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Tenured Aggression: Academic Incivility in the New Media

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opednews.com Headlined to H3 9/21/09

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I often use this space to discuss the vagaries of academic life, specifically the ups and downs of being female in that life. As I have also repeated here, the dynamic between men and women on American campuses tends to be, as a friend kindly puts it, "very 1950's."

The American Academy is a sexist world, and women like my friend and I must consistently lobby for themselves and their female students against the misogynist advances of academic policy in general, academic men in particular.

But what about outside the university, when relationships established within the literal walls of academe move into the virtual world of social networking sites? Specifically, what happens when female students and male professors move their relationships into virtual spaces, like Facebook?

In my institution one senior male professor has a highly performative, deliberately provocative, often pornographic presence on Facebook, and this persona emerges in his relationships with young female "friends." His profile is public (one does not have to "friend" him to see it or comment), and he is part of the institutional network, so happening on his offensive posts is not difficult, and, frankly, happened accidentally for me.

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The flavor of his offensive posts: he offers to "come tackle" one young woman's "sweet ass"; routinely posts his desire to "c-m" when he finds a pic particularly pleasing; and posts double entendres, like finding a woman's photo "fetching" and wishing he were twenty years younger so he could "show [her] what he means." Finally, he posted the results of a quiz he took determining which body part he might be. Turns out--I am not making this up--he was a "dick." He was delighted, and posted a celebratory reaction, describing himself ejaculating.

Note: the women to whom he directs posts are very recent graduates from our program; still dependent on him for letters of recommendation; or, an avowed fetishist. Obviously, posts to the fetishist site are understandable; however, lacing them with vulgarity, posting them as faculty of this institution and within the university's Facebook network is not.

Trained in the wake of the Political Correctness movement, my academic career has occurred along side discussions of sexual boundaries on campus, free speech, multicultural sensitivity, and power dynamics between professors and students. The latter is especially charged, as one might imagine, but I can remember thinking that some rules of restraint had been made pretty clear: no ogling students in class, no touching students in one's office, no pornography in class, no sex between professor and student(s)...

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And yet, those things regularly take place. In fact, nothing has really been wholly resolved, in this regard, and now I think of it, the American university is awash in sexual predation and harassment--and policies so porous that tenured men get away with pretty much whatever they want.

When one peruses this senior professor's FB page, one can quickly see a predatory pattern emerge. His flirtation is not universal. The two women he targets most frequently include one whom I have had in multiple classes--a naïve, inexperienced, exceedingly insecure student who has to be convinced of her right to both speak in class and express ideas in writing. The other announces on her profile a battery of insecurities and self-destructive behaviors, not to mention a tendency toward addiction to alcohol. The professor generally reserves his double entendres and overtly sexual invitations for these two; other female ex-students who have "friended" him--among them a woman who works in public schools and just announced buying her first home, and one who just secured a full-time tenure-eligible teaching position--are virtually ignored.

You see the pattern.

His behavior is offensive by any measure; he is clearly trolling FB for young women in order to establish flirtatious (to say the least) relationships with them. That he's targeting ex-students is disturbing, and suggests an investment in exploiting whatever measure of power he had over them in the classroom. That one is beholden to him for letters of recommendation probably violates EEOC policies, and would certainly act as a deterrent to her reporting his posts or asking him to behave.

This professor plainly feels bullet-proof; and he probably is. His public venality belies an arrogance grounded in not just in gender, but more importantly, seniority and tenure.

What gives feminists academics like me such pause, is that the same institution that employs me to teach classes in feminist theory has awarded this man with tenure, promotion, job security, and classrooms brimming with young women each semester.

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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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