To Teach or Not to Teach?
Can an artist/author/scholar’s personal life be separated from their work? The #MeToo movement reignited that question on Carleton’s campus
The #MeToo movement has reignited a conversation among Carleton professors about whether or not an artist, author, or scholar can be separated from his work—or his behavior.
Art is often provocative, sometimes even dangerous. It can give voice to the silenced, threaten power and authority, and make people ache with longing for reasons they may not be able to explain.
Teaching the arts can be equally precarious. Recently, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault has reignited and reinvigorated arguments over censorship, whether it’s possible or desirable to separate artists from their art, and whose work merits a place on a syllabus or in a humanities curriculum.
Take the film Chinatown, a 1974 neo-noir directed by Roman Polanski and inspired by the California water wars of the early 20th century. Cinema and media studies professor Carol Donelan loves the movie, which was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, for what it taught her about film analysis and interpretation. In fact, for many years she displayed a Chinatown poster featuring stars Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in her office as a reminder of how and why she is fascinated by the ways meaning circulates in cinema and in culture.
One of Donelan’s students, Mollie Wetherall ’16, was not so taken with Polanski’s work. “The film culminates in the murder of a young mother who is in the process of fleeing her pedophile father,” says Wetherall. “The end of the film shows the pedophile dragging his granddaughter off screen—presumably to prey on her for years to come. That ending was directed by Polanski, who fled the country four years after the movie’s release because he pled guilty to, and was convicted of, drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.”
A highly energized dialogue about the subject began when Wetherall walked into Donelan’s office and insisted that she take down the Chinatown poster. Donelan’s initial response was: “I beg your pardon?”
Wetherall wasn’t objecting to the film’s content per se, but rather to its director. If it had been written or directed by a feminist who was bringing to light similar horrors, for example, she might have felt differently. “What I objected to,” Wetherall says, “is blatantly anti-survivor, predator-centric media taking up space in our syllabus.”
Polanski’s background aside, there is no doubt some students and faculty members would see plenty of reasons for Chinatown to merit a so-called trigger warning. (In the context of curricula, a trigger warning is a statement made by a faculty member at the beginning of class or preceding the study of a text, film, or work of art that alerts students to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material—in this case, incest, rape, and other violence.)
Donelan knew about Polanski’s criminal past, of course, but she also believed he’d made a seminal piece of art that was worth studying. The director’s troublesome biography was never a primary focus of her teaching.
Donelan and Wetherall’s initial disagreement about the film’s place on the syllabus highlights a number of questions about teaching and curriculum that are being raised by the #MeToo movement: Does the teacher or a student decide what goes on a syllabus? How are such decisions made? Can a student refuse to study provocative, potentially upsetting material? What if the work, no matter its tenor, was created by an artist who is alleged to have committed or has been convicted of assault or harassment? What if artists have used their power and authority to quash other voices, particularly those of people who are already marginalized due to their gender, race, or sexual orientation? Does the nature of an alleged or proven act of violence or harassment make a difference? And how important are troublesome aspects of artists’ lives to the study of their works in the first place?
These questions have become so commonplace that educational studies professor Deborah Appleman believes they have “entirely reshaped the landscape of the politics of teaching literature.” And the shifts are not unproblematic. “While it is imperative to consider our students’ well-being and to teach sensitively, I shudder at the thought that this strain of politics will banish some texts into silence,” she says.
By way of example, consider celebrated authors Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz, who have been accused of sexually exploiting and harassing students and colleagues. Both have admitted that there is some truth to these allegations and, as a result, some Carleton professors are conflicted about teaching their work.
English professor Arnab Chakladar says he could see replacing Alexie with another Native American voice if, for example, the curriculum was meant to represent a diverse body of American literature. In a class focused exclusively on Native American literature, however, he doesn’t think Alexie can be excluded.
Appleman’s position is more definitive. “Yes, I’m a feminist, but I am not going to stop teaching Sherman Alexie,” she says.
Survey 10 professors and you’re likely to get 10 different answers about how to respond to the #MeToo movement and the critical questions it’s raising about curriculum design, what education entails, and how best to teach. (Some even wonder if it’s right to ask students to purchase work by living artists like Alexie and Díaz, who would benefit financially.)
English professor and faculty president George Shuffelton believes the #MeToo movement is contributing to the “single biggest pedagogical issue of our time,” which he says involves acknowledging and addressing ever more sophisticated discussions about the way issues such as race, gender, and religion play out in the classroom and around campus.
For instance, Wetherall’s Chinatown critique started to sink in when Donelan noticed that she had taken an unhesitating stance in favor of removing Confederate statues from public spaces. In some ways, she could see that her own office was a public space, and that the Chinatown poster was, in this light, morally specious.
Donelan took down the poster, but she continues to teach the film, using Polanski’s biography as a primary focus for class analysis and a framework for accessing the film. “It’s not the only framework,” Donelan says, “but it’s an important one.”
Questions about curriculum aren’t always initiated by students. Chakladar is considering removing from his syllabus U. R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara, a widely acknowledged literary masterpiece that functions as a critique of Brahminism (domination of Indian society by the priest class of Brahmins’ Hindu ideology). Chakladar is sensitive to a potentially troubling aspect of the novel: “nonconsensual sex with lower-caste women.”
“The book doesn’t seem to notice its own attitude toward the bodies of either upper- or lower-caste women,” he says. “And after the #MeToo movement, this seemed like the main thing we should be talking about. There was also the question of why—when there are so many major texts I could assign—I should reflexively keep assigning texts such as Samskara.”
Two years ago, Chakladar raised the issue in class discussion. None of his students argued for dropping the book, but they agreed that the issue of the novel’s possible misogyny should always be discussed. Chakladar hasn’t decided if he’ll teach the book again. Regardless, he believes ensuring transparency and considering his students’ input is paramount. “We explore these questions together,” he says.
Chakladar also has changed his mind about trigger warnings, which he objected to initially as a form of censorship. “It costs me very little to provide a preface or context in advance of a reading assignment versus the harm it can cause a student,” he says.
Art history professor Ross Elfline has experienced a similar change of mind. “Years ago, I might have said a potentially offensive word without any kind of warning or context ahead of time because it was part of the discourse and part of the history of the moment in which the art was created,” he says. “But what does that word mean to a student who might have been assaulted or harassed, and who was called this word in the midst of that act? Without giving my students a chance to prepare themselves, I’m creating a power dynamic I can’t walk back from.”
Elfline, who teaches modern and contemporary art, is aware that a decision to show certain material—Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous photographs of the BDSM subculture of 1970s and 1980s New York, for example—is a matter of his own values and aesthetic, so he’s transparent about his choices. “It’s a living process,” Elfline says. “I explain to students how a syllabus is created, how and why I’ve made decisions. I don’t need them on my side, but I do need them to be receptive. Pragmatically speaking, I am here to educate. If a student shuts down, I’m not doing my job.”
Some educators see adjusting curricula based on issues raised in the #MeToo era as a serious constraint on intellectual freedom. They argue that college-age students would be better served by embracing certain discomforts, especially in the name of inquiry.
Educational studies professor Jeff Snyder and history professor Amna Khalid frequently give talks on academic freedom, free expression, and campus politics. In a recent article they wrote for Inside Higher Ed, the two argue that partisan politics are so problematic they can lead to left-leaning professors dismissing any “free speech crisis” as an ideological myth perpetrated by right-wing media. In reality, they argue, “threats to free expression at colleges and universities are much more than right-wing fever dreams.”
Another critical point to consider, says Appleman, is that literature and the arts, by their very design, are apt to conjure a complex set of emotions. “It is almost impossible to read literature, that unflinching mirror of the human condition, without touching on the kinds of issues that many students ask to be shielded from: death, violence, heartache, childhood and adolescent trauma, illness, sexuality,” she says.
While some commentators in and outside of the academy are concerned that to eliminate texts, films, and artists is a surrender to the tyranny of the politically correct, what’s happening at Carleton is arguably more nuanced.
“Students are politically engaged now in a different way than when I first arrived [at Carleton],” says Chakladar. “They are more sensitive and more sensitized. It seems to me that for them, political correctness is not what’s occurring. It’s not that they want to be correct, but that they believe what they are saying and questioning. I think Carleton students are generally sincere.”
What’s more, Carleton expressly allows faculty members the freedom to deal with curriculum-oriented issues based on their individual disciplines and teaching styles.
“Faculty members are best situated to determine what content or ideas are important to the intellectual integrity of their courses and the learning process,” says Dean of the College Beverly Nagel ’75. “With that freedom comes the responsibility to determine how best to handle such material to facilitate intellectual exchange and learning. I believe our faculty members are very thoughtful and responsible in handling material covered in their courses.
“This doesn’t mean that no one is ever upset by something said in class or by some material that is included. Of course, some material is easy to identify as potentially upsetting and professors can (and most do) find ways to prepare students and warn them in such cases. But in other cases, a reference or comment that is quite innocuous might be triggering for someone due to a past personal experience. No policy can foresee all such circumstances—nor can any of us.”
Donelan is confident that, for the most part, when students challenge a professor’s choices, they’re engaging their critical faculties, and it’s equally incumbent upon professors to be open-minded. “As humans, we look for categories or frameworks through which to construct meaning,” she says. “Culture tends to impose a kind of hierarchy on which frameworks are prioritized and which get marginalized, and we learn to see through these categories. The #MeToo movement has initiated a category shift. It’s a profound change and students are reprioritizing what and how they see, including their course material.”
Nagel believes that the greatest impact the #MeToo conversation has had on campus life is that “students now have a more nuanced framework for understanding and raising as concerns or issues statements or behavior that may not have registered as problematic in the past.”
In the long run, she argues, this sort of sensitivity is a good development, but communication and active listening are more important now than ever before, especially considering the broader political climate on campus and off.
Shuffelton says that teaching in the #MeToo era demands both balance and vigilance—and recognition that the ground is always shifting. There is often racially and sexually violent material in the medieval literature he teaches, which requires him to be aware of the difference between students who don’t understand the material and students who are so shocked and upset by it that they can’t be receptive to learning from it.
“I’ve come a long way in this regard,” he says. “Where I still have a lot of work to do is when the question arising isn’t in the material, but is in the classroom. Maybe it’s problematic behavior between or among students, or I can see a student is suffering in some way from something someone did or said. Being aware of these dynamics is a serious challenge, and it’s new. When something happens in my classroom, it’s my job to address it. And some professors are better at this than others.”
Imagine a class discussion in which student A offers an interpretation of a text that student B perceives as bigoted. Student B decides student A is a misogynist and shares this characterization of student A around campus and perhaps even on social media. The class dynamic will never be the same.
“Callout” or “gotcha” culture refers to the social phenomenon of publicly denouncing someone for his or her perceived beliefs or alleged behavior. At Carleton and beyond, the callout can occur on social media, in campus publications, and across whisper networks. It can be about students or faculty members or staff members. And all of it potentially paralyzes discussion and learning in the classroom, where students need the space to speak freely and try out new ideas.
“Not everyone and certainly not every college-age student speaks beautifully and articulately every time they speak, nor should they be expected to,” says Nagel. “In other words, fear of being called out, or having been called out, can be toxic to learning.
“We cannot create 100 percent safe spaces. We do have to unpack what safe means, or we’re abrogating our responsibility. If by safe we mean a space where you can have preconceptions challenged, grapple with hard issues, and grow—and not be blasted out on social media or across campus—we can aspire to that. But education will often feel challenging and uncomfortable.”
“I hope I’m not the same professor in 20 years as I am today,” says Elfline, who acknowledges that, even as a midcareer scholar, he is still not 100 percent confident in his teaching. “I’m more self-critical and self-aware now than I was when I started teaching. I have to be nimble, be receptive to change, learn from my lessons. It should be a personal decision from faculty member to faculty member regarding how to manage these questions.”
As Carleton’s professors continue to thoughtfully adjust and adapt, English professor Peter Balaam encourages people across the board to keep in mind that “writers and artists will continue to invite, cajole, seduce, and shock—to get us to see, to look again with new eyes, to suffer empathetically—and thus to learn, to question, to think, and to feel.”