Some Columbia students say they're a little creeped out by a sexual health study being conducted by university researchers who observe students boozing in their natural habitat (bars and parties). "I don't want a professor watching me at a bar," one 19-year-old Columbia sophomore told the Post. "It just feels stalky. A bar's a place where I unwind and drink a little and maybe act a little irresponsibly. Having a professor watching me drink and socialize would be the opposite of relaxing."
The bar gazing is part of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), an ethnographic study (led by Jennifer S. Hirsch, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and Claude Ann Mellins, Professor of Medical Psychology in the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health) in which researchers watch students at bars and parties to see how social interactions impact sexual experiences. It's not really as creepy as it sounds, even though it's more creepy than the researchers would have you believe: Sociology Professor Shamus Khan and several postgraduates have been observing and interviewing students at 1020 and other local Columbia bars, as well as at on-campus mixers, in order to identify factors that lead to sexual misconduct.
"There's always that introduction that lets people know they are interacting with a researcher," Hirsch, a lead researcher for SHIFT, told the Columbia Spectator. "At a party, students have the option to walk away and not interact. Our goal is to collect information not on individuals, but to observe general patterns of social behavior."
"I think that would be pretty weird and uncomfortable, especially if it's a professor you've had in the past,” Sara Taffel, a sophomore, told Columbia Spectator. "It's also problematic, because a lot of students are underage, and that would cause a lot of anxiety if you see a professor."
No names are recorded and certain details they tell researchers are changed so students can't be identified. There is no written form of consent as well: "The short answer is that just as someone who is incapacitated can't give consent to sex, they also can’t give consent to research," Hirsch added.
Researchers aren't allowed to drink while studying students, which means they have to blend into the scene in other ways: "When I go out, I get seltzers with lime," Khan said. "It basically looks like I have a gin and tonic. It creates a more social experience, but there will never be gin in it."
None of the researchers address the fact that professors being present might influence or change the behavior of students and the environment around them—so much so that their research may be too warped to draw any meaningful conclusions from—but the university maintains that any students who are uncomfortable do not have to participate...if they aren't fooled by those seltzer with limes: "If students are uncomfortable, they can ask the researcher to leave. They are never incognito," Columbia said in a statement.