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  • Good Teaching Might Involve Offending?

    • Posted on Aug 30, 2015
    This morning's Courier column--offending as a teaching tool?  Worth pondering. 

     Now that the school year is off and running, we need to talk about a strange phenomenon sweeping through America’s universities:  “protecting” students from being offended.   

     Seems that faculty everywhere are feeling pressure to not offend their students, lest they get called on the carpet for causing classroom traumas.   

     “Better Watch What You Say” shouts the cover of Atlantic Monthly’s September issue—subtitled “How the new political correctness is ruining education.”

     It’s a knotty issue, since some students in fact do suffer from post-traumatic stress, and certain words and action can “trigger” terrible reactions, ranging from clinical depression to suicide.  

     That’s a hard reality for a few unfortunate students.  Very few, in my 40-year professorial career.  However, I did discover during those years that  (1) being offended can be a powerful and motivating beginning to learning, and (2) offensiveness is co-created; it occurs as an interaction, not just a reaction. 

     “Offended” means being upset or otherwise roiled up by someone’s speech, actions, or images they present.     

    I occasionally assigned materials in my film classes that upset some students, in particular films such as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Blue Velvet.”  I did not assign them because they were offensive, however.  

     Both films are now decades old (‘71 and ‘86, respectively) and both offer startling images and stories which indeed still offend some viewers.  Both are cinematic landmarks and received major awards, including five Oscar nominations between them.  

     In other words, both films deserve serious attention.  Because of UNI’s “Sexually Explicit Materials Policy,” I was required to print a disclaimer in my syllabus that the films might be offensive; therefore students were not required to view it.

    However, they were required to know whatever knowledge the material presented, including ideas generated during classroom discussions.   

     Incidentally, this requirement made me feel mistrusted and demeaned.   
    One student asked me to offer alternative materials, and I did not because both films are unique.  That’s why I chose them.  

     So those students missed out, by choice, and completely without consequences unless a specific section of a test covered those films.  I would have preferred they dropped the class, but that was not an option.   

     I despised UNI's policy because it undermined what I was trying to teach. 
    Students who chose to miss those films lost a valuable opportunity to discuss and ponder critical issues, including sexual harassment, sociopathology, the struggle with personal responsibility, the role of the state in rehabilitating hard-core criminals, and more, including understanding unusual cinematic elements.  

    I’m presuming those opt-out students were not victims of post-traumatic stress, since they never mentioned it or offered a doctor’s excuse.   

     I think they just preferred to avoid uncomfortable issues.  They probably shouldn’t have gone to college.  

     The students who did attend—the vast majority—were shocked, but their shock led to more engagement with important questions, and some of the best discussions of the semester.

     So, when a book or film or image is deemed “offensive,” what’s going on?
    Is there something intrinsically objectionable about it, so that you can say it “is” offensive?  Or possibly only YOU were offended, implying that others might not be?  

     I think it’s the latter; nothing contains the quality of offensiveness.  That occurs as a reaction from you to the material.    

     Consider what was racy and objectionable on TV, say, sixty years ago, and what we watch now.  Viewers from the fifties would be amazed that we view and discuss subjects that were taboo in the media, from homosexuality to adultery to graphic violence, nudity, free-range sex, you name it.   

     What would have been offensive to many then barely registers now.  That’s a fact of history and life, and shows how offensiveness gets co-created.  

    The current misguided attempt to protect students might give some students what they want.  

     But it ignores what they need.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Censorship
    • Education
  • "What Went Wrong?"--Assessing Obama's Legacy

    • Posted on Aug 18, 2015
    This appeared in Sunday's (8-16) Waterloo Courier, and probably is the first of two installments, as you'll see if you read to the end.  Yes, Obama didn't do what he might have done, but. . . 

    Now that the end of President Obama’s second term looms, pundits of all persuasions have begun to ponder his presidency.  How good is/was he? 

     Did he fix problems?  Did he create new ones?  In what ways has he been good and bad for the country?  Did he forsake more promises then he fulfilled?    

     Granted, answers to these questions will no doubt change over the years. Presidents’ reputations rise and fall depending on unpredictable events and issues.  So current assessments of Barack Obama’s presidency are tentative at best. 

     Still, pundits need to work, and Presidents’ policies and personalities provide it, nonstop.  This applies especially to Obama, our first Black president, and a man whose actions have been endlessly scrutinized by a deeply hostile opposition.   

     The latest and most interesting assessment comes from David Bromwich, a Yale English Professor and political commentator.  His essay in the June Harper’s magazine,  “What Went Wrong?” offers a critical analysis of Obama, and deserves reading, especially for the President’s longtime supporters. 

    Bromwich is no hard left or right ideologue, as so many political commentators seem to be.  He offers a balanced, serious, and important analysis of Obama’s “centrist” approach to issues and problems.  

    Very likely, “What Went Wrong” will serve as a reference point for future historians looking to assess Obama’s legacy.  

    Essentially, Bromwich measures the President against an implied ideal leader—and Obama inevitably falls short.   For Bromwich, events since 2008 called for a decisive personality with no fear of conflict and political manipulation.  

    The ideal Obama would have handled an obstructionist GOP immediately, raised hackles to the skies, and proceeded through political mayhem to get a single payer health care system, closing down Guantanamo, and would have avoided getting bogged down Afghanistan.   

    That’s the powerful, decisive Obama who never appeared, insists Bromwich.  
    Instead, his unshakeable belief in working from consensus and agreement led to paralysis and indecision with too little follow-through, which would have taken serious political courage. 

     Issues like gun control and climate change have gone by the wayside because of vicious and organized political opposition that he might have confronted, especially during his first two years, when Democrats controlled both houses.   

     Bromwich ends his analysis with the damning assertion that . . .”Much as
    one would like to admire a leader so good at showing that he means well, and so earnest in projecting the good intentions of his country as the equivalent of his own, it would be a false consolation to pretend that the years of the Obama presidency have not been a large lost chance.”

    Because Bromwich compares Obama to what so many voters expected and wanted, rather than what we got, he falls short, and this frustrates supporters as much as detractors. 

    Yet there’s another way to measure him, and that has to do with comparing him to what he actually did accomplish.   That comparison yields a different result. 

     As an example of comparing ideal vs. real, consider measuring America by its ideals—its rebellion against an oppressive regime and founding documents based on enlightenment ideas of freedom, rights, equality, and justice. A shining city on a hill indeed.  

     But measured by how it actually treated indigenous peoples, slaves, women, and non-propertied citizens, it’s no better than any other country, and in some ways worse. 

    Ideal vs. real always yields such different results.   So too with Obama.   

     In fact, Bromwich himself asserts at beginning of “What Went Wrong?”   “His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.”

     So compared to recent past and near-future Presidents, Obama stands tall. 
    Indeed, I would hope for another article soon from another pundit, “What Went Right?”  

    Plenty did, in spite of a shamelessly hostile GOP.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Personalities
    • Politics
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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