Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Open Minds?

I've seen this story a couple of times this week:
It’s unclear how many of Duke’s 1,750 incoming students skipped Alison Bechdel’s highly-acclaimed 2006 graphic-novel style memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. That anyone admitted to a top university would purposely ignore their first assignment is, first and foremost, sad. These students have denied themselves a great read. The book, beautifully written and illustrated, won numerous literary awards and inspired a Broadway musical that swept the Tonys this spring. It’s a bittersweet story detailing Bechdel’s life growing up with a closeted gay father “who killed himself a few months after I came out to my parents as a lesbian.” Heavy stuff, for sure, but higher education is about examining the heavy stuff. Through her unique lens, Bechdel explores the themes of family, growing up and self-acceptance; themes we all can relate to.
What’s really disappointing, however, are the reasons students have given for refusing to read the book. According to The Chronicle, they think it’s pornographic. When I heard that, I grabbed my copy off the shelf to find the porn I apparently missed the first time around. I’m not sure how one labels a book pornographic without actually reading it, of course. Maybe it’s a new twist on the Stewart test: I know it when I don’t see it? Either way, it represents the antithesis of education, which requires both the opening of books and the opening of minds.

The rest...


  1. "But those seeking a university education should be prepared to have the worldview and perspectives they developed at 18 challenged and expanded."

    That's what we used to think, as little as one generation ago. Just yesterday, I was shouted down by a Dean when I pointed out that the main purpose of an education at a state university is to make them better and leading citizens, and that economic benefits are a desirable, but secondary objective.

    Another answer to this is: of course not. The customer in them won't stand for it.

    "If not, why go to college? Or read? Or think?"

    Going to college today is a meal ticket, nothing more. They don't want to read, and certainly don't want to THINK: are you crazy?

    1. Yup.

      I found out all about that while I was teaching. Soon after I was given permanent status, I was informed that my sole task as an instructor was to "get them through". I wasn't to worry about whether they actually *learned* anything. Because of the institution's reputation, the students were all going to get "good" jobs and they would learn what they needed to know once they started working.

      I had to wonder what that administrator was taking when he told me that. I'd spent several years in industry before I started my teaching job and what he told me was complete balderdash.

  2. Frod's right. College is nothing like it was. I'm old enough that I've stopped giving a shit about it except in my own classes, and even then only to a point. I'm not going to drag anyone into the path of critical thinking anymore unless they're a little bit willing.

    Want to roll your eyes and wait around for the passing grade. Okay. Just shut the fuck up and miss as much class as you want.

    1. I once had a particularly troublesome student in one course I taught. He showed up for the first few weeks and then disappeared, only to return to write the exams and attend the lab sessions.

      He turned in absolute rubbish for his last lab report as most of the critical results were missing. He visited me in my office soon after I returned it and he was hopping mad, as in how dare I give him a lousy mark. He then informed me that he had expected *me* to chase after him about the missing results (sorry, kid, but I'm not your mommy). Then he proceeded to give me a dressing down about why he skipped out on so many of my lectures (I was boring, you see).

      My solution was to give the report to my colleague, who taught another section of the same course. As it turned out, the kid ended up with the same grade.

      Unfortunately, I think the kid graduated.

  3. I actually spent some time in the Crimson archives this morning trying to find evidence of this kind of thing happening in the past. Human nature being what it is, it seems improbable to me that this is the first-ever incident of students rejecting material that they suspected would threaten their worldview.

    I admit I did not find anything like the Duke case in about 20 minutes, but I did find this report on Vassar's president lamenting that students did not want to work hard in their liberal arts courses because they saw no professional benefit to it. That was in 1915.

    It seems to me that most of the coverage of the Fun Home case has been framed as "wimpy students" when it should really be "feckless administrators." Except that Fun Home was not a course assignment, and at least in my experience, those "one college" reading assignments have little in the way of accountability in any case.

    1. I think it's probably cyclical. The phrase "political correctness" was certainly being flung around plenty in the 1980s, and certain speakers (usually with rightish tendencies) had to be smuggled in and out of auditoriums using the steam tunnels, or local equivalents, at Harvard and elsewhere. I strongly suspect that those practices/protests dated to at least the Vietnam-war protest era of the late '60s/early '70s (and in fact some of them were direct continuations of same -- e.g. the perennial labeling of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal). The tendency for any attempt to discuss Israel/Palestine issues to turn into people shouting recriminations past each other probably dates at least to that era as well.

      And students tend to be more pre-professional or more idealistic in their outlook depending on various factors, including the economy. Oddly, I suspect that both a really stable/prosperous economy and the sort of sustained downturn we've experienced lately tend to bring out the idealistic streak, though perhaps for different reasons; increasing stability after a downtown -- which we may have soon -- and/or the beginnings of instability seem to bring out the careerist tendencies in both students and parents. There are also definite differences (at least in broad-brush population terms) between first-generation (college or American) students and those from more established/privileged backgrounds (those are the differences I find it harder to complain about, especially in an era of ever-increasing college loan burdens; in fact, I suspect that's a major explanation for current careerist/instrumentalist tendencies even in fairly privileged families).

  4. Maybe I'm a cockeyed optimist, but I find it somewhat encouraging that the refusals-to-even-encounter-certain-content are coming both from the right/conservative and the left/liberal sides of the spectrum. This might, of course, result in our (or, more likely, our robot successors) doling out nothing but pre-approved-at-multiple-levels content-delivery pablum, with no challenge to preconceived notions/practice with critical thinking whatsoever, or it might just force us (more broadly, I think we do this pretty well here at CM) to have conversations about the purpose of college, and how to fulfill it, that move us back somewhere toward a middle ground where all kinds of ideas can be freely aired without being shouted down.