So this might surprise you, but in today’s crazy mixed up world, subjects such as “rape” and “suicide” can be considered a little controversial, especially if you, oh I don’t know, combine those two subjects and make a homework assignment out of it. Surprised? Memorial University teacher John Shieh certainly was when the assignment he set his students—to design a computer program that would calculate how likely the fictional rape victim “Heather” will commit suicide after intensive online bullying—created a storm of negative attention, not just at University where he has worked for 26 years, but in the media in general.
Candace Simms, executive director of external affairs at Memorial University’s students’ union, told CBC news:
I was pretty appalled… I think it’s pretty disgusting and disrespectful, the way this question was posed to students as part of an assignment… You wonder why this example, in particular, was used—an example of rape and a victim. It’s pretty irresponsible of the instructor and definitely insensitive when you think about how many students this is impacting.
You can see why Simms feels that way, and the Dean of the University, Mark Abrahams, has also expressed that he was “disappointed” in the assignment, and that the question was extremely disrespectful. However Shieh has tried to justify his assignment, telling Maclean’s Magazine that it was a topic that the students would relate to, and that while the wording may be offensive, it was just the sort of language found in the media, not his own.
The intention for my assignment is to try and give a student familiar things for the logical reasoning… Everybody can read it and [decide] whether it’s offensive to them or not. There are some words that are offensive but they’re not by me. They were published in the newspaper, quoted, and I also quoted these types of things.”
Sadly this is just a sign of how ingrained rape culture is in the university environment. Shieh made a mistake, but he also seems to have genuinely felt that rape was a subject that was acceptable to bring up in his class, which just shows how “normal” rape has become.
With phrases like “frape” being used daily, and “lad culture” pushing the idea of scoring by any means, such as the controversial St. Mary’s University “Frosh rape chant” last year (with such charming lyrics as “N is for no consent, U is for underage, G is for Grab that ass”) it’s unfortunately clear why the effects of rape are so underestimated by so many.
Shieh has also offered an apology, saying that while the words weren’t exactly his, he had not considered how offensive the assignment was going to be. He has already given an apology to his class, and offered an alternative assignment. Shieh is currently under investigation by the university. The student union doesn’t feel that he should be punished, but has asked that he undergo sensitivity training instead to avoid a similar situation.