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Two students file Title IX complaints against professor

One of the complaints originated with English professor Kary Smout’s winter term literature class on the American west

Hannah Denham

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The university is assessing two Title IX complaints filed by students this semester against English professor Kary Smout.

And after serving as director of the Writing Center for 27 years, Smout resigned from the position in April.

One of the complaints is about an interaction with a student during his English 293 class during the winter semester, a literature class on the American West that delves into themes of gender, sexuality and Native Americans.

Reid Ostrom, ’19, a student in the class, said masculinity was a common focus of the class as a character trope in Western literature. “A lot of it is very much so trying to challenge our pre-conceived notions of categories like gender or sex, which are pretty touchy topics,” Ostrom said.

One of those touchy topics during a class discussion turned into what’s now the substance of one of the Title IX complaints, what some students referred to as “Chrysanthemums Day.” Smout was discussing passages of John Steinbeck’s short story, “The Chrysanthemums,” that included what he claimed were sexual themes and phallic imagery.

A student raised his hand and said he disagreed with this interpretation of the story.

“You are missing the sexual overtones of this because of your own sexual innocence,” Smout responded, as confirmed by six students in the class.

But Ostrom said he didn’t think the comment was ill-intentioned.

“It definitely sounded bad at the time,” he said. “But I think he meant it as in, ‘You’re innocent, you didn’t know the stories. You haven’t read as much Steinbeck as [Smout] had.’”

Another student, who asked to not be identified, dropped the class past the registrar’s deadline for drop/add due to uncomfortable feelings with Smout’s comments during class. This student led a complaint through the English department.

The original student in the class who led the complaint said he also considered dropping the class, but decided to stick with it. But he said he avoided contributing to class discussion after that. He brought his experience to the English department and then led the official Title IX complaint on March 18.

A freshman male student in the class, who asked to not be named, said this conversation was the most glaring issue that arose during class.

Six students quoted a phrase Smout often said to the class: “W&L men want to work hard, get paid, get drunk, get laid.”

“He has this thing about dehumanizing W&L men,” the freshman student said. “When we’re talking about sexual themes, it always gets weird.”

A male student in the class, who asked not to be named or identified by class year, said he found out about the investigation because he was called in as a witness. He said he doesn’t feel like Smout’s comments are predatory, but still “ridiculously inappropriate.”

“Every time he started talking about women, everyone just goes, ‘Oh no, here we go,’” the male student said, adding that Smout refers to every female character and historical figure as a prostitute, even if they weren’t.

Six students said he often said he wished the female students in the class would “be bold and speak up,” saying it was a common issue at the university for female students to not contribute to class discussion.

This was the second class with Smout for Jack Curtis, ’22, who said he believed Smout was just genuinely curious to hear what female students have to say.

“I have never felt that any of the comments he’s made have been inappropriate or not related to the class or the discussions we’ve had in it,” Curtis said.

During one of the last classes of the semester, Smout played the music video for Carrie Underwood’s song “Cowboy Casanova” for students. The male student said he said the word “whore” more than ten times while describing the country music artist as portraying a prostitute in the music video.

“You know you’re under investigation for sexual harassment,” the student said. “You cannot sit up here calling this woman a whore.”

A sophomore male student, who asked not to be named, said he didn’t believe Smout had ever acted inappropriately during class. “You can’t do your job as a liberal arts educator if you’re worried about offending people,” he said. “He’s never been disrespectful.”

Smout responded to a request for comment with the following statement, sent via email.

“A student has led a complaint regarding this class which is currently under investigation according to procedures established by the University,” Smout wrote.

He requested that the Phi not publish a story about the issue and instead “respect the process.”

An April 5 email Smout sent to Writing Center tutors said his resignation is effective June 30.

“I said it’s time for someone new to take over as we integrate the Writing Center into the new Teaching and Learning Center,” he said in the email. “About twenty years in any assignment is long enough. New leadership is always a good idea at such moments.”

He added in the email that he’d miss working with the student tutors, but that he’s excited to return to full-time teaching.

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5 Comments

5 Responses to “Two students file Title IX complaints against professor”

  1. Concerned Citizen on May 7th, 2019 9:19 pm

    Once again, it seems as though the author has gone out of her way to find people with an agenda to anonymously quote themselves in a very slanted article for her own devices. How a 20-something year old student journalist could disrespect a well-respected, tenured professor’s wishes and publish this article is beyond me. How can one student journalist possibly continue to find so many problems with Washington & Lee? It appears as though this publication has become more of a niche publication for those at the school who are looking for nothing other than things to complain about, rather than a publication that represents the sentiments of the student body as a whole. Shame.

  2. Daniel Rhoades on May 8th, 2019 11:38 am

    I struggle to see how the author has gone out of her way when so many students seem interested in sharing on the subject. It’s an unfair claim to say that it’s slanted when the quotes both support and challenge this professor. How a “Concerned Citizen” could disrespect a journalist by implying that her age and status as a student somehow make what she has to report less deserving of attention than a questionably-respected professor’s wishes (because tenure certainly doesn’t make an individual immune from perpetrating Title IX violations) is beyond me. You ask “How can one student journalist possibly continue to find so many problems with Washington & Lee?” It’s simple. There continues to be at least that many problems with Washington & Lee. Maybe what’s lacking is your understanding of the student body. Oh, and if you’re concerned about anonymous quotes, maybe pluck up the courage to include your name with your comment next time.

  3. Neil Haggerty '15 (former Phi editor) on May 8th, 2019 12:18 pm

    If you knew anything about journalism, you would know that it is not a journalist’s job to take orders from sources or story subjects. I am very proud that the Phi is not shying away from sensitive topics like this or giving in to demands of the people they are writing about. It’s literally part of their job to hold people accountable for their actions. Sometimes that requires using unnamed sources — who are usually vetted first — who otherwise wouldn’t be able to speak truth to power.

  4. Concerned Alumni on May 8th, 2019 1:16 pm

    Smout is an outstanding professor, I took two classes with him. Discussions of sexuality are fraught with peril. Kids these days are a little too sensitive and quick to call for a firing squad. It is a shame that this paper did not respect his wishes or the process.

  5. 2017 W&L graduate on May 11th, 2019 1:49 pm

    I can’t believe this didn’t happen sooner.

    I cherished my time as an English major at W&L. Classes tackled topics like sexuality, race, gender, politics, culture, and international conflict. All of my professors at W&L navigated these controversial issues with grace and respect while fostering an environment in which students could challenge each other’s opinions. Students from different backgrounds discussed, debated, and came to understand each other’s points of view, often walking out of class with a completely new perspective on that day’s topic.

    Kary Smout was an embarrassment to the English department. He routinely singled students out and humiliated them in a way that disgraced the liberal arts education experience. I particularly remember a freshman being forced to speak through tears to the entire class about her mother’s recent death.

    I’m a third generation W&L graduate and love the
    school more than anything. I am so glad this finally happened. Good riddance.

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Two students file Title IX complaints against professor