Just Answer the Question, Dammit

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, aside from teaching and grading I’ve been immersed in a series of mandatory Title IX online training courses at my University. Each module–there are four* of them–consists of a couple of dozen questions plus explanatory gloss. You’re obliged to give an answer to each question in order to proceed to the next question; you’re obliged to reach the end of the training module in order to be remain employed at the University; and having done so, you’re explicitly obliged to indicate your assent to the contents of each module as well.

Here’s one of the questions, under the heading “Constant Consent.” It’s a yes/no question. This is the sum total of the question-prompt.

Allie was kissing her date at the end of their evening together. If Allie chose to make out with him, did his having sex with her count as rape?

Now, there’s a paradigm of a well-constructed test question.
The answer turns out to be: YES, i.e., he raped her. Here is the official explanation.
Consent can be revoked at any time, and when Allie told him to stop she was explicitly ending her consent. Having sex with someone when you do not have their consent is rape, and her rapist could be expelled from his school and convicted in a court of law.

She told him to stop? I didn’t catch that. Evidently, much of the drama here seems to be happening off-stage.

So let’s take this step by step: Allie was kissing her date. From kissing, they consensually went to “making out” (ex hypothesi, there’s a subtle distinction). Then, without further elaboration, we’re told that they ended up having sex. Nothing is said in the initial prompt about whether or not the sex was consensual. The omission is then construed in the answer (which is not visible until after you’ve answered the question) to mean that Allie explicitly told the date to stop, and that he didn’t stop. Evidently, “constant consent” not only means that Allie has to indicate consent at each step of the sexual encounter, but that questions about sexual encounters can be written in such a way that if consent isn’t mentioned one way or another, we’re to infer that consent was explicitly denied and flouted.

The question is whether I can revoke my consent to take this online training.

The answer is: NO. Here is the explanation.

Consent cannot be revoked at any time. Once you’re employed, you’ve consented to everything that your employer wants to impose on you, no matter how ridiculous. Failure to take the compulsory training module will result in termination of employment.

In other words, revocation of consent would be a kiss of death for my further employment prospects. Pretty sexy.

*Correction, November 15, 2015: I had originally written “three,” but there are four. [Correction, March 24, 2016: Felician admin recently scolded me for missing the fifth.]

Postscript, November 16, 2015: As promised, an item from the harassment module of my training:

Watch your language: Tolerance does not mean you need to compromise your ethics. You may disagree with choices others make, but express your opinion respectfully. Don’t post critical comments on social media sites, spread rumors or call people names.

As we all know, critical comments are the equivalent of rumors or insults. For this reason, and with all due respect, no more critical comments will be allowed at Policy of Truth, especially if they are critical of me, Irfan “the Oppressed” Khawaja. Anyone who criticizes me will be asked to apologize, grovel, abase themselves, resign from any position they hold anywhere, and be reminded of the PTSD I suffer from my past-life Jungian experiences as a result of the Partition of India and Pakistan (in 1947, two decades before I was born). And then they’ll be asked to send me a check to cover my therapy co-pays for the rest of my life (ht: Jason Brennan at BHL).

That goes double for white, male cis-gendered (etc.) readers of this blog (yes, including contributors). I’ve had it with your privilege! Had it! Be quiet! Who the fuck hired you? This blog is my home! It’s not about creating an intellectual space. Do you understand that? Is this what Policy of Truth is? You’re disgusting

Just kidding! Ha ha.

If the preceding doesn’t meet your subversion-of-the-norms-of-discourse quota, try this post.

Postscript, March 24, 2016: I have mixed feelings about the AAUP–and particularly mixed feelings about the accuracy of their reporting–but unless there are any major boo-boos in it, this seems like a worthwhile use of their resources (PDF).

6 thoughts on “Just Answer the Question, Dammit

  1. Well, you can revoke your consent to take the online training, but not if you want to remain employed. Similarly, perhaps Allie’s boyfriend is a real asshole, and so if Allie does not consent to having sex with him he will break up with her. Both might be open to criticism, but neither really violates anyone’s consent. I suppose the main difference is that anybody who will break up with you for not having sex doesn’t really deserve your time, whereas you might reasonably want to remain employed at a university even if it requires you to take online training that is really poorly worded.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The training really has to be experienced in full to be believed: what I’ve excerpted is just the tip of the iceberg. Huge (often bizarre) claims are made in the training module about bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. etc. without the slightest pretense at tying the claims to the blackletter of the law, to bona fide social scientific findings, to University policy, or to plain old common sense. It’s just one poorly worded absurdity after another, masquerading as The Federally Legalized Wisdom on any given topic, to which everyone is obliged to give assent as a condition of continued employment.

      One of my favorites, which I’ll quote here verbatim when I get the chance, was: critical comments on social media are instances of “bullying.” No further elaboration is given. It’s not a proscription on profane comments or abusive comments, by the way. According to our training any critical comment on social media is an instance of bullying simply qua critical. So right now, evidently, I’m bullying the test administrators at Workplace Answers because I’m criticizing them on social media. And since bullying is legally actionable, what I’m doing is prima facie illegal! I’m sure (I think I’m sure) that if you brought this absurdity to the attention of the test designers, they’d dismiss it as an exaggeration. But I’m also pretty sure that if the right case came up, and it opportunistically suited the designers to describe that instance of patently-legitimate-but sharp-criticism as “bullying,” they’d have no problem with calling it that.

      Companies like this one have just cashed in on the scam of providing dumbed-down “diversity training” to institutions governed by “diversity law”; people tend not to push back because it’s easier to take the training, pretend that you agree, and move on. There’s also the fear that if you push back, you’re setting yourself up for termination. But if no one pushes back, the whole thing becomes–or appears to become–an unstoppable juggernaut. And it really has to be stopped. Anyone who takes the training can see how obvious a threat it is to academic freedom.

      The irony is that Felician is currently under censure by the AAUP for violations of academic freedom. But the reasons the AAUP has given for that censure are ludicrously uninformed and out of touch with reality: I’d elaborate on that, but the matter is under litigation, and anything substantive I say about it could become part of some plaintiff’s attorney’s discovery motion/subpoena, possibly with the encouragement of the AAUP itself. (No threat to academic freedom or “chilling” of speech there, apparently.) So I have to wait until the litigation is over to speak my mind about the pathetic farce being enacted by our self-appointed guardians of “academic freedom” and “shared governance.” Meanwhile, the actual threats to academic freedom have been passed over in silence. It’s a preposterous situation. But to repeat, I’ve only exposed the tip of the iceberg here.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m basically sympathetic with what I take to be the thoughts that lie behind having training modules like these; we had similar things at UT Austin. So in one sense I’m inclined to say that your criticisms here just show that they’re terribly designed, not that there’s anything wrong with them in principle. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether these things make any difference at all to people’s actual behavior. Grant that there are some (epistemically) grey areas in which a well-intentioned person could in fact act badly because he has not reflected adequately and that some kind of training module could possibly rectify this error. Still, aren’t most actual offenses pretty clear cut cases in which the offenders know damn well what they’re doing but do it anyway? That’s an empirical question, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with an answer to it given from the armchair; maybe in fact a huge number of offenses are the products of misunderstanding about what the relevant norms are, and hence training modules could make a huge impact. But even if we suppose that’s all true, and further suppose that future training modules are improved so as to have this effect, the role of these modules in preventing offenses would seem fairly limited. Even if they can have an impact, before they can do so the people taking them have to take them seriously. And, well, I’m not sure I’ve yet met anyone who takes them seriously. People are either already inclined to comply and aware of the problems or they don’t care much and just mock the modules; at best a few would-be offenders learn that they might be punished for something they hadn’t considered, and hence be more careful to go about it secretly rather than openly. So I suppose my question is: assuming we could produce modules that weren’t objectionable in the ways you’ve suggested above, would they still be effective as a means of preventing offenses? Are these things, even at their best, just a way of protecting the institution from legal liability? Might they have some value as expressing the authoritative norms of the community even if they have a limited impact on how people actually behave? Or am I vastly underestimating their potential impact on people’s behavior?

        Liked by 1 person

        • The training modules have always been represented to me (us) as specifically legal requirements with avoidance of liability as a primary concern. In fact, given the presentation, one gets the impression that the training module is itself a “legal requirement” as in: participation in the training module is itself a statutory requirement of the law.

          My view is this. If the primary motivation is legal, why not simply require the faculty and staff to read the relevant statutes and indicate that one has done so? On the one hand, the motivation given for the training module is specifically legal. On the other hand, no specific statutory language is mentioned in the training module. Isn’t that an obvious discrepancy? In other words, we’re trying to avoid legal liability, but we’re doing so by means of a training module that dumbs down and distorts the legalities. So how can we be sure that by following this dumbed-down and distorted version of the law, we’re complying with the law? Why not just follow the law by reading what it actually says?

          At this point, I’m sure I’d get the objection that a layperson cannot, merely by reading the text of the law, understand what it says. Reading federal equal opportunity law is like reading Metaphysics Z-H. It’s just too hard and obscure for any non-expert to understand. Just as Dante couldn’t make it through the Inferno without his Virgil, we can’t make it through federal equal opportunity law without a training module. Well. My response to that is: doesn’t that indicate a problem with federal equal opportunity law? If you can’t understand it by reading it, and its content isn’t really captured by existing training modules, and you can’t realistically expect to do your work as an educator with an attorney at your beck and call, how exactly is compliance with these regulations to be ensured?

          Maybe it’s to be ensured by improved training modules. Fair enough–but if we’re in the domain of counterfactual wishing, maybe the law could have been written so that non-lawyers could have understood it at the outset, in which case we might have dispensed with the need to improve the training modules intended to explain it. It’s an empirical question which improvement would take more work–improving the law or improving the training modules that claim to explain it. But I have a sentimental attachment to the idea that the laws we live under ought to be understandable to the people they supposedly govern.

          The truth is, I don’t think the relevant statutes are that hard to understand. It’s a bore to have to read them, but they’re not hieroglyphics (or hierophantics). Why not get faculty and staff to read the text of the relevant statutes, and then have a Q&A session with in-house attorneys to clarify whatever questions remain? Or a bunch of sessions, come to that. I can’t imagine that 3-5 sessions with in-house attorneys would cost more than administering a training module to faculty and staff. And assuming that in-house attorneys did a better job than these training modules–which I’d really like to think would happen–it’d be more cost-effective in the long-run than even a cheap module. Presumably, you’d actually avoid liability this way, because people would know what the hell they were doing, or shouldn’t do.

          Armchair hypothesis: I do think that such training modules affect behavior. I think they turn people into risk-averse, narrowly prudent, mindlessly compliant legal positivists. Though the motivation for the training modules is specifically and narrowly legal (not moral), the modules come across as bearing a broadly moral message that seems supported by the latest findings in clinical psychology. A predictable take-away is:

          Unlike me, the people who wrote this training module sound like they know what they’re talking about. They’re informing me of my moral obligations to my students (and secondarily, colleagues), something I’ve never thought about in my life. Wow, I didn’t realize I had so many obligations, and never realized how counter-intuitive some of them were! Not only that, if I don’t comply, I’ll be fired. So I guess they really are my obligations, and I better take them seriously. I don’t suppose I’ll remember half of the details of this module after I’m done with it (I can’t exactly print it out, after all–it’s protected by copyright: can’t wait for that training module), but if I remember one thing, it’s this: I better know where the red flags are as far as sexual harassment, stalking, bullying and drugs are concerned, and I better be very careful to avoid doing or saying anything that might attract anyone’s attention in any of those domains.

          Here’s the reductive version of the same:

          I don’t give a shit about any of this, but I better act as though I do, or else I’ll get fired. Acting as though I do means keeping my head down, avoiding trouble, being very careful about what I say, and when trouble strikes, over-reacting to it so as to cover my ass at all times.

          In an institution indoctrinated in this way, ordinary candor comes across as shocking behavior, and sincerity or authenticity is treated as a malady.

          At Felician, the AAUP’s censure motion has given credence to the idea that the institution operates under a cloud of dissent-stifling fear. In fact, there isn’t a particle of bona fide empirical evidence for that claim–not in the AAUP’s report, and nowhere else, either. The truth is that such attitudes are less an objective reality than a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one has provided any actual evidence that anyone has ever been fired, censured, or reprimanded here for saying the wrong thing. But evidence doesn’t seem to matter in such contexts. What matters is that people believe that you might be fired, censured, or reprimanded for saying the wrong thing. Once illusion supersedes reality, once the rumor mill goes to work, and once rumors are given the imprimatur of an organization like the AAUP, what seems as though it could be true starts to take precedence over what can objectively be known as true.

          My hypothesis is that training modules of the sort we’re discussing play much the same role. Without providing any credible information about anything, they give the vague impression that The Law makes Demands on us that we’re obliged to follow–or else. In doing so, they generate a kind of shadow realm of pseudo-law mediated by unscrupulous, profit-making enterprises like Workplace Answers. When a legal issue actually arises, and the training is revealed to be the sham that it is, people belatedly realize:

          You know, the training we got in workplace regulation really had nothing to do with the actual content of the law, did it? It was just an entity unto itself. We complied with it thinking that we were complying with the law, but strangely enough, it bore no discernible relation to the blackletter of the law at all!

          Wow, so reading the Cliff Notes isn’t a substitute for reading the primary text, huh? Gee. There’s a fucking surprise.

          I blame my institution less than corporations like Workplace Answers, and even the corporations are less to blame than the people who created the legal environment we operate in. I’m not a reflexively anti-regulation person, but when regulatory law proliferates as higher ed law has, the proliferation has predictably adverse consequences–idiotic training modules being one of them.

          Incidentally, part of the issue here turns on the content of the training modules themselves, and it sounds like you and I may well have gotten different kinds of training in different sorts of thing. We had four modules (not three as I previously said): an anti-drug module, a sexual harassment/assault module, an anti-bullying module, and a fourth hard-to-characterize one called “Student Empower,” which seemed to me a rehash of the sexual harassment module, but focused on stalking rather than sexual assault.

          I found them all objectionable, but the anti-bullying and anti-stalking ones were the worst. My main objection is that they systematically turned epistemically grey events into morally and legally black-and-white ones, and events that were questionable but very far from coercive (and not even obviously immoral, at least as described) into acts of quasi-criminality. A secondary objection is that some of the claims central to the module were just downright nonsensical. One of them was: “X, Y, and Z are all symptoms of depression; depression is evidence of bullying; so treat any instance of X, Y, or Z as a prima facie instance of bullying,” followed by warning that if you don’t do this, you’re in dereliction of your duties as an educator. I’m not sure what’s worse–the blithe imposition of the duty, or the non-sequitur involved in the inference from (apparent) symptoms of depression to depression, and from depression to bullying. But they’re all there, represented as binding legal obligations, with dereliction of duty represented as both a firing offense and a liability hazard for the institution.


          • It’s been a long while since I took the UT modules, but if I recall we had one on sexual harassment and one on student privacy and information. The latter, at least, was genuinely informative, as it is not blindingly obvious what one can and cannot legally do with student records. The former was not so bad as what you describe in your case, although most of it was rather common sensical. The best part was just that it had photos of people sexually harassing each other as examples of what we should not do — offer the administrative assistant a backrub, ogle a fellow employee’s backside at the water cooler, tell lewd jokes (which, conveniently, in photographic representation look like a lot like any other kind of bad joke). I have no data, but I’d be willing to venture $5 that no sexual harassment was ever prevented by the modules. I’m fairly sure, though, that many of us might have been careless with student records if not for that module. So that suggests that these things can be genuinely useful, anyway.


          • Ogling someone is sexual harassment? I guess there’s ogling and there’s ogling, but if I look at your backside in a discreet way–so discreet that you never know that I did–I don’t see how that amounts to harassing you.

            Granted, I’m not sure when I will get the opportunity to look at your backside (or why I would need the opportunity, given my current sexual orientation), but I don’t want to forfeit the right to do so. Not without a fight, anyway.

            P.S. I sort of agree with your comment about training for FERPA regulation, but the fact is, once I got FERPA training, I ended up going and reading the text of FERPA to get the real low-down. You can download FERPA for future reference, but you can’t download a training module. I actually found reading the text of FERPA far superior to the FERPA training I got.


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