Wednesday, February 22, 2006
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.
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'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.
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." :)
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.
maybe I was wrong though.
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.
So can we drop the speech codes now? And can we forgive Larry Summers?
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."
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.
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 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.
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.