Lessons from serving on the Community Board on Sexual Misconduct

Image source. The Green Dot Bystander program is a national skill-building program used across college campuses in the U.S., including at Carleton, that allows students and others on campus to learn how to intervene safely when they witness instances of power-based violence.

Note: We are excited to present our first guest blog post! This post is adapted from remarks made by our friend and colleague, Dr. Mija Van Der Wege, during a presentation for Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center. This presentation featured faculty, staff, and students who have served on Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct, which is the board that adjudicates cases of student-to-student sexual misconduct. The four presenters spoke about the impact of their service on the board on their teaching and learning, their relationships with students/peers, and the skills they have learned from that experience they find useful in other contexts. Take it away, Mija!

When I first came to Carleton, I used to try to build and maintain strong personal boundaries between me and my students. These boundaries helped me maintain authority, which could be challenging as a young, female, Asian faculty member.  It also allowed me not to worry about what was going on in my students’ lives outside of my classes, which made my job seem a lot easier. Students could be vessels into which I could impart my knowledge, and I just needed to figure out the best way to impart that knowledge. However, since then, I have learned that I can be a better teacher by knowing more about student lives. And being a member of Carleton’s Community Board on Sexual Misconduct (CBSM)  has really enhanced that knowledge. So I’m going to talk (briefly) about what I’ve learned from being on this committee and doing this work.

First, I am a role model for my students. Being on this committee is modeling good citizenship for my students.I feel like I am doing vitally important work. And I constantly remind myself: if not me, who; and if not now, when.

Second, trigger warnings help some students embrace and learn material that is personally challenging. Like many women, I have my own history of sexual assault. Going through training to be on CBSM and reading the investigative reports was quite hard. I needed to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the homework and for the meetings. The work took an emotional toll, even when I was not actively engaged in reading or thinking about the cases.

My experiences on the Board have made me more reflective and thoughtful about how I include and approach sensitive materials in my classes. I remember that a few years ago, I assigned a chapter on eyewitness memory in one of my classes. It contained a first-person narrative account of a sexual assault. After the class discussion on the topic, one student talked to me about how she had PTSD following a recent sexual assault and was caught off guard by this section of the reading. I felt terrible and realized that a simple content warning would have helped her manage how and when she approached that section. And I felt terrible thinking about  the other students who may have had similar reactions but didn’t talk to me about it.

Sometimes, I hear talking heads, or op-ed writers, or even other faculty argue against trigger and other content warnings, the so-called “coddling” of the student mind. And I want to tell them that these warnings are not coddling; they are not an opportunity for students to skip vital opportunities for growth. They are granting these students an opportunity to embrace the material in a way that they would not be able to otherwise. Certainly, going through the training on sexual assault was challenging for me, and being able to set the time and place where I engaged with it was invaluable and helped me engage with, rather than ignore or dismiss, the materials.

Finally, being on the Board has helped me practice compassion, empathy, and listening. As members of the CBSM, we spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand why people might behave the way that they do.I like to think that I am becoming better at understanding  why people behave the way that they do in the kinds of situations that the panel hears. It’s never been as simple as just perpetrator and victim in any case I’ve heard. It’s mostly just people fumbling around, usually drunk, trying to figure out what the rules of the game are.   I feel that many of our students are doing that, not just socially, but also in class and in other arenas on campus. They are just fumbling around trying to figure out what the rules of the game are, increasingly so as our student body becomes more diverse and as many traditional social norms are being challenged and changed.

Having been on this committee, I pay more attention to this fumbling, trying to identify it, and talk to the students that are fumbling in one way or another in my classes and in my role as advisor.  Rather than just a pep talk, I try to ask about what’s going on. I let them sit in my office and cry. I tell them that they don’t have to be perfect all the time, or even some of the time. Many of our students are struggling, and they can also succeed, sometimes with a little positive encouragement, a friendly ear, or a little extra leeway. Our students look up to faculty and staff on campus.  If we present ourselves as monoliths of expertise and authority, that’s what they think that they need to be. I’m learning that letting students see the nuances and cracks and glorious imperfections that we all share is, in many ways, as valuable as imparting knowledge.