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Department of Academic Freedom: Asking Students To Other Themselves

September 7, 2013, 12:17 pm

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Why not have your students imitate gum salesgirls in public?

In a victory for academic freedom, Columbia State Community College psychology professor has been cleared of charges that an assignment on homosexuality harassed and discriminated against students of faith (HT).

The assignment, as I understand it, asked students to wear a gay pride ribbon out in public as they walked about Columbia, Tennessee. They were then to record their thoughts and observations for course credit. Although they could choose an alternative assignment, a few students felt that having it on the syllabus at all violated their religious beliefs. Although no student filed a grievance, the Alliance Defending Freedom, run by former conservative anti-pornography activist Alan Sears, filed a complaint against the professor anyway.

Which seems kind of like harassment, if you think about it. The message is clear: do not give assignments that force students even to listen to the word “homosexual” or you will risk spending a significant amount of time defending yourself. I am also interested in the increasing willingness of schools to undertake these investigations, at the instigation of groups like ADF, AIPAC and other agenda-driven organizations, that do not represent the public interest in any way. What’s that about?

However, this incident also made me think about the introductory sociology course that was taught for many years at Yale by star prof Kai Erickson, author of “Notes on the Sociology of Deviance” (1960). One of the early assignments in the class asked students to fan out onto the campus, do something deviant, and write about what happened. This meant that for about a week, 5,000 other undergraduates would be entertained by people trying to sell squares of toilet paper on a street corner, leaping onto tables and bellowing out songs from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and whatnot. Cross-dressing was a favorite among male students. Because what could you do that is more “deviant” than that, right?

Uh….right.

Ideally, of course, the students were being asked to be self-aware about the performance they were putting on as well as the responses they were eliciting.  But I never heard anyone question whether cross-dressing, to the great hilarity of an audience in University Commons, could be hurtful to others. Nor, I suspect, was there any thought to people like myself, who never took Erickson’s course exactly because of this exercise.  In the midst of owning and understanding a sexual and gender identity that I was being consistently told was deviant, the prospect of having to find something deviant to do seemed utterly humiliating, as did having to put up with the various takes on queer sexualities by supposedly straight people.

Now, I certainly didn’t need Lambda Legal Defense to file a grievance against the professor, any more than the students who were being represented by ADF did. But I do think asking students to go out in public, representing themselves as queer, is a thoughtless assignment, whether you make it voluntary or not. How are students going to imagine those representations? Who prevents them from being cruel? What if a student really is queer, and fears, when it is sexuality being addressed, that asking to do an alternative assignment will also draw attention to gendered traits that s/he is anxious about?

I don’t think that the principles of academic freedom, which ought to have been upheld in the Columbia State CC case, mean that such an assignment is ok. It isn’t. I’m not sympathetic to the argument that having to think about homosexuality offends students of faith, although I think it would be wise pedagogy to presume they are telling the truth about that and talk it out with them. We would never suppose that a queer student who refused to learn about religion, or read required religious texts in a history class, would have a leg to stand on. There is a certain hierarchy of values implicit in complaints that students should not have to encounter homosexuality in the classroom, but those values are also, less consciously, embedded  in the original assignment. Would we send students into the streets to evangelize the public to see what that “feels” like and how people treated them?

I don’t think so. But we do send them out to “act gay.”

Many classroom exercises that explore “difference,” consciously or unconsciously, descend from a famous experiment  in which an Iowa teacher gave brown-eyed third graders permission to discriminate against their blue-eyed pals, and then reversed it, allowing the blue-eyes to lord it over the brown eyes. The point was to give a homogenous group of white children the experience of being harmed by racial discrimination and segregation. We can quarrel about whether there is anything truly homogenous about race, and whether exposing any student to potentially ugly and discriminatory behavior is a good idea (I personally think it is not.) What I would propose, however, is that sexuality is undetectable, fluid, illegible and not in the least homogenous, even within recognizable sexual categories — make that homo or hetero; gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, trans or intersexed.

What isn’t a bad assignment, in my view, is asking students to think about the ramifications of assignments like this one, and what it reveals about the vexations  of teaching social science. Social science created these categories in the first place, not religion.  Religious leaders who use biblical texts to address contemporary life are, in part, reading the scripture through a narrative created in the social sciences. Teaching that way could engage students in a far healthier discussion about what forms of knowledge matter most to them, and why, rather than what selves they are living their lives in.

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