During the pursuit of my degree, which I received in '92, I took a class where motifs in folksongs were routinely discussed.

I don't remember the exact wording now but I noticed a few songs with wording about a couple going to bed and the man putting the woman "toward the wall". I couldn't figure out what this motif might mean, so I asked about it in class. My male professor looked me dead in the eye, and answered "for leverage". The delivery was not lighthearted, and it was not followed by anything to lighten the mood. I read it as a kind of attack in the form of sexual innuendo. Why? Partly because of the aggressiveness of his eye contact, and partly because of the flatness of his tone of voice.

My reaction was no doubt colored by the fact that a friend had previously told me she approached this professor during office hours for a different class and he'd asked her out for coffee. She declined, and he retaliated in class.

My interaction with him quelled my in-class participation and made sure I never approached him after class unless there were plenty of other people there. Nonetheless, I got a good grade in the class and it had no lasting impact on me. I dismissed it from my mind and didn't think about it again until the rise of #metoo.

At the age of 20, he seemed... old to me, and it never occurred to me that he would still be professionally active - until I heard him on the radio yesterday talking about a new book. As it turns out he is still at that same university, and I'm concerned that he's still "teaching" young women.

It has been nearly 30 years and the "harassment" seems nebulous at best. Should I report this, and if so, how? I started drafting an email to the department chair, but while the incident certainly had an impact on me at the time, it seems so... thin? weak? questionable when I write it out (even here).

So... now what?

For the record, this is not about me. I pretty much got over this a long time ago. My concern is for young women in his classes today.

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    Just to clarify, are you saying that these facts happened 30 years ago? Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 19:06
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    I really hate to be the person who doubts that you felt harassed by his comment, but it sounds to me this isn't a fun motif and that your professor didn't make light of sexual assault (?). Can you clarify what the motif was supposed to mean? It isn't obvious to me. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 19:09
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    @G.Ann-SonarSourceTeam From the way you phrased it, it sounds like basically the husband is forcing his wife into sex because he has her forced against the wall. I wouldn't really expect his delivery to be lighthearted. // That said, I wasn't there, you were. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 19:25
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    @StrongBad I'm asking whether I should report this to the school. And if so, what's the best mechanism since I'm no longer a student and this is really ancient history. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 19:32
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    I wasn't there, but from what you're describing that flat, dead, direct answer he gave you is because you missed the joke. And he didn't elaborate any further because explaining why you'd pin your S.O. to the wall during some rough intercourse isn't exactly polite conversation.
    – UIDAlexD
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:55

3 Answers 3


Honestly, I think this is way over the top. I am not even sure if there is anything that could be reported at all.

Let me just sum it up:

  • This way 30 years ago, nobody except you might remember your case anymore
  • Its unclear whether you have experienced harassment at all, it's even harder to tell after 30 years. Hurt feelings do not automatically mean that you were harassed.
  • You did not take immediate actions back then, as you said, you "got over this"
  • A friend has told you that he retaliated that she did not want to go on a coffee with him. I have heard way too many stories about (female) students who interpreted way too much into their professors'/teachers' behavior. I would be very cautious with stories heard second-hand. If your friend is really sure that something went wrong, she has to address this issue.

If your report this professor: Which reactions do you expect by the university? Is there anything that they could do now? On the other hand: Are you aware that you could bring him into serious trouble, perhaps just due to a misunderstanding 30 years ago?

For the record, this is not about me. I pretty much got over this a long time ago. My concern is for young women in his classes today.

I think today's women are confident enough to oppose against harassment on their own. Our society is way more sensitive now.

  • Just curious -- is your answer localized specifically to the U.S.? Your profile mentions a German research institute. It would be fantastic if you could outline (perhaps in a separate question) what action steps can be taken currently in Germany to report gender discrimination, and it would be even more interesting to learn when and how whatever is currently available got put in place. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 17:32
  • @aparente001 I don't think that my question is localized to any specific country. However, there should be similar possibilities in Germany. People are very aware of such issues in general. There are people like the "Frauenbeauftragte" who help women against discrimination at work (and also university).
    – J-Kun
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 20:28
  • J-Kun, there was a US tag on the question. // "There should be"? Not sure what you mean by "should." // It sounds like maybe the "Frauenbeauftragte" are similar to the Title IX Coordinators in the U.S. // If Germany still has Frauenbeauftragte, why do you say "today's women are confident enough to oppose against harassment on their own"? I mean, not all women, in all situations, can handle it on their own. Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 2:24

Reporting it with just the details given would seem sub-optimal

It's been 30 years and you're apparently feeling distressed about the situation. In principle, that sounds like a problem; something that, in an ideal world, shouldn't happen. So, there's something going on here; empirically, there's a problem.

How to address that problem? It's hard to tell just yet.

At the moment, I don't know how anyone could take action in response to the incident described. There's simply not enough information to conclude that the instructor was acting inappropriately; for example, it's entirely possible that the instructor was simply disgusted by the subject matter, or perhaps they were attempting to be terse to end the conversation. Or maybe they had something else on their mind entirely.

Since it seems unreasonable for anyone to take action against the instructor based on this information alone, reporting it wouldn't seem helpful, even if it had just happened minutes ago.

Doing nothing would also seem sub-optimal

In the question, you'd mentioned the #metoo campaign. While I'm hardly an expert on social media trends, it's my understanding that this meme exists specifically because feelings like this have often been buried/repressed.

That's probably not the healthiest of approaches, even if common. Rather, if this is bugging you, it'd seem like trying to figure out exactly why would be important.

In short, this probably isn't something to just completely ignore without some sort of resolution.

Possible solution pathway: seek more information

It seems like you may want to reflect on the situation and see if there's more involved:

  1. Can you recall more information? For example, are you sure that this was the first incident of this type, or perhaps there were other contributing factors that affected how you perceive the event?

  2. At your discretion, you might consider talking to this instructor, either directly or through a mediator. This might be emotionally difficult, but from a fact-finding point-of-view, it'd seem potentially effective.

  3. Talking to a professional about your feelings and recollection may help.

In general, tough problems like this seem best addressed through reflection and fact-finding.

Suggestion: Hold off on hating this instructor just yet

From the information given, it's unclear (at least to me) if this instructor was doing anything bad, either intentionally or unintentionally. He may've been entirely innocent, which is a possibility to keep in mind.

That said, I really want to stress that it's a possibility, because it's also entirely possible that he's done a lot of bad things before and you've correctly picked up on a continuation of a heinous pattern of behavior.

The 30-years-ago part isn't too material yet

You're entirely correct that this having been about 30-years ago would be a huge complicating factor to resolving an issue of harassment. Even if it were blatant and clear harassment, then that'd have been a barrier.

Still, I think that the question of whether or not this was harassment would be the bigger issue. And for your own emotional health and well-being (which are important!), it seems like a question to address.

I mean, realistically, I doubt that there's much you can do about something from 30-years ago. But if you choose not to resolve the issue for that reason, that'd seem to leave underlying emotional damage. Ideally that'd be avoided.

Possible action: Reporting the retaliation against your friend

My reaction was no doubt colored by the fact that a friend had previously told me she approached this professor during office hours for a different class and he'd asked her out for coffee. She declined, and he retaliated in class.

Clear, direct retaliation is something that might be reported. Asking a student out to coffee may've been inappropriate, depending on the culture and context.

What was the retaliation? And was it reported at the time?

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    I like most of this answer. 1) "At your discretion, you might consider talking to this instructor", I would not advise that. There is no way the instructor will remember the incident. 2) "it's also entirely possible that he's done a lot of bad things before and you've correctly picked up on a continuation of a heinous pattern of behavior." - if he has done a lot of bad things before, then she hasn't correctly picked up on it because the conclusion (that he has) is not justified by this one incident. I agree with the rest, other ways to address the problem should be sought. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 13:06
  • @ThomasKing Yeah, that second part (about possibly picking up on a heinous pattern of behavior) was an attempt to go easy on an emotionally frail asker that I'd perceived to need an olive branch. Probably too much. though?
    – Nat
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 14:08
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    If anyone could give feedback, I'd be interested. I responded to this question in large part because it required something that I find challenging - specifically, trying to provide objective feedback to a sensitive person.
    – Nat
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 14:16
  • @Nat - Ah, that helps me understand why your answer was so long. // My feedback would be that most of the time a concise answer is more effective than a long answer. I don't think that changes when the asker feels doubtful. // Could you explain more about your assessment of emotional frailty? Can you analyze what about the question or the way it was asked that gave you that idea? And can you clarify what you meant by emotionally frail in this case? ... Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 17:34
  • ...Thanks -- I find it fascinating to observe and understand how Academia.SE users' interpretation of posts is affected, or not affected, by perceived gender of post author. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 17:36

Randomly choose a woman who graduated in '92. The chances are not negligible that she'll have experienced something similar or worse somewhere along the way.

Times have changed over the past 30 years. By now this professor will likely have come to understand some things better, or if not, will at least have learned to be more careful about expressing his true colors openly.

At any rate, statutes of limitations, and the nature of the allegation you described, would make it rather pointless to file any sort of complaint.

(Now, if he came to be nominated to the Supreme Court, and you had documented his behavior at the time, I suppose there might be some usefulness in your coming forward.)

Editorial comment about your question: The quotes around the word "teaching" bother me. He apparently committed a microaggression toward you. You heard a cautionary story about him, which led you to protect yourself around him. You say you did well in the class, so presumably you learned the material in his class. So the quotes don't seem fair, and suggest that this may be more about jumping on a bandwagon than about consciencious activism.

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    "Jumping on a bandwagon" is a very uncharitable interpretation. When a topic that you have personal experience with is discussed, it is natural to remember and review your past (in)actions. Like everyone, I too had a teacher who made many inappropriate comments in undergraduate (e.g. going on tangents about extensions helpful for porn browsing). At the time, it seemed obvious to me that the administration was aware of his behavior and had already done all they were going to do (he kept going on rants about how in these PC days he wasn't allowed to hug and kiss his female students any more).
    – nengel
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 4:35
  • It's only in retrospect, 10 years later, that I realized that administrators are not clairvoyant, and that they wouldn't be able to even know his behavior continued if no one reported, and that as the sole female student in that class (everyone else chose the other elective since rumors about him ran rampant among students), it was a case of "If not I, then who?"
    – nengel
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 4:38
  • @nengel your case and the OP's case are quite different though. In your case the lecturer was doing something wrong. In the OP's case I am genuinely struggling to see how the lecturer did - anything - wrong (and I put myself firmly in the camp of harassment being prevalent). I'm sure the OP's feelings are real (although initially I thought they might be trolling), so in that sense it might not be "jumping on the bandwagon" (if it's not intended as such), but not because the OP has been wronged. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 13:37
  • @ThomasKing: The details of my case might be different, but my reasons for thinking about it and wondering if I did the right thing are not. You remember when you felt uncomfortable in a situation. The judgement call about whether this was a situation where the discomfort stemmed from an action that others should be made aware of comes at the end of asking yourself (or academia.se, in this case) this question, not before you examine the situation... But you're right, I should have chosen a different example. This one was just the first coming to mind from "sitting in lecture in undergraduate".
    – nengel
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 10:48

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