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When Professors Should Seek Consent From Students

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By Tara Kalra and Simran Pavecha

“Stand up when I enter the class”

“Call me Sir”

We’ve grown up hearing these unwritten classroom “rules” and abiding by them.

It starts early on and rather subconsciously, as the ‘respect me narrative’ is conditioned and normalised into our thinking. From the very beginning, Indian students are admonished for any sign of non-conformity, nurtured to uphold unconditional respect for elders, by the mere virtue of their age or status.

Classrooms are supposed to be a fertile ground for conversation, intellectual stimulation and learning – without the burden of status and identity. But, what happens when instead of becoming safe spaces to learn and unlearn, educational institutions become hostile?

Consent and communication then become key to such conversations. What are some instances where professors should seek consent from students?

Teachers should take extra care of setting the right context for a discussion and inculcating diverse voices. Representational image.

Teaching Is A Power Relationship

The teacher-student equation is one fraught with hostility, punishment and authority. It becomes all the more important for teachers to actively exercise sensitivity and empathy. Teachers and professors should take extra care of setting the right context for a discussion and inculcating the voices of those talked about -it can really help make education inclusive.

“At the heart of every teaching moment, is a rich tapestry of ethical choices about how much power a teacher has, how they use that power, and how free a student feels to speak truth to that power about the teacher’s use of it,” writes Ami K Jo, Professor at University of Washington Information School. To fully own up to these ethical responsibilities, the students’ consent in the classrooms should be full, permanent, and fully informed, at all times.

In school, it was quite common for teachers to make comments on a students’ appearance, punish them in case of unfinished work, humiliate them to give explanations for their prolonged absence, and more. All these interactions happened within the classroom and is a fine example of how hierarchies in educational institutions work to oppress students and push them to conform to unjust standards.

Paulo Freire, an educator and a leading advocate of critical pedagogy, says how in a classroom, power should be neutralised. By dismantling the banking concept of education, wherein students are passive recipients, a classroom must challenge learners to investigate and question patterns of inequality and power structures.

 

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Talking To Students From Politically Sensitive And Marginalised Communities

The first time I felt like a certain boundary should’ve been in place was when a teacher asked us to specify the professions of our father while introducing ourselves. Why was it important for the teacher to know what “background” we came from? Was it to justify how she treated students?

Conversations can go south very quickly on discussions on Kashmir, reservation, gender roles, communal harmony, for instance. These discussions can be triggering and create a hostile classroom environment for students from these identities. While talking to students who have been oppressed and their identities marginalised, it becomes pertinent to be aware of those identities and conflicts. The same holds true for being vigilant about gender identities in conversations. Asking for pronouns is a great way of drawing that first line of comfort. Sharing your own pronouns and creating a safe space is an even better way.

“In my school, mentoring programmes and sensitisation workshops were never taken seriously and teachers had a habit of enabling problematic notions. Like upholding notions of the perfect family or relationship while talking about related issues, consciously leaving out those who might not identify with these constructs,” says Mrittika Maitra, an English Literature student from the University of Delhi. 

Dr Megha Dhillon, a psychology professor at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, as if answering the above, underlines how sometimes a certain topic, like domestic violence, is an important part of the curriculum. For Dr Dhillon, giving trigger warnings and letting students tune out from the class should be made necessary.

“I’ve learned a great deal from my students, and while I realise that some people might view certain issues or their descriptions as the harsh realities of life, but out of the sheer camaraderie and respect a teacher has for their students, giving trigger warnings can truly transform an educative space,” says Dr Dhillon. 

“If caught in an uncomfortable, trauma-inducing situation, a student can either release that grief, hold on to it, or take action. The student will have to weigh in the consequences of all three options as, unfortunately, power dynamics and situational factors are involved. In a utopian world, if the teacher would make a certain comment, the class should be able to object,” Dr Dhillon adds. 

Recognising and acknowledging the power asymmetry between professors and students is the first step towards establishing a safe space. Representational image.

No Boundaries: Forcing Class Participation And Technicalities 

“There’s a teacher who continued to force all of us to open our cameras. I am not comfortable with it. Why can’t a teacher not even try to understand this?

The room in which I study is not a single room. I have to share it with my siblings. Whenever they enter the room, they start to laugh or to talk to me. They do it even when I am not comfortable with it. And when I start to retaliate, they end up saying, “I know how much you study! You are just pretending to study, but you are not.” For the sake of God, I want to cry at the top of my voice, but I can’t,” writes Sumit on Youth Ki Awaaz.

With teacher-student interactions restricted to Zoom and Google Meet, a feeling of mutual frustration and suffocation is bound to happen. As much as professors prefer active students over a screen full of black dots, they must take into account the diversity of their classrooms- diversity of identity, demographics and more.

The same goes for being willing to discuss workload and genuine bandwidth for assignments.

Not only do a lot of students lack a stable internet connection, but also access to devices, a personal space for the class, comfortable family dynamics, and other factors – all determine a student’s participation level. Putting them in situations where they have to introduce themselves or engage in compulsory small talk can make the already difficult virtual space, a distressing one. 

Using Slurs And Offensive Words For Teaching Purposes

As we struggle to gain societal consciousness about gender and caste, language is key while disseminating important information. Want to teach sex work for sociology? Wish to discuss historical oppression and manual scavenging in classrooms? Teachers must realise the weight of using certain words in classrooms because they are triggering. What matters most is to ensure that the class is a safe space. 

“I was talking about sex work and prostitution in my sociology class. To talk about a certain historical connotation, I sought consent from my students about using the word, R***i,” a law professor tells me.

It’s really that simple. The rebuttal of labelling this gesture as a ‘threat to academic freedom’ seems a little absurd. Everyone knows what these words are given that we’ve used them for generations as oppressors. We need to remove them from our language and no better place to start doing that than our classrooms.

Nate Behar, in Toronto Star,  explains this well in the context of using the N-word in the classroom. “There is no student who benefits in their historical education by having a professor of European descent utter a word created to hurt Black people. In fact, there is only harm that manifests as a result. Each and every university student can garner the proper understanding of their subject by omitting the vitriol and inserting a less harmful substitution, like simply referencing “the N-word” in its place,” he writes. The same holds true for the words denoting oppression by way of gender and caste in India.

 

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Creating Sensitive And Safe Classrooms

Recognising and acknowledging the power asymmetry then becomes the first step towards establishing a safe space. 

“If a professor is new to a class, they can begin by introducing themselves and understanding what their students feel about sensitivity in the conversation. Some ground rules can be introduced in terms of empathy, how to talk about marginalised communities, body shaming, and much more,” Shraddha Iyer tells us.

It also becomes important to regularly ask for consent, invite disagreements, and listen to students genuinely. If a student shows discomfort that is based on a history of discrimination or socio-politico-cultural oppression, offer them a way out of the conversation or tailor the conversation to suit their needs. It shows that you, the professor, value the student-teacher relationship in learning.

As we progress and grow together, I feel empowered as my students know where I am coming from and I am able to provide them with a safe presence to express their differences,” Dr Dhillon says.

Empathy and a desire to listen are the basic tenets of any successful relationship. Teachers will always have power. This advantage should be employed to support students in their endeavour to define their social identities instead of invalidating their struggles.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program
Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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