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A question about university dress codes reminded me of an incident that happened when I was an undergrad, in which a classmate came to school wearing a really offensive and misogynistic t-shirt.

I was extremely uncomfortable, especially since this was an engineering program and I was one of only three or four female students in a class of about fifty. I had another class with the same student later that day and he was still wearing the shirt. I remember wishing at the time that a faculty member or someone with more authority than me would do something about it.

So, my question is as follows:

  • Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students? If so, how?
  • If yes: are there any scenarios in which a professor should not do anything even though a student's clothes contains material that is hostile towards another student or group of students?

And finally,

  • If I come across this scenario as a TA, in which a student (who may be a peer in my program of study) in my class is wearing something offensive, what can I do about it? I don't feel comfortable (or safe, for that matter) as a woman confronting a male student about an item of clothing that is offensive to women. On the other hand, I feel like it is my responsibility to keep a non-hostile environment in my classroom.

Discriminatory harassment is forbidden by the university's code of conduct and includes: placing written or graphic material which demeans or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability.

The item of clothing in question contained a slogan and image that is indubitably demeaning and hostile towards women.

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I don't really see how free speech comes into play here. The first amendment in the US is about the GOVERNMENT not restricting freedom of expression. If for example this is a private school, then there are no blanket free speech exemptions. In any case, that's not the question being asked. –  Suresh Mar 5 '14 at 6:41
Even if the school is public, it does not mean that the classroom is a public space that anyone has a right to (i) occupy and (ii) speak unrestrictedly in. For instance you need to stop talking when the instructor asks you to. Failure to behave appropriately in the classroom (as determined by university policy and the instructor) is grounds for being dismissed from the classroom and, if the behavior is especially flagrant and/or repeated, the course. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 5 '14 at 6:59
@Łukasz웃Lツ I said the "item of clothing in question contained a slogan and image that is indubitably demeaning and hostile towards women" - I don't consider that subject to misinterpretation, unless you think I don't know how to identify something that is demeaning and hostile towards women. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 14:22
I'm not really sure the outcome should hinge on whether the people here believe that the display was "sufficiently misogynistic" or not. Why not just take as stipulated that it indeed was: the question is really about what to do next, and that's a reasonable question to ask. –  Suresh Mar 5 '14 at 17:27
Not to side with your professor who didn't intervene back then, but as someone not growing up in the US and not very well acquainted with the slang culture, I could have been totally oblivious about whatever shirt you're wearing. I believe students who feel offended should contact the TA and professor as well, instead of hoping for an a-ha moment from the professor. –  Penguin_Knight Mar 5 '14 at 17:29

12 Answers 12

up vote 60 down vote accepted

As an instructor -- or a TA, or whoever is leading a formalized academic session -- you have not only the right but some responsibility to enforce at least minimal standards of acceptable behavior. Some behavior is borderline and you do want to look to the other people in the room to see whether it is bothering them. Some behavior really isn't, e.g. discriminatory harassment as mentioned above. In particular if a student wears a tee shirt bearing what is clear to you is a

  • racial slur (e.g. the n-word)
  • homophobic slur (e.g. the f-word)
  • offensively misogynistic language (e.g. the c-word)

then as an instructor you should get them to leave right away. You say that you don't feel "safe" confronting a male student about this. This concerns me a little bit, as you are an authority figure even as a TA and especially as an instructor. If you are not willing to enforce your authority directly then I think you need to have alternate arrangements in mind that will do so: e.g. you could try to call campus security and not continue the class until they arrive. But I think one should realize that one absolutely has the right, and sometimes the obligation, to ask a student to leave the classroom under certain circumstances. If I were in this situation and the student were a 250 pound athlete, I would still ask him to leave unless I had some specific intuition that he would react physically or violently to that request. I don't have to feel like I can physically overpower someone in order to exert authority over them.

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In general I agree with you about having authority even as a TA; but the kind of individual who wears a clearly offensive shirt to school is someone who has questionable judgement, and I'm concerned about confronting someone like that. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 7:18
@ff524: Well, of course you have to use your best judgement, and erring a little bit on the side of guaranteeing your own personal safety seems more than understandable. But you do need to do something. If a student's attire makes you feel that you cannot even reason with them enough to ask them to leave the class, then you have a huge problem with them in the classroom. It would then be appropriate to suspend or cancel class until the issue is resolved. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 5 '14 at 7:22
Put a statement in your syllabus reminding students about university policy in this regard, and that inappropriate attire is not allowed. You should discuss some examples of inappropriate attire (offensive language, revealing clothing, etc.). If you have a problem with a student, male or female, do as Pete suggested in an earlier comment and call security. The university should be more than happy to back you up on this. If they are not, then you have another problem –  Chris Leary Mar 5 '14 at 14:57
@PiotrMigdal I understand the idea: since I think it would be hard for me (a woman) to confront a guy who believes women have nothing valuable to say, I could ask a man to do it. But if I ask a male peer to do it, I am confirming the stereotypes this guy believes: women need men to fight their battles for them, women can't tell men what to do, etc. I want the intervention to come from a place of legitimate authority, not what this guy sees as "male authority." So I think escalating to a professor or dean is better than going through a peer. –  ff524 Mar 6 '14 at 0:12
@ff524 I really don't think that student will physically harass you because that will make matter only worse for him. –  biogirl Mar 6 '14 at 7:42

I'm a bit disappointed at the number of comments from people who say they need to know what the exact statement on this particular T-shirt was so that they can judge whether it was truly misogynistic before answering the question. The question is clear: What is the appropriate response given that a student is ``wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students''? Debating exactly what constitutes misogyny (or any other form of hate speech) is not the point here. Surely a question about whether a particular slogan is offensive would be too localised for academia.se, whereas the question of how the role of professor and/or TA affects how/whether one calls out offensive speech/behaviour/etc is excellent.

A couple of the other answers express surprise/concern at the OP's comment

I don't feel comfortable (or safe, for that matter) as a woman confronting a male student about an item of clothing that is offensive to women.

Many of the comments on this page illustrate why it can be so hard to call out misogyny as a woman. Women who call out misogyny are regularly accused of being "too sensitive" and told to "lighten up". On this page we've seen people who think they'd be a better judge of whether something is offensive than the person who actually experienced it, suggesting it may have been all in her head, refusing to trust her judgement, and claiming that no young people are misogynists. All this just from outlining a story that inspired a general question about calling out offensive behaviour. Is it any wonder that women may find it difficult to confront the person who's actually wearing the offensive T-shirt?

Finally, to actually answer the question:

Most universities should have something like a code of conduct which forbids discriminatory harassment. The one quoted in the question certainly seems to apply to a T-shirt with an offensive slogan. In this case the professor (or any student in the class) would be within their rights to object to the T-shirt. I might say something like "that T-shirt seems to be in violation of the code of conduct; please don't wear it to this class again", ideally in much the same tone as I would say "If I don't have your homework by tomorrow you will get a zero", but I'd say it loudly enough that anyone paying attention could hear. As with any instance of calling out something offensive, I would only do this if I felt safe enough: you should try to create a safe environment in your classroom, but not at the expense of your own safety.

If you don't feel safe or comfortable enough to call out your student (and I can see this happening especially if that student is also your peer), there might be other people you can talk to, for example the professor of the class you're TAing, or the head of the graduate program in your department, or the student's advisor. This might also be helpful if the student does not respond well when you first address them.

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+1. I am disappointed, but not really surprised, at the unwillingness to take my story at face value. I can't count how many times I've heard "Women in STEM are treated just like anyone else no matter what you say you've experienced, because I've never noticed any discrimination" –  ff524 Mar 6 '14 at 1:51
Thank you for leaving this answer. It is an important contribution. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 6 '14 at 2:13
I'm disappointed as well. I expected better from academia.se. The only thing I would add to your answer is that a new professor should do a bit of research into campus security when they start. What is the phone number, how long do they take to arrive, what kind of help can you expect, etc. This information may be invaluable if a confrontational situation ever arises. –  user6782 Mar 6 '14 at 5:11
Even though I completely agree with what you have written in the first part of the answer, I am reluctant to upvote because it is not related to the question but rather to the (questionable) behavior of the community. For that purpose, I asked a meta question, concerning this and all other instances of people not answering the question but instead questioning the facts / interpretations as presented by the OP in the question. The second part of your answer is definitely a valid contribution. –  penelope Mar 6 '14 at 10:38
@penelope I think the first part also addresses the question if you add the following sentence to the beginning: "If you choose to speak up, prepare for the possibility of having your motives and your judgment questioned, as they were on this forum." –  ff524 Mar 7 '14 at 6:06

A professor definitely has some shared responsibility for maintaining a harmonious atmosphere in the classroom. Given that the university has a code of conduct in place (as per the edit) it gives the professor some leeway to address the situation. But it might be difficult to do so without some initial prompting from the concerned students (because as a professor I can't claim to know what is likely to be offensive to students).

So to answer question 1, yes, if the issue is brought up or if it's otherwise clear that the T-shirt is disrupting class. As for question 2, it follows that if no one brings up the issue, the professor might not do anything.

If you're a TA, then there must be a professor. In that case, you should bring it up with them. Maybe they can "drop by" by accident when the student comes, and then they can deal with it without needing to imply that you're the one who brought up the issue.

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As an undergrad, I definitely felt much too embarrassed to bring it up to the professor. I was stunned and insulted and just wanted to get out of there, fast. Knowing how I felt at the time, it's hard for me to swallow that the "victim" should be responsible for bringing it up. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 6:51
And, the material in question was really not at all "borderline" or subtle - anybody with eyes would know it would be offensive to women. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 7:00
I see what you mean. I guess that's where context becomes important. If the T-shirt in question were really horrifying, maybe I'd feel compelled to bring it up even if no student mentioned it. –  Suresh Mar 5 '14 at 7:04
"it's hard for me to swallow that the "victim" should be responsible for bringing it up." The problem being that even if it's universally offensive, you may have been the only one that noticed it. The professor isn't responsible for reading each word visible on each piece of clothing of all the students. It's not their job. When a legitimate complaint is brought to them, then they should act, but you can't expect them to act on everything you notice unless you also bring it to their attention. –  Adam Davis Mar 5 '14 at 21:35
@AdamDavis I don't expect someone to intervene about something they have not seen, or don't understand is offensive. Suresh's answer makes a distinction between whether or not someone complained to the professor or otherwise made it obvious that they're bothered, which I don't agree with, because the victim may feel too intimidated or upset to express their discomfort –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 22:20

Should professors intervene? Yes. Now, I think there's a level of personal judgement to be made here. Some people might overlook certain shirts. Some might think certain types of shirts are more offensive than they really are (ex: someone who's vegetarian might not like this shirt and I'd personally wonder if they have a sense of humor).

So, as discussed above, the "you can't go wrong" points are for race/national origin, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, age, and disability.

If I were a teacher (professor or a TA) and I identified something (or it was brought to my attention by a student) that someone is wearing an offensive shirt, then I would probably start by taking the student aside and letting them know that their shirt is offensive to some people, and that it displays remarks that make others uncomfortable, and that the student should not wear that shirt (and others like it) to this class again.

I would do this in private mostly because I don't feel that there's really a lot of benefit to publicly shaming someone who chose such a shirt - maybe they're a new first-year student who hasn't quite learned appropriate behavior yet, or maybe they're going through a phase, or maybe they just didn't think when they put the shirt on because they were drunk one night in Vegas when going T-shirt shopping. Give them a chance to improve. If they never wear the shirt again to class, to me that's a win.

If it happens again then I would not hesitate to walk up to the student after lecture starts and say quietly, "We discussed that you were not to wear shirts like this in class. Did you understand me last time? Do you think that this shirt is appropriate?" If the student isn't able to change the shirt or cover it up then I'd ask him to leave the class and then at that point would make an announcement about appropriate shirts.

Finally, if you are someone who is made uncomfortable by a shirt that someone is wearing then you should tell someone about it. Don't hold it in. Unfortunately lecturers generally only have control of their classroom (for example it's hard for a faculty member to kick someone out of a building, generally) but things like this can be reported.

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"someone who's vegetarian might not like this shirt.." Heh, heh.. nice, but I prefer this one which might offend anyone that holds the Olympics in high regard. As an aside, my aunt (who is vegetarian but not a smoker) would probably smile/laugh at your example. –  Andrew Thompson Mar 8 '14 at 4:59

Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students?

It depends on the situation, although IMO the answer in this example is yes. People do not have a right not to be offended, and offending people may be a positive thing in an academic environment, where people need to have their assumptions challenged. Nor is hostility, in and of itself, impermissible in a school environment. But:

  1. There's a problem with behavior that is offensive toward a group that is underrepresented in the field being studied.

  2. There's a problem with hostility that creates reasonable fear in other people, or that inhibits collegial discussion, or that is directed toward an underrepresented group.

For example, if an 18-year-old comes to my classroom in Goth clothing and acts resentful toward the world, it's not a big issue. It's hostile, but it's hostility that isn't a big problem. If a student wears a heavy metal t-shirt with a satanist message on it, it's not a problem because Christians aren't an underrepresented group; they're the dominant group, and it won't hurt them to be exposed to contrary ideas. Ditto for a t-shirt saying "Darwinists burn in Hell." But in an engineering class, a misogynistic t-shirt creates a hostile environment for women, who are an underrepresented group in engineering. A t-shirt reading "one faggot, one bullet" is also a problem because it could reasonably cause people to be afraid for their safety.

So IMO the t-shirt you describe is a problem in the context in which you describe it. The question is then how to handle it. If possible, do your homework and get bureaucratic buy-in before confronting a student about this kind of thing. Otherwise you can end up not being supported by your administration; as we've seen in the answers to this question, reasonable people can disagree about these things. In this situation, I would probably not say anything at all to the student during class. I would then go and have a five-minute conversation with my dean about what school policy is. If it's clear that school policy puts me on strong ground and that my boss will back me up, then I would email the student and say, "Your t-shirt that said X was unacceptable in my classroom for reason Y. I have discussed this with my supervisor and we are in agreement on how school policy applies here. Please do not wear it to class in the future." This private method of handling it lets the student not be embarrassed in front of others (which is a big deal to many 18-20 year olds) and makes it unlikely that we'll have a big classroom confrontation that would detract from instruction or possibly put me in physical danger. If the student then shows up wearing the t-shirt again, despite the email, I would tell him to leave class, citing the email warning and chapter and verse as to my authority to kick him out. (In my case, there is a specific provision in the state education code that gives me that authority.) If he refused to leave, I would call Campus Safety.

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Good observations about the range of events in reality... –  paul garrett Nov 25 '14 at 0:53

If you feel like the clothes that a student is wearing is fostering a less than nurturing atmosphere in your classroom, it is definitely in your best interest to end this. When you're in a STEM field, it's concerning to see a misogynistic message on a shirt and I think you should find a way to end it.

Depending on the content of the shirt, I would debate whether or not I brought it up in front of the rest of the class. If it had some relation to the course and performance, I would have a hard time not bringing it up front-and-center to the class in order to stop any type of stereotype threat that may pervade the course. My debate on whether to confront during class would be based on thinking about the mentality of the students that are being oppressed in this case and what they may think, whether it be "that student is not wearing that anymore" or "I cannot believe the instructor did not say anything about that shirt," the latter of which was your response in undergrad.

I would stray away from anything that was accusatory or telling the student what to do, but would focus on asking leading questions that explained why it was not appropriate. This approach depends on the personality of instructor and your mileage may vary.

A more neutral thing to bring up to the student would be something about professionalism in the classroom. A discussion on college being about preparing one for a profession and/or higher scholasticism, and then ask the student if the classroom is really an appropriate venue for his wardrobe choice. Really, how to approach the student would depend on your comfort level, the context of the whole situation, and the explicit description of the Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy at your university. A higher-up may be able to help with regards to that.

This isn't an answer to your question per se, but I think this raises a good mindset in order to answer this question for yourself.

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"When you're in a STEM field, it's concerning to see a misogynistic message on a shirt and I think you should find a way to end it." I agree, and I would only add that if you're not in a STEM field then it is also concerning... –  Pete L. Clark Mar 5 '14 at 7:43
I totally agree. I am just speaking from my perspective and knowledge base on teaching. –  T K Mar 5 '14 at 15:33

I don't get the people trying to suggest a private conversation etc. The whole point is to restore the confidence of female students to work in a reasonable atmosphere.

This just calls for "You are not wearing this T-shirt to my classes. Get out and come back once you are wearing something appropriate." His bad luck if he relied on wearing that shirt through the day.

Don't start class until he's gone, if necessary calling campus security. Ask the other professors to do likewise when encountering similar material in order to maintain a professional and workable atmosphere, to avoid being considered the only one with standards.

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I agree that I would have felt much less traumatized - even supported! - if anyone (professor, classmate) had publicly affirmed that the behavior is unacceptable. –  ff524 Mar 6 '14 at 7:35
There are some risks with this course of action: (1) administrators may not support you; (2) depending on how much of a jerk the student is and how hostile (the student in this example is certainly a major jerk and very hostile), you can end up with a confrontation that disrupts instruction and/or puts you in danger. "Don't start class until he's gone" could be a recipe for wasting 30 minutes of instruction. If you multiply half an hour by, say, 50 people in the room, that's a huge instructional impact. –  Ben Crowell Mar 6 '14 at 21:33
@BenCrowell Another risk is the possibility of rewarding attention-seeking behavior, if he's deliberately wearing the shirt to be provocative. There's a tradeoff here. However, even in a scenario where immediate ejection from class is not wise, some public affirmation that the behavior isn't acceptable (like a comment at the beginning of the next class on appropriate attire and being respectful of others) would help foster a supportive atmosphere. –  ff524 Mar 7 '14 at 5:56
@ff524: concerning your first comment: so did you talk to someone about the T-shirt, trying to get feedback what others thought about it? –  Zane May 15 '14 at 8:29
@BenCrowell: If the situation in class is unacceptable, then stopping the lecture for whatever length, or even stopping it for the day is a good idea. Continuing the lecture under bad circumstances will not be beneficial for the students. –  Zane May 15 '14 at 8:34

Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students? If so, how?


A professor should hold a discussion with a student when that student is in violation of the school's code of conduct.

If the clothing isn't in violation of the school's code of conduct, a professor will have to decide whether asking the student to desist is worthwhile or not. In some specific situations, asking a student to stop doing something may actually bring about a situation where they start intentionally coming close to, but not quite, violating the university code. In that case they may be offensive more frequently than they are currently, randomly picking out what to wear each day.

Are there any scenarios in which a professor should not do anything even though a student's clothes contains material that is hostile towards another student or group of students?

If it isn't against the school's code of conduct, the professor has little room to insist that certain clothing not be worn, but they can request a student stop wearing such clothing.

As above, though, it may actually exacerbate the problem.

If I come across this scenario as a TA, in which a student (who may be a peer in my program of study) in my class is wearing something offensive, what can I do about it?

We will assume, for the moment, that the clothing in question is not against the school's code of conduct, but it offensive to everyone, in every time, every situation, culture, place, etc.

First I'd evaluate how often it occurs. Is this student consistently bringing offensive messages to class, or is this a once or twice a semester problem?

Second, I'd evaluate how much it affects the class. Is the message visible to every student in class throughout the period, printed on the upper back with the student sitting in the front row, or is it hard to see except when the are standing up with arms at their sides, and then only by the instructor? In either case, does it prevent other students from paying attention, learning, asking appropriate questions?

Third, I'd ask others how they felt about the issue. Does it actually bother them, and did it bother them before you brought it up? I'd make sure this isn't merely a slight against me only.

Lastly, I'd decide, based on this information, if intervention is necessary. If it poses a significant, frequent problem, then I'd probably bring it up. If it poses a significant infrequent problem for a few students, I'd probably bring it up.

A simple, "Please don't wear that shirt to this class again," privately and quietly as they walk out of the class might be sufficient for most cases. Some professors excel at public shaming in a simple effective way. A humorous comment during the lesson referencing the student's poor taste in clothing might dissuade them from wearing similarly offensive clothing.

I don't feel comfortable (or safe, for that matter) as a woman confronting a male student about an item of clothing that is offensive to women.

That's a real problem. If they are communicating something, and you, who are in charge of the classroom, choose not to communicate, then who is going to handle the problem?

If you must, get a third person to back you up. Preferably someone with authority, and make sure the student understands not just that it's inappropriate, but how it makes you feel. If it's not just offensive, but threatening, to you then you have all the more reason to make your work environment safe. Tell your instructor that you can't teach a class where students are threatening you, and that you find certain articles of clothing threatening. Make your case according to the student code of conduct and it'll be that much stronger.

But you really shouldn't take a passive role in your teaching. You are learning skills now that will benefit you as an educator later, if that's the career you choose, and you need to learn how to do hard things. This might be one of them.

On the other hand, I feel like it is my responsibility to keep a non-hostile environment in my classroom.

Not just for the students, but also for yourself.

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First I'd evaluate how often it occurs - I'm still upset thinking about this single incident years later, so I'd argue that if it is seriously hostile content, once is often enough to be a problem. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 19:46
It sounds like you were significantly traumatized by this incident. If the message was that offensive, and so offensive that you can't even post it here, then it sounds like the student should have been immediately ejected from class and not allowed to return until they discussed the issue with the appropriate school authorities, possibly facing legal prosecution and expulsion. Is that your assessment as well? –  Adam Davis Mar 5 '14 at 19:55
I don't know if the best response would have been to stop class and eject him immediately (for the benefit of the other students in the room) or to send him home to change after class (so as not to reward his attention seeking behavior by making a scene). But he definitely shouldn't have been allowed to go through an entire day at school like that. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 22:13

First step in any conflict should be communication. If I were in your shoes I would have likely go up to the person in question and ask them what message they want to convey by wearing that particular attire.

The reason I have this belief is that what constitutes offensive is very subjective, as one might take offense at anything really. Please note that I am not saying or implying that it was the case for OP, but without knowing the level of "offense" in question, it's hard to make a generalized judgement. In that case, it's always a good idea to peacefully confront the person and tell them that you feel offended. That's my first point.

The second point I would like to make is that the primary responsibility for sorting out your disagreements is on your own shoulders. It is in general frustrating to expect someone else to intervene and fight your battles for you. People of authority (the teacher in this case) might not notice the offense, or not realize how uncomfortable it makes you feel, unless you actually make that clear for everyone involved.

In the specific scenario that is depicted in the OP, I cannot imagine why you would not be allowed to point out that your classmate's attire is offensive and not suitable for public spaces, let alone a classroom. If the person reacts badly, then you have more of a case for disciplinary action against the classmate with the offensive clothing. Then the professor/TA/security and even other classmates would likely to be on your side.

If the person reacts in a favorable way (i.e. apologizing for the offense, and explaining that they did not mean to offend anyone) you have even taught your classmate something about good manners.

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If graffiti containing an unambiguous racial slur is posted in a public place, do you think the local authorities have no reason to intervene until someone complains? I don't think it should necessary be the "victim"'s responsibility to complain to an authority figure. (As the "victim" it can be very intimidating and difficult to speak up when someone is wearing clothing that is overtly hostile to you) –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 14:24
@ff524: I haven't seen the message. Let's take a different route. What if the TA or Professor is TOO sensitive? What if a student wore a very US patriotic shirt to class and it offended say a small group of Iranians? Or what if the professor or TA is anti-military and finds it offensive that an ROTC student wears their uniform to class once a week? Point is it is very subjective so OP should tread lightly. There is no such thing as unambiguously offensive IMHO –  staticx Mar 5 '14 at 14:39
@GIJoe I can definitely think of things that are unambiguously offensive; e.g., widely known racial slurs. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 14:41
"Bacon is awesome" is neither demeaning to, nor does it show hostility to, vegetarians. There's a difference between these examples and a slogan that is clearly meant to be hostile to a particular group. Showing approval for something some people don't like =/= showing hostility to certain people. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 14:51
OK, I agree that your answer would be helpful in a scenario where the message was offensive to me but not necessarily hostile. In my scenario (which of course you don't know the details of) I felt intimidated and traumatized by the hostility; I could not have said anything to the offender myself. –  ff524 Mar 5 '14 at 15:01

Yes, teachers (including both professors and TAs) should absolutely intervene in such an instance. As everyone else has said, non-discrimination policies would most likely prohibit such offensive misogynistic expression in a classroom environment, and these are policies with which I would recommend all teachers familiarize themselves before they enter the classroom.

Let me mention one more reason that you should not just overlook such an incident: to prevent such things from happening in the future. Not all students are completely familiar with what constitutes improper behavior in a classroom. If nobody does anything, what's to stop that student from doing the same thing again?

Here's a related story from my own experience. One time, when I was a TA for an engineering calculus course, I got an in-class group assignment back from a pair of students, where one student circled the other student's name and wrote "is gay" as a joke. Being gay myself, I was pissed. (I had also hoped that the idea that "gay" could be used an insult had gone out of acceptance by that time, in 2012. Guess not.) At the time, I didn't know who did it; it could've been someone outside the pair, but it certainly wasn't the student whose name was circled due to the handwriting being different. I also didn't want to falsely accuse anyone, or put anyone on the spot. I didn't quite frankly care who did it; I just wanted to make sure my students knew that this behavior was unacceptable.

So the next class, I read the university non-discrimination policy to both my classes and I told them what had happened, without naming anyone (or the class it happened in). I said that I didn't care what anyone said or did in their free time, but in my class, I wouldn't stand for people doing things like this.

My first class, I couldn't hide my tension or my anger when I was saying all of this. The second class, which was the one with these two students, I did the same thing, but I was much calmer because I had already done this with the first class. The two students ended up apologizing to me when I handed back the paper, and I (calmly) said that I wasn't accusing anyone of doing anything, but I just needed to make sure that everyone understood that this wasn't acceptable.

In retrospect, the only thing I would have done differently in my case is practice my speech beforehand so I could convey the seriousness of what I was saying without the tension and anger I had during the first class. (Some people don't react as well to tension and anger.) That aside, I did feel good affirming for my students, some of whom were likely LGBT themselves, that my classroom was not a place where I would accept any such inappropriate or discriminatory behavior. And finally, I made it way less likely for anything similar to happen in the future on my watch.

Your case is different, because it involves quite the open display of inappropriateness. In your particular case, I would walk up to the student and tell this person that wearing such a shirt in the class is inappropriate and goes against school policies, and that he needs to leave and change into something else before he returns to your class. The students who are concerned about the shirt will most likely notice your action and feel relieved that you are addressing it.

I'm not so sure that you should call him out from the front of the classroom, although you certainly have the right to do so. The student might find it humiliating to be called out in front of the entire class (especially in a large lecture), and moreover it's a little impersonal. (Although I addressed my situation with the entire class, keep in mind that I didn't know who had done what and I didn't name anyone. Also, if you just read the non-discrimination policy out loud in your case, it will be pretty obvious to everyone who you're addressing.) I think the best outcome would be with a private or semi-private, direct conversation as I suggested above.

On the other hand, if you're intimidated and worried about possible physical violence, then you could opt to ask this person to leave in a semi-private manner but with a reasonable physical distance between the two of you, while many other students are around. This allows for witnesses in case anything goes awry. (This does seem like an unlikely scenario, but your safety is paramount.) If this option is not safe enough to you, then as Pete L. Clark has suggested, you should call campus security and wait until they arrive before starting your class.

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I habitually wore Black metal T-Shirts, which can have offensive lines, as an Undergrad, which never got me into trouble. But, some people asked me why I like this kind of T-shirt and I tried to explain my reasoning. This worked very well and I formed strong friendships with some of these people.

And I, personally, tried hard not to judge people from their appearances - which was never 100% sucessfull, but I think is a worthwile attempt.

So, I think the best first step is simply asking the person WHY he is wearing this t-shirt. Every person with a provacating T-shirt gets asked now and then, so it should be no big deal. Running to your teachers first is similar to running to your mommy and not really grown up behaviour. Disclaimer: I come from germany, where a much wider range of clothing is deemed acceptable in academia, especially social sciences and CS.

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This fails to address the specifics of the question. The question refers to a t-shirt that was not just offensive but offensive toward a specific group (women) in a way that violated the school's rules against "discriminatory harassment." This was stated to be in the context of an engineering program; women are underrepresented in engineering, and it's important not to create a hostile atmosphere for them. If your heavy-metal shirt had, e.g., a satanist message, that's a different case, because although it might offend Christians, Christians are not an underrepresented group in engineering. –  Ben Crowell Mar 6 '14 at 20:21
Regarding the specific shirt you used to wear (not the shirt I encountered), Wikipedia says: "The T-shirt is banned in New Zealand, a handful of fans have faced court appearances and fines for wearing the shirt in public." (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cradle_of_Filth) –  ff524 Mar 7 '14 at 4:01
@BenCrowell If satanists are underrepresented in engineering, does that mean that I must be careful not to offend them? –  Eric Wilson Mar 7 '14 at 15:27
I'd like to -1 for "Running to your teachers first is similar to running to your mommy and not really grown up behaviour". This essentially makes yet another recourse unavailable to those who already feel victimized (and are uncomfortable with direct confrontation), by dissuading them from the only thing they can see to do (approach authority figures), and implying that they should feel bad about themselves for doing it. –  ShreevatsaR Mar 7 '14 at 17:58
@EricWilson: If satanists are underrepresented in engineering, does that mean that I must be careful not to offend them? Yes. But I'm not aware of any evidence that they're underrepresented. Ditto for atheists, left-handed people, or Albanians. When we talk about underrepresented groups, we're talking about groups that are underrepresented in proportion to their numbers in the general population. –  Ben Crowell Mar 8 '14 at 17:33

I've given this further thought, and due to the feedback in voting and comments below, I have made some refinements to this answer.

Based on the following exchange in the comments:

Double-standard check: I'm curious if the you would have been just as offended if the genders were swapped. – Aaron Hall

@AaronHall You mean if a woman was wearing the misogynistic shirt? Or a woman was wearing a misandric shirt? I probably wouldn't have felt personally traumatized in the second case, but I still think an authority figure should intervene. – ff524

Let's assume you're that authority figure. If this shirt is causing a disturbance in the classroom, you should ask them to alter their appearance such that it no longer displays the offensive material. For example, I've had to ask youths to turn their t-shirts inside out. Other alternatives are to put on something to cover it up or sending them home to change.

Now let's assume that the shirt is not causing a disturbance, but that you are offended by the subject matter, which appears to denigrate women in general. For a silly and perhaps extremely innocuous example, say it says something to the effect of, "Boys rule, Girls drool." I know I've seen shirts like that when I was an undergrad. Of course, I've seen more sexualized and demeaning things said as well. I've also seen women in class wearing shirts with the same sorts of content, with the genders reversed. I've never had a class actually be interrupted by it, though. However, I could see people who easily experience negative emotions as getting upset by the shirts as they are worn by either genders, and I can also see them quickly being laughed at or mocked by the vast majority of onlookers.

This is why I originally stated, if it's not offensive enough that you would ask a female with a semantically equivalent shirt to leave, I think it would be inappropriate for you to stop the class and ask him to leave.

I understand you don't like confrontation, but sometimes you'll need to do so, and perhaps a subtle approach would be the optimal. Maybe the best thing for you to do would be, after the class, to inform the student how his attire affected your perception of him, and how you would expect it to affect how other women would see him.

If you have that discussion with him, you would likely learn that he has seen such semantically equivalent clothing on women there, and no one complained, and rightly or wrongly, he feels your perception is a double-standard.

If you want to minimize exclusive behavior, you need to be vigilant to teach others how this type of behavior can offend people regardless of whether or not you are the one personally offended. Otherwise it could be perceived as an attempt to punish someone who merely offended your own sensibilities, but has not operated outside the bounds of what he has learned are unethical standards.

Sometimes ideas are offensive, but our society has determined that the right to express offensive ideas is of greater value than protecting people who would easily feel offended. College is a place where you learn from people who are different from you who have have a different perspective from you. If you want to engender that value, you need to embody it as well.

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Though neither is acceptable, I disagree with the idea that offensive statements made against groups which have traditionally and systematically discriminated against and persecuted are "semantically equivalent" to statements made against the dominant majority group. To take an (intentionally too mild) example, I would not find tee-shirts saying "Gay people suck" and "Straight people suck" to be semantically equivalent, and I would not necessarily react to them in the same way. The latter case is simply not as plausible a threat to someone's personal safety, for instance. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 5 '14 at 15:44
@Aaron: What I am saying is that your purported symmetry argument is fallacious due to underlying asymmetries in society. Are you actually employed by a university in an instructional role? If so, it would be important for you to understand this better. Your current take on it is not really compatible with the regulations of most American universities. If you are saying that you disagree with these ideas and therefore are not willing to uphold them, fine, but you should be clear about that. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 5 '14 at 17:19
@AaronHall You write like everything even has a semantic equivalent (I'm not even gonna comment on weather I think that semantic equivalent is really a equivalently offensive meaning). Well, if so sure, could you give me a male-semantic equivalent which also has an "equivalent" meaning to (not my opinion, just an example): "Women - out of the universities, back to the kitchen!" As far as I know, guys were never banned from attending universities, and "sending a guy to their traditional role" could well include him staying at the Uni. –  penelope Mar 5 '14 at 17:46
In the real world, women or minorities will be blamed for raising the issue and criticized for being “too sensitive” no matter what, so worries about double standards in a falsely equivalent situation that does seldom happen are difficult to take seriously. –  Relaxed Mar 5 '14 at 18:30
"Double-standards are unethical." Yes, that does seem to be your entire take on the matter. There is no clearly "equivalent" anti-straight or anti-male slur because the effect that these sentiments have on the classroom environment are very different. The OP already mentioned that she felt concerns about her own safety in the classroom environment. Your sole response so far has been to demand equal treatment of some hypothetical female student wearing a tee-shirt. In my opinion your response makes you, at least, an insensitive person that I hope does not actually teach in a university. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 5 '14 at 19:05

protected by Pete L. Clark Mar 6 '14 at 8:17

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