#MeToo and higher ed teacher/student dynamics

How to embrace the ‘callout’ culture and the professional panic it should cause

Across the country, news feeds have been filled with accounts of individuals calling out those who have harmed others.

Consider the callouts of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Al Franken and academicians from well-known universities. Simultaneously, educators at colleges nationwide are striving to empower their students to use their voices to self-advocate.

The combination of these two national trends is potentially problematic. The outcomes of callouts and concerns about them shared in social sciences research speak to the repercussions.

Different than speaking out, which satisfies those involved by raising awareness about an injustice, callout culture does not concern itself with legal justice. Callout culture is fueled by retributive accountability, such as mob justice. It is unconcerned with unintended consequences; no bystander is innocent.

Students must use their voices to advocate for themselves, their education and their safety. Faculty and staff must nurture relationships that support student self-advocacy. For that reason, it is essential for administrators to embrace these trends together.

Poorly traversing the callout culture could leave many innocent students and staff in harm’s way. A few ideas may help institutions embrace a potentially disastrous situation as a learning opportunity that appropriately empowers students and protects staff.

Show support

Both the student and faculty member involved in an allegation need to feel supported and that their accounts of the situation are valued. If students sense they’re not being heard, they may shut down, escalating a desire for retribution.

Ensuring that staff feel their voices are important and their professionalism is not overshadowed by student allegations will create a more reflective investigation. Conversely, if faculty believe they could face disciplinary action for what’s perceived as a “student story,” performance anxiety increases and morale decreases.

Keep the end in mind

Although it may be tempting to make inferences about each person’s desired outcome, assumptions on the part of the investigator can compromise the integrity of the inquiry. Establishing the parameters at the outset—by outlining questions and the potential outcomes—can build trust and calm nerves.

This preliminary dialogue is a chance to determine if a student is seeking retribution and to move them in a more productive direction. It informs students about information they can and cannot have access to. Dialogue can also build faculty confidence in the inquiry process.

Asking both parties, “In your mind, what is the best possible outcome?” can help shape possible interventions.

It may also reveal feelings the faculty member has about the student, class or their teaching that support a more reflective inquiry.

Trust the process

This easy-to-overlook communication minimizes the potential of those involved sharing stories and unintentionally writing a new narrative—one that’s less about facts, or a new and damaging staff narrative about teacher/student interactions.

Leaders must keep the climate surrounding a callout situation as calm as possible. Keeping rumors to a minimum prevents what sociologists call “moral panic.” Emphasize to each person involved that allegations must not be discussed with anyone other than those conducting the investigation.

Finally, all may benefit from HR staff working with academic office and student services staff to ensure all students learn to use their voices to appropriately and effectively self-advocate. Consider providing staff development on callout culture, educator ethics and productive teacher/student relationships.

If we embrace the potential learning opportunities and partnerships that emerge from the collision of callout culture, student voices and productive teacher/student ties, we mitigate unintended consequences, protect students and staff, and enhance the learning environment.

As assistant superintendent of curriculum and personnel with Howell Township Public Schools, Bruce Preston believes higher education institutions can benefit from the lessons he has learned.

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