Students at Columbia University help senior Emma Sulkowicz carry her mattress as part of a performance she’s enacting about her own alleged rape and the issue of sexual assault on campus. (photo via Carrying the Weight Together/Facebook)

In the wake of a wave of protests over the school’s mishandling of sexual assault cases — including the filing of federal complaints and a performance art piece by a student that’s garnered international attention — Columbia University recently unveiled a new Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative. “Focused on what it means to be a member of the Columbia community,” according to the website, the program includes a new educational requirement for all students that can be met in five different ways. One of those is an arts option, and not everyone is happy about it, the Columbia Daily Spectator reports.

The Sexual Respect Initiative arts option “will provide prompts and questions for participants to consider the topic of sexual respect through various creative media,” the Spectator says. Students will be required to view at least three relevant “artistic representations” before making their own work, which, according to a video about the new initiative, can take the form of “dance, video, theater, painting, visual arts, poetry, photography, prose, or performing arts.” The only other requirements are that projects “represent a good-faith effort to address the topic,” in the words of Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg, and that they avoid being sexually explicit and do not comment on a specific person without the person’s consent. The artworks that emerge from the initiative will be shown on a “curated website,” and a number of them later selected for presentation at a community event.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some people have reacted less than favorably to the arts option, arguing that it’s not an effective way to teach sexual assault prevention. “There’s really no mechanism to say whether or not a student actually digested the material,” said student Abby Porter, who was a member of the working group that advised Goldberg on the Sexual Respect Initiative. And, to this writer at least, she makes a good point. Can a painting, even if it’s thought provoking, really prove that a student understands sexual consent? Art tends to succeed when it contains a certain amount of ambiguity and open-endedness; art as means of proving that its maker has grasped a set of specific concepts sort of misses the point. What’s more, if a student intends to use the arts option to work through a personal experience, she’s then constrained by rules that limit how sexually explicit and specific she can be. (Is she expected to ask permission from her rapist to make art about him?)

The larger problem here is that it’s not actually clear what the Sexual Respect Initiative arts option is meant to do. The language the school uses to describe it is a laughable hybrid of corporate-sounding mumbo-jumbo and touchy-feely vagueness; in the video, Columbia’s president says, “This is an opportunity to create art about the connection between sexual respect and membership in the Columbia University community,” while others explain, “We invite you to express your thoughts and feelings about sexual respect — concepts like consent, relationships, boundaries.” Such prompts and opportunities!

Some other options for fulfilling the Sexual Respect Initiative requirement seem much more focused and grounded, like workshops on the theme of bystander intervention or for survivors of sexual assault (although even those have been criticized as insufficient). Others seem as hazy as the arts option in their approach: for instance, students “viewing at least three TED talks and then responding with short reflections, which will be read by University staff following the program’s completion.” This is ridiculous; TED talks are the worst way I can think of to think deeply about anything. Not to mention that the whole thing is mired in weird obfuscatory language about “what it means to be a citizen of our community.” Hopefully this represents only the beginning of Columbia’s plans, because if this is what passes for sexual assault awareness and prevention at one of the top-ranked colleges in the US, our educational system is in worse shape than I thought.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

4 replies on “Columbia Students Can Paint, Watch TED Talks to Meet Sexual Respect Requirement”

  1. I disagree that making an artwork, which includes ambiguity, would be an “easy way out” or a way to avoid confronting an issue. Perhaps a way to build comfort around students creatively expressing their reactions would be to engage in a dialogue/critique/q and a with the student about their work. This way, students not only performs what they learn, but reflect on what they have made and their learning process.

    Personally, I am a big fan of constructivist learning and critical making. College campuses and the academia favor written communication more than visual communication. I applaud their efforts to support other learning styles.

    1. I really appreciate what you’re saying. I think—and now it occurs to me that I probably should have made this more clear in the piece—that the issue is with this being a one-shot way to pass this requirement. In other words, art making in combination with workshops and discussions sounds great. A single piece of art alone does not inspire my confidence.

      1. Thanks for clarifying! And yes- a one-off is unfortunate. Here’s to hoping our academic institutions will come up with better solutions in the future!

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