Rape, Procrastination and Academic Ineptitude

The last meeting of the Bloomington Faculty Council included a conversation about sexual assault, according to an article in the Indiana Daily Student. 

The faculty discussed the outcome of the Sexual Assault Climate Survey, which was sent to Indiana University students a little over a year ago. Several of my friends received the survey and mentioned it to me, though I never saw the text of it myself since I’d graduated a few months before it was released.

The fact that the opening clause of the article’s first sentence emphasized not the problem itself, but the fact that Indiana University’s sexual assault rates are comparable to other universities of the same size, is a perfect synechdoche for the way we tend to talk about sexual assault not only at IU but more broadly, as a culture.

It’s not that bad. Don’t make such a big deal about it. 

I wasn’t at the Faculty Council meeting, and while the Indiana Daily Student is a better-than-average college newspaper, It retains the foibles that one might expect from a publication written and edited by undergraduate students. I don’t know whether it was an editorial choice to open the article with that line, or if it reflects the opening comments from the faculty speakers. (I certainly hope that it was a poor editorial choice and not actual faculty language to refer to national rape statistics as ‘national standards’ rather than ‘national averages,’ as though there could be standards for rape and assault, a number or frequency any higher than zero that might be deemed acceptable. 

The article goes on to review the significance, or lack thereof, of the survey results, given the low response rate and lack of random sampling. Apparently some lawyers say that nothing conclusive can be drawn from the research. The Provost said that it “gives us a sense of scope,” because apparently the fact that the campus is under Title IX review wasn’t eough for that.

I can’t help but wonder how we can possibly trust any IU social research if we can’t trust a survey conducted by the university of its own student population. Too much to ask for, perhaps? 

Oh, and the article also touches a little bit on, you know, what we can do about the problem. Like enhance the mandatory online My Student Body sexual health and substance abuse course that all students are required to take. 

I talk to students about that course all the time, because I’m an academic advisor, and that means that I tell students about things that keep them from registering. Things like failure to complete the My Student Body online course. Students genereally say feel patronized by it and that it doesn’t tell them much they don’t already know, and that it’s little more than a hurdle they need to jump so they can register for the next semester’s classes.

All of this discourse — the surveys, the meetings, the University President’s open letters, the awkward posters in the bathroom stalls that put confirming sexual consent alongside travelling in groups and taking taxis home on the list of ways to have a fun and safe night out — remind me of the kind of make-work I used to do in the early stages of dissertation-writing. I decided I needed to brainstorm and mind-map ideas, so I spent two days researching free mind-mapping software, and a week putting ideas in and messing them around. I like to write in fragments, so I researched software that made it easier to organize those pieces and put them together. I posted open dissertation-related questions on facebook, asking things like “What’s the best way to manage your time while you’re writing?” and “How do you stay motivated?”. I realized I was spending too much time on Facebook, so I researched software that could help me manage that. I met with my committee chair regularly to talk about all my ideas. 

I did a great job telling myself I was working on my dissertation while, in reality, I was doing a great job of procrastinating on actually getting any of it done.

That mind map? I never looked at it after it had been made. I don’t remember any of the facebook advice. Ultimately, I signed up for a dissertation-writing summer intensive wherein a bunch of beleaguered graduate students agreed to meet for four hours every morning, five days per week, for two weeks, and to focus on nothing but writing. It worked. I cranked out solid drafts of two chapters. 

IU is capapble of designing and implementing new policies pretty quickly. About a month ago, I was informed that I would be required to take part in a new retention initiative. Academic advisors would be doing targeted outreach to students who had not yet registered for the Spring 2016 semester to find out why they hadn’t registered and to see if there was any help we could provide to them to overcome any minor hurdles. We were given direct access phone numbers for a variety of campus offices, from Financial Aid to the Registrar to Residential Programs to the Diversity division, to make it as easy as possible to have important student questions addressed quickly. Small student debts might be forgiven. Non-essntial holds might be pushed back by a semester. The goal was to retain 100 students that we might otherwise have lost.

100 students might not seem like much on a campus of over 40,000. And here’s the irony: according to my supervisor, who was central to this initiative, IU already has one of the best retention rates in the country, and certainly in the Big 10. The goal was to figure out how to make a good thing even better. I know that, using this system, I helped to retain a student who might otherwise have dropped out. The obstacles preventing her from registering were small but they seemed insurmountable to her, a first-generation scholarship student working her tail off to navigate the administrative monstrosity of this kind of big university campus. I sat down with her, we identified the problems, we made some phone calls together, she told me she wished she’d come for help earlier, and she signed up for classes later that same day.

Stop with the pseudo-productive procrastination, IU. Start hiring educators and health professionals. Send them into the residence halls and the greek houses and the meetings of popular student organizations. Find the rape and assault victims who are willing to speak out: I’ve met many on that campus who would need nothing more than to be asked. Improve the transparency of the Ethics process. Clarify the relationship between Ethics and law enforcement when the problem being discussed is a felony. 

Posters and surveys and faceless online courses don’t change a culture. Faculty meetings don’t either. 

People, in conversation with one another, do that.

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