A distinguished, sixtyish writer arrives to address a graduate program. He praises another university for its "hot students" and disses his wife ("sleep with one student and wake up 17 years later married to her"). He says a female prof "eats like a man," and he seems to like the word "beaver." Sounds like a tale from the 1970s, right? Or at least the early 80s, when Naomi Wolf (at left) experienced sexual harassment at the roving hands of Harold Bloom? J.D. Nordell, writing in last week's Times, thinks so too, except it happened to her this year. Her experience with the Visiting Douchebag reminded her how lucky she is that his crap is no longer widely tolerated — and how unfortunate we all are that it still sometimes exists.In my own graduate program, we talk a lot about racism in literature. One problem a classmate of mine identified is the treatment of racism as a relic — a nasty feature of the 50s and 60s, unenlightened days when people didn't know what we know now. Unfortunately many of us — myself on occasion — develop the same attitude to sexism, especially of the more obvious type perpetrated by Nordell's visitor. Like Nordell, we think of such behavior as a throwback to the "Bad Old Days" of academia, when male profs could call on female students "because you're so much more pleasant to look at," and never face repercussions. Now our universities have policies in place to make sure professors treat women equally, but they can't always force them to take us seriously. Nordell notes that the visitor had grievances filed against him at another university, but that he was not found guilty of sexual harassment. "While specific conduct can be outlawed," she writes, "the attitudes it springs from cannot." Nordell says she's "in awe of those students who broke in the academic world — as if it were a stiff leather shoe — so that I am able to participate unharmed." And indeed we all owe a lot to women who went to college when it was a much scarier place. But her story shows that the academic shoe may not be all that broken in yet. Women who experience what Nordell experienced still get the message that what matters about them is not their intellect but their attractiveness to men — can they really come away from this entirely unharmed? Did you experience behavior like this when you were in college or grad school? How do you feel about it now? The Visitor [NY Times]
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