In Adam Bielka’s op-ed “TA-dating article unfairly persecuted,” the author unfairly persecuted what was, in my opinion, a fair and justified response to a senseless article. I believe that Mr. Bielka repeats some of the naïve assumptions made by the writer he is defending, Robert Nanni.
I also graduated from the “not terribly significant” University of Western Ontario and was a TA there. I am familiar with the controversy and take offence that Mr. Bielka accuses those who responded to the original ‘TA dating’ article of not reading it. It seems he didn’t read their responses very closely either.
Social media did not drive the so-called Nanni ‘witch hunt.’ As someone who read the original article and knows people who responded to the article early on, I witnessed the very sound and informed commentary the article received from parties with a vested interest in TA-student relationships, and are concerned about an already pervasive problem with sexual harassment and assault on university campuses.
However, I am more astounded by Mr. Bielka’s minimization of the issue taken with this article regarding sexual harassment. I will cite the Human Rights Policy this university uses in determining whether certain behaviours can be considered instances of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is considered to be behaviour of a sexual nature by a person who, firstly, knows or ought reasonably to know that the behaviour is unwanted or unwelcome, and secondly, interferes with another person’s participation in a university-related activity, or thirdly, leads to or implies job or academically-related consequences for the person harassed.
One of the naïve assumptions I ascribe to Mr. Bielka relates to his belief that power-relations go only one way between a TA and a student, conflating the issue of the TA objectification and delegitimation with an inability by the ‘all-powerful’ TA to assert control over a situation where a student shows sexual interest towards him or her.
First of all, TAs are not all of the same age, with the same level of experience, cultural background, or personal histories. I have worked alongside many graduate students fresh out of their undergraduate degrees, who are no more than 21 or 22 years old.
Because of the nature of labour exploitation in universities, TAs may be entering the position with little or no teaching experience, let alone training on how to navigate situations which Nanni encourages in the article. Younger TAs may very well be struggling with self-esteem in their new position of authority, and be unsure of what actions to take in scenarios involving students.
To the UWO community, it came as a surprise that an article written in The Gazette would so blatantly undermine this relationship and make a mockery of education in the university. If the union had its way, every student reasonably ought to know that sexual advances by their TA are unwelcome because it’s universally understood that TAs play an integral role in their education.
Furthermore, there are people pursuing academic careers for whom TA-ships represent crucial teaching experience, and who can be affected adversely psychologically, should the behaviour Nanni encourages have triggering effects for a sexual violence survivor. To call these concerns exaggerations, I’m sorry to say, is another example of ignorance relating to silence around issues of sexual assault and harassment.
Overall, Mr. Bielka’s article reflected uneducated and ignorant opinions surrounding TA-student relationships at universities, and brushed off the contradictions this article has with etiquette in the graduate community.
Siobhan Waters, SFU Student