An account from Holly Wielechowski, current Wayne State PhD student

My experience with Barrett Watten began in my first semester of grad school, Fall 2018-2019. He introduced himself and told me that he had similar academic interests as me and that he would be a good resource for me, so I joined his class. From my first session I felt uncomfortable with the bar culture that Barrett had established–every week, he would go with students to the Common Pub, and although it was never communicated that this was mandatory, it certainly felt like you weren’t part of his clique, or that you might be missing out, if you didn’t attend. I went maybe 2-3 times over the semester, just to appear invested (even though I did not particularly want to go or feel comfortable with going).

About halfway through the semester Barrett began to pay some sort of “special” attention to me. It suddenly felt as though I had started doing something “right,” although I had no idea what that something was or why I should have to do it to win his approval in the first place. Unfortunately, with him being my professor, I was keen to stay on his good side, as I believed I might need to work with him in the future, so I did not question this too heavily.

The subject matter of the class began to get more controversial with each passing week. When we studied The Handmaid’s Tale, it became very apparent that Barrett was not prepared for the difficult subject matter. Many of the women in the class spoke of the coping strategies they had had to employ in order to essentially binge-watch a full season of the show, which deals explicitly with sexual violence against women and control of women, in one week, which is what was required of us. Even this experience in itself was traumatic and challenging, especially for those of us in the class who have experienced these issues directly.

In class, conversation developed around one of the male student’s reading responses to the material, in which he stated that the text was fantasy and that women do not deal with those issues in our current society. This discussion became very heated and another female student in the room challenged him to justify his position. Barrett shut the female student down claiming that he had to “contain” the discussion; the female student became upset and left shortly after. Barrett did not dismiss the class but instead openly sulked in silence for a good minute or two. Some of us tried to reinitiate discussion but Barrett dismissed the class, in a petulant and angry manner, and told us he would be in the pub. When we arrived at the pub Barrett was apologetic and stated that he was aware he should not have tried to silence female voices in the class and that he had not handled the class well overall.

The next day, the male student whose position had been controversial in the class posted an Instagram image that appeared threatening, and so I took the concerns of myself and other students to Barrett to request that he take action to protect our safety. Instead of this, he had me come into his office alone and shut the door and proceeded to insult the female student in a number of ways. He opened conversation by trying to manipulate me to side with him, saying that the female student had emailed him saying she felt isolated in his class, and demanded I tell him if I too felt isolated (I did not agree, and I later found out that he was lying about the email itself). Instead of discussing my real concern of safety for the female students in the classroom, he continued his attempt to denigrate the female student, telling me she had unfriended him on Facebook and also demanding I agree with him about how inappropriately she was behaving (I would not). The conversation turned to his handling of the previous class, and I communicated to him that it was a difficult topic for many of the women in the room, to which he replied that he himself had been “gay bashed,” and that [redacted information concerning a third party] in what was a clear attempt to minimize our concerns and manipulate me into siding with him. He also then told me that [redacted information concerning a third party], a fact which I never asked for and which should never have been communicated, and which later also turned out to be false. At some point I became so uncomfortable that I told him I had only come to communicate my concerns over our safety and that I would wait to hear how he planned to handle it.

Over the next week he proceeded to chase me down in my office to keep discussing the entire situation, regarding the handling of the class, the male and female student involved, and the risk to our safety. He did not in fact “handle” my concerns in any manner until 45 minutes before the next class, when he told me he knew it was safe because he had spoken to the student involved (not very reassuring). The next class was on psychosexual fantasy, where we were forced to sit through a class on what can only be described as very disturbing pornography, with the author present (Goransson, Haute Surveillance). I was so exhausted and overwhelmed by events that I left halfway through, at which point he was preparing to screen the film Gaslight.

In our final class of the semester the topic circled to #metoo¸ and he asked the students to pick the reading, although none of us were comfortable with being in the class at that point. While we did pick several texts ourselves, he insisted on reading a chapter of Conflict is Not Abuse; this was not relevant to our topic in particular (a fact which he confirmed in class when I challenged him on it), but instead seemed to be a clear dig at recent events and an attempt to discredit the female student in particular.

Outside of class, I was subjected to his continual intrusions into the 9th floor GTA office. He frequently barged in unannounced, and on multiple occasions backed me into a corner and isolated me from other students in the office. On one particular day he came in on five separate occasions. When he came in, he would ignore any male students in the room and only engage with the female students (even including the male students who were in his class). Last semester I told him on one such occasion that I would come and communicate with him if I had anything I wished to say. I began to feel very unsafe in my own office, and so asked other students if we could keep the door shut. I also tried  and still try to avoid him in the corridors, and do not stay late in the building alone, even when I have work to complete and need to be at my workspace, to avoid being in a dangerous situation with him. I also continue to call my husband every night when leaving the office to try and preemptively avoid any kind of interaction with him in the halls (I have to pass his office to get to mine).

I had assumed this was over but this semester he again backed me into a corner in the vestibule by the bathrooms asking to speak with me privately, which I refused. I later emailed him and asked him to communicate solely over email; his response indicated that he felt something was wrong and would like to resolve it. This was a repetitive tactic that he employed, often asking me how I felt and what was wrong (sometimes while backed into a corner and isolated). Ultimately, I felt that this was an attempt to manufacture some kind of emotional relationship which he could then manipulate. Last semester I told him on one such occasion that I would communicate with him if I had anything I wished to say, and so I was surprised to still be dealing with it this semester when I am no longer in his class and have no reason whatsoever to interact with him.

Overall, Barrett’s behavior appeared to me to be an attempt to groom me (for what purpose I am not sure), and when this did not succeed, this devolved into harassment, invasion of personal space, erosion of appropriate boundaries, and attempts to manipulate me. 

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