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On holding student journalism accountable: The Western Gazette gaffe

Editors' note: After the publication of this article, The Gazette, issued an apology and retraction for its "Frosh" issue which contains the below-mentioned "So you want to date your TA" article.

It's that time of year again: as the dog days of summer wind down, Canadian universities are preparing to welcome a whole new cohort of incoming students. The now-empty quads and concourses will soon be abuzz with throngs of students kicking off the start of their university careers with the wide array of activities and services designed to ease their transition into the post-secondary experience. From BBQs to clubs days, from pub nights to residence and faculty-specific orientations, students are being introduced to both the academic and extra-curricular cultures specific to each university campus.

Yet, the start of the 2014-2015 school year isn't necessarily footloose and fancy-free. Numerous post-secondary institutions in Canada are still dealing with the fallout of many notorious incidents on their campuses in the previous school year.

  • In September 2013, both Saint Mary's University and the University of British Columbia came under fire when student orientation leaders were discovered to have led students in rape chants and anti-Indigenous chants as part of "team-building" exercises, chants which ultimately were found to have been a part of some orientation traditions for many years. In the wake of condemnation by both the public as well as university administrators, many student leaders resigned, and others were compelled to take part in anti-violence training.
  • From April 2013-October 2013, a total of six sexual assaults on female students occurred at the University of British Columbia. The perpetrator responsible for these attacks remains at large.
  • In January 2014, the McMaster Redsuits (students from the McMaster Engineering Society) were suspended over a FROSH songbook that included "around 25 cheers and includes multiple references to violent rape, murder, incest, bestiality and sex with underage females. It is also rife with misogynistic and homophobic slurs" (Campbell & Ruf). The suspensions have barred the MES from participating in 2014 Welcome Week events.
  • In Feburary 2014, a female candidate in student elections at the University of Ottawa, Anne-Marie Roy, was the target of sexually explicit commentary by fellow students. As Diane Mehta of The Canadian Press reported, these messages "included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases."
  • In March 2014, the University of Ottawa men's hockey team was suspended over allegations of a sexual assault perpetrated by two of their players. As the Ottawa Sun's Danielle Bell reports, the head coach was aware of the sexual assault, but failed to report it to university officials: as such, the team has been suspended for the 2014-2015 season, and the coach has been dismissed. Recently, the two players -- David Foucher and Guillaume Donovan -- have both been charged with one count each of sexual assault.

Clearly, it's been a tough year, for students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators. Addressing issues of sexual violence and the normalization and trivialization of sexism and racism has been a complex undertaking. In addition to sanctioning student leaders who promote sexism (even under the guise of "jokes"), and rightly punishing students who commit acts of sexual violence, several universities have put together task forces in order to try and create best practices for addressing these issues, including an increase in the availability of safety measures and support services for students, staff, or faculty who have been harassed or assaulted.

Given the widespread coverage that the past year's incidents have received, I had been hopeful that FROSH 2014 would take on a different tone, and that undergraduate students would be encouraged to create community and solidarity -- to break the proverbial ice -- around anything but sexism, objectification, harassment, or violence. 

Yet, as this school year begins, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and administrators at a Canadian university are finding themselves dealing yet again with a student-led initiative that uses sexual harassment as a basis for creating a welcoming environment for incoming students.

As part of their special FROSH-week edition, the undergraduate student newspaper at Western University, The Western Gazette, included a "satirical" article written by Robert Nanni, entitled "So you want to date your TA?" Among the "tips" that Nanni provides, he suggests that students a) Facebook "stalk" their TAs and get to know their personal interests; b) dress provocatively in order to gain attention; c) use office hours in order to score alone time with their TA. Finally, Nanni writes, students should know when to stop their pursuit of their TAs: they may have to resign themselves to not getting laid. After all, "they may not be giving you head, but at least they're giving you brain. Don't be too disappointed though -- after all, there's always next term."

Shortly after the article's publication on August 20, teaching assistants, alumni, students, and professors alike expressed their staunch criticisms of the piece. A commenter named Kelly writes: "This is disgusting. Teaching Assistants are employed, as experts in training, by universities to facilitate student learning. It is a job, and this kind of behaviour from students is not tolerated and should not be encouraged. I would report a student immediately for inappropriate behaviour like this. As a teaching assistant and PhD Candidate, I find it insulting and inappropriate to publish this, because it implies a lack of professionalism from TAs and undermines their authority and knowledge."

Another commenter, "TA/Adjunct," commented: "As has been mentioned, many TAs at Western are women who must battle against a sexist university culture that insists they are not as smart as men, or that they are only here because they have something to prove. I've seen this with my female colleagues many, many times. Too many to count. I was also on the receiving end of very unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances by a student. It put me in an unbelievably precarious position, even more than I already was a low paid TA." 

Despite the backlash against the article (including a letter penned by Dr. Janice Deakin, Western U's Provost & VP-Academic), the paper's editor-in-chief, Iain Boekhoff, maintains that the article is, quite simply, a piece of satire, despite compelling evidence (especially by TAs themselves!) that the satire fails miserably in hitting any sort of humourous mark. 

The problems with the article have already been well-commented on, and I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms. TAs are professional members of the university community, ones who are bound by a series of professional codes and boundaries, and who deserve much more than being objectified and sexualized by the students they are meant to teach and mentor. 

I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that Boekhoff refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, the seriousness of sexism and harassment, and to acknowledge that perhaps, the paper might have erred in publishing the piece. Even though he maintains that this is an opportunity for the paper to learn and do better in future, he stands by the piece being published, and refuses to take it down from the website. However, there are two main reasons why I'm really disappointed in Boekhoff's reaction, and why I think his statements do a disservice to university communities: one, they resort to the tired old stereotypes of those who dare to call out sexual harassment and sexual objectification; two, because they make excuses for a lack of accountability within the campus community, and within student journalism more broadly.

As reported by Mike Donachie in the Metro News, Boekhoff dismisses the outrage as the product of a small group of clearly over-reactive individuals: "I had one complaint late Sunday night which is after three days of people losing their minds on Twitter," he said. "This thing is entirely Twitter." I can't say I'm surprised that Boekhoff would choose to say that the measured criticisms, including those by prominent professors and community members, are tantamount to people "losing their minds." After all, the discourses of "craziness" are so often-applied to those who protest against harassment and sexism that it is almost to be expected. When news of the rape chants broke last year, there was an incredible amount of condemnation of the complainants on the basis of their apparent "lack of reason," namely that they were oversensitive, unable to take a joke, or simply so unstable that they would take offense even at the most mild forms of humour. Not to mention, of course, that Twitter activism has often been maligned in the same manner, that those who react to incidences of sexism are merely keyboard warriors, whipped into a hashtag-fueled, emotional frenzy, who have nothing better to do than point out the fault in seemingly-innocuous media. By creating a divide between "official" complaints and those offered on the website's comment section and via Twitter, Boekhoff is essentially suggesting that there are less legitimate (and therefore, less reasonable) forms of complaint and criticism -- forms which ultimately, are not to be taken as seriously.

In an interview with Zoe McKnight at the Toronto Star, Boekhoff turned his attention yet again to the ways in which his critics simply lacked a sense of humour or an adequate interpretive lens: "The role of the student press is different from the role and standards of the mainstream press...Students view things from a different vantage point than adults or university administration."

In suggesting that the role of the student press is different than that of mainstream media outlets, Boekhoff is seemingly suggesting that student writers and editors are not professionals who are capable of being both respected as well as being held to account in the same ways as "real professionals" are. However, student newspapers are not underground or anonymous zines, nor are they views expressed on personal blogs or webpages. They are organizations that are funded by students’ tuition fees, and ones that thus bear strong affiliations with the universities themselves. And so, when the employees and students of the institution on your masthead have a serious issue with the content you're presenting, especially when it so clearly contravenes the policies of safe workplaces, it is deeply unprofessional to pull the "we can't be held accountable like the grownups/professionals are" line. This is not to say that university papers, including their individual writers and editors cannot ultimately choose to stand by their work, no matter how profoundly others disagree. Yet, in asserting that they ought not to be held to the same standards, they thus also give up the right to be given the same respect as professional media outlets, which is an insult to the hundreds of committed student journalists and editorial team who work to produce these papers. 

Student newspapers, just like student-led orientations, organizations, and athletics teams, are a vital part of a thriving campus community. A university newspaper provides not only a way for students to keep on top of the current events on their campus, and an opportunity for budding journalists to cut their teeth in the business, but also gives students a way to expose the problems and issues within the community, and in doing so, keep the community accountable. Indeed, news of the rape chants at UBC were first broken by Arno Rosenfeld, a reporter with The Ubyssey, who conducted a thorough series of interviews and investigations into the issue, even after the story had been picked up by major news outlets. Because the staff of these papers are students' peers and representatives, there is an powerful bond of trust that goes along with working in student journalism: student reporters often have connections within the campus community that outside media do not, and the peer-bond can often make these reporters and editors feel more trustworthy. 

In pointing out the issues with FROSH orientation events, or athletic teams, or student organizations, or student newspapers, critics, especially those from within the campus community, are rarely out on a mission to collapse, defame, or destroy these parts of campus culture. We are not rallying to eliminate Greek life, protesting to shut down all Orientation events, or stopping the presses at university papers. Rather, we are recognizing that these parts of campus culture are important enough, and provide enough positive sources of community-building and leadership that we want to work together to ensure they aren’t made unsafe by misguided and deeply offensive articles, racist or sexist chants, or actual instances of sexual violence, harassment, or sexism.

 

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