Category: teaching

The Western Gazette Gaffe: On Holding Student Journalism Accountable

It’s that time of year again: as the dog days of summer wind down, Canadian universities are preparing to welcome a whole new cohort of incoming students. The now-empty quads and concourses will soon be abuzz with throngs of students kicking off the start of their university careers with the wide array of activities and services designed to ease their transition into the post-secondary experience. From BBQs to clubs days, from pub nights to residence and faculty-specific orientations, students are being introduced to both the academic and extra-curricular cultures specific to each university campus.

Yet, the start of the 2014-2015 school year isn’t necessarily footloose and fancy-free. Numerous post-secondary institutions in Canada are still dealing with the fallout of many notorious incidents on their campuses in the previous school year.

Image from the Ubyssey's  coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.
Image from the Ubyssey’s coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.
  • In September 2013, both Saint Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia came under fire when student orientation leaders were discovered to have led students in rape chants and anti-Indigenous chants as part of “team-building” exercises, chants which ultimately were found to have been a part of some orientation traditions for many years. In the wake of condemnation by both the public as well as university administrators, many student leaders resigned, and others were compelled to take part in anti-violence training.
  • From April 2013-October 2013, a total of six sexual assaults on female students occurred at the University of British Columbia. The perpetrator responsible for these attacks remains at large.
  • In January 2014, the McMaster Redsuits (students from the McMaster Engineering Society) were suspended over a FROSH songbook that included “around 25 cheers and includes multiple references to violent rape, murder, incest, bestiality and sex with underage females. It is also rife with misogynistic and homophobic slurs” (Campbell & Ruf). The suspensions have barred the MES from participating in 2014 Welcome Week events.
  • In Feburary 2014, a female candidate in student elections at the University of Ottawa, Anne-Marie Roy, was the target of sexually explicit commentary by fellow students. As Diane Mehta of The Canadian Press reported, these messages “included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.”
  • In March 2014, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended over allegations of a sexual assault perpetrated by two of their players. As the Ottawa Sun’s Danielle Bell reports, the head coach was aware of the sexual assault, but failed to report it to university officials: as such, the team has been suspended for the 2014-2015 season, and the coach has been dismissed. Recently, the two players – David Foucher and Guillaume Donovan – have both been charged with one count each of sexual assault.

Clearly, it’s been a tough year, for students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators. Addressing issues of sexual violence and the normalization and trivialization of sexism and racism has been a complex undertaking. In addition to sanctioning student leaders who promote sexism (even under the guise of “jokes”), and rightly punishing students who commit acts of sexual violence, several universities have put together task forces in order to try and create best practices for addressing these issues, including an increase in the availability of safety measures and support services for students, staff, or faculty who have been harassed or assaulted.

Given the widespread coverage that the past year’s incidents have received, I had been hopeful that FROSH 2014 would take on a different tone, and that undergraduate students would be encouraged to create community and solidarity – to break the proverbial ice – around anything but sexism, objectification, harassment, or violence. 

Yet, as this school year begins, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and administrators at a Canadian university are finding themselves dealing yet again with a student-led initiative that uses sexual harassment as a basis for creating a welcoming environment for incoming students.

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 7.33.51 PM

As part of their special FROSH-week edition, the undergraduate student newspaper at Western University, The Western Gazette, included a “satirical” article written by Robert Nanni, entitled “So you want to date your TA?” Among the “tips” that Nanni provides, he suggests that students a) Facebook “stalk” their TAs and get to know their personal interests; b) dress provocatively in order to gain attention; c) use office hours in order to score alone time with their TA. Finally, Nanni writes, students should know when to stop their pursuit of their TAs: they may have to resign themselves to not getting laid. After all, “they may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain. Don’t be too disappointed though – after all, there’s always next term.” 

Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they're still professionals with a job to do - a job they take very seriously.
Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they’re still professionals with a job to do – a job they take very seriously.

Shortly after the article’s publication on August 20th, teaching assistants, alumni, students, and professors alike expressed their staunch criticisms of the piece. A commenter named Kelly writes: “This is disgusting. Teaching Assistants are employed, as experts in training, by universities to facilitate student learning. It is a job, and this kind of behaviour from students is not tolerated and should not be encouraged. I would report a student immediately for inappropriate behaviour like this. As a teaching assistant and PhD Candidate, I find it insulting and inappropriate to publish this, because it implies a lack of professionalism from TAs and undermines their authority and knowledge.”

Another commenter, “TA/Adjunct,” commented: “As has been mentioned, many TAs at Western are women who must battle against a sexist university culture that insists they are not as smart as men, or that they are only here because they have something to prove. I’ve seen this with my female colleagues many, many times. Too many to count. I was also on the receiving end of very unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances by a student. It put me in an unbelievably precarious position, even more than I already was a low paid TA.” 

Despite the backlash against the article (including a letter penned by Dr. Janice Deakin, Western U’s Provost & VP-Academic), the paper’s editor-in-chief, Iain Boekhoff, maintains that the article is, quite simply, a piece of satire, despite compelling evidence (especially by TAs themselves!) that the satire fails miserably in hitting any sort of humourous mark. 

The problems with the article have already been well-commented on, and I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms. TAs are professional members of the university community, ones who are bound by a series of professional codes and boundaries, and who deserve much more than being objectified and sexualized by the students they are meant to teach and mentor. 

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Boekhoff refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, the seriousness of sexism and harassment, and to acknowledge that perhaps, the paper might have erred in publishing the piece. Even though he maintains that this is an opportunity for the paper to learn and do better in future, he stands by the piece being published, and refuses to take it down from the website. However, there are two main reasons why I’m really disappointed in Boekhoff’s reaction, and why I think his statements do a disservice to university communities: one, they resort to the tired old stereotypes of those who dare to call out sexual harassment and sexual objectification; two, because they make excuses for a lack of accountability within the campus community, and within student journalism more broadly.

As reported by Mike Donachie in the Metro News, Boekhoff dismisses the outrage as the product of a small group of clearly over-reactive individuals: “I had one complaint late Sunday night which is after three days of people losing their minds on Twitter,” he said. “This thing is entirely Twitter.” I can’t say I’m surprised that Boekhoff would choose to say that the measured criticisms, including those by prominent professors and community members, are tantamount to people “losing their minds.” After all, the discourses of “craziness” are so often-applied to those who protest against harassment and sexism that it is almost to be expected. When news of the rape chants broke last year, there was an incredible amount of condemnation of the complainants on the basis of their apparent “lack of reason,” namely that they were oversensitive, unable to take a joke, or simply so unstable that they would take offense even at the most mild forms of humour. Not to mention, of course, that Twitter activism has often been maligned in the same manner, that those who react to incidences of sexism are merely keyboard warriors, whipped into a hashtag-fueled, emotional frenzy, who have nothing better to do than point out the fault in seemingly-innocuous media. By creating a divide between “official” complaints and those offered on the website’s comment section and via Twitter, Boekhoff is essentially suggesting that there are less legitimate (and therefore, less reasonable) forms of complaint and criticism – forms which ultimately, are not to be taken as seriously.

In an interview with Zoe McKnight at the Toronto Star, Boekhoff turned his attention yet again to the ways in which his critics simply lacked a sense of humour or an adequate interpretive lens: “The role of the student press is different from the role and standards of the mainstream press … Students view things from a different vantage point than adults or university administration.”

In suggesting that the role of the student press is different than that of mainstream media outlets, Boekhoff is seemingly suggesting that student writers and editors are not professionals who are capable of being both respected as well as being held to account in the same ways as “real professionals” are. However, student newspapers are not underground or anonymous zines, nor are they views expressed on personal blogs or webpages. They are organizations that are funded by students’ tuition fees, and ones that thus bear strong affiliations with the universities themselves. And so, when the employees and students of the institution on your masthead have a serious issue with the content you’re presenting, especially when it so clearly contravenes the policies of safe workplaces, it is deeply unprofessional to pull the “we can’t be held accountable like the grownups/professionals are” line. This is not to say that university papers, including their individual writers and editors cannot ultimately choose to stand by their work, no matter how profoundly others disagree. Yet, in asserting that they ought not to be held to the same standards, they thus also give up the right to be given the same respect as professional media outlets, which is an insult to the hundreds of committed student journalists and editorial team who work to produce these papers. 

Student newspapers, just like student-led orientations, organizations, and athletics teams, are a vital part of a thriving campus community. A university newspaper provides not only a way for students to keep on top of the current events on their campus, and an opportunity for budding journalists to cut their teeth in the business, but also gives students a way to expose the problems and issues within the community, and in doing so, keep the community accountable. Indeed, news of the rape chants at UBC were first broken by Arno Rosenfeld, a reporter with The Ubyssey, who conducted a thorough series of interviews and investigations into the issue, even after the story had been picked up by major news outlets. Because the staff of these papers are students’ peers and representatives, there is an powerful bond of trust that goes along with working in student journalism: student reporters often have connections within the campus community that outside media do not, and the peer-bond can often make these reporters and editors feel more trustworthy. 

In pointing out the issues with FROSH orientation events, or athletic teams, or student organizations, or student newspapers, critics, especially those from within the campus community, are rarely out on a mission to collapse, defame, or destroy these parts of campus culture. We are not rallying to eliminate Greek life, protesting to shut down all Orientation events, or stopping the presses at university papers. Rather, we are recognizing that these parts of campus culture are important enough, and provide enough positive sources of community-building and leadership that we want to work together to ensure they aren’t made unsafe by misguided and deeply offensive articles, racist or sexist chants, or actual instances of sexual violence, harassment, or sexism.

Works Cited

Bell, Danielle. “2 Ottawa U hockey players charged with sexual assault.” Ottawa Sun. 22 Aug. 2014.

Chapman, Julia, and Cory Ruf. “McMaster student group suspended over ‘sexist, violent, degrading’ songbook.” CBC. 23 Jan. 2014. Web.

Donachie, Mike. Western University student newspaper runs article on how to ‘stalk’ teaching assistants.” Metro News. 25 Aug. 2014. Web.

McKnight, Zoe. “Western University paper stands by controversial article.” Toronto Star. 26 Aug. 2014. Web.

Mehta, Diane. “Ottawa student leader denounces ‘rape culture’ on Canadian campuses.” CTV News. 2 Mar. 2014.

Nanni, Robert. “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” Western Gazette. 20 Aug. 2014. Web.

PSAC Local 610 Executive. “So you want to treat your TA like a human being?” PSAC610.ca 26. Aug. 2014. Web.

Lost in Translation: What the Vancouver Transit Police Advertisement Teaches Us About Language Use

grammar_policeWhen I recently told an acquaintance that I study and teach in a Department of English Language & Literature, they commented that I must be a real stickler for grammar and vocabulary. In some ways, that’s true. Part of my job is to teach my students to write well and to communicate their ideas effectively. The truth is, however, that I’m much less interested in perfect grammar and spelling than I am in whether or not an idea or argument is conveyed as unambiguously and clearly as possible (especially in academic writing!). After all, even in my own academic and personal writing, I often flout the usual rules or expected usages of grammar. I often start sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” I don’t always use semi-colons or dashes properly (although I do try). Ultimately, however, the goal of my writing – and the ways in which I teach my students to write – is to make sure that as much as you can, you try to make sure that your audience knows exactly what you mean to say.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication does indeed have to do with grammar, as this wonderful and popular example illustrates.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication has to do with sentence structure and phrasing. It’s this type of issue, I believe, that lies behind the issues with a recent campaign by Vancouver’s Transit Police, as part of their ongoing series of campaigns and services designed to address harassment on public transportation. As you can see in this photograph, the poster suggests that “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame” – a phrase which seems to suggest that a failure to report assault is a primary source of shame.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.
Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Vancouver-based artist Anoushka Ratnarajah brought attention to the problems with the poster’s message via an Instagram post, and the story was soon picked up by Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and various other news outlets. The Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, issued a powerful statement to the Vancouver Transit Police. Playing on the phrasing of the poster itself, Hollaback! Vancouver’s response was that “we see something, and we’re saying something.” In the end, the Vancouver Transit Police issued an apology: as the CBC reports, they will be taking these posters down, and replacing them.

As was to be expected, perhaps, many of the commenters on social media have painted this pushback against the poster as just another example of “oversensitive feminazi crusading,” arguing that we live in a oversensitive and critical culture where even good-hearted gestures by authorities are being overly-harshly criticized. Just like the recent debates about whether or not so-called “trigger warnings” are useful or necessary, especially in a world where triggers and violence abounds anyway, it seems to be the case that those who have complained or criticized (many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including incidents which have taken place on transit) are being characterized as merely reactionary, ungrateful, or sensitive.

To be clear, many of these commenters are missing the point, or choosing to ignore the ways in which activists have suggested that it is not the entirety of the poster, nor all of the Vancouver Transit Police’s initiatives that they take issue with. As Hollaback! Vancouver clearly states: “This is the text from a See Something Say Something Campaign, the real-time, easy-to-use, confidential, texting initiative launched in April by the Vancouver transit police. Transit users can report harassment by texting 87-77-77 and police are notified and can investigate as early as the next stop. This initiative is an important piece in supporting victims, but we hope transit police will reconsider the victim-blaming message sandwiched in their ad.”

More importantly, I think that many people are missing the fundamental problem: despite the VTP’s intentions, the ad is clearly not…well, clear. A very brief close reading – the kind I’d have my students do in my classroom – shows just how these ambiguities work, and how/why the critiques of this poster were justified.

1) Who is the audience?

The advertisement seems to be targeting both victims and bystanders, and does not necessarily make it easy to understand who is being addressed. While “if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong” can apply equally to victims and bystanders, the third line seems to focus primarily on the victim: “nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything to YOU.” The last line, the “see something / say something” slogan, seems to suggest that the bystander (the person who may be witnessing an assault or instance of harassment) is being addressed.

2) What is the source of shame? Who is it placed on?

Because there are two different audiences being addressed, it becomes confusing as to who, exactly, the shame is meant to be placed on.

  • Is it meant to be the bystander, who sits/stands by and does nothing?
  • Does this assume that the bystander CAN or should intervene physically? Or is the shame, as phrased, in not reporting after the assault?
  • Are bystanders meant to feel shame for not reporting an assault on a passenger?
  • Is shame actually a productive way of forming a community of care?
  • Or, as many others, including myself, have pointed out, is it intended to reach the victim? Should victims feel shame for not reporting their assaults, and, presumably, not “helping to prevent” future assaults?
  • Again: is shame a productive or useful way to get victims to report or seek help?

I hope it’s evident, at this point, that you can unpack a lot of issues with audience and intended meaning just from one short phrase. That, after all, is the power of language: a lot can be said with very few words. The next step, however, is to figure out how this poster can avoid some of these communicative problems.

3) A simple question: how can we modify or re-write this phrase in order to have a less ambiguous and potentially harmful meaning?

A simple suggestion: “There is no shame in reporting sexual assault.”

As you can see, we haven’t taken shame out of the linguistic equation. We’ve simply rearranged it. After all, the problem isn’t using the word “shame”. Rather, it’s how, when, why, and where we use it. Articulating the fact that victims of sexual assault or harassment often feel shame is incredibly important to acknowledge. When it comes to street harassment, or incidents that are often perceived as “minor,” it’s easy for victims to feel ashamed, to worry that they won’t be taken seriously, to wonder if they provoked it. Shame and sexual violence too-often go hand in hand. As you can see, if you read through many of the stories collected by the Vancouver initiative “Harassment on Translink,” feelings of shame and guilt still abound.

It’s our job (all of us, including the authorities) to make an effort to make sure that we are recognizing the possible experience of shame, rather than suggesting (even inadvertently), that sexual assault survivors should feel a sense of shame for their inaction. We all want sexual assault and harassment to end, and we acknowledge that reporting can be, and clearly is, a part of that effort.

But I cannot say it enough: reporting sexual assault is NOT a victim’s DUTY. It is one option, and it is the absolute right of the survivor to choose whichever option is safest and best for them. It is all too easy for those who have never had to report, or for whom reporting may have been relatively easy and/or offered justice/healing, that it is a simple and necessary task.

Ultimately, what I take away from this incident is a difficult truth: despite the fact that we use it every single day—no matter which language we speak, read, or sign— language is a very tricky business. Whether it be from one language to another, whether it be from one context to another, whether it be from the way we understand something to the ways that others read, hear, or interpret it, we have all been in situations where our words have missed their mark. We all know what it’s like for something to get lost in translation. Sometimes, of course, we don’t realize it until someone’s pointed it out to us.

When we call others out for their use of language (whether their words are explicitly or implicitly harmful), many of us do it because we believe that change can happen. We believe that we can help to educate, to re-frame, or to re-think through a particular problem in how ideas are expressed. As the CBC’s interview with Constable Anne Drennan notes, this is precisely the outcome of the critiques and feedback that individuals and organizations offered:

“When the complaints began to arrive, they started looking at the ads from a different perspective, Drennan says.

“We [could] see where they are coming from,” she says.

The ads will be taken down over the coming days as cars return to service yards, Drennan says, and will be replaced by new posters with wording approved by an advisory council that includes representatives from women’s support groups. (CBC)

The old adage that “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us” is, as most of us know, patently untrue. We know the degree of injury can vary, depending on the language used, and depending on the individual who reads or sees the language in question. We know that our “intended” meanings may not necessarily be the received meanings, and it’s important to recognize that good intentions do not devalue or cancel out the harm that can be done. However, I firmly believe that with a greater understanding of the immense power of language (as well as the ability to speak and write about, well, how we speak and write!) we can use our words for great acts of compassion, education, and justice. sticksandstones

 

RESOURCES:

If you have a story to share about harassment/need resources:

Vancouver: Hollaback! Vancouver & Harassment on Translink

Vancouver Transit Police – check out their OnDuty App & find out about reporting via text message

Hollaback! International

Everyday Sexism

Stop Street Harassment

Running the Gauntlet: Thoughts on the Legacy of the Montréal Massacre

Marker of Change Women's Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)
Marker of Change Women’s Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.

The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.

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As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.

december6_DSC_2918And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued? 

I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.

I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.

But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.

Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.

And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.

1441307_10151724417901829_1385872681_nBut ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.

Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.

It Happened On My Campus, Too: Rape Chants at UBC

Just two days ago, I published an article  (which was also republished on Rabble.ca) detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described—repetitively—being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.

Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members. While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.

Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?

Wrong.

Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during Sauder FROSH, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS)” (Rosenfeld, Ubyssey). Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group” (Rosenfeld).

Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.

I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.

It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.

It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18th to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools—that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.

As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.

As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.

As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.

I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging—and actively encouraging others to engage—in the mockery and dismissal of violence.

UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”

It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.

It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.

It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.

For nearly 4 years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.

  • If you would like to contact me about this article: llorenzi@alumni.ubc.ca

Articles Referenced:

Tucker, Erika. “Difference between SMU and chants of froshes past is these students got caught.” GlobalBC. September 6th, 2013. 

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre – PRESS RELEASE: Frosh Week Chant Validates and Perpetuates Rape Culture 

Willick, Frances.  “SMU rape chant a mistake ‘heat of the moment’.” The Chronicle Herald. September 5th, 2013. 

“SMU president calls sexual assault chant ‘biggest mistake I’ve made.'” CTV Atlantic. September 5th, 2013. 

Rosenfeld, Arno. “‘N is for no consent!’ Sauder first-years led in offensive chant.” The Ubyssey. September 6th, 2013. 

Other Resources and Articles:

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Vancouver Sexual Assault Support Centres/Crisis Lines

Draw The Line Ontario (explore your attitudes/responses to various types of sexual violence)