Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?

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Universities themselves may be contributing to burnout.

With half of all doctoral students leaving graduate school without finishing, something significant and overwhelming must be happening for at least some of them during the process of obtaining that degree. Mental illness is often offered as the standard rationale to explain why some graduate students burn out. Some research has suggested a link between intelligence and conditions such as bipolar disorder, leading some observers to believe many graduate students struggle with mental-health problems that predispose them to burning out.

But such research is debatable, and surely not every student who drops out has a history of mental illness. So, what compels students to abandon their path to a Ph.D.? Could there be other underlying factors, perhaps environmental, that can cause an otherwise-mentally-healthy graduate student to become anxious, depressed, suicidal, or, in rare cases, violent?

Research suggests that the majority of students who enter doctoral programs possess the academic ability to complete their studies, but systemic issues at schools may lead to high attrition and mental distress among graduate students. In exploring what exacerbates mental-health issues among graduate students, it may be wise to shift the focus away from labeling graduate students “deficient” to investigate how institutions themselves may be causing attrition.

The culture of Ph.D. programs can make some students snap, according to Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and academic career coach. In fact, she said in an email, “it isn’t usually a snap so much as a gradual disintegration.” Ph.D. programs are extremely lonely and based on a culture of critique rather than support in which professors and peers constantly look for weaknesses in the doctoral student’s arguments, she said.

During Kelsky’s 15 years as a tenured professor and advisor, she witnessed many students toil in solitude on their dissertations while sacrificing their outside interests. “You become overly fixated on what your professors think of you,” she said. “Paranoia is quite rampant in Ph.D. programs because Ph.D. students can get so isolated and so fixated on whether or not the people in authority [committee members] approve of what they’re doing since they have total authority to grant the degree.”

Marcella Wilson, a computer-science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), completed her undergraduate work at Washington Bible College, a small, historically black institution. The close-knit campus with doting professors, she said, did not prepare her for certain aspects of life as a computer-science doctoral student at UMBC. “[The graduate faculty] don’t have time to help you,” she said. “You get [the coursework] or you get out.”

After encountering a number of obstacles to on-time completion—including disagreements with faculty over shifting course-completion requirements, watching as a graduate faculty member warned other faculty not to advise her, and feeling that she was being ostracized—Wilson said she started to have panic attacks and feelings of paranoia. “I felt trapped when I was inside my car … I was becoming agoraphobic,” she recalled. “When I would get into the car, I had visions of myself opening up the door and rolling out into traffic and hurting myself.”

Janet Rutledge, the vice provost and graduate-school dean at UMBC, said Wilson’s recollections are reflective of a widespread problem at her university and graduate programs across the country: a lack of communication between faculty and students. “Very rarely is the faculty motive … malicious,” she said. Faculty members are often “very busy and they don’t communicate the full reason for some of the things that they do, so it is only natural that a student makes certain assumptions based on what they have been able to observe.”

In a brief titled “Re-Envisioning the Ph.D,” Jody Nyquist, the former dean of graduate studies at the University of Washington, asked doctoral students across eight disciplines about the flaws they perceived in the graduate-school process. An overwhelming number complained about a lack of quality mentoring and support from faculty. The study also noted that doctoral students believed mentoring needs to begin earlier, be more systematic, and be based on a multiple-mentor model.

Graduate programs that encourage a multiple-mentor model of advising are rare, but this type of support is precisely what helped Wilson complete her doctoral program, she said. After being informed of Wilson’s troublesome graduate experiences, Rutledge introduced her to PROMISE, a program that supports the academic development of graduate students at UMBC. “Once I began to believe I could graduate, I realized that it was not about [the professors],” Wilson said. “I have good relationships with them all now.”

Scott Kerlin, a former doctoral-committee member at the University of Washington and the author of Pursuit of the Ph.D.: “Survival of the Fittest,” suggested that students describe the doctoral process as more “political” than intellectual in nature. There are “lots of issues of power and powerlessness that pervade the graduate experience,” Kerlin said, which may induce extreme distress for students who feels powerless. Indeed, a common reaction to highly stressful situations is difficulty engaging in mutual problem-solving, which, according to Rutledge, makes it especially important for graduate-school administrators to mediate discord between faculty.

But that can be hard to achieve: Many students are convinced the doctoral experience sets them up to fail. “Dysfunctional graduate departments, toxic faculty, and the Navy Seal-like brutality of the Ph.D. process all contribute to the burnout experienced by the estimated 50-plus percent of Ph.D. students who fail to earn their doctorates,” wrote Jill Yesko, then a doctoral student in geography, in a 2014 op-ed for Inside Higher Ed.

And many students enter their doctoral programs assuming that they’re always expected to maintain the illusion of mental stability and confidence while interacting with faculty members, peers, or future employers—regardless of any issues that may arise. While colleges and universities are expanding mental-health services for students, many doctoral candidates feel they need to mask their weaknesses because asking for help would be detrimental to their professional reputations.

In 2011, the University of Texas at Austin’s sociology department conducted a study of graduate students at 26 major universities across the United States. The study, “Stress and Relief for American Graduate Students,” found that 43 percent of all study participants reported experiencing more stress than they could handle, with Ph.D. students expressing the greatest amounts of stress. Of the students polled, more than half listed stress or burnout as a major concern, about a quarter cited feeling like an outsider, and nearly a third listed their relationships with professors. Only 6 percent of graduate students said they felt they could frequently turn to their mentors and advisors for assistance during stressful times.

“I live and work in a context in which I am encouraged to conceal my [depression], lest it somehow devalue or denigrate my intellectual efforts or the currency of my reputation … This is a toll that academia exacts from so many of us,” Jacqui Shine, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley wrote in a column on Chronicle Vitae.

Chester Goad, a graduate instructor at Tennessee Technological University and the director of its disability-services offices, said he’d never experienced an anxiety attack until he entered his doctoral program in educational leadership.

Goad thought he had been doing well managing his hectic schedule, which included being a father and husband, and maintaining a full-time job, often working on literature reviews or research that forced him to leave the university well after midnight. One day, he had a panic attack while en route to an examination with his peers. Feeling lightheaded and claustrophobic, he had to run away to catch his breath. When he regained composure, his first reaction was a feeling of shame. “As professionals you don’t want people to see you in that situation,” he said. “You want people to think you have got it all collected and together.”

Dion Metzger, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist who specializes in mental illness, argued that the graduate-student experience “produces unique stressors that may not necessarily be found in other career paths.” In pursuing an especially high level of education, she noted, many people may feel an especially high pressure to receive a return on their investment. Alienation from friends and family, an average of eight years spent developing and presenting research, and the cost, are just a few of the ways students feel they have invested.

But sometimes the emotional, social, and financial sacrifices doctoral students make during their studies are, at least initially, difficult to recuperate. In 2014, well over a third of doctorate recipients reported no firm employment upon graduation.

“The students place these expectations on themselves, but sometimes feel the pressure from loved ones who have supported them through their education,” said Metzger, the psychiatrist. “A simple question of ‘Have you found a job yet?’ can [create] instant panic-like symptoms for graduate students. There is a greater pressure to get a job that measures up to the hard work that was put in. Depending on the graduate school path chosen, that is easier said than done … This can be devastating.”

Source: The Atlantic

Satire as Racial Backlash Against Asian Americans

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Imagine for a minute if student leaders at elite college campuses devoted themselves to mocking black people or Jewish people or gay people. I’m not talking about drunk students posting pictures of their offensive parties on Facebook, but student newspaper editors – thought of as being both smart and progressive – giving space over for the sole purpose of making fun of people because of their background. It’s hard to imagine. And yet recently this phenomenon of racial caricatures as “satire” has emerged with Asian Americans as the object of the jokes.

Why Asian Americans? After all, Asian American college students tend to make headlines as super students, attending prestigious private and public colleges at rates way above their state demographics (hence they are “over-represented”) and as excelling academically above and beyond any other racial group, whites included. This “model minority” image is not new and has been around since at least the late 1960s, with Asian Americans often embraced as symbols of the merits of hard work and individual effort, all undertaken without complaint or political agitation. So … shouldn’t that mean that Asian Americans would be seen as well integrated — academic and otherwise — with white students?

Indeed, this image and the stereotype that all Asian American college students are high achieving have led to a belief that they are well integrated into higher education. I would go so far as to say this model minority image has also conveyed that racism and racial hostility are no longer issues for Asian American students. It is not uncommon for colleges to exclude Asian Americans from affirmative action recruitment efforts and services for “minority” students. Yes, it is true that unlike African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans, many Asian ethnic groups — though not all — do not struggle with severe under-representation in college matriculation or retention rates. However, does this mean that they are not racial minorities and do not continue to confront racial issues on campuses? In my years as a student and administrator on various university campuses, I have been troubled by what I have observed to be the increasing exclusion of Asian Americans from “minority” student or diversity discussions. Asian Americans are not seen as contributing to diversity though, in and of themselves, they are extremely diverse. They are frequently not identified as being minority students; when I see conference papers, journal articles, or Web discussion on “minority” students, I look for any mention of Asian Americans, only to find, more often than not, their omission. The focus now seems to be on “underrepresented minorities” — or code for “minority, but not Asian American.” Asian Americans have been what I call “de-minoritized,” erased from these discussions.

By no means do I want to detract from the critical issues of representation that persist for African American, Latino, and Native American students; under-parity is a serious signal of inaccessibility and hostility for students of color grounded in long and problematic history. However, I do not subscribe to the presumption that the opposite of under-representation (over-representation) means that a racial non-white group has achieved integration and full acceptance. In fact, in the case of Asian Americans, their over-presence in competitive institutions such as Ivy League colleges has heightened a sense of backlash that takes highly racialized overtones and contributes to a negative campus climate for this “high achieving” group. Enter the campus paper satire, the latest manifestation.

As many Asian American studies scholars have pointed out, Asian Americans are depicted as model minorities but they are also portrayed as foreigners, disloyal to America, and suspicious. Despite generations of citizenship in the United States (after years of denial of naturalization rights for Asian immigrants), Asian Americans are still seen as foreign and un-American, often as the “enemy” during economic and military crises, as during the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, during the 1980s economic recession and competition with Japan’s automotive industry that lay the backdrop to the beating and death of Vincent Chin, and currently with post-September 11 depictions of South Asians and Muslims as terrorists. Dual images of Asian Americans as model minorities, people to be praised and emulated and embraced, and foreign threats, people to be watched, monitored, and distrusted, have long been a part of U.S. history.

Recently, Asian American college students have emerged in the media in this foreigner/ invading guise — as the butt of “satirical” jokes published by college student papers. Whether or not these articles are “satires” or offensive representations is not my point. My focus is on the powerful and racialized imagery evoked — the jokes that continue to depict Asian Americans as foreign, un-American, inscrutable, non-English speakers– basically as anything but a regular college student on a university campus. And my focus is on the fact that often times not many people are laughing at these satires.

For instance, in October of 2006, Jed Levine published a “modest proposal for an immodest proposition” for the UCLA Daily Bruin. Speaking as a white male, he identified as an “underrepresented minority” and pointed to Asian Americans as the real problem who took away admissions slots from Black and Latino students and proposed a solution to the “Asian invasion” as funneling “young Maos and Kim Jongs” into a new UC campus “UC Merced Pandas.” In January 2007, the Daily Princetonian published its annual “joke issue” that included a satire of “Lian Ji”, a twist on Jian Li, the Chinese American student at Yale, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department for Civil Rights claiming his rejection from Princeton was due to his ethnicity. The joke article, from “Lian’s” point of view was written in broken English, complaining that Princeton did not accept “I the super smart Asian,” and touting the stereotypical nerdy Asian American credentials of winning record science fair awards, memorizing endless digits of pi, and playing multiple orchestral instruments simultaneously for the New Jersey youth orchestra. Ultimately, “Lian” accepts his fate at Yale saying, “I mean, I love Yale. Lots of bulldogs here for me to eat.”

Most recently, Inside Higher Ed reported on yet another satire in the University of Colorado at Boulder paper, The Campus Press, which resulted in controversy and a statement by the chancellor. In the satire, Max Karson, noticed the tensions that Asian American students exhibited towards whites. While pointing out the racial tensions on both sides, Karson deduces that Asians just hate whites, and it was “time for war.” Such efforts included steps to find all Asian Americans on campus (easily identifiable by areas of campus they frequent and by their ability to do a calculus problem in their heads), forcing them to eat bad sushi with forks; and a test for them to display emotions beyond a normal deadpan (read: inscrutable) face. At the end, Asian homes will be redecorated “American” style, replacing rice cookers with George Forman Grills and the like.

My point here is not to argue over what is satire, freedom of the press, artistic license, or the “right way” to read pieces such as these. Rather, my observation lies in the continued pattern of Asian American students being a) the butt of such jokes, basically the punchline; b) that the jokes are heavily laden with racial stereotypes; and c) that these such essays reveal volumes about racial relationships, tensions, and perceptions of Asian American students as all being, in some way, the same — foreigners, math and science nerds, and all around different from the regular average college student.

What does this recent rash of Asian Americans-as-satire articles tell us? Ultimately, that despite an image of Asian Americans as model minorities, super achieving students who thrive on college campuses, race continues to matter for Asian American students. Many Asian American students reject and challenge these depictions and stereotypes and seek campus policies that acknowledge and support their experiences. It tells us that higher education administrators need to look beyond Asian American model minority-ness and begin to reconsider a conception of “minority” student experiences beyond easily measured assessments of grade point average and SAT score, to recognize instances of racial alienation and marginalization embodied in these satires. It speaks to uncovering the experiences of Asian American students who want academic courses that reflect their histories and literature, to meeting their counseling service needs, to providing spaces of support through cultural centers and minority student services. It is to challenge the silencing and de-minoritization of Asian American students.

Many educational scholars demonstrate that campus climate measures go beyond statistical representation. These satirical articles reveal that something else is happening on campus regarding how Asian American students are perceived and represented and even reveals something in the sheer license felt to put forth such racialized representations of Asian American students at all. As campus parties where white students dress up like stereotypical African American or Latino caricatures seem to be in “vogue” these days, the preferred venue for Asian American figures seems to be in these campus pieces.

I end this essay aware that I am exposing myself to the response: “Asian Americans have it relatively made in higher education. What are you complaining about?” I have heard this response from students and administrators from all racial backgrounds. To those who would argue that other minority needs are more pressing and urgent, my appeal is to widen our working definitions and perceptions of “minority” students, to allow spaces for Asian Americans to enter and to work in coalition against such racialized hurtful images that affect all people of color. To those who don’t see Asian Americans as dealing with race at all, my response is to complain, to challenge the presumptions and expectations that I, an Asian American woman, should be the model minority who works hard and doesn’t complain. And I raise the question of these satires, what they mean, and how they can inform a better understanding of the experiences and needs of Asian American college students — no longer as “objects” of satire but subjects of their own lives.

By: Sharon S. Lee. Sharon S. Lee is a doctoral student in educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Source: Inside Higher Ed

The Costs of ‘Colorblind’

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In a closed-door meeting on Nov. 5, Yale University President Peter Salovey admitted to students of color, “We failed you … I think we have to be a better university. I think we have to do a better job.”

Protests over racism at Yale prompted this meeting and all but eclipsed a major announcement that week: administrators there had approved unprecedented funds — $50 million— to diversify their faculty.

Few universities can match Yale’s investment, but almost all need the change that Yale seeks. Even at flagship universities of ethnically diverse states like Texas and Florida, people of color make up less than 25 percent of the teaching force. It’s in part a supply problem. Only 26 percent of doctorate recipients are black, Latino/a, Native American, or Asian-American, and their share is even lower in the highly ranked Ph.D. programs from which colleges and universities like to recruit faculty.

To increase racial diversity in the professoriate, we need to build the pool of Ph.D.s of color, and that means confronting barriers in the graduate admissions process. As admissions season ramps up and the U.S. Supreme Court debates Fisher v. University of Texas, the timing to do so is ideal.

First, the obvious question: Is bias a barrier? A recent field experiment found the answer may well be yes. Faculty members were less likely to hit reply when email inquiries from prospective advisees had names that suggested they were Indian, Chinese, Latino, African-American and/or female. And when professors did reply, it took them longer. If racism can creep into these early interactions, then those responsible for admissions and recruitment should take steps to avert the risk.

The public policy that governs admissions presents barriers, too. State affirmative-action bans have reduced graduate and professional-level enrollments in several fields of study,including medicine. These findings are especially important as the Supreme Court again weighs evidence in Fisher. The equivalent of a nationwide ban on race-conscious admission hangs in the balance, and if implemented, it would likely decimate the already small professoriate of color.

Finally, the admissions process creates its own barriers. I witnessed that firsthand through a major study of doctoral admissions that I recently completed. It involved two years of fieldwork with 10 highly ranked doctoral programs in three well-known research universities. I had the privilege of observing admissions committees deliberate in a variety of disciplines, and I interviewed 68 thoughtful professors who were charged with reviewing applications.

Overrelying on Scores and Pedigrees

Despite their good intentions to increase diversity, broadly defined, admissions work was laced with conventions — often rooted in inherited or outdated assumptions — that made it especially hard for students from underrepresented backgrounds to gain access.

From philosophy to physics, nine out of 10 committees made the first cut of their large, highly qualified applicant pools through race-neutral or “colorblind” methods. Some did so by requirement; for others, it was voluntary. The common standard at this point consisted of very high GRE scores and very high grades, ideally from tough classes and a name-brand college or university.

A sociologist summed up the process: “First you have to be above a bar. Then we can ask the diversity question.” In using this sequence, many believed they were achieving a standard of “pure merit,” as one economist called it.

In principle, race neutrality means excluding race from the criteria on which students are judged. But in practice, it can be much more powerful than that. I saw how colorblind admissions could effectively shut down any discussion of race or ethnicity — even that which is well within the law, such as GRE scores’ uneven distributions by race.

Ironically, colorblind review made professors myopic. When they failed to see race, they also failed to see that the bar they set to reduce the pool had much to do with diversity, even if they did not actively ask “the diversity question.”

The priorities I observed are consistent with national trends. In the most comprehensive study available, two of the three strongest predictors of graduate school admission were high composite GRE scores and degrees from selective institutions. However, black and Latino students’ odds of enrolling in the most selective undergraduate institutions are declining over time, relative to white and Asian students. And a recent analysis in Nature concluded that the median quantitative GRE score in American physics programs (700, or 166 on the new scale) eliminated almost all black, Latino, and Native American test takers and about 75 percent of female test takers. However, it retained 82 percent of white and Asian-American test takers.

Heavy reliance on high GRE scores and college pedigree thus systematically excludes some of the very groups that an institution’s diversity commitment implies they wish to attract — people who might rise to the top in later rounds of review. This apparently neutral, even desirable, criterion carries disparate impact.

U.S. courts have not yet considered whether using admissions criteria with disparate impact constitutes unlawful discrimination (as it does in South Africa), but they have taken up similar questions in employment law. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled the consideration of age in determining pay to be constitutional only when implemented for the purpose of “business necessity.”

Is selecting students with very high GRE scores a matter of business necessity for graduate programs? It’s hard to make the case with current research. In a recent ETS study, only 43 percent of graduate students in biology departments with combined GRE scores in the top quartile also earned first-year grades in the top quartile. Correlations between GRE scores and first-year grades meet levels that testing proponents hold up as statistically significant and skeptics dismiss as practically insignificant. And the test poorly predicts longer-term outcomes, such as graduation and time to degree.

A Standard of Pure Merit?

It’s time for professors to acknowledge the GRE’s limits and put scores in their proper place. Setting high cut scores and reading scores devoid of context not only undermines diversity. It runs contrary to ETS directives and promotes a false sense of security in admissions investments.

Make no mistake: when the admissions committees that I studied reviewed their short lists, merit meant something very different than it did when they made the initial cut. Only in one case — a student dubbed “freaking genius” for his perfect Harvard grades and perfect GRE scores — was conventional achievement sufficient to secure an admissions offer. More often, admitted students had “interesting,” “unique” or “cool” profiles rooted in personal or professional experience. One committee excitedly moved to admit a retired CIA operative, a contributor to a hip magazine and the department’s first-ever applicant from Malaysia. They mockingly compared a solid Midwestern student to a Ford: “He’s everything you look for and nothing you weren’t expecting.” They rejected many accomplished students from China.

Indeed, judgment of students from Asian countries, especially China, reflected a common exception to the norm of colorblind review. A linguist stated it bluntly: “If a kid from China does not have essentially perfect GRE scores … they’re regarded as probably brain-dead.” Professors attributed high scores of students from China to a test preparation industry that is a “well-developed machine” and “second to none in the world.” They mused openly about suspicions of rampant cheating. Memories loomed large of students who arrived on campus with terrible English skills.

President Salovey wasn’t talking about graduate admissions when he acknowledged Yale had “failed” students of color. But he might as well have been — and many other top university leaders could say the same — so wide is the gap between diversity rhetoric and usual means of identifying academic talent.

To “do a better job” educating college students means not only taking a strong stand against overt forms of racism on campuses. We also need to see the subtle ways that racial inequalities are institutionalized in standard operating procedures and the ideals of “pure merit” through which college students become graduate students and graduate students become professors.

By Julie R. Posselt. Julie R. Posselt is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan and a fellow with the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. Her book, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, is now available from Harvard University Press.

Source: Inside Higher Ed

In Defense of Useless Degrees

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When I chose to attend a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate education, I heard many criticisms about liberal arts degrees. Some believed my degree would too broad and that I would not be prepared for specific careers and was therefore unemployable.

graduate school instead to earn my PhD and become a professor. Like some others, I went through my mid-PhD crisis and wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue the tenure track. Because the PhD is perceived to be very narrow and specific, and only prepares students for professorships in their field of research (where positions are dwindling), my PhD was useless if I no longer wanted to be a professor (see Combating Cynicism).

During both my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I have been asked, “So what are you going to do with that degree?” At each stage of my life–when I no longer wanted to be a doctor during my BA and when I no longer wanted to be a professor during my PhD–I cringed inside when I couldn’t provide a concrete answer.

I recently came across Time Magazine’s list of CEOs who prove liberal arts degrees are not worthless, contrary to the opposite opinions I had heard. This reminded me of the flavor of resources I had read about the value of a PhD in non-traditional careers outside the tenure track. It also reminded me that both my BA and PhD training (that, cumulatively, I have spent a third of my life pursuing) can be applied to careers that may not take a traditional, straight and narrow path.

A liberal arts degree may seem broad, but my liberal arts training focused on critical thinking, problem solving, effective writing, global stewardship, and leadership. These skills are useful in a majority of careers (for example, tech companies favor liberal arts thinking). Courses ranging from Photography, East Asian Politics, Francophone Cultures, and Earth Climate History all honed these transferable skills that have widespread value, even if the BA doesn’t spell out your future.

Sure, a PhD will make you an expert in your tiny slice of a subfield in your discipline. But along the way, you also demonstrate your ability to fully investigate a topic, write a book’s worth of persuasive writing, analyze and solve many problems along the way, gain constructive criticism (constantly), communicate your findings to diverse groups, and efficiently manage your time, projects, and wellbeing — skills that are valued in so many professions. The versatility of the skills gained during a PhD demonstrates how the PhD can be viewed as a passport, and I think a BA is similar.

As a result of my BA and my PhD training, I feel confident I can apply my skills to many careers, rather than being unprepared to do anything. My liberal arts and graduate experiences have been rich with opportunities to develop disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transferable skills. Today, people rarely hold the same job until retirement; the average worker will have about 11 jobs in his/her lifetime. So despite not following a straight and narrow academic and career path, my future is bright and full of possibility and potential.

So the next time I am asked, “So what are you going to do with that degree?” I will feel more secure about my prospects and how to answer that question. It may require more creativity but I believe that my BA and PhD have provided me with years of skills/talents/tools/opportunities/ingredients that prepare me for many different career paths–it’s just up to me how I use/wield them and where I go from here.

By Danielle Marias. Danielle Marias is a PhD candidate in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter @danielleemarias or at her website.

Source: Inside Higher Ed: GradHacker

May I Kiss You?

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It’s strange to be in Totem Park Ballroom for the first time in over two years. The reason I’m back is to see a presentation called “Can I Kiss You?” byMike Dormitz. Travelling all across North America, he has done this presentation for audiences in middle schools to universities, and even in the US Military. The overarching theme of this presentation is consent, which is discussed alongside bystander intervention techniques, sexual assault awareness and personal responsibility.

The presentation starts by exploring why it is important that consent, which is the voluntary and enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity of any kind, is verbal. As Dormitz says, in intimate (and other) situations we often rely on body language and other nonverbal cues to be trustworthy indicators of what other people are thinking. Although this mode of communication is one that we use a lot, it is also very often misinterpreted. Any sexual activity, from kissing to intercourse and everything in between, that is not consented between partners classifies as sexual assault. Since body language is so often misinterpreted, communicating verbally is the best way to ensure that consent is present.

Throughout the “Can I Kiss You?” presentation it was emphasized that people of any gender and sexual orientation can be sexually assaulted. Although it could happen to anyone, I think it is important to recognize that the vast majority of people who experience sexualized violence are women and LGBTTQI folks. In a society where shaming, victim-blaming and silencing are common responses to survivors of sexual assault, it is great to see that the focus of this presentation is on the responsibility and accountability of perpetrators and bystanders is emphasized and addressed. By using humor to dismantle ingrained notions of why we rarely get consent verbally, or intervene in situations where we see someone being “taken advantage of,” everyone in the room realized that we have been socialized to not react in these particular situations. As Domitz explores, it is always the responsibility of the person initiating intimacy or any sexual activity to check that consent is present. By practicing consent in our everyday life, and intervening if we see a nonconsensual sexual situation, we can impact both individual lives and the culture around these issues.

Although people who are intoxicated or otherwise unable to make informed decisions cannot give consent, it is common to see people “hooking up” at parties. If someone who is less or not at all influenced takes advantage of the fact that another person’s judgment is clouded, they are sexually assaulting that person. This is a fairly common scenario, and it can be difficult to know how to intervene or realizing that we have a responsibility to do so. In response to this Dormitz shared some concrete steps and actions to use when intervening, the first being to identify the situation. Once you’ve done this, check in on the person, by yourself or with a group of friends. When intervening, stay calm and focus on preventing a potential sexual assault in a manner that is safe for everyone involved. By giving people clear guidelines on what to do it becomes easier as a bystander to recognize and do something next time one sees a similar situation.

Mike Dormitz’s “Can I Kiss You?” is an engaging and informative presentation that opens up really important conversations around consent, sexual assault, and personal responsibility. Hopefully it will spur more individuals to think more about what they can do to reduce sexualized violence and learn more about consent, and that those in attendance will pass on what they learnt to their peers. If you missed out on this event you can get Dormitz’s book “May I Kiss You?” There are also many local resources, you can attend a Really? workshop or find lots of resources for survivors, those supporting a survivor or those who are just interested in learning more at the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre.

Post by Hannah Barath, UBC Access & Diversity Co-op Student Assistant

Source: UBC Access and Diversity Blog