Friday, May 15, 2015

Hades and Proserpina
Six weeks ago, I commented in "Free Speech Can Be Scary" about "safe spaces" and the growing inability of certain college students to handle challenges to their worldview, identity, and psyche. Today, I found in my FB feed from an Irish colleague this. She shares my caution that particular elements may well set off sensitive responses, but that education for adults demands they take risks. Apparently, some at Columbia fear, again, the invasion of a student's mindset, based on tolerance and sensitivity.

An op-ed in the student paper summed up a young woman's reaction to scenes of rape in her assigned reading. These upset her, as "a survivor of sexual assault." The article explained how "Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses' is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background." Hades' rape of Proserpina, like many episodes in Ovid, is violent, but surely, many passages of beauty also linger.

I share the image of Bernini. If the mythological context is known by the viewer, violence may arise. If not, this might be taken as erotic bliss, foreplay and seduction captured in unforgettable marble. This tension, for me, might better enliven and enrich a classroom discussion or writing prompt, than a fearful rush to eliminate any depiction of nudity or sexuality from my syllabus or a student's view. As Scott Timberg sums this up in Salon: "Why start protecting students from Ovid in a TMZ world?"

To me, "like so many texts in the Western canon" is its own touchy trigger. How much of the humanities and social sciences can be taught and examined if we fear the content? Do we bowdlerize the readings, so as to censor offending passages? Twice when I showed one of many, I recall, "R-rated" features in my Literature and Film course, some Christian students asked to be excused. I was told by my supervisors that I had to grant them this, and I had to come up with an alternate assignment to meet their needs. Further, as another professor I knew had to do, disruptive content itself might be removed, unless the material had no substitute, or there was a way the course guidelines could be met without the specific example. Say, Huck Finn was assigned, but one might, say, replace it with a slave narrative, or an historical account that lacked the n-word trigger event.

Once I taught that novel to a predominantly black enrollment, at another college. As the Net was barely up, and as shortcuts were lacking for hard work, to their credit, they read it but lacked much enthusiasm. One woman loved the Grangerford episode, but for the sappy eulogies that Twain parodied. My gentle efforts to convince her that these were satire failed utterly. I am not sure if it was me, the content in American Literature (which I made very multicultural while also integrating the canon), or the fact they attended one course after another in a group, after work at Bell. Maybe they were tired of each other after so long. Perhaps I seemed elitist, even if I'm from a low-enough "income background" to have received Pell Grants. Among those "of color" of any tinge, the humanities, whittled from a Norton Anthology, must daunt many business and management majors.

That connects with my other posts about a decline of liberal arts. In a Twitter age, we lack attention for stamina. I was told by a dean that the average attention span of a student is 7 minutes, and that at least every 15-20 minutes, we need in the classroom to shuffle it and them about. Like kindergarten?
(Image: Hades and Proserpina, Bernini.)

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