I had this red linen blouse, I remember, with a V-neck, purchased on a whim at the place across from where I took young L. for his haircuts.
Because I was being observed by a member of my tenure committee, and I wanted to look nice, I wore my red linen blouse.
Class was unremarkable for me that day, not a stellar learning experience but solid, and the students contributed to the action, so I didn’t feel like I was pulling weight uphill. I felt like I did a good job and didn’t let myself get too sidetracked by the presence of a silent, somber stranger in the back of the room.
One student hadn’t brought a book, though. I suggested that since we were talking about the text on the page, anyone without a book find someone with a book to get close to. Let’s say I suggested that they “snuggle up” or “make a new friend.”
The classroom observation is supposed to be written within a certain period of time after the class visit and a meeting scheduled within a certain period to discuss it.
That quarter, the final quarter I would have to rally evidence that I would make a valuable permanent member of the faculty, my tenure committee meetings were scheduled and delayed, scheduled and delayed. My observer had gotten sick, or maybe her child had, or maybe she was teaching an overload (I never saw her walking around campus looking anything other than physically overloaded, her arms full to overflowing with assignments to be graded).
Finally, the committee got together and we read the draft. While the observer considered herself unable to address the content of my teaching, coming from a different field, she did have two salient comments: I had used suggestive language and I had exposed my cleavage to my students.
I pointed out that there was no pattern evident in any prior materials, including student evaluations, to suggest that students felt sexually harassed by me. The response was that of course they hadn’t commented on it, I had created an unsafe learning environment where they didn’t feel they could express themselves. Besides, with the power differential, they were afraid I would punish them in my grading for not playing along. Punished for challenging my use of language in a class about language.
There was no evidence I had ever used my power to grade students unfairly. Of course not, suggested committee members, they didn’t feel free to criticize me, not even in anonymous evaluations kept away from me until after final grades were submitted.
Now, I may have been overly familiar in my language. I don’t remember if I suggested that two students “snuggle up” or “cuddle up” or “get more intimate.” For the sake of argument, choose the worst-sounding phrase. I did not carefully scrub my language. If I sound a little defensive, it’s because I am careful about language, I love language, and I make an effort to apply appropriate language to every situation. But I don’t believe in bad words; I believe in context and relationships and history. And communication. The conclusion that students who didn’t complain spoke as loudly as students who did, spoke volumes through the oppressed silence, is one conclusion to draw, but not the only one indicated about possible or actual human relationships.
Another conclusion is that nobody else noticed what my observer noticed, nobody was hurt or embarrassed or offended.
In any case, I argued that for the sake of the reputation of the college, the committee might want to avoid using actionable accusations — excuse me, observations — in their report. This was my human resource record and they might not want to use it to say things that could be legally challenged. Did I threaten them with legal challenge? I can no longer remember.
The central question that arose was never answered to my satisfaction: If what I was doing was so harmful to students that my observer felt it merited inclusion in a formal report about my professional life, why had it taken 5 weeks to let me know? Presumably, continuing in my prurient and salacious way unchecked could harmful, so why not intervene, early and often, to protect my students.
And really, as one woman to another, why the hell didn’t my colleague let me know, immediately and in person, that she could see my bra when I leaned over?
I don’t think my breasts were ever really the problem. Except to the extent, maybe, that they were, and digging into that deep abyss will have to wait for another time.