Learning to be more careful…

Posted: May 19, 2013 by Jender in good intentions gone awry

I found your website by accident and was moved by the stories. I had no idea what is going on, and reading the stories will, hopefully, make me more sensitive.

I don’t know if your readers would be interested in my story, but here it is.

I (mid-forties male associate professor) was teaching a graduate seminar today. Students were taking turns discussing paper ideas. I had spoken with one student (call him B) during office hours a few days earlier about a particular topic he was researching in cognitive neuroscience. In class, one of the students (call her A) brought up the same topic from a more philosophical angle. As she was finishing up her summary, she mentioned that she had not yet found any empirical support for her position. At this point, I volunteered that student B could certainly help. Everyone chuckled knowingly, and student A blanched. I had obviously done something wrong, but it was obvious to me only after I had done it. Students A and B are a couple. Everybody in class knows it, including me.

That’s pretty much the story. You can cut it there. Just so you know, though, if I hadn’t read your blog, I don’t think I would have given it a second thought, or even noticed A’s reaction. Having read the many stories on your blog, though, I approached A later and talked to her about it. Indeed, she felt at the moment that she was no longer independent student A, but had suddenly been reduced to just “B’s girlfriend.” I apologized, and she graciously apologized for being “too sensitive.” If student B had, instead, been unattached student C, I would have said the same in class about student C being able to help (but with perhaps less certainty). Therefore, as a fairly privileged white male professor, it is easy for me to excuse my mistake as innocent and unintended, but looking at it from the point of view of A, I can see that I should be more careful.

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