I am currently enrolled in a fully-funded MFA program, and am so grateful for the opportunity and privilege I have. However, one of the professors in the program is highly inappropriate and makes racially insensitive and sexually inappropriate comments. His behavior is regarded as acceptable by the other members of my program because “that’s the way he is.”
I have been in several conflicts with him, and am dreading workshop with him this semester. His behavior is unprofessional and distracts me from the reason I am here, which is to write. The situation has caused me so much distress that I have secretly reapplied to alternative MFA programs in hope of transferring out.
If I am lucky enough to be accepted to alternative programs, should I leave? I have been told this experience will “make me a better writer,” and I have already settled in. Should I stay and fight, or move on and be comfortable
somewhere else (even though comfort is not guaranteed elsewhere)?
Fight or Flight
Dear Fight or Flight,
I will get to my opinion on flight but, regardless, holy hell, in one way or another, I want you to fight! The fight is not always big and public —although you state that you have had several conflicts with Professor Asshat, so I imagine you are up for that—sometimes the fight is just that you manage to persevere despite the misogynists out there.
Of all the letters I get, letters about the sexual harassment of female writers – in MFA programs and elsewhere – are the most frequent. I’ve discussed this topic once before (see Dear Fury #4) and it covers a lot of my feelings about this subject, so please read that, but I’ve been thinking so much lately about the problem, how it’s not getting better (likely getting worse given the ease of creepers and trolls on social media) and how and why it is happening, why it is still happening. And it seems your harasser is a racist as well. I’ve got my stingers out.
When I was a young scorpion I lived in a big city and found myself sometimes at big literary events with major literary “players.” It was not unusual for me to endure everything from a sexist comment to an ass-grab to full-on assault from some of the most respected male figures in literature. It was not infrequent that I was told I was supposed to be grateful for the attention.
I know of one major literary figure and professor who will only talk to the women in his class if he finds them attractive and knows them to be heterosexual (and, to his mind, available). This is confusing and enraging for everyone – the women who are ignored, the women who aren’t, and the men who stand witness to and learn from this behavior. I could go on all fucking day like this, with my own stories, with my friends’ stories, with all the stories that pour into Fury’s inbox.
But here are some questions: Do you love your MFA program, this creep aside? How do you feel about where it’s located, what you’re learning, the other students? Would it be perfect if not for this racist, sexist asshole? Then let’s see what you can do to stay.
Get a group together. If this is happening to you, the odds are it is happening to other women and/or people of color in your writing program. And odds are there are many more witnesses to this brand of bullshit. So try, if you can, to talk about these issues with your fellow students. Predators count on women keeping quiet. And, to be clear, people like Professor Asshat are predators. They may be predators with books and awards and a smiley family at home, and your professor may not be physically threatening, but it is a predator who would intimidate typically younger students with racist and misogynistic rhetoric to assert his power; it is a predator who would count on his victims to be too afraid of his power and influence to ever speak up; it is a predator who would count on anxious students to stay confused about the price of literary support. But giving up your comfort and your sanity should never be the price of “getting ahead.”
Still, the culture of silence is strong, and I imagine other faculty might be just as afraid of speaking up as are their students. They might be saying to you “that’s the way he is” or “he’s from a different generation” or (the worst) “boys will be boys” as a code for “I’m afraid to speak up.” Yes, that may be fucked up and cowardly, but they might argue that they have their jobs to worry about and they have awkward faculty meetings to think about and, plus, a lot of female faculty are worn down from decades of battling this kind of shit. That’s why change is slow going. There is a tremendous amount of backlash for people who speak up about verbal harassment, even as there is tremendous support. People will tell you, and will tell those who speak up for and with you, that you are involved in a witch hunt, that you are hysterical and repressed, that you should be so lucky to be sexually harassed by one of the brightest writers in the country, that you should, under any and every circumstance, separate the art from the artist and blah fucking blah. You might start to doubt yourself. You might start to feel crazy, gaslighted. But wait.
What people like Professor Asshat don’t ever expect is the strength of their prey, and strength often comes in numbers, and numbers can be gathered on or offline. When I was in school I was trapped in a male professor’s office while he hinted that I’d get the scholarship I desperately needed if I just “helped him out” with a quick blow job. If this happened in 2014 I could have snapped a pic of his inappropriate gestures and tweeted the shit out of that. By which I mean: you could email your closest friends in the program – female and male – and tell them the kinds of inappropriate comments and innuendo, and whatever else this dipshit is guilty of. Odds are it’s happened to them, from this guy or another, and odds are they will be outraged. It is scary to speak out and speak up, but, unless you go to a school full of pricks, I’m guessing you will find fighters to fight with. Often it takes just the first brave person to come forward, and then brave others follow. And maybe you, or one of those brave others, can secretly record your awful professor’s tirade or threats or come-ons. Because, sure as shit, spewing hatred of any kind is against your university’s code of conduct.
The beautiful thing about our internet age, besides all the wonders of spy phones (I mean, smart phones), is that it’s easier to get things in writing. Another idea: email your professor. Use leading language to goad him into showing his true colors in writing (“Oh hi, you were so amazing in class today! Could you tell me again why you think women’s brains are less important than their asses?”), and then forward his response to his bosses and to everyone else you can think of and ask them to forward it to their friends. (Now I’m getting excited. Revenge is Fury’s favorite Olympic sport.)
That said, and in all seriousness, aside from the standard difficulty in coming forward in our racist and sexist society, a lot of women have had trauma that even the smallest amount of harassment taps into. It could be, literally, impossible for many women to come forward to help themselves out, let alone help out a classmate, as much as they might want to. It is not anti-feminist to be psychologically unable to advocate for yourself or others. If you feel pressure to do so, that is another form of bullying. Some people have supportive friends and families, a functioning well of mental health, money and means for any necessary care; you may not. That is okay. The onus should not be on the victim to make the crime go away.
What I know for sure is that this experience won’t make you a better writer. It might make you a tougher person or it might make you a more timid person. It may give you more fucked up experiences and emotions with which to draw from when writing, but it won’t make you a better writer. Practice and talent and time and reading and brilliant teachers and fellow students might make you a better writer, but racist verbal abuse and sexual harassment won’t. Feeling traumatized isn’t a way to learn to spin a sentence into beauty; being objectified by a professor doesn’t teach you how to break a poetic line.
And I’ll tell you this too, don’t believe the bullshit you’ll hear whispered (or stated outright) about your career being in any kind of danger if you can’t get a recommendation from this pig prof in your program, or if this pig prof talks shit about you around Lit Town. You don’t want his rec anyway: he hasn’t been reading your work; he’s been staring at your breasts. And, no, he can’t destroy your career. This isn’t a soap opera, no one in literature can ruin anyone. Sometimes people ruin themselves (as Professor Asshat would do if the word could only get out) but the writing world is so big and varied that everyone has some enemies (Fury has many) but everyone has many allies too. If you don’t feel like you have any mentors in your own program, reach out. Writers love to get mail, and many writers love to help other writers. You can get your contacts and recs and advice elsewhere. I promise.
If you get in to another MFA program, and you can afford the switch, I don’t see why you shouldn’t go. (And, yes, you can go elsewhere and still fight what you left behind.) But I don’t see how you can get a real education in writing if you stay where you are. You only get so much time in your life to spend in a classroom, and to be in a workshop environment. You don’t want to waste it, if you can help it. This is not about coddling and comfort; this is about being taken, and taking yourself, seriously as a writer in a culture that doesn’t want to take women seriously.