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Handling Harmful Comments in Class

Recently, I participated in a class assignment where our small discussion section had to separate into two groups and argue for or against a position. I am a huge nerd for these kinds of activities because I plan on going to law school… so I got really into it. My case was well-argued, my group-mates were supportive, and everything seemed to be going well for our side.

Then, a male classmate from the opposition responded to one of my points saying, “Sara, sometimes I think you’re too smart to believe the things you say.”

Bewildered, I asked what he meant by that, but the professor interjected and moved the conversation in a different direction. For a couple of minutes after the initial incident, I didn’t react. However, my group-mates (all women) did in our GroupMe. They said he was being rude and that I shouldn’t take it to heart. It was only then that I realized just how sexist and inappropriate the comment was.

Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

After class, I wrote an email to my professor explaining how the incident had made me and my group feel, and asked that he not permit that sort of conversation in the future. To his credit, my professor apologized, agreed that it was both uncalled for and a violation of LSA Rules of Decorum, and assured me that he would speak to the student and the class at large via email. After that email was sent out, the student (seemingly reluctantly) apologized to me via our class GroupMe, and that was that. I realize, though, that some people might not be as willing to call out this sort of behavior. However, if you are, here are some steps that I took to help you out:


1. Write down exactly what the comment was (if you can remember) and when it happened

Including the context of the comment will help you make your case later if you speak to your professor and would like action to be taken. Be as specific as you can so that neither your professor nor the person who made the comment can deny that it occurred.

person writing outside in notebook
Photo by StockSnap from Pixabay

2. Contact your professor in an email immediately after the class that it happened 

This will ensure that it is fresh in their mind. Use a professional but firm tone — you know what happened and how it made you feel. Identify the comment, explain how and why it made you feel uncomfortable, and present solutions that the professor can take to alleviate the discomfort. This could be something like asking not to be put in a group with the person, asking that the comment be retroactively addressed in front of the class, or even asking that the professor moderate a meeting between you and the other person so that you can explain why they made you feel uncomfortable. 

Someone typing on macbook
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters from Unsplash

3. Depending on the professor’s response and the nature of the comment, reach out to the Office for Institutional Equity

Information on how to file a formal complaint can be found here. Because of the way that my professor handled it, I was satisfied and did not pursue this route. However, each professor is unique and some may not take your concerns seriously. If you don’t feel safe in class, you can take steps through the University to help alleviate that feeling. 

two women speaking to each other
Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

4. Know that whatever the comment was, it had more to do with the person saying it than you

I knew what I was talking about in class and knew that my position was defendable. The comment that the other person made came from a place of resentment and insecurity. I let it bother me for about 3 hours and then was able to move on. My self-confidence was strong enough to move past it and I reached out to my support system to validate my hurt feelings and assure me that it really had nothing to do with me. 

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I’ll leave you with a quote from the Notorious RBG that hangs on my wall and has been a mantra of mine ever since I realized that being insulted might come with the territory of being an ambitious and outspoken woman: “Better bitch than mouse.” When they’re coming for you, you know you’re moving in the right direction.

Sara is a feature writer for Her Campus. She is a senior at the University of Michigan, studying French, Art History and Political Science. She is interested in international law and competes on the University of Michigan's Mock Trial team. In her free time, Sara explores Ann Arbor looking for new foods, specializing in tacos and noodles. She loves immersing herself in a good book from Literati and traveling to learn about different cultures. Sara loves the feeling of walking around a city with nowhere to go, headphones in, observing the hustle of everyday life. If Sara could do anything in the world, she woud be a travel and fashion writer exploring with a camera, a journal, and an empty stomach. 
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