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Purging My Syllabus

Not wanting to sexually harass my students, much less be labeled a sexual harasser by the Department of Education, I have decided to review my Intro to Lit syllabus and remove any reading assignments that might contain offensive material.

Not that any reasonable person would find those reading selections offensive. But the DOE has apparently decided that the “reasonable person” test no longer applies, and that any “unwelcome speech” qualifies as harassment. Since my lit students seem to find nearly everything I say unwelcome, that’s going to make teaching the course a little difficult.

Nor does it matter, apparently, that my purpose in the course is not to sexually harass anyone, or even necessarily to talk about sex. But the study of literature is the study of the human condition, of which sexuality is, regrettably, one aspect. Or at least it used to be, before the DOE ruled against it.

Accordingly, I am eliminating the following selections from my reading list, effective in the fall:

  • Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and John Donne’s “The Flea,” two classic seduction poems. I’ve always thought my students rather enjoyed the vivid, earthy imagery in those works—and maybe learned something about metaphor in the process—but I now realize that they were merely feigning interest to mask their discomfort.
  • Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. As everyone knows, Shakespeare was a dirty old man, unless of course he was actually a woman. In Hamlet, the prince suspects that his mother and his uncle had an affair before conspiring to murder his father. That’s not just adultery; it smacks of incest, for gosh sakes.
  • “I Want a Wife,” by Judy Syfers. In this classic feminist essay, Syfers says that she’d love to have a wife who is as responsive to her sexual needs as she is expected to be to her husband’s. Such a frank discussion of female sexuality is bound to leave many in the class feeling harassed.
  • “Wild Nights, Wild Nights!,” by Emily Dickinson. Speaking of female sexuality, do we really want young people contemplating some 19th-century poet’s love life, whether real or imaginary? Do we want them grappling with the imagery inherent in a line like “might I but moor tonight in thee”? The DOE apparently doesn’t, and that’s enough for me.
  • “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway. I almost left this story in, because it’s a little hard to figure out at first what the two main characters are talking about. But once students understand that the young woman in the story is probably pregnant—out of wedlock, no less—and that the man is trying to persuade her to get an abortion, you can be sure that at least one person in the class will be offended.
  • “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” by Joyce Carol Oates. Ostensibly about fate versus free will or the nature of evil or some such nonsense, this short story actually deals with the apparent kidnapping, rape, and murder of a teenage girl. Even though the crimes themselves are not depicted in the narrative, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. You can’t get much more “unwelcome” that.

As you can imagine, deleting those selections will pretty much gut my syllabus. I’ll have to come up with some alternative readings if we’re going to have anything at all to talk about in class. I don’t know yet what I’m going to substitute, but I’m leaning toward Winnie the Pooh, Where the Red Fern Grows, and the Sears Roebuck catalog, Fall/Winter 1963.

We might even skip literature altogether—because, let’s be honest, nearly all of it is potentially offensive—and just watch old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show online. Think of the rousing class discussions those will generate!

Then again, it might be better if we didn’t have any class discussions at all. Who knows when somebody might say something unwelcome?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user mhaw.]

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