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

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.