Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Opting Out

For a variety of reasons, there seems to be an uptick in the number of people asking for the ability to opt out of individual class assignments or even course requirements.

Some of these requests are obviously valid: a paraplegic student ought to be exempt from the required swim test, and I don’t mind barring a 14-year-old from a figure drawing class that uses live nude models.

But I’m seeing more opt-out requests, and some of them are beginning to make me nervous.

We’ve moved aggressively to include more high school students in college-level classes with our regular students. In some ways, this is very much to the good: students who are bored to tears by a high-school curriculum or offended by high-school culture get a different option, our enrollments get a boost, and some kids who might not have thought college was for them find out it isn’t so bad. Some of the smaller high schools can’t afford to run sections of advanced classes, so it’s easier to send the students here. And some of the home-schooled kids outpace their parents’ expertise (or facilities!) in certain subjects before 18, and need someplace to go. (This is especially true in the lab sciences and foreign languages.)

I worry, though, that as the influx of younger students (and their parents!) increases, we’ll gradually come under increased pressure to make every corner of our curriculum inoffensive to the younger set.

We’ve had issues before with younger students in ethics classes, when the discussion turned to premarital or extramarital sex, and we’ve also had issues in literature classes, where the full panoply of human experiences is fair game. In both cases, parents have asked for alternate assignments. Deleting every ‘adult theme’ from Western literature means deleting a hell of a lot of literature. Even seemingly-innocuous courses like Art History can raise issues -- do you really want to be on the phone with an angry father, assuring him that “The Rape of the Sabine Women” really is part of the Western art tradition? It’s not much fun.

After getting burned a few times, we’ve put up some hoops for parents to jump through when signing up their high-school-aged kids for classes. Some of it has to do with academic placement, but much of it is to make sure that we don’t have battles over content. 15-year-old Jennifer wants to take Spanish 1? Good for her! She wants to take Women in Literature? Well, let’s think about that…

Sometimes you get caught completely off-guard. In my teaching days, I was once called on the carpet by an adult student for assigning Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in a composition class. (I used it to illustrate both ‘the persuasive essay’ and ‘satire.’) He asserted that anything involving cannibalism was completely out-of-bounds. I assured him that we wouldn’t revisit the theme again in that course (which we didn’t), but I was taken aback at the self-assurance with which this man, completely blind to irony, assumed that I was actually advocating cannibalism.

I know there are ‘culture wars’ going on all over the country. The Northeast is probably less affected than some other areas, but we get it here, too. As the home-school crowd grows (it’s our fastest-growing demographic), I’m concerned that some of the norms we’ve developed around open inquiry will fall victim to parental umbrage, well-meaning or otherwise. That’s not because our norms are politically loaded, necessarily – Swift is a dead white guy, after all – but because much of the most valuable inquiry in human history has been into sensitive areas. If we aren’t free to play ‘devil’s advocate’ from time to time, we can’t do our jobs.

Of course, for the devil’s advocate to be effective, he has to be persuasive, and that carries the risk of changing minds. At base, I really think much of the sudden eagerness to second-guess curricular choices comes from an unwillingness to accept uncertainty, to accept the possibility that you might change your mind. It takes a certain courage to venture into uncharted territory, especially in emotionally-charged areas. But that’s part of maturity. It’s part of real adulthood.

Anybody who has ever weathered a bad breakup knows the fear of uncertainty. Hell, asking my then-girlfriend to become The Wife took a gigantic leap of faith. Deciding to have kids took even bigger leaps. If you never grapple with uncertainty, you never really learn to make leaps in its face. (Or, worse, you make the leaps too quickly, with no reflection on their cost.) I’m brave enough to read people I disagree with, and to admit when I’m not sure. Too many people confuse intensity of conviction with truth. I prefer to think that truth is what’s left standing after the dust settles.

Moving too quickly from “this makes me uncomfortable” to “therefore, I shouldn’t be exposed to it” is dangerous. As a college, we’ve made the choice to bar underage students from certain classes, rather than water down the content, and I’m proud of that choice. As the political winds shift, I hope we stay true to our mission. If that means offending a few true believers, so be it. There are worse offenses than offending.

We include boiler-plate language in all syllabi which reads roughly as possible: "This course will include the University's legal guidelines as regards sexual harassment. However, because this is an arts course, and because the arts historically have dealt with human issues such as sexuality, politics, religion, and economics, it is likely that the course will likewise contain reference to or investigation of these issues. If you are concerned that you might be offended by such material, you may wish to consider enrolling in a different course."

This is backed up by a university administration, who, provided they are kept in the loop about possibly-contentious curricular content, have historically been very and appropriately solid in backing said content as an element of academic freedom. Thus, when necessary they've been encouragingly courageous about telling would-be censors where to get off. Having the above-cited boilerplate in syllabi helps administration to do this.
It sounds like CJS's school has a good policy.

It's a college. If a 14 year old isn't ready for college level thinking then s/he shouldn't be in college. If s/he can't handle drawing nudes, then get him/her out of the figure drawing class. If a high school aged student can't deal with evolutionary theory because it challenges someone's religious teachings, then s/he shouldn't be in college.

Your constituency is college level students. Serve them. They shouldn't have to limit academic inquiry to protect children who shouldn't be there if they're not ready.

This is one of those areas where the administration needs to grow a serious spine.
Thanks for writing this! The opposition to making people uncomfortable is growing at higher levels, too... one complaint to the TX Board of Education reviewing high school texts opposed the teaching of The Diary of Anne Frank because it is "too sad."
I offer a personal note which may or may not be of any use, but supports both the boiler-plate syllabus language in the comment by CJS, as well as Bardiac's "grow a spine" comment. I went to college via a program specifically for girls in the 7th/8th/9th grade. The program, at a private, conservative, women's college in the south (if that changes the legalities of things, I don't know), did not limit _at all_ the classes we took, nor did it ask the professors to modify any of the curriculum for us. Honestly, I don't remember anyone in my program ever asking to opt-out of anything in any class; the idea was, as Bardiac said, "if a 14 year old isn't ready for college level thinking, they shouldn't be there" and, since that was the point of the program, we weren't treated any differently.

In fact, I think my fellow youngsters were some of the first people to register for the human sexuality, evolutionary biology, figure drawing, and ironic cannibals classes because we could, as in we were allowed to make decisions like adults (a stretch, I know, but we were young and the classes were deemed "cool")

Sorry for the long comment when all I really meant to say was "yes to everything Bardiac said." :)
We have under-18 students at my CC as well. I have not had requests for alternative assignments, but I have had to tell some parents that I can't talk to them.

After a bunch of class evaluations complaining that I had a lesbian couple in the class to talk about same sex marriage, I included a piece in my standard syllabus language explaining that philosophy is full of "sensitive" topics and that students should carefully read the syllabus and decide if they can handle the material. I tell them that if they are sensitive about a particular subject, they should look at the textbook, check out my powerpoints and make sure they will be comfortable in class. They should do this fast, as the drop-add period is only a week long.

After placing that in my syllabus, I have not had a problem.
There's also a strange assumption developing here that teaching about something is the same as endorsing it. Students from the University of North Carolina (in the famous case from a couple of years ago) will get all bent out of shape about being required to read commentaries on the Qur'an, though the same students presumably could sit through a discussion of Germany in World War II without assuming they were being told to be Nazis. One of my colleagues has students who avoid his early modern history classes, because they include discussions of witchcraft... it's disturbing that they think a discussion of anything they disagree with somehow includes subtle pressure to become that thing.
I feel like such a wimp for having given th 17-year-old, home-schooled, fundamentalist student an alternative assignment when he walked out of "Killing Us Softly 3" saying that he doesn't watch pornography. At first it seemed that he'd really gotten the point: advertising in the US is pornography. But then his dad called and hassled me and, while my dean supported me and said I didn't have to provide alternative work, I guess I wanted to keep the student there. He continued on with the rest of the assignments, visibly uncomfortable with the range of texts we covered, but somehow we worked together. If I'd have insisted on his working in small groups on the ads, I would have lost him.

maybe I was wrong though.
I'm really bothered by this whole thing. Since when is higher education supposed to be comfortable? It's not supposed to reaffirm our beliefs... it's supposed to challenge them. If you're not old enough or open-minded enough to listen and learn about contraversial issues, then a non-fundamentalist university is not for you.

I took an undergrad class called "Black and White" in which a handful of white students sat in a class full of black students and studied the plight of Africans in America. Was it comfortable? Hell no. Did I learn something... probably more than in any other class I took. And that was the point.
"It takes a certain courage to venture into uncharted territory, especially in emotionally-charged areas. But that’s part of maturity. It’s part of real adulthood."

Excellent point.

So can we drop the speech codes now? And can we forgive Larry Summers?
Now, see, I am a little concerned by some of the language used here, as well. No, I don't want to censor anyone, but I want to issue another call for introspection.

I agree that college is a place to challenge ideas, and be challenged. It was that when I was an undergrad, and I want it to be that way in my classroom now. But there is a difference between challenging students, and belittling them, and their beliefs.

In reading through this comment thread, I found myself wondering how many of the writers would react in a class that challenged their deeply held convictions. I like the way timna handled the student. The student was able to "get" the point (even if Dad didn't) without having to actually see the material, and by providing an alternative assignment, the Timna was able to ensure another diverse point of view remained engaged in the classroom.

I suggest that we not be afraid to challenge, but be sensitive in the way we do that. Perhaps we can find other ways of conveying ideas that are less "in your face," or if we must use those techniques, use them in a way that allows the student to express their opinions in a non-threatening way--even if we find their opinions at times "less enlightened."
I would also like to point out that at least some of these students are probably *horrifically embarrassed* that their parents are going to the administration. It's not necessarily the students who aren't ready to "think like adults." And, indeed, it might not be that the parents are truly close-minded or offended by, say, nudity or pornography in general, but are suddenly faced with their little girl or boy growing up and maybe don't deal with it the way they should.
The speech codes fad died out in the mid-1990's, and I'm glad it's gone. I consider it a dead horse, but if beating it one more time will do some good, okay -- I'm strongly against speech codes, and always have been.

Larry Summers isn't my problem, and I don't devote any more thought to Harvard than it devotes to cc's. Which is to say, almost none.

To my reading, Timna found a very humane way to help a student deal with a challenging class. That's called good teaching. I wouldn't want to mandate that kind of treatment, only because too much would get lost in translation, but I'd certainly applaud anyone who could finesse the situation well.

On a broader level, I think a certain honesty about course content upfront is fair. Some courses will deal with sensitive or controversial topics because they have to. That's not a flaw. If you teach, say, American history, issues of race and class will come up. That's true regardless of your politics.

I really like p/h's point about the simpleminded equation of choosing to look at something with endorsing it. "Opposition research" is a staple of both political and marketing campaigns, but some folks seem to forget that when they look at syllabi. Pity, that.
My son is a 15-year-old homeschooler taking classes at a local community college. The school he goes to states clearly that they won't modify their courses to be more appropriate for younger students such as my son. I completely support this view. As other posters upthread said, the college is offering college-level courses, and if a younger student isn't ready for adult themes he should find somewhere else to learn.

I'm grateful that there is an institution where my son can take high-level classes. While my son is taking his class at the CC, I'm in a different class, so it's a double benefit for us.
I have to say I agree about a student not being ina class if they can't handle the content. Sometimes alternate assignments can work, but if they were taking a class that mainly talked about prison systems in America then obviously they'd have to come to terms about a few things.
I had a professor last semester that said "I'm here to help. I'm not here to change the way you think but give you the tools to think for yourself. If you disagree with me you can say so, just please be able to use logic in your thinking." It was one of my favorite classes ever after that.
Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. My local community college district has "middle college" -- enrollment for qualified 11th & 12th. There's also a robust homeschooling community. I wonder if they have boilerplate that might be useful to you.

Middle College at Foothill

Viewing through another lens, I wonder if the parental push for modifications for their little darlings is another attack of the helicopter parents (when it is the parents who complain). This time it is The Helicopter Parents go To Community College.
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