Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Get naked or fail: Professor requires students to take final nude.

The mother of a California college student said she was bothered when she learned one of her daughter’s classes required her to get naked for her final exam.

The final exam for the art visual class at the University of California at San Diego involved students acting out a series of gestures, according to the teacher. The last gesture was labeled “erotic self.”

“I’m not sending her to school for this. How terrible, this sucks, this is just wrong,” the student’s mother told KGTV. “And to blanketly say you must be naked in order to pass my class. It makes me sick to my stomach.”


  1. In my nightmares, I'm the only one in class who's naked. It is never explained how I arrived at class naked, as the dream always begins in medias res. I quickly conclude that I'll have to muddle through anyway, that as long as I don't call any attention to my nakedness, then people won't notice it or at least will be gracious enough to focus on the important matters at hand and let my indiscretion slide. And it works.

  2. I normally want them to put on more clothes. If they showed up naked, I'd go home.

  3. As someone who teaches in an art department, I feel I need to speak up here. Yes, Frod, this is real. And this guy looks like a fantastically good teacher who's doing it right.

    Perhaps it might make more sense if we think of performance art a bit like acting: powerful performances come from authenticity and sincerity, especially when performers learn to reveal their vulnerability.

    This assignment is all about that vulnerability. Notice the details of the assignment: you can get naked and be vulnerable; or you can stay clothed, but you have to be metaphorically naked (presenting your most vulnerable self). Students have a choice, but the professor is pushing them to go past their fears and do something that most of them don't realize that they can do.

    In my department, art studio classes (like the one in the OP) are capped at 20 students. Instructors work closely with them in an environment that is (at its best) emotionally and psychologically intimate. The point is to get them to grow as people, getting in touch with their deepest selves, because that is where the best and most powerful work comes from. Again, think of acting, or perhaps some forms of creative writing. (My copy of Cal's recent book of poems just arrived in the mail. Some of those poems feel very deeply personal. I almost feel like a voyeur reading them.)

    Everything I saw in the OP (at IHE?) suggests that this guy has worked very hard to create a safe, nurturing environment, one that's also designed to push the students towards their best work. Good on him. It's a real shame to see him become a target just because some narrow-minded idiots don't know anything about the field.

    Mind you, it is a stereotype at some schools that young women artists are always taking off their clothes in their art--even when not prompted to do so. I'm glad I don't work at one of those schools.

  4. I agree with Prof. Poirot. I also work in the arts. We tread on delicate territory much of the time. I actually include a statement in my syllabus about this (although I don't require students to strip down). Subject mattter and/or language might be found offensive by some. However every is made to deal with things with sensitivity and professionalism.

    For acting in particular, nudity is sometimes required. Think about plays and movies you have seen. And as Prof. Poirot pointed out, this prof has worked hard to create a safe envrionment and it sounds like he handles it in safe learning environment.

    I would also point out that students are informed of this at the start of the semester. If a student objected, s/he could drop the course before investing time and or tuition dollars. It sounds like this particular student didn't pay much attention to this requirement, or didn't bother to mention it to her mother until the end of the semester.

    1. Are you telling me that the student didn't read the syllabus?

    2. Shocked! Shocked, I am, to discover a student didn't read the syllabus!

  5. From the bit I've read about this case, Prof P (not surprisingly, since he has actual knowledge of the field) nailed it: this sounds like an assignment that is appropriate to the discipline and level of the class, and carefully constructed so as to minimize any possible danger to anyone involved.

    The mother clearly doesn't understand the assignment. Whether her daughter does or not is, indeed, another question. As someone commented on another article I read on the subject, this situation is a very good argument for actually reading the syllabus (though one assumes that art majors also share information among themselves, so even that might be necessary).

    I hope, at least, that the daughter has learned to interpret metaphors -- and to understand when she is being asked to enact one. If the professor is really good, it should be possible to fail, or at least do badly on, this exercise even if one takes off one's clothes, because it's possible (though perhaps difficult) to be physically naked without being naked in the other senses of the word the professor clearly wants the students to invoke through their performances (though a performance that deliberately resisted the assumptions underlying the assignment might also be interesting, and should, to my mind, also get a good grade).

    It's also, of course, the perfect hook for yet another "what is higher ed up to? Nothing useful. Let's defund it some more!" story (and as far as I can tell, the arts are especially vulnerable at the moment, perhaps even more so than the already-beleaguered more critically/analytically focused humanities).

    1. Another way to look at it is that higher-ed deserves the scrutiny, the exercise being patently ridiculous, and it threatens to take my unrelated program of checkable science down with it, since I work at a university too. I think any instructors doing this need to take a step back and have a good, careful look at what they're doing. Can you imagine this exercise happening anywhere, at any time, before the 1960s? There are plenty of ways of growing as people and getting in touch with ones' deepest selves that don't involve getting naked: many great artists throughout history used them. What happens when you get the inevitable student who's underage, the way I was as an undergraduate? There are limits on what one is allowed to do with human subjects, since Stanley Milgrom and Phil Zimbardo demonstrated that there should be. And I thought it was bad enough in Wicked Walter’s chemistry lab, which might blow up when students don’t read the instructions first!

    2. I'm probably not the most-qualified to comment (see Prof P and Academaniac above), but I think there's an argument to be made that nudity (self-chosen or enforced, in the flesh or represented in any number of ways) as a means of human expression has a very, very long history, going back well before the 1960s (Lady Godiva comes to mind, but she's undoubtedly not the first example). As Academaniac points out, it's one tool in the toolbox of several of the arts, and saying that it shouldn't be available to students in an upper-level class (who are almost certainly legal adults -- but isn't one of the few subjects on which we have near-consensus around here that college students are, by definition, adults, and should be treated as such?) just doesn't make sense to me.

      To me, this seems to be parallel to telling Walter or Ben that they simply can't use certain chemicals in undergraduate chemistry labs, even advanced ones, because there's a potential for explosion, even though the instructor in question has a long history of safely conducting labs using said chemicals. And the lab analogy (rather than the human-subjects one) is, I think,the correct one: the students are not being experimented upon, they are experimenting, using materials that include their own bodies.

      I'm not going to get into the checkable science vs. fuzzy humanities debate tonight, other than to point out that, as with contingent and TT faculty, scientists and humanists fighting with each other almost certainly plays into the hands of the corporatizers of the university. We must hang together, lest we hang separately. I'm not really up on the debates and pressures within the sciences, but aren't there those who would dismiss astronomy as impractical in comparison to, say, basic physics?

    3. My understanding is that it's an elective course, actual physical nakedness is not a requirement, and it's all in the syllabus. Helicopter mom is making a fuss, and it makes for good TV and better clickbait.

      I can't imagine this happening before the 1960s, but I also can't imagine a cell phone happening before 1973 (Star Trek fiction be damned). Which just means I don't place much stock in my own incredulity in calculating the real worth of things. Sometimes I must rely on the opinions of strangers.

      But the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are interesting to ponder in this context. Are the students of this course actually experimental subjects? One can hope and assume that the syllabus makes the expectations far more clear than did any documents in those earlier studies, such that the students' continued participation in the course constitutes well-informed consent.

      I've long held that I am the subject in a Milgramesque situation. Only thing is, I can't tell if I'm the guy pushing the switch, or the one twitching from the shock (which I can assure you is real), or both at the same time. I just know I'm not the one in the white coat telling the one at the switch to keep turning up the juice till the screaming stops.

    4. I think we all find ourselves in multiple Milgramesque situations, and often it is, indeed, hard to tell which position we're in (or, perhaps, to figure out where in an apparently infinite-regression chain of Milgramesque situations our particular position lies -- and perhaps, more to the point, whether there's any way to escape the chain).

      There are definitely power issues involved in this sort of assignment (and, really, any assignment, but this is admittedly a particular tricky one, and I probably shouldn't have dismissed the idea of students as experimental subjects as well as experimenters, though I think that designing the assignment so that they are more experimenters than experimented upon is the key. And keep in mind that we all experiment on our students to some extent, if only with the goal of improving things for the next batch of students).

      But there's also a whole larger web of power involving mom, and daughter, and dean(s) and department chair(s), and whatever media/political actors mom can stir up, and audiences, and advertisers, and all of us reacting from our various positions in the academic/disciplinary/etc. hierarchy, and, and, and. . . . .

      In the end, it sometimes seems like everybody is pushing somebody else's buttons, or trying to get people to push buttons. I wonder whether anybody feels like the experimenter?

    5. Maybe we are the chain. Maybe there is no chain. Maybe maybe maybe. . . .

    6. Then change what I wrote from "checkable science" to "scholarly research that doesn't involve getting naked or otherwise doing anything that can easily be interpreted as a middle-aged proffie getting his prurient jollies with young people by candlelight." It's easy to put boundaries on this: keep the clothes on. I knew I shouldn't be playing "doctor" when I was in first grade, kids.

      Also, my "pre-1960s" argument was about social norms, not technical feasibility.

    7. Yes, my mention of the cell phones was about social norms as much as the technology. Like changes in technology, changes in social norms are seldom entirely good or entirely bad.

  6. I'm with Frod, on each of his points. Yes, it was in the syllabus. Yes, it isn't required for the major or for graduation. Yes, the student may choose metaphorical nakedness over nudity.

    But should it ever be in the syllabus that during the (presumably mandatory) final, the professor will be nude in candlelight? Talk about trigger alerts.

    1. And what would you say if I told you that, like any decent art department, we have life drawing classes? You know, naked person in the center of the room for hours; two dozen students intently peering at the naked body, attempting to make a decent drawing of every detail?

      So who's the perv now? The prof? The students? Or the exhibitionist at the front of the room?

    2. I've taken many life drawing classes for over 30 years. There are clear, almost clinical boundaries; for example the room is clearly lit, and the models are professionals who understand how to achieve and hold an extended pose. Extra effort is made to treat them with respect. They are there to model and not to reveal their personal vulnerabilities. They are nude, but not "naked" in the emotional sense.

      I also know an accomplished artist who works in animation a lot. His colleagues pitch in to pay models for regular life drawing sessions. He went twice and then stopped because the colleagues, all men, drank during these sessions, flirted with the always young, female models, and made private jokes about the their individual anatomical quirks.

      The first situation is appropriate for a college.

    3. Then we are in agreement. The first kind of situation, the professional one where people are respected and supported, is exactly the kind of thing the OP is about.

      I will refer you back to Academaniac's post above. "This prof has worked hard to create a safe envrionment [sic]." That's we strive for in my college.

    4. The professional situation I described is deliberately set up to minimize eroticism and involves an exchange of modeling for money. Doing the OP exam in dim candlelight with the students required to attend while the professor is nude, even if the students don't have to disrobe, does not minimize eroticism and involves an exchange of "being in presence of nude professor" for a grade.

      Furthermore, you are citing Academaniac as if that is an independent source when in fact Academaniac was paraphrasing you. Therefore I question your scholarship.

  7. "It's in the syllabus."

    I don't put much stock in that. The students don't know what they don't know. Telling them that they'll learn that a derivative is a rate of change, doesn't mean anything to them. Before they understand it, it means nothing to them.

    Occasionally, a student will ask me what the objectives are for the course. I just want to say, "There's not a way for me to answer that question in five minutes. You wouldn't understand. By the end of the semester, maybe you'll understand."

    Even years down the road, will they know whether calculus was invented or discovered or whatever? Will they be able to ask, "Is a derivative actually a rate of change? Or does it just represent a rate of change? Or indicate a rate of change? Or...."

    They don't know what they don't know. Their parents don't, either.

    Take a nine-year-old child and explain what s/he's going to experience during and after puberty. And what is sex going to feel like.

    If I could put these things into a syllabus, then I don't know whether or not I'd be doing a very good job. To a great extent, the students and the rest of the community have to trust the professors. The experts. Education is just such a crazy thing sometimes. For all of us.

    1. "It often happens that the mind of a person who is learning a new science, has to pass through all the phases which the science itself has exhibited in its historical evolution."
      --Stanislao Cannizzaro

  8. Oh, and Proffie Galore's point, too. Yes, this is one of the perennial conundrum's isn't it? Some things would seem to be triggers at the start of the semester, but then by the end of the semester a student isn't bothered by it. Crazy fucking shit, life is. Who knows what we'll be tomorrow?

    1. Or, some things wouldn't seem to be triggers at the start of the semester, but then by the end of the semester a student IS bothered by it.


    2. "Some things would seem to be triggers at the start of the semester, but then by the end of the semester a student isn't bothered by it."

      Yes. And sometimes creeps deliberately groom or train subordinates (women, girls, boys, young men) to accept boundary-pushing behaviors. Or they gaslight them into believing that their own tingling Spidey-Sense isn't valid or cool or mature.

      "Or, some things wouldn't seem to be triggers at the start of the semester, but then by the end of the semester a student IS bothered by it."

      Yes. Like the painting instructor I had who seemed friendly and nice at the start of the course but asked me more and more personal questions as the semester went on, and finally started "confiding" about his deteriorating marriage and touching me "casually" while making points about my work.

      The "reasonable woman" legal standard is relevant here.

      I'm not saying that this UCSD professor is a creep, but the situation of "final exam in dim candlelight with nude professor and fellow students" could go very, very wrong.

    3. This, too.

      In the past, when I felt there was a choice between hiring a good person who wasn't the brightest, or a bright person who wasn't capable of much empathy, I was inclined to hire the good person and train them. But neither option is optimal. Ultimately, I wish there had been more times when we'd dug in our heals and said, "Let's just not hire anybody this year. We should get a good person who also has a great mind." And even the best candidate was always just human with unknown or peculiar qualities.

      Of course, this also makes me ask, "How can I be a better person? Never mind the speck in my brother’s eye; what about the log in my own eye?"

  9. That this is a standard practice is also a bad reason. It's a bad standard practice. Keep the clothes on, kids!

    That we academics shouldn't speak out when we see wrongdoing amongst ourselves, lest our corporate overlords capitalize on it, also isn't a good reason. It will be all the more valuable to our corporate overlords when we don't look after ourselves, since they certainly will.

    1. Also, disparaging the cost-to-benefit ratio of astronomy is an odd thing to do over the Internet, which wouldn't exist without geostationary communications satellites.

    2. I quite agree that the academy should police its own. But I think you made Cassandra's point: disparaging a field from outside it is a fraught business.

    3. Just to be clear, Frod (in case I wasn't before): I did not mean to disparage astronomy, or its usefulness, in any way, just to point out that all of our disciplines are vulnerable to criticism from some direction or another (even the applied ones can be criticized for being *too* applied, though admittedly that's less common these days). Thus my plea that we avoid the circular firing squad (or even friendly fire).

  10. You know, as a veteran of the 1990s culture wars, it gets a bit tiresome having to defend the validity of one's own field.

    I've commented before to friends that in one of my classes, I have to work hard to explain to students that abstract painting is actually a valid endeavour. You know, that kind of painting invented over 100 years ago? And in a different class, I have to convince people that conceptual and performance art is also valid. Performance art was invented over 50 years ago. Keep up, people.

    What's the equivalent for Frod? Having to deal with someone from outside the field who can't understand how it is possible that time is relative? Or maybe someone who refuses to understand that the universe is expanding; because, after all, the stars don't seem to move?

    So to my colleagues in all other fields: I'll happily respect your expertise and remain humble about how little I know about it. But I expect the same in return.

    1. Yes! Thanks for putting this so well.

    2. As I write this, I'm looking at my Wolf Kahn calendar; the image for May is "Strong Orange, Pale Green." I own a set of "Deck of Cards," having attended the exhibition when it and I were at the University of East Anglia in 1980. My favorite is the conceptual piece for the 10 of spades. I also love theater and dance (as an audience member), and I've seen nudity in dance and performance pieces.

      I'm not an expert is your field, Prof. Poirot, but I appreciate it. Perhaps I even understand some of it.

      I still think the prof and students should keep their clothes on during exams.

    3. I’m sorry, but I don’t think it was put so well. Your examples from astronomy don’t show what you think they show. It’s easy to demonstrate that stars move through the Milky Way Galaxy. Here’s a gif that shows one of the more nearby stars doing it:


      That isn’t evidence for why the Universe is expanding, though. Here’s a copy of Edwin Hubble’s first paper in which he demonstrated that the recession speed and distance of galaxies (which are islands of billions of stars, not individual stars) are proportional:


      Here’s my favorite one-page graphic that shows it:


      As you can measure with a ruler from this graphic, the apparent angular size of each galaxy is proportional to how far the spectra lines shift toward the red. You can also see that how bright each galaxy is also is proportional to how far away it is, which is how things work on Earth, too.

      That time is relative is easily shown by the presence of cosmic-ray muons at sea level.

      I also don’t think it was put so well because the logic is poor. An ad antiquitatem argument is the fallacy that if it’s old, it must be valid. It surprises me that you’d make this argument anyway, since by the standards of art, 50-100 years isn’t that old. (Acrylic paint has been around about that long, and there are still artists who won’t use it since they can’t be sure it won’t last as long as traditional oils. I think they’re likely to be wrong, since when acrylic dries, it turns into plastic. Plastic is well known for not breaking down over time.)

      There’s also a straw-man fallacy here. I did not criticize all abstract art, or all performance art. In fact, the only whole fields of academic endeavor I have ever made blanket condemnations of in this forum are phrenology, schools of education in the U.S., and of course, postmodernism.

      The issue is forced or coerced nudity, which also played prominently in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Really, kids: it it’s against the Geneva Convention, it must be mighty darn bad. It should be obvious to anyone, in whatever field whether academic or not, that the emperor has no clothes (loud groan). It shouldn’t be a requirement for any course, since by the very fact that it is a requirement, it’s not exactly consenting.

      Don’t expect me not to speak up about it. It was only when Phil Zimbardo’s girlfriend happen to walk in on the Stanford Prison Experiment, and immediately started screaming, did anyone realize just how bad it had become. Phil himself later admitted he’d been swept along with it, much as Timothy Leary had doing his thing.

      As Chomsky has observed, “Compare mathematics and the political sciences… it’s quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is the concern for content.”

    4. Bullshit, Frod. Zimbardo and Abu Ghraib? Really? How the hell did you get there from here?

      Go read the IHE article on this. Then re-read my original comment and Academaniac's. In some performative fields, authenticity, sincerity, and vulnerability are paths to growth and to your best work. That's what I'm talking about.

      I don't know what conversation you think you're having or with whom.

      And earlier, I just asked people (such as scientists) not to be dicks by assuming that they're the only ones who do valuable work. There are other epistemologies, other hermeneutics, other kinds of work--the kinds that don't fit on scatterplots. And we're your colleagues. So don't be a dick.

    5. Is that what passes for a logical argument in your department? It just goes to show that no one wants to admit living during a bad period in the arts.

      I hope you realize that if someone calls the police, you will be a sex offender? I dare you to think about that, if you can.

  11. Let me first state for the record that I am neither naked nor nude; I am wearing comfortable, task-appropriate shorts.

    I watched the video on this post, and maybe one other at another site, which was pretty much the same. And I'm finally getting around to wondering, what the fuck? How did they slip this past?

    We've probably all heard of the journalist's cautionary saying, "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." So what do they give us here? A second-hand accusation from a non-witness, and cherry-picked bites of a phone interview of the accused.

    So, it's "we got both sides of the story; our work here is done," is it? That's checking it out? No interviews of current and past students, other profs in the department who are familiar with the assignment, profs familiar with the field but from another institution, psychologists who specialize in power dynamics and so on?

    Maybe that stuff will come later. Meantime, this is lowest common denominator sensationalism, and we've been been trolled.

  12. Frodo: Thomas Eakins, late 1870's, the Pennsylvania Academy. This is hardly a newly controversial approach to instruction in the arts, and certainly not some 1960's culture war issue. Furthermore, medical students are sometimes required to be nude or partially nude in the course of their training, although it is handled in a different way. But really, I think it's appropriate to extend some benefit of the doubt to colleagues in different fields. I agree that this story is just out to bash academics. One ought not fall into that trap so easily.