The Beejabers

In one dream, I find the room and arrive on time, but the seats remain empty. In another I search pantingly for the room as the clock ticks relentlessly past the starting time. Still another has me arriving on time with the students all in place, but I have forgotten some important item of clothing. Sometimes the students hiss and jeer and fail to laugh at my jokes. I wake up early. The semester approaches. These are teacher dreams, familiar as regret, reappearing every August as a new term looms.

The trepidation is part of the job. Anxiety seems appropriate when you are tinkering with the lives of young adults, college students. Every new semester I walk down the hall toward them muttering a prayer for wisdom and faith and imagination. Using texts of enormous power for good and ill, I’ll try to point them toward insights that might change their lives. Enough to make you toss and turn at night.

So what might an institution do to support its fretful faculty at this frightful juncture before the students start filing in? Here’s what my college did this year. We had required workshops: Sexual Harassment Awareness Training (SHAT). And I thought I was frightened before. The workshops, run by a lawyer, made perfectly clear the specter of sexual harassment accusations that looms like Damocles’ famous sword over all “educators.” (The lawyer avoided terms like “professor” or “teacher.”) The gist seemed to be that, first, the whole idea of sexual harassment is indefinable, so whatever anybody says will be granted the weight of truth. And second, we are all vulnerable–the faculty member, the school, all of us.

The logic became increasingly inescapable: avoid students, never be alone with anybody, say little beyond the formal dissemination of information in the classroom, keep your doors open when you have to be in the office, be wary of any relationships with students, and mute your personality. Find a foxhole. Hostile work environment indeed.

The lawyer seemed to have little feel for the potential dangers of the classroom experience itself, disturbing texts thrusting students into speculation, disturbing conversations turning preconceptions upside down. The lawyer seemed to think of the classrooms as neutral, innocuous places. I guess she hasn’t read Socrates.I also wondered about the absence of a theological vocabulary for all this since my college is quite emphatically placed in a religious tradition. But the word sin did not come up. Or forgiveness either, for that matter. Nobody made reference to biblical injunctions or principles dictated by faith. Nobody offered words of consolation. Nobody promised that I’d be defended, represented, or supported if words were spoken against me.

This event was about the lawyers and the corporate culture that has spread like an oil-slick over the green cascades and weathered brick of our campus. Admitting the validity of such discussions, I trudged along with my colleagues to the workshop. I did think of Wendell Berry’s fine analogy that our contemporary self-righteousness about sexual harassment is like training people to free-fall from skyscrapers and telling them on the way down that it is illegal to hit the sidewalk.The nightmares are more frequent this year.

Thomas B. Phulery is a psuedonym for an English professor in a Christian liberal arts college.