I'm teaching a writing class this term at a university in Los Angeles. A friend of mine is on the faculty, and he teaches a writing class in the film and television department, but since he's away this year on leave, I've agreed - foolishly - to fill in for him. It's only teaching one class, and only one term, but for some reason I'm now obligated to join the ranks of the academic bureaucracy.
Last week, for instance, I had to spend two hours doing an online training course in combating sexual harassment - the two-hour web-based ordeal is a requirement, by the way. As you move through the online course, you've got to spend at least two hours. If you spend any less, there's a pop-up warning that appears, alarmingly, in your web browser telling you to slow down. Somehow, they know.
And I'm not really complaining about it. If this is what people who run universities think they need to do - or, more accurately, what the lawyers of people who run universities tell them they need to do - then, OK, who am I to contradict them? I don't have to face the lawsuits.
Actually, I do: that was a big part of the training - reminding the trainee that everybody is liable in a harassment lawsuit. You don't get indemnified just because, like me, you're merely filling in for a friend. When the lawsuits start flying, according to the training programme, they fly in your direction.
All major universities, I've since learnt, demand this kind of training for their employees. There's something about the university setting - maybe it's the dangerous proximity of young and impressionable students with older and predatory faculty - that makes sexual harassment so tantalisingly attractive. To some, I mean. And anything that's tantalising and attractive eventually means that lawyers have to get involved.
What I learnt was this: no matter what side you're on in a harassment dispute - whether you're the doe-eyed gamine or the wrinkly old lech - the minute anyone has filed a harassment complaint with the Department of Equity and Diversity - that's what they call the department in charge of these things - everything stops and the lawyers take over. It doesn't matter if the complaint is petty or trumped-up. It doesn't matter if the accused has a long history of this kind of behaviour. It doesn't matter, even, if it's all been an innocent misunderstanding. The entire mess is turned over to the legal team to sort out and adjudicate.
Just in case you ever find yourself teaching at a major US university, here's a partial list of the stuff you're not allowed to do, ever: apply ethnic or sexual stereotypes in conversation. Joke about protected racial or gender categories. Joke about physical characteristics, including obesity or physical deformity. Use work computers for personal purposes. Discriminate on the basis of … well, of anything. Or retaliate against a student for filing a complaint, or, I guess, vice versa.
So, basically, here's what I learnt: whatever you're about to do, don't do it. Whatever you're about to say, don't say it. And whenever you're faced with this issue - as a supervisor, teacher, student, harasser, harassee, whatever - stop, freeze and file a formal complaint and/or report to the Department of Equity and Diversity.
But here's the irony: the class I'm teaching is a television writing class. The students in it are aspiring television writers. For them, the goal is to get a job writing on a television series and eventually to be the creator of a series of their own.
But almost every item on the list of forbidden behaviours, however, is a regular, daily occurrence in the writers' room of a television show. Some are twice-daily occurrences. Some happen too often to keep count.
Writers - especially television comedy writers - are free-talking, caustic, often nasty pieces of work. Our conversation in the office, around the coffee machine, for the most part dwells exclusively in the areas of personal appearance, religious practices and parental origins.
In other words, if I'm doing my job as a professional television comedy writer, pretty much everything I say and do at the office is legally actionable, according to my compulsory sexual harassment training.
So while I hope I'm teaching my students something about writing professionally for a living, I'm sure not teaching them about the life of a professional writer. And I wonder if that makes me a bad teacher.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood