American Sociological Association

Case 13. Harassment on the Basis of Ethnicity/Political Allegiance

Situation

It is the first day of class in Professor Edwin Kowalski's course in the sociology of social change. As a way of getting to know his students and getting them to know each other, he asks them to take turns telling the class something about themselves. One student says her name and then says: "I'm from Persia." Professor Kowalski replies: "This is a course in social change; you mean Iran." The student doesn't reply. Professor Kowalski smiles at her warmly and looks over her head to signal that the next student should introduce himself. Although not actively hostile, the student in question seems cool, distant and critical to Professor Kowalski as he observes her during the next few class sessions. She does not participate in class discussion and Professor Kowalski feels that her behavior is somehow meant to challenges his legitimacy. He begins to call on her in class and use the following phrase in doing so: "Ms. Persia, what do you think?" As the deadline for dropping courses approaches, Professor Kowalski is informed that the student has dropped the class.

Questions

  1. Is Professor Kowalski engaging in harassment by repeatedly referring to the student as "Ms. Persia"?
  2. Is Professor Kowalski acting unethically by letting his own insecurity prompt him to behave this way toward a student?
  3. Does Professor Kowalski have an ethical obligation to try to understand what seems to be going on with this student?

Discussion

It is unclear whether or not Professor Kowalski's behavior rises to the legal level of harassment on the basis of ethnicity/political affiliation. If the student dropped the class because of what she perceived as his hostility to the political statement she was obviously trying to make by saying she was from Persia and his subsequent behavior, then one could probably make such a case. He has denied her an educational opportunity, even if unwittingly. Certainly Professor Kowalski had an ethical obligation to attempt to understand the student's motivation for claiming to be from Persia, especially when her later behavior seemed to signal a negative reaction. Had he understood the politics of what she was trying to say, he might have been more sensitive and not referred to her as he did. Indeed, her claim could have been used as a teaching opportunity, especially in a class in social change. On the contrary, what is described is bad pedagogic practice. It is unlikely that one ever creates a positive learning environment when one treats students as Professor Kowalski did.

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