141

I'm a professor at a local university. I'm passionate about teaching, and am proud to teach 100-level science and mathematics courses to young and aspiring students.

Some senior engineering students created a sort of dating service/app, "How I Met My Future Wife" (not the actual name, but close enough). It advertises itself as a way for smart young guys to meet "potential marriage material", by helping them social with "young, cultured, educated women". It works by aggregating diversity data my university publishes. This data is intended to help make a case for having more women and minorities in STEM courses so that post-university, we have more diverse representation in the worlds of science, business, and engineering. These senior engineering students used it to create a database of courses that are statistically likely to have a large proportion of young women from certain cultural backgrounds.

The stated goal of the app is to produce a list of courses that would be easy for engineering majors to excel in effortlessly, where the majority of the class is young women that would not necessarily find the class easy. It basically puts engineering majors in a position to ingratiate themselves with a large pool of potential "mates", and even guides users through getting reduced tuition or even taking the course for free (i.e. "auditing" a course; take it for free, but it doesn't affect your GPA, so as to prevent students from gaming the system and boosting their GPAs with easy courses).

A number of 100-level science courses are having record levels of senior-level STEM students auditing these courses, and a number of female students have approached me, noting they are disgusted and uncomfortable with the amount of "leching" taking place (edit: there are no unwanted advances, but it's painfully obvious to some students what's taking place). It's also demoralizing several of them, since we routinely have cases where a young man is leading open labs as if they're a teacher themselves (in order to "wow" their female classmates, offer "private free tutoring sessions", etc). Some of the young students in my class take up these offers, and this further demoralizes other female students seeing this happen (i.e. only attractive women being offered tutoring sessions). This is further compounded by the condescension involved (i.e. one self-admitted user of the app told me "this material that others struggle with is so easy for me, and I'm doing it for laughs and phone numbers.").

How can I stop this?

People auditing the course don't have to take the exams, or attend regularly. They can showboat in a course that's easy for them at zero risk or cost to themselves. I have no means to kick people from the course, despite this obvious behavior, and the people abusing the course can basically come and go as they please.

The university administration refuses to even acknowledge the problem exists (mostly, to my knowledge, because they don't want to admit fault or harm being caused by publishing such granular diversity reports), a few fellow profs either find it comical, or are happy that open labs are so full of volunteer tutors (perk to them, I guess). It seems that all parties are ignoring the young students I teach. I don't know if there are any legal routes, and there's no way I could do a public name-and-shame without jeopardizing my career. I'm at a total loss here.

Update

I scheduled a morning meeting with a senior colleague who has helped me with hard problems in the past (sort of the "go to guy" when things get rough). My husband and I had a long serious talk with him, and it's been made clear the university won't help me with this, as it would mean a "black left eye" for them, and I'd be tossed to the wolves on the left and right. If I want to pursue this further, I have to be prepared to forfeit my career, credibility (i.e. be black-balled in industry), and face lawsuits and SLAPP attacks from the university. With our combined salaries, my husband and I are barely making ends meet. My only real recourse is to counsel my students, while hoping that the app eventually gets more unwanted attention. In short, the problem will have to "solve itself", while numerous female students endure even more adversity in STEM by a program intended to help them.

5
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Jan 29, 2023 at 23:07
  • 12
    Folks: we can only move comments to chat once; if you wish to do anything other than suggest ways to improve the question's phrasing or ask for clarification on unclear points, please use the chat link above. Even in chat, please remember our Code of Conduct.
    – cag51
    Jan 30, 2023 at 5:46
  • 3
    Where does your university publish the diversity data? Is it available to the general public or only to university staff or students? Is it made available under a license that restricts its use? Feb 1, 2023 at 0:17
  • 1
    I'm sorry that you're facing this problem: it's unfortunate and impacts students' bona fide desire to learn. I wonder if you could add a registration requirement like offering this class as a cross-listed 100 level and 200 level class. Taking the class for credit and auditing the 100 level course would be limited to those who have not completed more than one other 100 level science class, without instructor approval. Auditing of 200 level course not allowed, and registration for 200 level course will require additional work including two 20 page papers, e.g. Feb 1, 2023 at 20:47
  • 1
    Just to clarify the question and as a short summary: so the institution posted diversity data, and students processed it to fulfill their “marital desires” by enrolling as auditors to classes with a higher proportion of potential partners fitting their criteria? Is it also safe to assume this takes place in the US (GPA,SLAPP)?
    – T.D
    Feb 2, 2023 at 9:57

17 Answers 17

7

I take it you sort of volunteered to do the 100-level courses?

But, even so, you are entitled to the support of your own Head of Department. I know that Math Chairs are usually introverts and loath to discuss such things. But whoever wears the badge has to face up to the bad guys: it's the main part of any management job.

Honestly, I feel that this phenomenon is serious enough—and topical enough these past years—that you should apprise your college Dean of it.

Bring a male coworker to these meetings. If you can't find one among the university faculty, bring one in from outside, e.g., a lawyer friend/relative. Otherwise, you could be into a she-said-he-said scenario.

The fact that this is happening more dramatically in STEM isn't any reflection of a lack of anticipation on your part: it is a reflection of a total lack of appreciation of such potentialities within a college environment by more senior faculty who really should have the sensibility to foresee it. So don't entertain any response from your university that posits this as "your problem".

I feel that despite your willingness to undertake these 100-level courses, you will have to threaten to abandon the university's official arrangements for them and offer more selective alternatives elsewhere (plus the real possibility of bad local publicity for the university) before the university takes serious action to sort out the "Kennedy Boys" in those classes.

4
  • 23
    I already asked one colleague who usually has no problem "playing the heavy", but he (apologetically) noted that this isn't the "hill he wants to die on". The university is doubling-down on their diversity publication program being a 100% absolute net plus for students, pranksters are perverting the program, right-wing relation is guaranteed; it feels like we're stuck between deliberately ignorant fools on the left, hostile bigots on the right, and profiteering riffraff "pranksters" in the middle.
    – Ana
    Jan 29, 2023 at 17:05
  • 7
    What is meant by '"the "Kennedy Boys""'? Jan 29, 2023 at 19:26
  • 4
    @Dave L Renfro Boys who act like the junior Kennedys in the 60s and 70s - e.g. not sure of getting a girl at a party ? No problem - just hold a party and invite way more girls than boys.
    – Trunk
    Jan 29, 2023 at 20:36
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Jan 30, 2023 at 22:30
101

Contact your school's Title IX coordinator. All schools that receive Federal funding in the US must have one. Since this situation is creating an adverse experience for the women in your class, it is likely in violation of Title IX. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, prohibitted discrimination can include

Engaging in gender-based or sexual harassment such as making unwelcome sexual comments, advances, and/or name-calling on the basis of sex.

They also say,

Federal courts and agencies have found that Title IX prohibits sex-based harassment, including sexual harassment, when such harassment is sufficiently serious as to limit the ability to participate in and benefit from a program or activity

Note that even though your institution might not be officially endorsing this behavior, they still may have a legal responsibility to act if the environment is effecting students' ability to participate. It is natural for administrations to try to ignore problems, but they will likely be much more responsive if they hear a complaint through this channel, since it means their funding could be on the line. If this fails, you could also try making a complaint directly to the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Edit: In response to the clarification in the comments, I'd like to add a few things.

  • Even if there's no legal Title IX violation, the Title IX coordinator, and any associated offices at your school, can likely help you to navigate this situation. They're the ones with the expertise. I don't know what the situation is at your school, but the Title IX office at my school encourages people to come to them with concerns, even if there's no blatant abuse.
  • Even if each individual student's behavior is entirely benign, that doesn't mean this isn't a Title IX issue. Title IX can apply to situations where the collective behavior of your students creates an adverse environment. Attitudes about this have changed quickly over recent decades, so you may find the Title IX office takes this more seriously than your colleagues.
  • Even though you have not heard any complains about harassment, harassment may still be happening, especially outside the classroom. Students tend to be afraid to speak up about this kind of thing (the fact that you've heard complaints is significant). There is already a significant power dynamic between a senior and a younger student, but in this situation, you have younger students relying on older students for academic support. To top it off, the seniors are acting collectively, which means that can rely on each other for support in normalizing bad behavior. This situation is ripe for abuse.
9
  • 25
    This might be hard, as no unwanted advances are taking place. We simply have students excelling at the course, and drawing-in a crowd. I should've been more clear with my "leching" comment. Still, it seems harassing in nature.
    – Ana
    Jan 29, 2023 at 10:46
  • 27
    @Ana I think this is either a Title IX problem, or it is not a problem at all. (To me, it sounds like the former.)
    – Arno
    Jan 29, 2023 at 18:44
  • 9
    @Arno I agree. The problem here is that the behavior stops just short of Title IX issues (my confidant/mentor spelled this out to me). There's no un-wanted flirting (someone edited my post and removed this point). But, it's still demoralizing to have young men showboating with ease in a course that's predominantly women, offering extensive help to specific class mates. Even worse, some women in the class seem oblivious to this or don't care, while the majority of them are insulted and hurt by this. It feels like some perverse recreation of Mona Lisa Smile.
    – Ana
    Jan 29, 2023 at 19:14
  • 36
    Whether the issue is a Title IX issue seems like something the Title IX office is better suited to determine than your colleague. Unless you fear repercussions, why not report it and let them decide? Jan 30, 2023 at 2:44
  • 33
    If this situation somehow blows up, and the OP hasn't contacted the Title IX office, plenty of people will ask why not. Jan 30, 2023 at 12:56
46

This is probably not something you can fix on your own and it is fairly typical behavior among undergraduate men in some places, hence the lack of support from colleagues. Note that the origin of Facebook was similar to this.

But, your female students aren't without agency. It is they that can/will be negatively affected by boorish and sexist behavior and it is they who can actually have an effect on fixing the problem. Possibly a bigger effect than you could have.

Individuals, however, will have little effect. A group of them can make a difference, perhaps with your guidance. If you meet with a few of them who might be inclined to organize something, then change has a chance to happen. They can collectively provide pressure on administration as well as disfavor on the boors. And for those who will remain in academia, a community of peers is a good thing to have.

In short, rather than trying to protect them, show them that they can protect themselves and how they might go about it. Become a mentor to the students that you have. You won't always be there even if you could do it on your own in this case.

Support organizations are pretty common, actually, especially in places and situations without official recognition of such problems.


One issue not addressed in the above is the question of people seeing your course as easy, given their own background, and taking it for credit and affecting the curve. One solution is to not use "curve" grading at all. Make it possible for every student to get full marks or zero marks depending on only what they do and not what others do. If someone has to fail so that someone else can get full marks then you have an inherently unfair system. I've written about that other places here. See this question and my own answer on another site for example.

But you can also include elements in your grading scheme that would be disfavored by lazy students. One possibility is to have students give a lecture on some topic after a week's notice and preparation. There are others possible if you put your mind to it. But taking a few easy (for them) quizzes and exams isn't going to make your course more desirable for the students for which it is designed and less desirable for others.

4
  • 9
    Good answer (+1) but the last suggestion (give a lecture presentation on short notice) sounds like it would be preferred by precisely the students she is seeking to discourage.
    – Ben
    Jan 29, 2023 at 22:42
  • 3
    +1 for many things, particularly for the curve part. I don't understand why many lecturers believe that if they curve up, they should also be curving down! Jan 29, 2023 at 23:02
  • @darijgrinberg a single student getting 100% can ruin certain "curving" methods, even if you are only curving up (for example, a scheme where you add 100 minus the highest grade to every student's grade)
    – Esther
    Jan 30, 2023 at 4:14
  • 5
    @Esther: These aren't great curving methods then :) I thought the normal thing to do is to draw gradelines where there are not many scores accumulating. Jan 30, 2023 at 4:24
30

If there are female students who approach you saying that they are uncomfortable, encourage them to put their concerns in writing. If you have a few written complaints, it will be hard for the university administration to just pretend that the problem doesn't exist.

1
  • I thought the same. I would add, that if the issue is described and published in an online platform/blog (something which does not require registration and login, open to the world), the thing may become visible enough that the organisers will decide to stop on their own to avoid troubles.
    – FarO
    Jan 31, 2023 at 14:22
24

How can you stop this "prank"?

This problem is too big for you to handle (alone) and you are probably not trained to handle it in any case. Trying to solve it yourself might risk shooting yourself in the foot; one suboptimal formulation and you might find yourself the target of an "anti-woke" twitter hate campaign with reactionary state-level politicians using a 3-second secretly recorded video clip taken out of context to campaign against public education (today they call it "woke indoctrination", but anti-intellectualism has been a key part of extremist politics for centuries). I would not risk it alone.

Hopefully and probably there exists a diversity representative within your organisation, either on department or on university level. Contact them and describe to them the situation. Also contact the relevant union representatives. Hopefully they have received training and have a better idea of how to act. If not, at the very least you would need to build a team before taking any action. Alone you are weak, together with others you are much stronger.

Ideally, the aim should be to get your employer to act. If there is then a far-right outcry, you and your employer are on the same side, which makes the situation much safer for you.


Plan B, if you cannot stop this prank

You can announce what's going on, and state that you do not agree, then go on with your regular teaching. By marking which side you're on, you'll provide emotional support for students who agree that the behaviour is unacceptable, but who are too afraid to speak out by themselves. Thank carefully about a diplomatic but clear formulation.

Sadly, sexism and toxic masculinity remain rampant in STEM. I completely recognise the culture behind the actions you describe from my own university days in The Netherlands 20 years ago. I remember one particularly sexist poster for recruiting chemistry students, showing a young man kissing a young woman with roughly the text: *Chemistry is everywhere. The smell or her perfume. The taste of her lips. The colour of her hair.* — and then they're wondering why so few girls/women were signing up for the programme …
6
  • 7
    Sadly, the person who more-or-less fills that role is one-track minded: they see this as a good thing, because my classes are now more diversified.
    – Ana
    Jan 29, 2023 at 10:49
  • 10
    While I agree that the risk of being targetted by right-wing extremists is something @Ana has to weigh against the benefits herself, it’s also worth considering that silencing such efforts is one of the goals of the extremists and by giving in to that threat you are letting them win to some extent.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 29, 2023 at 12:58
  • 2
    @Wrzlprmft I don't recommend giving in; I recommend seeking allies, preferably allies trained to deal with such issues.
    – gerrit
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:50
  • 1
    @gerrit: Sure, I am talking about the case that getting allies doesn’t work out or takes too long (which sadly appears to be the case).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 29, 2023 at 18:52
  • @Wrzlprmft If the attitude that the OP wants to push back against pervades not only the students but the entire work culture, it becomes very difficult to act, I'm afraid.
    – gerrit
    Jan 30, 2023 at 7:12
22

This method of meeting women will probably fizzle out on its own

Firstly, contrary to some other answers here, seeking the company of women and showing off to impress women in this manner is not in-and-of-itself sexual harassment. If your description is accurate, it does not sound like you presently have instances of sexual harassment occurring, though obviously you should keep an eye out in case things escalate badly. (Bear in mind that Title IX also protects the men in the class; they cannot be treated adversely merely because you or others find their romantic/sexual desires uncomfortable or disgusting.) It sounds to me like most of the women in this class are not amenable to the advances being made, but those advances are little more than awkward attempts to impress. Some element of this is a natural part of teaching at a university with lots of young people and hormones, though this is certainly a more extreme case.

My suggestion is just to manage this calmly and sensibly until it fizzles out with time. Keep an eye on class behaviour and intervene where necessary to keep things professional. Schemes like this tend to fizzle out on their own because of the laws of supply and demand in the dating pool. The scheme initially attracts a large number of eager young men, some of whom are socially awkward and try too hard, putting off the women they are attempting to attract. The small number of more suave and desirable young men will probably get dates and then remove themselves and their partners from the dating pool (or they won't be there in the first place because they are already able to meet women successfully without the aid of this scheme). Once that happens, the remaining awkward ones will most likely flounder around without romantic success until they give up and leave.

In regard to this prediction, it is notable that there are hundreds of social areas and activities where women greatly outnumber men (yoga classes, craft fairs, etc.). Any of these could potentially be targeted by young men wanting to put themselves in proximity to many eligible women. The fact that such activities do not general even out their gender participation due to hopeful young men seeking dates shows that this is generally not something that works well enough to constitute an amazing new discovery. Young male engineers are nothing if not practical and empirical, so if they find that their efforts to woo young women in this environment have a low success rate, they will adjust their method accordingly, or just get bored and start working on some new project.

(If I'm wrong, and this scheme does turn out to be some amazing new discovery which solves the romantic needs of young men, then you have yourselves some budding tech billionaires in your midst. Disregarding the cultural and social aspects, I can't help but be impressed with the cleverness of designing a dating App using DEI data; very entrepreneurial stuff.)

7
  • 6
    I disagree. Even if no individual is engaging in harassing behaviour, the sum total effect on the women in question of a large amount of non-harassing behaviour can amount to harassment. Or at least have the same impact as harassment would. Another way in which this might fizzle out is that the gender imbalance "corrects" itself because women stop taking the course or stop attending. Jan 30, 2023 at 15:04
  • 14
    Non-harassing behaviour does not amount to harassment merely because the woman in question has been exposed to a large volume of previous non-harassing (but annoying) behaviour. That is no more the case than the idea that a-thousand handshakes adds up to assault and battery. As to cumulative impact, it is possible in principle for circumstances to give rise to a "hostile learning environment" but the situation described here would not meet that test.
    – Ben
    Jan 30, 2023 at 20:51
  • 5
    The effect is not all that matters --- the actions and culpability of the actor also matters, all the more so in cases where people are suggesting sanctions, complaints, Title IX reports, etc.
    – Ben
    Jan 30, 2023 at 23:51
  • 5
    Just as what matters is the effect in the women, so stopping it from happening is more important than who is culpable or deserving of punishment. I dont necessarily believe that the individuals should be punished, but that doesn't mean just leaving it to fizzle out of the correct course of action. I feel sightly different about those who created the service, especially if they are unrepentant after the effect in their younger classmates is pointed out. Jan 31, 2023 at 7:54
  • 9
    The descibed behaviour consists essentially of enrolling in a course where the person has little interest, showing off to impress women, and being somewhat annoying. None of those are things that male students are not allowed to do. Deciding you must use lecturer authority to stop this (and using descriptors like "unpetentant") is adverse treatment of students based on discomfort with their sexual desires and mild manifestations of those desires. The fact that you use words like "unrepentant" means that you have judged them guilty of an infraction.
    – Ben
    Jan 31, 2023 at 21:25
18

In addition some suggestions from the other answers, one thing that you can do and that might at least help is deconstructing the motivation of the invading students.

For example, you could tell the entire course the story of that software and the invasion. This way, all potential targets should know that they are being targetted. This is the groundwork for the deconstruction:

[addressing the invaders:] Have you ever thought this through? At some point, your “future wife” or just potential sexual partner will want to know more about you. She will learn that you are actually studying, say, electrical engineering in the fifth semester. She will then wonder why you are auditing Math for Biologists. And then she will connect the dots. After that, how enthusiastic do you think she will be about marrying you or even having sex with you?

And as this is a data-based crowd, you might spike this with some survey data about how willing women are to sleep with somebody who they know to be a pick-up artists or similar. (Technically, you could even do an anonymous survey amongst your students, but in the US this is almost guaranteed to backfire.)

11
  • 17
    This is a great idea in principle (+1), but I'd recommend being more careful with the language and the exact approach. The App could be raised in a light-hearted manner that notes it as an interesting phenomenon bearing on the class composition, but does not attack anyone (or think of them as "invaders"). A lecturer speculating on whether or not women might want to have sex with male students in the class is itself quite rude and could come off badly.
    – Ben
    Jan 29, 2023 at 22:36
  • 12
    This seems rather out of touch with reality. What will you answer if your partner asks you "Why did you go to that bar where we met?" or "Why were you on this dating app on which we met?". You're not going to deconstruct a young adult's motivation to find a mate that easily.
    – Servaes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 3:32
  • 9
    @Thissitehasbecomeadump. Well, "to meet women" is a pretty reasonable reason to be on a dating app. It is not a reason to audit a course with content you learned years ago. Jan 30, 2023 at 4:12
  • 9
    @AzorAhai-him- It may be due to cultural differences (I've spent a bit of time in the US, but not in my younger years), but I know very few women who would be put off by a guy attending a course to meet women. It would raise a giggle at best, just as joining a book club or dance class to meet women.
    – Servaes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 4:24
  • 3
    However, I do not like this approach much as I am sure, some women don't see this as creepy (while a lot surely do). Especially if people can come up with an explanation like "I wanted to teach the subject I like and also meet girls". For what it's worth, in this question, some of the womem seem to find the situation funny/acceptable/feel like they can profit from it. This may, in the view of the offenders, invalidate your argument.
    – user111388
    Jan 30, 2023 at 18:23
16

A little bit of a frame challenge:

I think it will not be possible to remove this behavior completely. Men studying something with a low number of women will always be looking for a way to meet women. It's natural and the problem exists everywhere. However, they should behave like adults and decent human beings.

A solution could be focusing on moving the issue into a productive asset. The following is just a thought and needs tuning.

Have a talk with the course about the issue and behaviors that are unacceptable. Then set up a formal pairing for tutoring with changing tutors and small groups. Use the knowledge the older students have for good. And make sure it is work for the older students (that will deter some) and that they know that they now have official responsibilities, hopefully making them act more mature.

Use two facts to your advantage: the students need to have a good image in the course to achieve their goal and many people will change their behavior if called out.

Look at it this way: the problem isn't their attendance, it's their behavior. Change the latter and only reduce the former.

8
  • 4
    The problem with this approach is that it won’t turn off the motivation. Organising official tutoring sessions is great, but you can’t do so by recruiting tutors which you already know to be biased and not motivated to teach per se. If all of this becomes official, it will need to cater ideally equally to people outside the target audience of the invading students, such as non-attractive female students and regular male students.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 29, 2023 at 12:18
  • 7
    @Wrzlprmft that's exactly the point, make it such that everyone profits (for example by having them tutor groups). Imho turning off the motivation of male students in fields with few female students after they've seen a way of getting more female contact will be near to impossible. And after all, that's how humans reproduce, so one could even argue that shouldn't be the objective (- please no discussion on that, it won't lead anywhere, it's no excuse for being an ass and even less for harassment!!)
    – DonQuiKong
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:09
  • 8
    +1 I'll hijack this excellent answer with another suggestion (from my own experience) to reduce the STEM students' motivation to engage in this behavior: Have the two departments that are involved (or their student unions) organize shared events. At my university, the math/compsci student union regularly rented out a club downtown, inviting all math/compsci students for a small entrance fee and all psychology/anthropology/anything-mostly-women students for free. Heck the math/compsci student union would even pay cabs from/to campus for them!
    – Servaes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 3:01
  • 6
    @Wrzlprmft Re: “You know those slimy guys who have been annoying you?" I quote the comments by OP to Yachtsun's anwer: "no unwanted advances are taking place", and "There's no un-wanted flirting"
    – Servaes
    Jan 31, 2023 at 1:08
  • 4
    @Wrzlprmft The first quote one is mostly a value judgment by OP, and doesn't actually mention any problem. That's true for most of the question. The second quote does lead up to an actual problem raised by some of the students; that they're not getting as much attention from these advanced students. Painful and demoralizing, sure, but students not getting any action is really not an issue for university staff to solve.
    – Servaes
    Jan 31, 2023 at 8:26
10

Just when I thought I had seen all possible questions on this site and stopped following it for a while -- wow, this is quite a new one for me.

One angle that I haven't seen suggested yet is: these senior STEM majors presumably have academic advisors, right? One of the jobs of an academic advisor is to guide and approve the student's course selection. Among other things, a senior STEM major taking a freshman level STEM course is a bad idea academically: it is a poor use of their time, whether they are taking the course for a grade or not. Can you get in contact with the STEM academic advisors? These people may be willing to meet with their students to discuss this. Having to explain to your advisor that you are really taking this course because of someone's addlepated theory that it will help you get dates sounds like it would be a deterrent, at least to some. If you can find a faculty member in the relevant department, they may agree to talk to students in their department whether they are their official advisor or not.

Here is another idea: write up a code of conduct that students (including auditors) in your course must sign. This code of conduct would include a statement that they are taking the course for good academic reasons and that they must make continuous efforts to support a proper academic environment. You can put in your syllabus that students meet with you periodically to discuss their progress in the course, including their conduct.

In summary, if the students who are doing this know that the faculty are fully aware of what they are doing and they are coming under scrutiny for it, then only a small percentage will continue to behave in this way. At least, this has been my experience as a professor at a public research university in the United States for getting on 20 years: some students take more effort to get through to, but the number of students who have continued to behave in a certain way in my course after I have told them suffficiently clearly that I don't want them to and why is very small.

4
  • Generally reasonable ideas (and +1 for addlepated). However, I'm not sure that a course lecturer will have the power to impose a code of conduct for a course that goes above and beyond the rules of the university; a fortiori if the creation of that code is motivated to remove or hamper a particular group.
    – Ben
    Feb 17, 2023 at 22:10
  • @Ben: First, you say "course lecturer" but the OP began by saying they were a professor. Second: if the code of conduct says that students should take the course out of a desire to learn and must strive to create an environment conducive to the learning of other students, I disagree that this is intended to remove or hamper a particular group...at least, not any group that anyone associated with the university would want to defend. Feb 18, 2023 at 21:37
  • While it is possible that the university administration could push back against such a code of conduct, it is nevertheless worth a try. In my opinion the administration would look very bad trying to contest the instructor's desire to create a positive academic environment in their classroom, but unfortunately I agree that sometimes university administrations do things that I would have thought had "prohibitively poor optics." Feb 18, 2023 at 21:39
  • Finally, in order for such pushback to take place, presumably one of these senior STEM students would have to complain to the administration about it. In my own experience, the number of students willing to go up against their instructor like this, especially for such a dubious payoff, is very small. But this is a matter of academic culture, so while I can say that this is not the academic culture I have experienced, of course I can't speak for everyone else. Feb 18, 2023 at 21:45
8

Without the support of your colleagues or administration, it seems like you are limited in your abilities to punish behavior that appears quite sexist and harmful to new students.

Within your power, however, is the ability to remind what type of behavior is acceptable, and that you will be unable to forget this behavior when it comes time for letters of recommendation. If they need your permission to audit the course again, deny it.

I also propose an alternative to punishment - instead of trying to punish the wrongdoers, you could try to put them out of business. Create a school-sponsored tutoring service or organize class-wide study sessions directly. If the sessions are struggling with enrollment, offer to drop by and answer "a few questions" as a means of endorsement. This seems more in line with your motivations as a passionate teacher of 100-level courses. Depending on your school, you may be able to find or apply for funds for such programs, some keywords being: "tutoring", "peer learning", "supplemental instruction".

Alternatively, perhaps you can whitelist tutors that you believe are not cruising for numbers, and offer to connect students to upperclassmen who have good records. Keep in mind you want to avoid conflict of interest - you certainly cannot get anything back from these tutors, consult someone else before this happens, I'm not a lawyer, etc.

7

Sexual harassment is not to be tolerated. Unwanted attention of the sort your students are reporting is sexual harassment.

  1. Point out in class, and/or your online learning module, what constitutes sexual harassment according to your institute. Refer to your institute's policies.

  2. Point out what are the official channels of instruction for the course, and who are the official instructors. Point out that any other source of information regarding the course or anyone else who is offering tutoring or "tutoring" services do so outside the institute's pale.

  3. Post contact details for people to approach at your institute if they are being harassed on campus, or via official institute channels. Post contact details for people wishing to report harassment occurring outside these official forums.

None of these actions should be in violation of any of your university's policies, or attract any repercussions. If this is not true, your institute has deeper problems.

This problem appears to be confounded by the fact that these individuals are using publicly available student diversity data. You might be right that pointing this out to your institute might be embarrassing for them, if true. It also doesn't sound like you are surrounded by people who are taking this seriously.

Tackling the problem longer-term could mean taking your concerns to your Protor/Ethics Committee/Dean : whoever might be upset about a public expose of this situation. This might force a review of who gets to 'audit' a course, and/or how the diversity data are made available.

4
  • 2
    Yes. It could easily be the case that neither the women nor the men are aware of what constitutes harassment. It will benefit all sides to be better informed.
    – craq
    Jan 31, 2023 at 1:05
  • 9
    Someone signing up for the same course as you is NOT sexual harrassment. Jan 31, 2023 at 3:40
  • @AdamBarnes I agree with your statement. My suggested actions in my answer aren't predicted on the motivations of anyone signing up for a class, but rather what to do if you are subject to persistent unwanted attention.
    – Nicholas
    Jan 31, 2023 at 19:16
  • 4
    @Nicholas Note that the question explicitly states that "there are no unwanted advances", and in later comments OP writes that "There's no un-wanted flirting", below Yachsut's answer. So this answer doesn't really address the question.
    – Servaes
    Feb 2, 2023 at 2:08
5

There's a lot going on in this question, but as I see it, most of it is not a problem (though a lot of it is rather dubious behavior). I'll take the liberty of cutting down the question to the core, as I see it:

Your class has a group of overqualified students from another department, that is creating an unpleasant atmosphere for some (many?) students. A few members of this group are outright lecherous, making some fellow students uncomfortable. Their overqualification also causes issues for the other students when grading on a curve.

The highly granular diversity data collected (!) and published (!!!) by the university, and the app that uses this data (!!!), are all highly dubious, but at best tangential to the issue. Even without such data, every student will be able to tell you that department X has a large surplus of male students, and department Y has a large surplus of female students.

As for the actual problems:

  1. If these students are so overqualified, you should consider not allowing them to take the course in the first place. If you do not have this authority, discuss this with the relevant authority. Perhaps this course should not be an elective for students from other departments to begin with, or perhaps students from other departments should get permission from you and/or their department to attend this course. Otherwise treat them like any other student that doesn't find your course challenging.

  2. There are many ways in which students can create an unpleasant atmosphere. The best one can hope for is that this is not intentional, and that it is actionable. In this case, these student do not seem intent on creating an unpleasant atmosphere, it is just a side-effect. It is not clear to me whether the behavior is actionable. Do encourage your students to file complaints on any harassment or abuse, and of course you should report any misbehavior as well. If you return to the administration and Title IX officer with actual written complaints, they will be forced to take you seriously.

    On a lighter note; any behavior that is distracting to other students, or directly hinders others' ability to participate fully, should be adressed and stopped in no uncertain terms immediately. In the 100-level courses I've taught I would give exactly one warning to someone 'clowning' around, and thereby warn the entire class. The next one is expelled immediately. I never liked teaching these courses.

  3. Stop grading on a curve; it makes no sense. (Follow the link in the comments if you wish to discuss this).

Another approach you could pursue in parallel, is to redirect these students' motivations for attending in the first place. They are there to meet women, which is a very natural motivation, and a very strong one in young adults. In the US it is generally considered the responsibility of males to initiate contact, this is simply their very poor shot at taking initiative. It should not be difficult to facilitate better opportunities than 'attending courses you have no interest in for no credit'.

Consider contacting the student unions of the departments involved, and help them organize some shared social events for students from these two departments. This is of course not your responsibiliy, and I don't suggest that you become a party planner on the side, but planting the idea and maybe diverting some resources could go a long way. Think of facilitating communication between the departments/student unions, facilitating a location or redirecting a bit of funding.

6
  • 1
    An older discussion here on Academia SE regarding grading on a curve: How is grading by curve fair at all? Are there any arguments in favor of it? Jan 30, 2023 at 6:54
  • @TheAmplitwist I didn't want to start (or summarize) that discussion here, I know this has received ample attention on this forum. So thank you for the link.
    – Servaes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 6:56
  • Agreed. I hoped that by adding the link in a comment, further discussion can be taken there instead of sidetracking your answer. Jan 30, 2023 at 6:57
  • 1
    About point #2, it's known to "create an unpleasant atmosphere" when the best students always answer questions and showboat. They don't always mean to, and most calm down when they realize they're hurting the other students. But it's "actionable" that you tell then to let someone else answer the Q's, and so on. Jan 30, 2023 at 20:12
  • @OwenReynolds That's a good addition. My focus was drawn to the more gravely "unpleasant atmosphere" created by some students displaying lecherous behavior.
    – Servaes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 21:59
4

I've never had quite that problem but it feels like parts of other problems. A few regular lecturer tricks come to mind:

  • Don't let it be personal. Sure, App-induced shenanigans is bad for the class and super-gross(*). Professionalism and human decency says to do something, but you made an effort and in the end it's their school. With me it's cheating, but I can't catch them all, it's not like they killed someone, and worrying about it is just taking time away from other classwork. For me, whatever I do, it's not personal (even if it is). I'm just trying to protect the school from student complaints and angry employers.

  • Some problems are a "next semester" issue. It's when people have more time to consider things; maybe new policies are involved (which can only be changed for next semester); maybe the problem solves itself by semester's end, but at least more data is in.

  • Make sure everyone knows these helpful fellows are not TA's. That'll help prevent rumors starting (about TA's dating students) or that you don't have control over the TA's, or students' misunderstandings when they think these fellows are safer than they are because they're somehow supervised or screened. Because a group of upper-classpeople who clearly don't need the course must be something official, right? It's not as if the school would force the instructor to let lonely randos follow pretty girls into the classroom.

  • This might be a fun way to learn how the University structure works. I've worked at two and never did figure out the second one. I'm still not sure what a Provost is. Some students are closer to their advisors, so it might help to be sure they know this situation. That might also clue you in about whether other classes are having this problem. Either way, I've met some interesting Uni staff starting with "I have a weird classroom problem you might have some insight on".

  • Good students really want to know that something is being done about classroom issues. So tell those students who complained what you did. They'll fell better that you tried to look out for them. It's also a nice way to explain how universities work to them. They've probably never heard of auditing(**) a class. And sometimes enough angry students can solve problems staff can't.

  • Not sure if this is an issue. Maybe these people are quietly sitting in the back and flashing the regular students sexy pouts as they walk in and out, calling them Mi'lady perhaps. But if that's not the case, treat them like any other student who's a little too good for the class, always has the answer, and so on -- C students need to be comfortable asking questions, and interfering with that is disrupting the class.

(*) So these are Juniors and Seniors cruising for Fresh-people? Eeww.

(**) Allowing someone to audit my class, or just sit-in, was completely my decision (I assume since only I knew if there was room, it would be disruptive, etc... , and since there were no fees involved). It's so funny what things are different.

3

First of all - I'm sorry to hear this and good for you for wanting to stick up for your students.

As mentioned by others, this is too big for you to handle. Ideally you would be able to speak up in class at the start of a lecture, clearly point out what despicable behaviour is happening under everyone's noses and pointing out that this is non-professional behaviour that also lacks moral integrity. Unfortunately, this approach may backfire as pointed out by others.

So indeed, sketch your options. Identify people and/or committees/offices you could get involved - in either case as your support system and better yet as helping you to take action. Diversity officers, Title IX, your own boss or boss' boss, perhaps even student bodies? Write an opinion piece in the university paper/news outlet? Encourage the young students who feel harassed to take action and be their support system as they press charges?

Sadly, whichever course of action you take, the repercussions are impossible to predict - but from your question I sense that doing nothing is not an option.

One thing I didn't see explicitly mentioned by others is to try and find a male ally. Do you have a male colleague (ideally more senior and/or popular with the perpetrating crowd) who might be able to shut this down and talk sense into the juvenile brains behind this whole thing who might simply not realise how despicable their actions are?

3
  • 2
    One place to look for allies is to look at who worked within the university on making the diversity data available. There is a good chance that they'll be not amused by that app. Jan 29, 2023 at 15:19
  • @MaartenBuis Sadly, the person who more-or-less fills that role is one-track minded: they see this as a good thing, because my classes are now more diversified.
    – Ana
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:50
  • Can you ask that person to visit your class?
    – Elin
    Jan 31, 2023 at 15:52
2

Here are few suggestions. These will not resolve the problem completely (I think, nothing can), but might help to alleviate it.

  1. Auditors. These might be registered or unregistered.

(i) Unregistered. The unregistered ones are easier to deal with (although, time-consuming). On the first day of classes, or whenever you are ready for this, bring a printout of the list of all registered (for this class) students. A day or two before the lecture send a general announcement to the class, asking everybody to bring their student Id's to the class. Then, on the day of the lecture you ask all present students one-by-one to identify their name, check it against the roster and if needed, ask for their Id's to confirm. This way you will find who (if anybody) is unregistered and ask them to leave and not to attend the class unless they register. If they refuse, call the campus police. If some of them leave but come back to the next lecture (you will probably recognize such students), ask them to leave again.

(ii) Registered. Find out the exact campus policy regarding auditors: You can probably find it online; if it is not available, ask registrar's office or whatever office deals with registration for classes. The auditor policies vary widely. Here is just a small sample:

UCLA: No fee is required for auditing, but instructor's consent is required.

UGA: Full registration fee, instructor's consent is not required.

Harvard: $500 registration fee for a course, but instructor's consent is required.

Princeton: $200 registration fee for a course, instructor's consent is not required.

After finding out the precise policy you may find out that instructor's consent is required, just your department for some reason is not following the policy and, maybe a secretary, is dealing with the issue. In the case when instructor's consent is required, make sure that the official policy is followed and then introduce a strict "no-auditing" system for your class. Even if it turns out (as in Princeton) that the fee is small but instructor's consent is not required, go and discuss the issue with an appropriate campus entity (like registrar's office) if you can petition them, as an exception to allow you to control who is auditing the class. As an explanation, my suggestion is to stick to educational issues and argue that too many upperclassmen are auditing the class, which disrupts the education of the freshmen students (or something along these lines) - try to avoid discussing diversity-related issues since you already know how it will be perceived. Since the money involved is relatively small, maybe your petition will be granted.

  1. Registered students, taking the class for a credit. These are the most difficult ones to handle. On the first day of classes (or whenever you are ready), run a quiz asking students their name, seniority status, major, why are they taking the class and what do they hope to get from it. I think, there is a good chance that upperclassmen will identify themselves honestly. (You can also double check the information through official channels. I know, I can do this with my classes.) Now, you have several options.

(a) After collecting this information, you can send individual emails to the upperclassmen students, asking them to meet you, as a group, in a (reserved in advance) classroom. Then explain to them, possibly appealing to their answers to the quiz, that it seems that they are overqualified for this class. And since you care deeply about their education, you will be giving them special assignments to work on during lectures and labs so that they do not waste their precious time on the material that they already know, and tell them that they are so well-prepared that the assignments should be quite easy. Each assignment is worth zero points, but you will still collect these at the end of the class. Make the assignments sufficiently hard so that the students will spend most of their time in class working on these assignments instead of staring at the girls or showing off.

If students complain that this is unfair, you will also give individually tailored assignments (still worth 0 points) to the rest of the students as well, explaining that the assignments are designed to reflect the level of preparedness of students for the class.

Now, what is intensive the upperclassmen have to hand in their assignments if they are worth 0 points? This is because they are in the class to show off! Failing to hand-in something reasonable will undermine their credibility.

(b) You identify the enrolled upperclassmen visually (your university probably has a database of student pictures (mine does), if not, take pictures of their student Ids on the first day of classes. Also, have a list of upperclassmen ready during lectures/labs. I know that in the US "cold calling" students during the class is usually not done, but you are in a special situation. So, during each lecture/lab you would cold-call some of the upperclassmen and ask them hard questions (still based on the class material). In order to preserve fairness, you also call some of the freshmen, asking easier questions. Being unable to answer, would hurt students egos and will reduce their incentive to take your classes. And, also, the word would get out that you are a harsh instructor, but the effect will be similar.

The drawback of (a) and (b) is that these are likely to reduce your teaching evaluation averages. But think if it's worth it.

4
  • Taking pictures of ids might get you into legal problems.
    – user111388
    Jan 31, 2023 at 19:28
  • @user111388: I do not see how. Jan 31, 2023 at 19:37
  • 4
    Re: "So, during each lecture/lab you would cold-call some of the upperclassmen and ask them hard questions (still based on the class material). In order to preserve fairness, you also call some of the freshmen, asking easier questions." Do we have fundamentally differing ideas of fairness? Word would not get out that you are "a harsh instructor", but that you are selectively and publicly shaming a specific protected class. You should assume to get fired quite quickly if anyone has the wits to document this.
    – Servaes
    Feb 2, 2023 at 2:11
  • @Thissitehasbecomeadump: Who says I am shaming anybody? I am asking different questions depending on the kevel of preparation. And what is unfair here if my questions are worth 0 points? Feb 2, 2023 at 2:34
1

I can see that "Officially" the Administration is deciding that this App and its fallout are NOT an issue that they are willing to take on -- both because it's potentially embarrassing and as the OP stated, the person in charge of diversity sees this as a "good thing".

However, there is no reason the OP can't do anything "unofficially"...I mean, anonymously report anything "bad" (true, the OP said that it wasn't quite at the overt level of sexual harassment yet), tweak the school paper to what's going on, see about the student government -- I'm sure there are representatives for the various classes, etc. And, use those entities to affect change -- whether you contact them officially or anonymously.

Personally, since you know who is auditing your class, I liked the suggestion of "putting them to work" and making them do a mini-presentation of a topic or person for the class -- if they don't, well, don't let them back in...if they do, well it might be a net plus for the class as a whole.

I would also see about discouraging the whole, "free private tutoring sessions", especially, if it's ONLY for the pretty girls...maybe try to divide students into groups so it's evenly divided...or remind everybody that those sessions aren't official.

I would to discourage random participation by auditors (and others), create a strict set of guidelines for attendance and behaviors...attendance, I mean you might not be getting a grade, but, you can't just show up or not as you feel like it -- and this is a 'real' classroom...behaviors, I mean remind people that it is a classroom and class and certain things WILL not be tolerated (e.g. egregious behavior against the school's code of conduct)...and if there are complaints by fellow students, they would be taken seriously.

I also think having students write up their complaints about what's going on is a good thing...e.g. I didn't say anything the students said it... Plus, maybe, encourage them to bring up the issues to people in charge.

0

These are more mitigation strategies than actual solutions, but given the difficulties with actual solutions...

  1. Remove the payout for the unwanted behavior. By which I mean provide plenty of help that doesn't come with ulterior motives so that students don't feel pressure to accept help from someone who does have ulterior motives. If these students are spending a lot of time/effort coming in and "helping" in an attempt to find a romantic relationship and it doesn't actually work they will sooner or later give up and go away.

  2. Provide some acceptable alternative for what they're trying to do. Like a social club. Students who want to form social relationships can go to the social club meetings.

Maybe read up on operant conditioning/animal training. Many animal trainers work with animals that they simply can't physically compel (you can't compel an animal who outweighs you many times over or an animal who can easily escape) but they still have strategies to get rid of unwanted behaviors--things like "least reinforcing scenario" and "differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior".

3
  • 2
    I don't think an instructor is the best person to initiate a social club for dating;)
    – user111388
    Jan 30, 2023 at 18:50
  • 3
    @user111388 Why not? Who's a better person? My university had organized social events on both small and large scale. And note I didn't say a social club for dating, but at least if you go to an event in order to meet people and some of the people you meet are interested in meeting people for dating you're not completely surprised...vs. if you go to class and it turns out that some people in the class are there to meet people for dating. Jan 30, 2023 at 19:17
  • I would suggest a student representative (or something similar) such that it doesn't have the flavour of "old people who don't speak youth's language organize something for them":) And sorry, appearently I misinderstood "alternative for what theyre trying to do".
    – user111388
    Jan 30, 2023 at 19:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .