Ryan Loftus, '18, and graduate student Kari Moffat work on their documentary 'Mentored' for a studio filmmaking course. The film focuses on sexual misconduct in academia and premieres to the Lehigh community on May 3. (Courtesy of Susan Zea).

‘Mentored’ documentary tells story of sexual misconduct in grad school

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When English professor Michael Kramp began planning a filmmaking studio course for this semester, it was originally focused on the history of Lehigh’s women, gender and sexuality studies department.

The events surrounding the James Peterson sexual misconduct investigation at Lehigh, the international #MeToo movement and today’s political climate pushed Kramp to approach his students with the idea of making a documentary about sexual misconduct in academia.

Eventually, they narrowed their focus to sexual misconduct in graduate school — a story they didn’t think was told enough. Their final film, “Mentored: Sexual Misconduct in Graduate School,” premieres at Lehigh on May 3 in Drown 210.

“It’s something that doesn’t get addressed as much, and it’s something that is equally as common if not more common,” Ally Abramson, ’19, said. “The relationship between grad students and their mentors is so close because there’s only one professor doing their field of study, so that leads to a power imbalance and a weird relationship that can be exploited.”

Ryan Loftus, ’18, is a self-taught filmmaker and joined the class to learn more about the technical side of making a documentary. Along the way, they learned more about the topic than they knew before and became interested in multiple aspects of it.

They said the topic of sexual misconduct includes the widespread movement against it, as well as the disruption of power dynamics.

“We need to address culturally how men behave and treat people under them, but also the way mentorship in academia is constructed,” Loftus said. “It can very readily turn toxic, and so reconstructing the way we see those sources of power (is important).”

Kramp said the student experience of having a mentor is difficult to negotiate. He said he hasn’t worked at a university where there wasn’t at least one faculty member married to a former graduate student, so the phenomenon spreads far beyond Lehigh.

He said the students involved in the documentary project became more aware of the potential challenges of graduate school and what makes it so different from undergraduate school — including the opportunities and pitfalls of having a mentor.

“They’re such long-term, necessary relationships that — I use this word absolutely intentionally — they’re really intimate relationships,” Kramp said. “I think that is really, really good — students need that — but it’s also really, really dangerous.”

Kari Moffat is the only graduate student in the class, and she said she offers a different perspective into the issue. She said the film is relatable to just about anyone watching, especially those in graduate school, whether they are victims of sexual misconduct or not.

“With undergraduate to graduate school, it’s a unique shift,” Moffat said. “I’m in my first year of graduate school and I’m starting to learn those things and learn about having mentors and learn about having advisors and things like that, so you see the complete difference from undergrad.”

Loftus said Kramp and Julia Maserjian, a digital scholarship manager for LTS, guided the eight-person class in creating the documentary throughout the semester, but the students researched, created the script and storyboard, conducted the interviews and edited the film themselves.

The students divided up interview subjects, which included students, faculty and administrators, but some students had more difficulties than others when reaching out for an interview. Overall, however, the students spoke to a wide variety of individuals, both at Lehigh and outside of the university.

“Some people were super eager and really willing (to speak),” Loftus said. “There were a lot of people ready to tell this story: graduate students, faculty. There’s a lot of people who are passionate about it, a lot of people who have anger they wanted to put into this, as well as some people who weren’t very excited to be in it and took some persuasion.”

Moffat focused on interviewing the graduate students, and said they were very willing to share their experiences. There were other students whose interview subjects opted out because they didn’t want to speak on the issue, or didn’t have time.

To find the people who they interviewed outside of Lehigh’s community, Moffat said the class extensively researched the topic to find people who were speaking out about the issue. She said they reached out to these individuals and by speaking with some of them, they were able to expand their scope beyond Lehigh.

Abramson, Moffat and Loftus all said that one of their greatest accomplishments with the film was seeing it finally come together into one cohesive documentary. They said it was difficult to have eight people working on the same film, but they learned to work as a group, and Moffat said her classmates balanced each other out with different strengths and weaknesses.

The premiere showing of “Mentored” will include a discussion with the student filmmakers. Moffat said she looks forward to being in a room filled with people who care about the documentary and the work the class did.

“I think students should definitely check this out because it’s very poignant — not only is it relevant to our cultural moment, it’s relevant to Lehigh University,” Loftus said. “It happens here. So part of it is just being honest with ourselves and reassessing the way mentors at this university interact with students.”

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