Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


The time I asked one of my students if I should fondle her breasts, and I’d do it again

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:13 am.

It took three comments for my post about students’ excuses to devolve into a conversation about boobs (thanks, Daniel Lemire and TonyB), so here’s my story about students and cleavage:

One day, back at my grad school, I was subbing for another teacher’s calculus class. At the end of the lesson, one girl approached me after class to ask me a question. I didn’t hear her question the first time, because I was too busy staring at her chest.

She was wearing a tight shirt across which was written - right on the breasts - “DON’T LOOK…TOUCH!”

Swear to God.

“Do you want me to touch your breasts?” I asked her.

She stared at me, stunned.

“Your shirt,” I explained. “It’s instructing me to stop looking - which is odd, given that when one sees text, one is inclined to look at it to read it, and how else am I supposed to see what it’s saying? - and touch your chest.”

“No,” said the girl. She backed away slowly.

“Then perhaps you should wear a different shirt,” I suggested, “because the one you’re wearing explicitly instructs everyone who reads it to touch your breasts.”

At this point she was getting visibly uncomfortable, and explained that she hadn’t said that she wanted me to touch her, and that if I did, then that would be sexual harrassment. “No means no,” she explained.

“But your shirt says YES,” I responded.

She seemed seriously confused about this.

Eventually I gave up and she asked me her original question pertaining to the concavity of some function, but I was having trouble concentrating. And I’m not the type that often gets distracted by breasts.

Anyway, I guess this is one reason it’s good to have more women in math: if I were a man, she’d have interpreted my comments as sexual harrassment. I’d still have been in the right to make them, but it’d've been a pain in the ass to go through the rigamarole to prove that.


  1. I went to the wrong university!! Linked on Extra Credit Assignment:

    - EdWonk — 1/23/2005 @ 12:39 pm

  2. More than one person has suggested that future generations will look at the time when shirts like these became popular as the beginning of the downfall of society. I’d say that’s about right myself :-)

    - rohan — 1/23/2005 @ 7:47 pm

  3. In a discussion of breasts, a question about concavity ? shouldn’t it be convexity ?

    - Suresh — 1/24/2005 @ 2:40 am

  4. MS, first, I can’t believe you actually said those things to the girl in the “don’t look, touch” shirt; that is one of the funniest posts I’ve read in a long time (and that even includes your previous darkly comic posts here, but as I mentioned in a prior comment things seem to get more darkly humorous around here with each passing day so perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising to me that one of your most recent posts should ascend to the apogee of dark humor). Secondly, I swear to God you should write a novel; I am NOT kidding. Thirdly, yeah, you’re right, as a guy I never could have gotten away with saying things like that to the girl in the “touch” shirt without my actions being construed, rightly or wrongly, as sexual harrassment.

    - wes — 1/24/2005 @ 4:20 pm

  5. Your remark to the student was inappropriate. We can debate that at length if you like, however I would like to make two points I think are more important:
    1. Your remark was ineffective. Someone who wears a t-shirt like that does not think about appropriate attire and sexual signals the same way you do. If you think she should not wear things like that in your class, tell her that in a straightforward way.
    2. You were hanging on your job on (semi)rational response to a sexually explicit comment (i.e. a sentence containing the words “touch” “your” and “breasts” in any order) to a student who was explicitly demonstrating that rational thought was not her leading passion. If your student quoted you verbatim to your admin, you would probably be suspended, at least pending an investigation. You could be named in the press.

    Never, repeat never, say anything that could be construed as a sexual remark to a student…not in jest, not even in response to the most blatant provocation, and certainly not in a situation like that.

    and your spam filter is cute, but didn’t like my answer of 12exp12exp1/12

    - littoral zone — 1/25/2005 @ 11:09 am

  6. wes - thanks. I couldn’t believe the shirt, so the whole thing seemed a bit surreal to me. As for writing a novel, I’m afraid that the one-dimensional personas I impose on my students would hardly make for rollicking reading in book form. To say nothing of the absence of a plot.

    Littoral zone, my job was safe: I was a grad student, paid generously by my standards but far less than a prof would have been paid to do my job. There was a shortage of grad students teaching. Other grad student instructors at my old school included the one who never prepared his classes, the one who failed 70% of his students, the one who dismissed every student’s question as stupid, and the one who lectured to a class of 80 students above a whisper. They weren’t going to fire someone who could teach effectively and respectfully for one comment to someone who couldn’t make sense of a simple English sentence on a T-shirt. Knowing the profs who taught at my school, I’m sure that they would have had a good laugh if that story had gotten around.

    I like to think that I was doing that student a favour, albeit perhaps a bit crassly. It’s not so bad if a substitute calculus teacher ASKS a student if her shirt is to be taken literally. It’s worse if a classmate of hers, passing her in the hall, decides to interpret it as such. My confrontation with her was uncomfortable, to be sure, but it may have saved her from an even more uncomfortable experience later on.

    - Moebius Stripper — 1/25/2005 @ 11:56 am

  7. You didn’t ask her if her t-shirt was to be taken literally. You said you asked her if she wanted you to touch her breasts. Those are not the same thing.
    If you find a student’s attire offensive, you may be on safe and reasonable ground to politely tell the student. In some settings you are on safe ground to ask them to leave until they are more appropriately dressed.
    Making comments, especially what would be viewed as sarcastic comments, much less sexualized remarks, is not your role.

    You don’t know why she had the tshirt on. She may have thought her tshirt was a joke; she may have thought that only a pervert would take anything like that literally. She may have even forgotten what it actually said.

    She may have been uncomfortable because she thought you were making a pass at her, not because you had made her realize what she was wearing was inappropriate.

    I find many things people wear offensive. Once it a blue moon it is appropriate for me to comment, but not very often, and it is never safe to make an explicitly sexual remark - NEVER.

    If your profs would have had ‘a good laugh’ at a complaint then your grad school doesn’t have a realistic policy towards sexual harrassment.
    Other places do - so be careful.

    In my opinion your remarks to the student were not appropriate.

    - littoral zone — 1/25/2005 @ 1:40 pm

  8. I am of the opinion that students should be harassed for stupidity as often as possible.

    Might do them some good. Too bad their parents never taught them the basics like… oh… if you dress like a whore, don’t be surprised if people treat you like a whore.

    - meep — 1/25/2005 @ 2:24 pm

  9. Actually, on reflection, I think I should add something to my previous comment. It is at least possible to construe me as a fairly unsophisticated, even morally oblivious, person on the basis of my professed enjoyment of your story about your encounter with the “touch”-shirted student coupled with the lack of acknowledgement in my previous comment of the politically insensitive nature of your remarks. To clear up the record, however, my comment was made with full knowledge of the fact that your conversation with the student was, as LZ points out, ineffective, inappropriate and risky.

    So, why did I react only to the humor in your conversation, without even acknowledging the politically charged nature of the interaction, as LZ did?

    (1) Your remarks were inappropriate, and I personally never would have said anything like that to the student (I could never have gotten away with it, for starters; someone would have canned me for sure, or worse). However, this does not mean that your remarks were morally wrong. They may have been wrong based on institutional or societally ingrained mores, but they were not wrong on absolute measures — at least not in my values system. Your remark did not do any harm to the student or to anyone else, as far as I can see.

    (2) Since I did not think that your behavior was immoral my soul was freed to experience the deep levity in the situation, a levity that parallels my own ingrained sense of the absurd.

    (3) I usually don’t post highly judgmental comments on blogs, because I find it only engenders endless argument, but since LZ has rather straightforwardly and powerfully made the case about the inappropriateness (and since if anyone s/he, as the argument’s progenitor, will be the one to have to engage in endless argument with you) I don’t mind throwing my hat in with LZ. LZ is, after all, quite correct.

    - wes — 1/25/2005 @ 5:11 pm

  10. Littoral zone, I still disagree. You’re right, I didn’t ask her if the shirt was to be taken literally; I assume that when I see words written in my mother tongue, I am to interpret them as they are written, as opposed to invite someone else to give me some nonstandard, made-up version of what they mean. This is why people communicate in written language as opposed to instrumental music or abstract painting. When I see an ad telling me that a certain drug reduces symptoms of a certain disease by 80%, am I to ask the company if they actually meant that, or if they meant something else? Am I to ask people what they mean in every interaction I have with them, or am I permitted to assume that our shared language has some shared meaning?

    Students ought not to be surprised when dressing provocatively provokes reactions. (And, before anyone says otherwise, let’s make it clear that I’m not saying that dressing in a short skirt = asking to be raped.)

    I’ve had the dubious privilege of talking to a number of young women who specifically bare a lot of flesh in class; they are, virtually without exception, highly manipulative: there is a specific, very limited set of reactions they’re trying to evoke. They want you to look at them, but they don’t want you to look at them for THAT long, and if you’re older/ugly/fat, then they don’t want you to look at them, they want that hunk in the second row/their prof/their TA to look at them, but not to SAY anything…

    Honestly, I’m sick of it. If it’s sexual harassment to ask someone if the text written on their clothing means what it says, then I’m willing to go to court over that one.

    (I’m defending my actions here, absolutely. Don’t know if it makes any difference, but my tone of my initial, “Do you want me to touch your breasts?” query was stunned/confused, as opposed to hubba-hubba-let’s-get-in-on-babe.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 1/25/2005 @ 5:15 pm

  11. I read that the t-shirt was supposed to be funny because it’s a rearrangement of the unfortunate “look, don’t touch” t-shirt slogan. This reading seemed more likely to me than the surface reading of “touch my breasts, please.” Though the shirt is IMO both in bad humour and bad taste, I can understand that the wearer might be bewildered by someone who was challenging the straight reading when this reading was clearly not the one the wearer intended.

    That said, I approve wholeheartedly of MS’ reading of the shirt as “make fun of me, please”.

    - Jordan — 1/27/2005 @ 1:24 am

  12. A young woman with an adolescent mindset who wears a provocative shirt is likely looking for attention. And you gave her attention with your question. She then had a great funny story to tell all her friends. Your behavior rewarded her for wearing the shirt.

    A better strategy might have been to ignore the shirt, giving her no attention for it, and instead give her attention for having enough curiosity and persistence to come up and ask you a math question. It seems to me that as teachers we need to reward a student for her desire to learn and not what she wears.

    - jo(e) — 1/27/2005 @ 7:23 am

  13. I am siding with LZ here, MS. If they were directed to a friend, I think your response to the t-shirt would be totally appropriate. Regardless, I also think your response (and, in fact, your whole story) very funny. And I know you well enough to imagine your voice and dry sense of humor making it work anyway. If you really were totally confused by the shirt, and if that came across well in your voice — if your response to the student communicated “I have no interest in touching your breasts, but according to your shirt you want me to”, then sure. But you’re too smart for any response to a student to be anything but ironic, sarcastic, or witty. You of course knew that the shirt was intended to attract attention.

    Hell, I’d wear a shirt like that (maybe not exactly… rarely are my breasts things I want to show off). I’m unlikely, yes, to wear it to class (but it’s not like students actually get out except to go to class), but if I did, I’d expect my friends and classmates to make comments, and my profs to stay mum.

    - Theo — 1/28/2005 @ 9:40 pm

  14. I’d expect my friends and classmates to make comments, and my profs to stay mum.

    And that right there is my issue with provocative dress: you don’t get to handpick who reacts in one way and who reacts in another way. If someone’s distracted and taken aback, they’re distracted and taken aback, and how distracted and taken aback they are doesn’t necessarily depend on how young they are, whether they’re male or female, or how much you want them to talk to you about your clothing.

    Yes, I did know that this girl probably didn’t want random strangers grabbing her breasts. However - and perhaps I didn’t stress this enough - I was distracted by her shirt. When she initially asked me the calculus question (which I did answer eventually, jo(e) - clearly and thoroughly), I actually didn’t hear her because the shirt was so completely bizarre (cf “provocative clothing provokes”, above). Perhaps I could have pointed THAT out in a more tactful and less confrontational way (”How do I know that this curve is concave up?” “Excuse me, I didn’t hear your question because I was so taken aback by your shirt”); perhaps I could have stayed mum, and made up some pretend reason that I hadn’t heard her question the first time. But my communication with her was stunted by a choice she’d made regarding the way she presented herself, and it’s either naive or disingenuous for her to feign innocence on that one. (If I’d actually reached out and touched her, that’d've be a different story. But only because my contract specifically forbade that sort of contact (for good reason, IMO).)

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, people (okay, women, mostly young women) dress provocatively in order to effect a very specific type of reaction. This girl, I suspect, was either a) very stupid, or b) intending for hot young guys to be intrigued by her dress and distracted. But not TOO distracted; that’s leering, see. If she hadn’t wanted people to react that way, she could have worn any other t-shirt. There’s a reason I wear baggy, casual shirts and pants that conceal my underwear.

    - Moebius Stripper — 1/28/2005 @ 10:05 pm

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