Last month, all 1Ls were required to attend “a comprehensive training and educational orientation program covering discrimination, harassment, and gender-based misconduct.” This was an opportunity for Columbia to act against social apathy by fostering awareness and meaningful conversations. Unfortunately, this opportunity was lost due to several flaws in the training itself (both administrative and substantive), in addition to disengagement by some members of the student body, which was exacerbated by these flaws.
Reflecting on the training a month on, we would like to encourage the conversation to continue. Columbia Law School students have the privilege of time and space to think about gender misconduct, and we have a responsibility to use that privilege for the greater good.
Practice Exercise 1: To Leave or Not to Leave
To start, from a purely logistical standpoint, there were hardly enough seats to accommodate the students required to attend, and this resulted in students sitting on the floor. But the deleterious effect the seating dilemma had on the expressive function of the workshop was even more disheartening.
Confronted with a heaving room, it was easy for some members of our community to sign in as required, and then walk out. Maybe they had reading to do or wanted to watch Netflix. Maybe they are in a committed relationship and felt that this did not apply to them. Or maybe they had trainings like this at their undergraduate institutions and were positive they would never sexually assault someone or be assaulted. But we invite these fellow colleagues to take a step back and think about what the act of walking out means.
What does it say about you to your colleagues? What does it say to survivors in the room? One in four women in the United States experience rape or attempted rape. Imagine sitting in an overcrowded room, knowing the presentation will remind you of your assault, and then watching your new colleagues walk out. Perhaps even step over you as you’re sitting on the floor.
If we all stay in the room, it says that this is something that deserves our attention. If we leave, it says that this isn’t important. So even if you had work to do that day, or you didn’t want to sit on the floor, or you don’t think it applies to you, actions have meaning. And while the act of leaving may have made sense to you at that moment, on that day, this isn’t just about you. It’s about people who have been hurt, people who are being hurt, and people who will continue to be hurt if we do not stand in solidarity with one another. It’s about seeing beyond yourself to your community. People we know, people we once respected, people we got along with, walked out on an issue that has life-changing implications for innumerable men and women in this world, on this campus, and for members of this school specifically.
Practice Exercise 2: Defendant asks Plaintiff to Make Him a Sandwich
Hypothetical situations can be a great educational tool, especially when dealing with uncomfortable subjects. As law students, we deal with hypos all the time. However, there is a fine line between hypothetical reality and absurdity. The very first segment of the presentation dealt with a woman being told by her group project partners to go into the kitchen and make a sandwich. Is this a situation that a law student will reasonably face?
No. Starting the training with a scenario of “retro-sexism” set the tone. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are tough topics, and laughter might be a reasonable coping mechanism. The laughs that echoed around the room were not that. This hypothetical implied that gender-based discrimination is only found in 1950s sitcoms rather than on campus every single day. Moreover, it communicated to the students who considered leaving and chose to stay that their choice was wrong: the training was a waste of time. And the students who signed in and left were validated.
Instead of dragging out well-worn tropes like women in kitchens, why not focus on nuanced micro-aggressions that happen during everyday interactions? Why not break down the problematic compliments, “You’re one of the boys,” or “Wow, you can play!” when on a co-ed sports team. How about tackling gendered stereotypes around the stoicism we expect from “real men” and the invalidated emotions it leaves behind? We are students at Columbia Law School. We are intelligent enough to understand and engage with hard issues, and it is counter-productive to use abstracted hypos with no correlation to reality.
Practice Exercise 3: Professional Responsibility
While some 1Ls expressed reluctance about attending the training in the first place, the aftermath was truly disturbing. Responses on social media belittled the training, and reiterated why this training, even as graduate students, is relevant to us.
We live in a rape culture, and to say otherwise is to reject fellow students’ experiences. Making jokes about violating a survivor’s space isn’t just in bad taste, but also an act of sexual violence, contributing to a culture in which sexual violence proliferates. These cheap laughs come at the expense of the survivor’s right to privacy and personal safety. We can work together to create a safer and more equal world, but only if we recognize the structural framework within which gender-based discrimination and sexual violence are allowed to occur.
Final Exam: Moving Forward
This training session does not have to be the last, and it certainly does not have to be the accepted format.
A future session could explain differences between the University’s old and new gender-based misconduct policies, highlighting positive changes to assure us that the administration is taking its role seriously. In addition, the training could be held in smaller groups, or even in a room where everyone has a chair. Lecture theaters do not encourage engagement in the sensitive topic at hand, nor as we have seen do they promote accountability.
Whatever steps are taken, we must stand in solidarity with each other and the wider campus, and we must hold each other to a higher standard.