One University of Tennessee student learned the hard way that guessing on an exam can cost you, especially when the professor is an idiot. When Keaton Wahlbon encountered a quiz question asking for the name of his lab instructor, he drew a blank and ended up putting down the first random name that came to his mind: Sarah Jackson. As it turns out, “Sarah Jackson” is actually the name of an obscure porn star – an unlucky coincidence that earned Wahlbon a big fat zero on his quiz.
Wahlbon is enrolled in Professor Bill Deane’s introductory geology course in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. On September 19, he took a quiz on sedimentary rocks, and the first question asked: “What is your Lab instructor’s name? (If you don’t remember make something good up).”
Sure enough, Wahlbon did not remember the name of his lab instructor, which is certainly understandable considering the number of graduate students that rotate throughout low-level sections. He cobbled together a neutral-sounding female name, wrote it down, and continued with the quiz, thinking nothing of it. When he got the quiz back, Wahlbon noticed that he had received a failing grade, with the word “inappropriate” written next to his ill-fated guess.
The confused student turned to Google to figure out why the name “Sarah Jackson” would be offensive. He found women with the same name that were professors, artists, psychiatrists, and (fully-clothed) actresses, but nothing that would ruffle any feathers. Finally, Wahlbon spoke with his TA and learned about “the” Sarah Jackson at the heart of the problem, prompting him to email Professor Deane to explain his side of the story.
“I got a 0 on my geology lab quiz because we had to put our instructors name,” he explained. “A bunch of us didn’t know so I literally put down Sarah Jackson. Turns out Sarah Jackson is a porn star so I got a 0 for the whole quiz.”
“I had no idea that was the case and zero intention of trying to be funny or rude,” Wahlbon continued. “I talked to my TA about it and she said she won’t change the grade. It’s not that it’s going to affect my grade it’s just the principle of the whole thing. I shouldn’t get a 0 for a coincidence like that.”
Professor Deane showed no sympathy for the honest mistake.
“I have no way of determining your intention. I can only consider the result,” he fired back. “The result is that you gave the name of Sarah Jackson, who is a lingerie and nude model. That result meets the Title IX definition of sexual harassment.”
“The grade of zero stands and will not be changed,” Professor Deane concluded.
Sarah Jackson the Porn Star
The University of Tennessee’s Title IX Plan defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” However, the university only considers such behavior as sexual harassment in certain situations, one of which is when it creates “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
The school’s student handbook further clarifies: “To determine whether conduct constitutes sexual harassment, consideration shall be given to the totality of the circumstances, including without limitation: the context in which the conduct and/or words occurred; and the frequency, nature, and severity of the conduct and/or words.”
To the average onlooker, it should seem pretty clear that Wahlbon did not commit sexual harassment by writing down the name of an incredibly obscure porn star, even if he meant to do so (which he didn’t). The more likely scenario is that university administrators have drilled a stifling zero-tolerance policy into the heads of its staff in order to avoid costly Title IX lawsuits, which have haunted universities across the country and resulted in multi-million dollar payouts in many cases.
Wahlbon and his parents plan to fight the failing grade by putting together an appeal that will go to the natural sciences department head. The latest incident could cast yet another unflattering light on the University of Tennessee, which has only just begun to recover from a humiliating Title IX case over the summer that saw UT Knoxville settle with eight alleged sexual assault victims for $2.48 million.
Keaton Wahlbon, Unlucky Student at University of Tennessee