As many of you know, I am a graduate assistant at my university, and this entails teaching intro microbiology lab classes. Over Christmas break, I became aware that I actually had a profile on ratemyprofessors.com. There were 2 ratings, one that was glowing and one that was not. The one that was not was chock-full of lies. It said something to the effect of “This crazy girl doesn’t believe in god, is always inviting you to her stupid atheist club, and she doesn’t know how to bring microbiology down to a normal person’s level.” I was more than a little pissed off because this person was mostly denigrating my beliefs, not my teaching, and because it is untrue that I proselytize in the classroom. I had my suspicions on who it might be and what their problem is.
Remember “Jim” from this post? Jim was in my class last spring semester. He wasn’t a good student and was a very heavy partier. I happened to see him on one occasion during fall semester because he was in my building retaking the class from a colleague. When I casually mentioned the atheist club, he went into debate mode, the details of which are in the previous post. He promised to have a talk with me again, but he never did. I think he knew he was pretty well beaten in the debate. As far as I know, he is the only student that knows I am an atheist because I have never brought it up in class. At the end of last semester, my colleague informed me that he failed the class again. I also saw on facebook that he had some relationship troubles as well. My theory is that he is angry due to his own (mostly self-inflicted) problems and that the rate my professors page was merely an easy target.
Because of the untruth of his post, I flagged the rating and it was removed from the site. However, it got me thinking about the possible consequences of being out at school. My advisor had seen me debating with Jim in the hallway and later cautioned me about proselytizing to students, until I told him that Jim wasn’t currently my student. My advisor is a devout Hindu who frequently debates atheism with me and feels that my group is not necessary since we “don’t believe in anything,” so his bias would likely be a bit skewed against me if the issue came up again with a new student. As the president of the Atheist and Freethought Club, I have to be out and outspoken. In February, there is something called “Winter Cruise.” This is where all the student organizations have booths in the student center for recruitment and fundraising. We will be giving out pamphlets and candy and probably fielding some debate as well. In the hundreds of people that file by our booth, there will be former, current, and future students who will learn of my atheism. An anonymous comment on a website is nothing, but a stronger accusation could cause a problem for me even if I was eventually cleared. A student could do this because they were mad about their grade, or simply because they’re an anti-atheist bigot. It’s appalling to me that in this part of the country a teacher could wear a cross and Christian t-shirts to class and be the president of a Christian club with little fear of consequences even if they do proselytize.
Despite Jim’s (or whoever's) little online hissy fit, I have decided that I will not stop working with my club or being open with my beliefs when appropriate. As a graduate student, I am both fully teacher and student, and I do have rights, spelled out in the school rules as well as the Constitution. I will be out and proud and I will try to be an effective president of my club. I will remain scrupulously neutral in the classroom, but I will not be afraid to be me outside of it.