This happened quite recently to a friend and colleague of mine.

Another colleague made an off-hand 'joke' about a friend (an academic) potentially behaving inappropriately with his students. This was said in front of my friend's students (over 20) and within hearing range of his students, as my friend heard them laughing soon after the 'joke' was said (his own students apparently had shocked looks on their faces).

The situation was that he was setting up an experiment demonstration that required the lights turned off and curtains drawn (physics - lasers). Understandably, my friend was very angry, hurt and terribly embarrassed and could not bare to even look at his colleague who 'triumphantly went back to his own class' soon after.

Just a point I want to make here, the reason I am saying 'joke' in inverted commas, is because this kind of infantile rubbish can and does cause unwarranted mud to stick - and is potentially a lot more damaging for male teachers/lecturers. Also, it is a lame, disgusting, low-brow attempt at humour. (I have been a butt of a joke like that myself a few years ago and it inadvertently caused quite a bit of trouble, despite being 100% innocent and proven so).

There is no question of his innocence of any wrong doing, and being the true professional, he redirected his students back to the demonstration and completed the lesson.

He is the kind of person that does not like to make waves and does not like to make a fuss.

In summary:

  • Lecturer X about to start his class requiring the lights to be off and curtains drawn for an experiment. Lecturer Y comes in unannounced and made the 'joke' about X potentially doing something inappropriate with the students in the darkness. This was in front of both X's and Y's students.

  • Lecturer Y went back to his class.

  • Lecturer X was justifiably insulted, but continued his lesson.

What course of action should he (Lecturer X) do? Particularly to protect himself from any potential future trouble regarding allegations etc from this 'joke'? (Which as I said, can occur).

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    What was the joke? I don't quite follow who was offended and why? – Franz Kafka Sep 18 '13 at 11:02
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    Jealousy is a strong force in humans (and animals), especially between males. It causes all sort of troubles for the jealous person as well as the subject of jealousy. It mostly appears as accusing another person (who is apparently more successful with females) to some kind of affairs. It has different forms, such as commenting, spreading rumors, making sexual jokes, etc. Unfortunately, academia is one of the most common places for such actions and therefore true academics should think about a serious solution for this problem. – user4511 Sep 18 '13 at 14:01
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    @FranzKafka the joke was about the teacher/lecturer being in a darkened room with students may do something inappropriate to them - the offense is that is a major slamming against the integrity of the teacher and can and has got people unjustly in trouble. – user7130 Sep 18 '13 at 19:15
  • @VahidShirbisheh yes, I agree and that could very well be a major aspect of this. – user7130 Sep 18 '13 at 19:16
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    I don't know if I understand the situation. X tells an inappropriate/ embarrassing joke on Y in front of both X's and Y's students, right? "potentially behaving inappropriately" is about reason for telling joke (e.g. not following the safety instructions) or an euphemism for the joke content? Please, make the content more explicit (e.g. "he" is ambiguous), as it took me some time to guess who did what... Also: whom you want to protect (the joke-teller from consequences, or the victim from further harassment)? – Piotr Migdal Sep 18 '13 at 23:07

This is a very unfortunate event for your affected colleague. Usually the proverb "where there's smoke, there's fire" has some truth, but when artificial smoke is generated without the fire, it is very detrimental. As you state the comment may stick and through the grapevine it may attain any proportion.

What then to do? Well, first, I think the teacher should tell his (in this case) students that he feels the 'joke' was totally inappropriate and the he was hurt by it and also explain that this sort of action is not to be tolerated by anyone. This will set the record straight with his own class. It could spark a short discussion about political correctness and even if it takes time out of the subject teaching it will be worth it. It is a good lesson that should be taught.

The next step is to actually step up to the person who made the 'joke' and explain that it was uncalled for and inappropriate, particularly in public and at his expense. I understand that this may be difficult to do but unfortunately the choice is to do it or let it be and face the fact that the issue is unresolved.

A third step is to bring it up at a departmental level and try to turn it into a general discussion to eventually also involve students. The university/department probably has rules about (mis-)conduct and correctness. It can be fruitful to provide an opportunity to have a discussion on how people (faculty and students) should conduct professionally,it does not even have to bring up this 'joke' in any way.

Finally, being affected by a situation like this is about the worst that can happen, particularly if the 'joke' propagates without any control. It may be that there are officers within the university that can provide advice on what can be done and help defuse the situation in case it will propagate into rumours, etc. The students will therefore also be involved and can be good support if brought in to discuss the matter from a correctness point of view.

  • I totally agree with this. Such bad behaviour must be dealt with immediately. This is not just for the sake of the current victim, but also for the sake of the students. Surely we do not want them to think that such bad behaviour is acceptable since nobody repudiated it, right? In fact, I would say that such slander is immoral, not just bad behaviour. – user21820 Nov 11 '20 at 4:07

Depending on the local laws and policies, that joke itself might constitute harassment of you and of your students, thus, the "jokester" might already be culpable. Certainly they are visibly culpable, but/and possibly so depending on the incisiveness and (in a good sense) subtlety of your local laws.

The usual counter-argument that "oh, it was just a joke, don't be so uptight", is just a disregard and attempted dismissal of the issue... which might have been orthodox and acceptable "back in the day" when the opportunity for various bonus intimidations of subordinates was an understood "perk" of senior positions.

To the students, one could comment that that exemplified the reasons such behavior is against policy: not that anyone was immediately injured, perhaps, but ... here's the point ... it was a distraction from the real goals of the situation, namely, learning/education/teaching. Even if everyone in the room knew that there was no chance of the "joke" being relevant, certainly most would know that there is a potentially very serious issue there, and, thus, raising a fake-serious issue burns far too many mental CPU-cycles. A big waste!!!

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