A conversation that can help protect your students


A student recently dropped by to tell me about an exciting opportunity. She was going to spend a few weeks doing research in a gorgeous location, camping with a field crew led by the professor who taught her Intro course last semester.

I asked her how much the job paid, and she said it was a volunteer gig, but the opportunity of this short trip would would be worth it on its own. And she would be getting academic credit.

I had more questions.

Have you done any field research with this professor so far? No.

Do you know everybody else who is going? One other person, a bit.

Is this a field trip that happens every year? Yes.

Do you know what safety precautions are being taken since you’re in the boonies? Not yet.

Do you know if any members of the previous field crew have been women? They probably were, but I don’t know that as a fact.

Do you think you could have the opportunity to talk to students who have been on this field expedition in the past? I guess I could, but I’d feel really weird asking the professor for this information.

Are you sure that you will be safe on this trip? I don’t see why I wouldn’t be. The professor seems nice and I am sure he picks good people to go with him.

Are you aware that most women are sexually harassed while conducing field research by members of their own research team? Really, that can’t be true.

[I tell her about Clancy et al. 2014.] This might surprise you, but did you know that one out of five women are sexually assaulted while conducting field research, usually from members of their own team? No, I didn’t realize that.

Based on what you’ve told me, how can you convince me that you’ll be safe on this trip? I’m not sure what to say.

As a start, could you get contact information for women that have been on this field trip in the past and ask them about their experiences and whether they were safe? Yes, I can do that.

This does represent a great opportunity, but even more important is your safety. I’ll make sure I can find you a safe way to get an amazing field experience if this one doesn’t work out to be safe enough. Can you let me know what you find out before you make more plans? Sure, I can do that.

I said before that I wanted to do more to protect scientists in my midst. Having this conversation, and sharing this with you, is just a little part of that.

29 thoughts on “A conversation that can help protect your students

  1. Thank you. This conversation needs to happen, and keep happening as new students come on the scene. Your making a difference. Lets see if we all can.

  2. I’m glad you’re addressing this with your female students. It’s important to have these conversations to raise students’ awareness and to let them know there are mentors they can consult for information or assistance. I hope there’s a similar conversation happening with your male students that addresses both their safety and also what they can and should do if they see or hear about harassment, assault or violence in the field.

  3. It is clearly important to make students aware of the danger of fieldwork. But since this danger is gendered, how can we mitigate the fact that simply by having this conversation w/ women but not men (or having it with men, but the danger will likely feel less realistic to them) we may drive women away from fieldwork but not men?

  4. It is true (I imagine) that men are less likely to be steered away from fieldwork because of the risk of harassment or assault. I don’t know what I can do to fix that inequity, other than the big-scale systemic attempt to educate people to minimize that risk and increase awareness. I’m open to ideas.

    I do have a conversation with everybody, including men, in my own group. That conversation focuses more about what harassment looks like, and how it is possible for some to contribute to a hostile environment without having specific negative intentions. And also what to do when there are incidents or moments that are problematic. I’m not trying to drive anybody away from field experiences (other than men who pose a threat to women), but creating awareness must be a start, right?

  5. Terry, if you had that conversation today with me the way you described it, I would probably punch you in the face. If you had it with me when I was 18, I would feel belittled, made to feel (as usual) like I was stupid for being female, and I would be unlikely to (a) every consider going into the field into the future, and (b) never come to you for advice again. Asking a series of demeaning questions – by basically asking ‘do you know how stupid you are being’ is not being careful or kind – it is treating the young woman you are dealing with like she is stupid. Give her some information and cautioning her to be careful is one thing; demeaning her is another. Its not just about the information – its about HOW you present the information. The way you described is sexism at its core. PERIOD.

  6. If Terry asked the questions exactly as stated, then I don’t see how anyone could justifiably accuse him of sexism. Might it make a young woman just starting her science career feel uncomfortable that she’s discussing sexual harassment with a male professor, or that some level of naivete on her part has been exposed? Perhaps. But the question is being asked by someone who is realistic about what happens in field work when students don’t know what measures to take to protect themselves. So, Terry, good for you for asking the hard questions and making sure your students will get great opportunities no matter who they are.

  7. Okay, Anonymous, I’ll bite: How should I have this conversation with my student? Could you provide a dialogue for how it should go?

    I should add that I continue to have a good rapport with this particular student. And, for the sake of this post, the conversation here is a bit abridged. We also talked about a bunch of other stuff during the same visit. I didn’t think everybody wanted to hear about tamales, if I recall correctly.

  8. Thanks for replying to my comment. I’m glad you’re having this conversation broadly with all students. For myself, I don’t have students who do fieldwork (yet?), but I want to be available and helpful to any students who might have questions or concerns. It’s valuable to see examples of how to address this topic with students. Thanks.

  9. I do not agree with Anonymous that the conversation was sexist. However, as a female, I can reflect back to when I was that age and see their point. If a professor had said something similar to me, I would have felt embarrassed, naive and judged for not knowing these things. Instead, I would have felt more comfortable if they had said “Congratulations! Now, if you’re not aware, there have been too many instances where females are harassed or assaulted in the field, so please be sure you do your due diligence in making sure you’re safe. If you decide you dont feel safe with that group, Im happy to find other opportunities for you. If you dont know how to make sure you’ll be safe, I’m happy to discuss some strategies with you.” I would have felt much more likely to engage in conversation then- asking about how that professor knew that to be true, or how people ended up in that kind of situation- simply because I would not have felt like my excitement had been silly. Now, of course, the rapport you already have with this student is likely the best predictor of how this conversation would land, but I can understand how this would be incredibly discouraging for some students.

  10. Come on, everyone. I seriously doubt that this is a verbatim transcription of their dialogue. The format of this post is convenient for a blog, that’s all. Anyway, keep in mind that tone and mannerisms are major parts of communication that are lost in writing. Let’s just congratulate Terry for his boldness in bringing up an awkward but important topic with a student.

  11. For what it’s worth, this is the part of the exchange I find problematic: “Based on what you’ve told me, how can you convince me that you’ll be safe on this trip? ”

    Why is it this student’s responsibility to convince you they’ll be safe? This is a question you ask your minor child when they are seeking your permission, not a question you ask your adult student. It’s also a question likely to diminish the student’s sense of autonomy and agency – qualities we surely want to enhance.

  12. While I really applaud the intent here, like some of the other commenters, I feel ill at ease about the execution.

    This reminds me a little too much of all the conversations about what women are not supposed to do if they don’t want to be assaulted – don’t drink, don’t party, don’t walk alone at night, don’t go into a man’s house – and all the many ways that women are told that they NEED to protect themselves (take self-defense classes! wear that drug-detecting fingernail polish!). Now we’re putting extra burdens on women who want to do fieldwork? Why is it a female student’s job (and not, apparently, a male one’s) to convince her professor that she’ll be safe? Fieldwork is a potentially risky endeavor for many reasons, not just this one, and people should be able to do potentially risky things (with the full understanding that that makes it no less wrong if someone decides to hurt them in any way).

    The part I appreciate here is the offer to help her find a fieldwork experience if something worries her about this one. That makes it clear that you’re really not trying to scare her out of fieldwork, and that you’re willing to make an effort to make sure that fear of sexual harassment doesn’t close professional doors for her.

    I am also very glad to hear that you talk with your students about what sexual harassment looks like, and what they can do about it, regardless of gender.

    As for different ideas to address my concerns:

    I would say that all students in fieldwork-heavy disciplines, or at least all students who are going to be embarking on a trip to the field, should (preferably as a group) get a short training about sexual harassment in the context of fieldwork, what would be considered sexually harassing behavior, how bystander intervention might work in a fieldwork setting, and what resources and processes are available both at your university and in general for people who are being sexually harassed during fieldwork. Preferably this should be set up by the departments or the university administration (presumably through lobbying from faculty and other members of the community for it to happen), so that it doesn’t depend on knowing the right profs, but profs arranging it informally could be helpful too. It should be for students of any/no gender, not just because it’s not only women who get sexually harassed and assaulted, but because knowing about and addressing these issues is everyone’s job, not women’s, and because of the potential deterrent effect on sleazebags when they see that the university is taking this seriously and their potential targets are learning about the resources available to them.

    I would also say that any professor leading a trip to the field should have a training on sexual harassment in the field too, but probably not the exact same one that’s targeted at students.

    To build a more general awareness, how about promotional fliers (“Did you know that…Here’s what you can do about it!”) around the relevant departments, or hosting panels or other events on sexual harassment in fieldwork and encouraging all of your students (and all of your fellow faculty, for that matter) to attend?

  13. Anons, I’m willing to hazard that you haven’t taught much at an institution like the one I work in now. When I taught on campuses that had students from middle-class and wealthy backgrounds, I’ve found that my teaching evaluations were based on how students perceived my role as a professor as a performer, and how well I addressed the things that were of concern to them. In CSUDH and similar campuses, we mostly have students who are first-generation college students and came from high schools where little was expected of them from their teachers, and they didn’t feel that most of their teachers were heavily invested in their success.

    It took a while for me to get my head around this, but I’ve learned that to be perceived as a successful teacher, what the students want to see more than anything else is that I care about their success and well-being. You can actually be not-so-good in the classroom, but if the students think you’re putting in an earnest effort and that you care about them as an individual, they’ll not only give you a pass but also think highly of you as a teacher. This is really different than where I taught previously – the students didn’t care what you actually thought about them, they just wanted you to perform well, based on whatever criteria they had in mind. So, when working with my student population, if I really want traction with them, then I show a personal interest and concern in how they are doing. I’ve seen that it helps them perform academically, and it also has resulted in generating rewarding relationships some of my current and former students. I really do care about their well being, and it’s nice that showing this concern actually helps me do my job better. I do think it’s weird that you can not be a good professor, though you actually care, and get good evaluations. But then again, maybe a caring professor is actually what causes people to learn more than anything else.

    So, when I’m talking to a student who didn’t have the constant benefit of caring teachers in high school, then showing personal concern about their safety as someone who is really invested in it is not only successful. I’m not going to feel penitent for showing an investment in the safety of a student of mine who I know well, and asking for reassurance that she is taking steps for being safe. That’s me doing my job as best as I can. I have no worries about her being an independent person with a sense of personal agency — she’s got that covered — but I also want her to reassure me, as a person who directly cares about her, that she’s being safe. Is that too paternalistic for some? I guess. But if a student didn’t want me to be concerned about them, I’d figure that out pretty quickly, and I’d adopt the chilly demeanor of an distant professor who isn’t personally invested in the job.

    Lirael, as I wrote in the post, this post about this conversation is just one little part of my commitment to do more. The recommendations in Clancy et al, which I highlighted in the earlier post to which I linked, provide a more comprehensive strategy for guidelines, training, and awareness.

  14. Here’s a useful comment from a friend of mine on a Facebook thread, that he requires all students to complete a UN “security in the field” basic and advanced training in online modules before heading out. You can get a free account to sign up for these courses. I haven’t done them yet, but they sound very useful, including the issues I raise here in this post:


    I’m definitely going to check it out and consider using it.

  15. I get the comments saying “oh how mortifying”, etc. As an undergrad, I would have been pretty embarrassed about having this conversation with my male PI. But I think it’s important to remember that a) we don’t know this student, or her relationship with Terry. Maybe she’s totally unfazed by this conversation. And b) even if she did feel embarrassed/discouraged, embarrassment is much less likely to drive someone away from field work or science than harassment or assault. I’d much rather an awkward pre-field work conversation than an awful/dangerous situation once I got there. I think these are important conversations to be having!

  16. I’m not going to be intimidated into silence about the safety of my students. I am concerned that male professors might read these comments and choose to not to express concern for the safety of their students, for fear of being called sexist, or offending or alienating someone.

    I may or may not have finessed the conversation in a way that was comfortable and non-offensive to my student. You weren’t there in the room, so you’ll never know. Regardless, isn’t her safety paramount? I’d rather have an awkward conversation in which a student thinks I’m a bit jerky over not having mentioned it at all. I’d rather have anonymous people on my blog call me a sexist than fail to intervene when a student mentions that she is entering a field situation that is not demonstrably safe.

    These are conversations that must be had, obviously in a way that shows respect for the students. I don’t feel awkward bringing it up because it’s — sadly — a fact of life. By demonstrating that I am able to talk about these difficult issues, I am modeling for students that it is okay to discuss these safety matters and that it’s not shameful or a negative characteristic to take appropriate precautions before heading into the field with an unknown research group. I’m showing that this is a universal issue and a universal concern.

  17. Terry,

    I really agree with what you say about demonstrating that that you care about their success and well-being. We influence these young adults inside and outside the classroom. Open discussion (especially in light of data, eg Clancy et al) is a good thing. We wear many hats and finding a balance in our roles and respecting students is part of the job.

  18. I think one thing that needs to go hand-in-hand with any conversation about assault is how to report assault. Knowing who to report to (police, appropriate university admin, university department head, field site coordinator) and knowing that immediate documentation and reporting has more impact can be empowering. Students should know that they do not ever have to submit to anyone who threatens them or their academic career and if they are ever in a negative situation they should do whatever they can to get out immediately. Knowing that they will have the full support of faculty or university admins can be a stabilizing influence.

    I also think emphasizing that self defense can be appropriate under some circumstances will also help students protect themselves. Students are often not told how to report or handle harassment or assault and it can be extremely confusing to try and figure out a complex administrative and legal system under stressful circumstances. I can’t stop other people from doing despicable things, but I can help give students some of the tools that they need to handle these types of negative situations. There should be a strong emphasis on the fact that students are not powerless.

  19. I am glad you are looking out for your students and having these conversations with them. Perhaps it was embarrassing for this student to have her exciting plans deflated a little bit, but that’s a small price to pay for her safety.

    I do think there could be a risk of wading into victim-blaming territory here — what if this student takes safety precautions and is still assaulted? Will she feel it’s her fault for not doing enough? Will she be afraid to tell anyone lest they say “I told you so”? From conversations here and on twitter it sounds like she will not be alone in working to ensure her safety, so hopefully this will not be a problem. As always, it is just unfortunate that we need to have these conversations in the first place.

  20. Apologies if this recapitulates comments above! I applaud any faculty working to protect students. At the same time I also caution against overtly paternalistic approaches. To me, best practices for faculty broaching this topic in such a context include the following:

    Know your campuses policy and make students aware of that office on the campus and that the policies will govern the field site.
    Don’t speak above the data- as our sample is self-selected we can’t know incidence rates or prevalence so it can’t be said that a majority of women experience this. And
    Rather than exclusively putting the burden on the student to protect her/himself, a tenured faculty member has a lot of power to pick up the phone and call their colleague and say “hey one of our students is super excited to be working at your field site and the opportunities it provides! Having just read the #SAFE study, I wanted to reach out to you to insure that I can share our student’s excitement by knowing that you have and enforce a principle of community/sexual harassment/code of conduct policy at your field site.”

  21. I’m with some of the other commenters (including coauthor Katie Hinde) here that it might be useful to think more about how to have these conversations. So glad, Terry, that you are taking this on and that you care about your students, and that your post has initiated an important conversation.

    The questions asked of this student are things she has no way of knowing, and particularly as a trainee, no way to know unless someone more senior educates her. So it would be my hope that you, Terry, would be the one to seek out this info and establish a relationship with the other PI, rather than expect the trainee to do it herself. We profs are the ones with the power to influence campus and field culture, and we are the ones who are bystanders, senior folks to whom junior ones report, or are perpetrators ourselves. Therefore the responsibility to create a great field experience for this student is far more on us than on the student.

    And I want to reinforce Katie’s comment — our data are not prevalence data, they cannot be described in the manner you are describing them. You can say these stats were found in our sample, and cannot generalize them to field science.

    Thanks again, Terry.

  22. Terry: Who is intimidating you? I see people expressing concerns (and people expressing concerns about the concerns), mostly in a pretty respectful way. The “I am concerned that male professors might read these comments…” kind of comes off like you’re trying to shut down disagreement by guilting people who disagree with you. I don’t think that’s what you’re meaning to do at all, I am not accusing you of bad faith here. But if I saw that comment from someone whose blog I had just started reading, someone where I didn’t know they had a history of good-faith discussion, I’d be less likely to comment in the future.

    I read the SAFE study that you mentioned. It looks like their prescriptions for moving forward are useful but vague. Raise awareness, adopt guidelines, have independent reporting/enforcement. There are many different possible approaches to that!

    I never thought this conversation was the only thing you were doing – the reason I made some suggestions was because you asked the first anon to provide an alternative to the conversation that you had. I didn’t make it an alternative dialogue because the ideas that I had were one-on-one-dialogue-focused.

    I like Katie Hinde’s comment (other than maybe the “above the data” point because I’m not sure which data that point is meant to refer to), because it gets at something that I was trying to get at that also comes up in the SAFE study – supervisors/PIs are the ones with the most power to create a safer culture. And faculty contacting faculty, which you may already be doing, is a way to avoid implying that the burden for student safety should be on students.

    • Fortunately I am situated so that I can, and already had, contact the PI directly.

      I mentioned I’m concerned that male professors might not bring this up not to shut down conversation, but to raise the conversation. I’m trying to see this through the lens of a tenured male professor who isn’t me. Anybody who scrolls this far down might perceive that they individually have nothing to lose by keeping mum, but they are open to criticism for saying something. Am I trying to shut down criticism directed at me here? No, because that’s par for the course when you have a blog and I wouldn’t have opened the post to comments if I wasn’t prepared for all kinds of feedback. I’ve gotten lots of helpful input, which is awesome. But I gotta admit that I also am concerned that some men might be dissuaded from acting, which was the goal of my post. I wanted to show that it’s easy, simple and straightforward to mention safety when going out into the field. Anybody who reads the comments will see how it’s not so easy, not that simple, and really far from straightforward. So, I’m bummed that my own post undermined its own goals.

      I think we all probably agree here that safety is the highest priority, and also that my feelings are the lowest priority. I’m just hope that the men who are reading this and not commenting are still interested/inspired to mention something when it is not required of them.

      (Lirael: For what it’s worth, there were a bunch of comments, so I can see how you missed the person who wanted to punch me in the face because I was sexist. There was another person who thought that the students would feel judged by me. There was another person who thought I was talking to the student in a way that was diminishing the student’s autonomy. Those are all bad things, and indications that some people would prefer that I not do what I have done. I didn’t ask anon what else I should be doing, I asked anon how else I should have had that conversation.)

  23. I do see a difference between the person who said that they would punch you if you had that conversation with them and the people who were concerned that students would feel judged by you or that you were diminishing their autonomy based on their understanding from your post of how the conversation played out. The latter two are specific feedback that didn’t read to me (of course, I’m not the one on the receiving end) as hostile – discouraging, perhaps, but not intimidating. The first is rather more hostile.

    It’s true that working on the issue of sexual violence is often not as easy or simple as one would hope. I have personal experience with how that is true, since I do a lot of work on that issue, and since I’ve been harassed in a work context (back in my industry days), emailed a women-in-my-field list about it, and gotten a whole range of opinions about what people thought I or others should or shouldn’t do, some of which were discouraging. My hope is that with more work on this, we can get best practices to a point where the conversations are pretty straightforward.

    Oh, here is another thought: Does your area have a rape crisis center that has a public education program? I ask because I volunteer with such a program and we work a whole lot with colleges and universities, this being an area that has a whole bunch of them, and we train people on stuff like the dynamics of sexual violence, responding to disclosures, and bystander intervention. We usually end up training, for instance, student residence advisors or orientation leaders, or students who belong to sexuality-related or feminist student groups, but I actually really wish we had more opportunities to train faculty and “regular” students.

  24. I’m just chiming in to agree that this conversation felt to me like it was putting far too much of the responsibility for safety on the student. As someone who did have their fieldwork opportunities limited during their studies because of my gender, I appreciate that it is better to have these conversations than pretend everything is fine. That said, women already spend their lives trying to minimise this kind of danger as it is. It’s yet another extra thing we have to worry about, an extra reminder that everything is always going to be that bit harder. We all need to be involved in making fieldwork safer, and not just for women, but it shouldn’t be those with the least power who are asked to shoulder most of the responsibility. The fact that you have said you have similar conversations with male students goes a way to alleviating my fears, but the overall tone still made me uncomfortable.

  25. @MothPostDoc
    Why would a person’s safety not be their own responsibility? I’m asking this seriously. As adults (and yes, technically undergrads are adults too), we are accountable for our decisions. I am male, but I would still exercise due diligence by finding out more about the group in which I’d be traveling and taking safety precautions. That’s just common sense.

    Frankly, this student is lucky to have a prof looking out for her. Throughout my undergrad and grad experiences, I found that to be all too rare.

  26. Lest I be accused of the tired old “blaming the victim” polemic, I am not saying that it’s a person’s own fault if they are harrassed. That’s absurd, so let’s put it to rest. I’m simply saying that it seems to me that everyone (male or female) should seek to minimize risk. For example, I wouldn’t park my car onernight in an area that I know to have a high incidence of auto theft.

  27. While a ‘can you assure me that you will be safe’ style of converstation isn’t my favourite, and I’m not in the way of defending patriachal anything, I would point out that the Professor/Student relationship is never equal, regardless of the genders involved.

    A Professor takes responsibility for a student’s academic wellbeing, and that often includes some discussions that might look a bit pat/maternalistic. Pointing out things that a student hasn’t noticed is part of a Prof’s job. Sometimes it’s an error in your paper, sometimes it is that you haven’t asked about fieldwork safety.

    A while ago, my Prof wanted me to prove that the hostel that I had booked for a conference was safe, and no, it wasn’t my favourite thing to be asked. But it showed that he cared and he was willing to sort it out if he didn’t think it was safe. As it turned out, I had already checked, but it was important that he asked. I think that’s quite similar to this student and Terry’s conversation. Not every conversation is going to be a textbook example.

    The key thing is that Profs of both genders talk about safety (in the field and other places) to their students. Nuances of communication can be sorted out later – lets get it settled that these conversations are normal and needed.

  28. I also 1. applaud your concern and your willingness to speak about the real threat of sexual assault, and 2. believe you accidentally fell into the trap of placing the onus on the (potential) victim. It’s understandable- we live in a society that does that ALL THE TIME.
    Maybe you could suggest seminars, meetings, or trainings addressing these issues on a departmental or college-wide level? That way the responsibility of safety is placed on everyone’s shoulders- particularly the shoulders of those in power. There is an online course provided through the company “3rd Millenium Classrooms”… I think it’s called “Consent and Respect”. It is a relatively brief training bit that was required of all students and faculty at the little liberal arts college where I study. It was illuminating when I expected to breeze through with my immense knowledge of the subject (ha). I don’t meant to plug any certain organization, but I didn’t want to suggest a change without offering up a couple tools you could explore.

    A quick article, touching on the barriers to reporting sexual assault (which I think can be extended to understanding the weight of responsibility placed on victims or potential victims versus that placed on their assailants):

    Thanks again for giving a damn, Dr. McGlynn. You’re in a position of power and you’re using it for good.

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