in the main page.
If a student asks you a question in class and you aren’t sure of the answer, you can tell the student you will find out and let them know. The staff at WRAC and RVAP will be available by email or appointment to help you with such questions or with other difficulties teaching the Campus Culture Project. You can also point students towards the Campus Culture Project LibGuide that has resources for further reading and research, as well as contact information campus offices that can answer their questions.
For any written assignments in these lessons designed to prompt students to reflect on their personal experiences, these assignments should be graded for completion only. The last thing anyone wants is for a student to discuss a deeply personal matter in one of the responses and then receive a bad grade for the assignment. Such assignments should make up a very insignificant part of students’ overall course grades, and would probably best count as part of their participation score.
Survivors in the Class
It is statistically likely that you will have a student in your class who is a survivor of sexual assault. It is important that you know how to support and be considerate of any survivors in the room, whether they identify themselves or not:
- Email your students before the semester begins explaining that you will be spending some time in class discussing sexual assault awareness. The email should also list the Rhetoric sections offered at the same time as yours that are not teaching the Campus Culture Project. Tell students that if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe while discussing these topics, they are welcome to switch to one of the other sections. Acknowledge that this is an inconvenience for those students that decide to switch, but that you felt it would be the best way to respect their needs and still teach such an important topic. Reiterate this message the very first day of the semester in case some students switched into the section late or did not receive the email.
- Notify students ahead of time if any of the readings or other materials are graphic (like the interview students will read or watch for Week 6).
- Try not to speak as if there are no survivors in the class. Recent scholarship shows that lecturing as if no one in the class has experienced sexual assault (saying something like, “Imagine that you were a survivor of sexual assault . . .”) can be alienating to survivors and make them feel even more isolated. For students who are not survivors, talking as if there are no survivors in the room can reinforce the belief that sexual assault is a distant thing that could never happen to them or their friends. Explain to students early in the lesson series why you are speaking as if there are survivors in the class: not because you know there are survivors, but because there very well might be. Statistically it is very possible. Then use language like “drawing on your imagination or your personal experience, think about what a survivor would feel . . .”
- It is possible that in the course of the semester a student might disclose to you that he or she is a survivor of sexual assault. In preparation for that possibility, we have included a few notes on how to receive student disclosures, as well as a list of campus resources for survivors (the list is at the end of this packet). We suggest that you read over these before teaching the Campus Culture Project, so that you’ll have resources and phrases on hand if/when a student self-discloses.
Responding to Student Disclosures
Recent scholarship shows that instructors who teach about sexual assault or gender issues in their courses are likely to have students come forward to share their experiences of sexual assault or interpersonal violence. Pedagogically speaking, the University of Iowa Campus Culture Project is more likely to encourage these disclosures than some other courses of similar content, because these lessons ask students to draw connections between class content and their day-to-day lives, rather than treating the two as separate.
As an instructor you are not a counselor and you are not a therapist, nor are you expected to act like one. You are a teacher trying to create a mutually respectful learning environment; you are an authority figure that students often come to trust. That position and the likelihood that you will field a student disclosure mean that there are some things you should know:
- College students often avoid revealing their experiences of sexual assault to their parents (in campus surveys victims often report not going to the hospital or the police because they didn’t want their parents to know). This means that they are lacking support from the primary figures of authority and care in their lives.
- In a survey conducted with colleges across the nation, only 3% of the instructors interviewed said that a disclosing student had ever asked for an extension on an assignment or leniency in grading.
- Survivors who share their experiences in search of support are far less likely to share their experiences with any one else if they feel the first person failed to support them. This is not meant to scare you, but to show you that your response to a student disclosure could have a significant impact.
- As a TA, faculty member, or instructor, you are not a mandatory reporter unless you have administrative responsibilities as a departmental executive officer, a departmental director or coordinator of undergraduate or graduate studies, or a director or coordinator of any departmental, collegiate, or university off-campus academic program. If you are not in one of these positions you do not have to report student disclosures to any campus organizations or authorities, and you can assure the student of the confidentiality of their disclosure.
- If you are a mandatory reporter according to the list above you are obligated to 1) inform the student of the services available through the Rape Victim Advocacy Program 2) refer the student to the Office of the Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator (OSMRC) 3) notify OSMRC of the disclosure within two business days. Also, if you are a mandatory reporter, you should make your students aware of this at the beginning of the semester.
- Of the disclosures reported, most occurred when a student came to the instructor’s office, many occurred via email, and some occurred through a writing response or other class assignment. Obviously these should be handled differently. The suggestions below are not applicable to every situation and should be used as far as you are comfortable or able, but they are good to have in mind so that a student disclosure does not catch you unprepared.
Suggestions for Receiving Student Disclosures
- For in-person disclosures, listen carefully to what the student says using active listening techniques such as paraphrasing what the person said, maintaining eye contact, nodding etc.
- When the student has finished talking about her/his experience, or for a disclosure in an email, respond with a statement of support such as, “I’m glad you talked to me about this, and I want to make sure you are getting the help you need.” Remember that students are coming to you often because they are not getting the support they need from friends or family.
- You might ask the student if s/he is getting help from her/his family, friends, or a therapist, and if s/he has gone to the police or the hospital following the event. When asking questions, however, it is important to gauge the student’s reaction and not pressure her/him to reveal something s/he does not wish to.
- Have ready a list of campus resources for student mental health as well as survivor advocacy and support (see attached list at the end of this packet).
- For disclosures in an assignment, you might follow up with an email connecting the student to campus resources.