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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
  • That Removed Book about Indians

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2015
    This morning's Courier column--Sunday, April 19.  It's beyond local interest, I think.  Also it's not  about censorship so much as freedom for teachers to use their best professional judgment without fear of one administrator's judgment.   That's what seems to have happened in the Waterloo Public Schools--against their own policy.    

    I took the time to read the "young adult" novel,  "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, and found it unalterably appropriate for middle school students.  The administrator asserted it was "unalterably inappropriate," so we have a slight difference of opinion. 


    I’d like to recommend a book for young adults.  I mean a novel that’s written for young adults--teenagers in middle and high school, but I’d like to recommend it for grownups too. 

    It’s Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” published in 2007, and he’s relating his life as a young teenager on a Washington State reservation.  He has since become a best-selling author, poet and screenplay writer. 

    I enjoyed it immensely, far more than expected. More than that, I learned from it, and still ponder what it reveals about Native Americans, their hopelessness, their alcoholism, how much they hate themselves.  And how a lucky few leave despair and hopelessness behind.      

     His first Young Adult novel, “Diary” won the National Book Award, and made multiple bestseller lists.  The NY Times reviewer extolled its memorable prose and painful honesty, calling it Alexie’s best work. 

     So why did this old grownup seek out an 8-year old Young Adult novel?  Because it was “censored,” of course.   Banned books should be first on everyone’s “to read” list, since they’re sure to challenge and awaken readers. 
    Isn’t that what reading is for?   

     Last Sunday’s Courier editorial on “Diary” rightly criticized how one administrator’s decision that “Diary” was “inarguably inappropriate” for middle school students led to its being pulled from middle school classrooms.     
    Inarguably inappropriate?  

    On the contrary, teachers asserted, there was plenty to argue about, given the quality and power of the novel.  That’s why they have a policy that sets up a committee to read and discuss controversial books when parents or students object.  Put bluntly, the administration violated its own stated policy.  
    Apart from that, it’s a bonehead decision because these are exactly the kind of books that should be discussed in a class. 

     I read “Diary” carefully for what might offend parents or students, and found four
    potentially inappropriate features. Remember, the whole novel is written from a 14-year old Native American boy’s perspective as he discovers who he really is over the course of a school year.  “Arnold Spirit,” the character, experiences:  

    • Cursing, including the f-bomb, but sparingly, unlike in dozens of widely available movies. 

    • An ugly racist joke that causes the narrator to punch the jokester’s nose.

    • blasphemy in the form of one cartoon (the narrator creates dozens of cartoons to illustrate his dilemmas).  

    • sexuality, but only in the form of adolescent fantasies, which include masturbation. 

     Now, here’s what’s strange.  Those who advocate pulling it unanimously agree that “Diary” is entirely appropriate for high school students—just not for younger teenagers.  

     So during those three middle school years, younger teenagers are somehow supposed to learn about cursing, sexuality, blasphemy, and racist jokes so they can deal with them when they turn, say, 16? 

     How, I ask?  From older kids?  From hearing three more years of cursing and sex talk from their peers? 

     What’s the best way for younger teenagers to explore adult conflicts?  By reading and discussing them them with classmates and a teacher, in a middle school class. That’s how it’s supposed to work.   

     All of the potentially offensive aspects of Alexis’s novel arise from the narrator’s life and observations as he struggles with alcoholic parents, a crazy sister, bullying, and his tribe’s history as outcasts in their own land.   

    The narrator struggles with frustration, despair, and rage at times.  Everything he does and says that’s offensive makes sense, given his life and outlook as a deeply frustrated, dirt-poor reservation Native American.    

     So Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” deserves to be read, discussed, and celebrated by teenagers and teachers alike as a memorable reflection on growing up poor and outcast.   

     Shame on those who would interfere with that.  
    Go comment!
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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