Last fall, David Samuel Levinson, the author, most recently, of the literary thriller Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, taught a course called “Introduction to Fiction” at Emory University, part of a two-year fellowship he’d been awarded there. Blunt and scabrous, he prides himself on being frank with his students. “My class is like a truth-telling, soothsaying class, and I tell them no one is going to talk to you like this, you will never have another class like this,” he says.
One student, he says, a freshman woman, sat besides him throughout the course, actively participating. At the end of the semester, he gave her a B+, because, although she worked hard, her writing wasn’t great. “They don’t really understand that they can do all of the work, and turn in perfectly typed up, typo-free papers and stories, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get an A, because quality matters, talent matters,” he says.
While he was on vacation over winter break, he got a Facebook message from her. He ignored it, figuring it was a complaint about her grade. She started sending him imploring e-mails asking him to reconsider her B+. Finally, he says, he got an e-mail from the director of his program saying, “You need to take care of this. You don’t want this to escalate.”
The student, he learned, was threatening to bring him up on sexual harassment charges. “Oh, I felt unsafe,” he whines, imitating her. The director, he says, told him, “I know this is bullshit, you know this is total bullshit, since you’re gay, [but] you really don’t want to deal with this bullshit. Just give her the grade.” Asked about this, the director says, “I don’t recall that, but I do recall advising him that as with all faculty, per our policy, that this was up to his discretion and thus his decision to make.”
Recently, there’s been much discussion of what some say is a growing intellectual chill and sexual panic on campus. In the latest example, on June 19, Teresa Buchanan, a tenured associate professor of education at Louisiana State University, was fired from the school where she’d taught for twenty years for using off-color language. Her alleged offenses included saying, in class, “fuck no” and making a joke about sex declining in long-term relationships, as well as using the word “pussy” in an off-campus conversation with a teacher. Reached by phone, she says she had no memory of saying “pussy” to anyone, but said that, if she did, it likely would have been in a conversation about how teachers must learn to handle irate parents. “If a parent is very angry and says, ‘You need to do a better job, you little pussy,” you need to know how to react. I wasn’t calling anybody that word.”
Indeed, a faculty committee determined that there was no evidence that her words were “systematically directed at any individual.” Nevertheless, the committee said her language created a “hostile learning environment” that constituted sexual harassment. It recommended that she be censured and nothing more, concluding: “The stress already inflicted on Dr. Buchanan by the…hearing process itself is seen as an adequate punishment, given the nature and apparent infrequency of the noted behaviors.” The administration rejected that and decided to go further, dismissing her. She plans to sue.