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An Overly Sexual Syllabus?

February 3, 2009

A new edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction not only prompted some changes in my syllabus after the start of the semester but also quickly left me in the midst of a pedagogical quandary: How much should I agree to protect students from potentially questionable content in literary works?

 The course is a creative nonfiction workshop; we study short fiction in the opening weeks of the semester to examine the stylistic choices and strategies that add a sense of “realism” to a narrative — choices and strategies that budding nonfiction writers can use to better craft their own true stories. 

33658206After realizing that most of the stories I’d chosen from the old edition weren’t actually present in the new one, I picked some others to replace them: Junot Diaz’s “Nilda”; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies”; Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t”; Reginald McKnight’s “The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas”; Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water”; Susan Minot’s “Lust”; and Thom Jones’ “The Pugilist at Rest.” The stories are all first-person narratives, most of them recounting events from childhood or young adulthood, and several offer different ways of presenting a tale; Minot’s story, for example, is told in little glimpses and anecdotes, while Dybek’s offers a balance of scene and summary, a mostly linear structure but with small jumps ahead and back.

I did not choose the stories for their theme or content, and so only afterwards did I see that several of the stories dealt with race. When I presented the updated syllabus to the class, I explained that it hadn’t been my intention to focus on that theme — “no more,” I offered as a side comment, “than I’d planned so many stories that featured people having sex. But for whatever reason, we’ve got several of those too. Hope that’s OK with everybody.”

All was fine, until someone didn’t find it OK.

The email I received was nothing less than polite and respectful, explaining that the student didn’t feel comfortable with stories such as Dybek’s “We Didn’t” — that reading such stories, in the student’s words, “goes against my conscience.”

mpaaNone of the stories from the list above are, by any means, pornographic or x-rated in my opinion (or NC-17, in the current parlance). Dybek has made the Best American Short Stories, but there’s no doubt that the editors of Penthouse would’ve rejected “We Didn’t” quickly and definitively because, well, they didn’t. And though the title Susan Minot’s “Lust” does certainly encapsulate part of its focus, the story hardly dredges itself in any down-and-dirty details of sexual activity. All that in mind, a part of me wondered what exactly went against “conscience” — the pre-maritalness of it all perhaps? or the troubling juxtaposition of the near-sex in Dybek with the dead body pulled from the water? (…troubling to the characters too, it’s important to note.) And you can’t fault Dybek for being “unsafe” in his depiction; the narrator does bring a condom, after all. Perhaps to my discredit, I didn’t ask the student this, but, as I mentioned, none of the stories were chosen for their content at all, so I had no stake in pushing that content, sexual or not. In the end — while emphasizing the skill, prowess and extremely high literary merit of each of these writers — I made a couple of small accommodations for my student with regards to these two upcoming stories. 

And immediately and ever since, I’ve been nagged by whether it was the right decision at all.

I can’t see myself pushing a story about sex on my students precisely for that sexual content: “No, no, you must read this. You should read more stories about sexual activity.” But at the same time, would I have so easily made accommodations if this student, instead of protesting reading about sexuality, had protested reading about homosexuality? perhaps citing that depictions of gay men offended certain beliefs?

Such questions could continue to roll out. What if a student had said he didn’t like to read things with a liberal bent? Or if another had stated she didn’t read anything that espoused Republican ideology? To hit some hot topic issues: What would I say to a student who said that he wouldn’t read a story in which a character had an abortion? or in which someone is euthanized? or in which a scientist conducts stem cell research?  To go back to the first thematic strand I noticed with these stories — the emphasis on race issues — how would I answer a student who said she refused to read a story that used “the n-word” (as three of these stories do)?    

Several answers might present themselves. Literature — whether fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry — often reflects the real world, and our engagement with a text can sometimes put us face-to-face with real world issues, in productive ways. Literature offers an opportunity to broaden horizons, challenge perspectives, question the validity of moral stances or ethical beliefs, and make us better people — whether we adopt new beliefs and perspectives or find our original ones reinforced.

Makes sense, yeah? And yet even then, just as my student expressed discomfort reading stories that had sexual content, so too would I feel uncomfortable encouraging a student to broaden his or her sexual horizons, to challenge personal sexual mores or inhibitions, to indulge some new perspectives on the act of — as Dybek calls it — “doing it.” 

“Try it, you might like it”? Uh-uh. I ain’t going there.

questionmarkI’m pleased with the great number of readers that this blog has on a day-to-day basis, but I also recognize that few of those readers ever comment — so while I would both encourage and welcome any thoughts on this, I won’t explicitly put any of it out there as a specific question for folks to respond to. And unfortunately for those of you who’ve read this far, I don’t think that I myself can bring these thoughts to a close with any clear and efficient statement on the topic in general. But the situation has certainly prompted me to think about the complexity of my responsibilities as a professor — and beyond that as a writer and critic committed to literature and what it offers to the world. For these reasons, I wanted to put some of those thoughts down here, more to record them for myself than to offer any enlightenment to a broader audience.

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7 comments

  1. What I would like to do in a situation like this is point out all the offensive material in things they’ve already read. I’m sure they had to read stuff that’s sexual in high school and in previous college classes. If this were Eng. 101 or 201 I’d feel more sympathetic because it’s a required course, but how did they end up in what I’m assuming is a higher level elective if they can’t handle the content of an anthologized piece of American literature? I mean, it’s not as if you brought in a urinal and hung it on the wall. Also, if this is a workshop, are your students workshopping each other’s stories? What if someone turns in something sexier? Will the student excuse himself from the assignment?


    • Totally great points here, Bethany, about what other students in the workshop might turn in — and I pointed that out in my communication with the student. Especially in a nonfiction workshop, there’s the possibility that the student writers themselves will be submitting material that may not earn a G or PG rating, you know? There’s no way, I stressed, of being excused from reading those.

      And yes, a higher-level elective in this case, definitely, but it’s not just reading they might have had before. How can students get past your average sit-com or WB teen show without exposure to all this?

      Thanks for all the points here!


  2. I think you made the right decision, because you can’t force someone to read something they are uncomfortable with. It is their own choice they made to limit what they read. The fact that it is within an educational realm as opposed to personal reading choices makes no difference.

    I also got the impression you gave a choice, instead of just taking that reading option out? If that’s true, I wonder what the issue will be when the discussion begins.

    I imagine it’s hard to choose stories to show to the class when you’re picking them from a standpoint of how they were written, because the story itself most often times becomes what’s important to the reader. It takes an extra bit of thought process to look beyond what the characters and the world say to instead see structure and authorial intent.


  3. I remember my very first Creative Writing class and the big, bold lettered, “disclosure” on the syllabus about fiction being based on real life and how some of the published material we were about to read — and indeed the work some students brought in — turned out to be graphic. I remember there was a seventeen year-old girl in the class, she and the professor and met after class to discuss whatever arrangements needed to be made. I can’t remember the exact verbiage of the disclosure; but that allowed the Professor to address the situation from the get go. As a student, I can’t explain my feelings of frustration when I get my manuscript back from a classmate that says he or she found my work offensive so instead of saying something constructive (about POV, structure, narrative device, voice, characterization, style, scene construction), they’re just going to close up and say “offensive.” To me that’s just an excuse for academic and intellectual “laziness.”

    I can understand your pickle in choosing stories. Political Correctness may hinder your selection, but all great literature is surrounded by controversy. In my 20th century American literature class, we’re reading /Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises/. What if a student got up and said, the protagonist is an anti-Semite, that’s offensive. Is the professor supposed to say, ok then, we’ll skip Hemingway. This is probably more difficult with contemporary works; I can see how a student’s complain of having to read something like “The beginnings of Grief” by Adam Haslett may put an instructor in hot water with an administrator. I also find I can’t close this post with any elegance, but I hope some of it helps.


    • Thanks, Carlos. Some great comments here! I appreciate the support and insight (and know what you mean about not being able to close with elegance; I had the same issue!).


  4. This is an interesting dilemma you have here and one I’ve never given particular thought to. When I was an English student in college, I always thought it was the professor’s job to challenge me in the things that I read and the way I thought about what I read. I may not have enjoyed everything that I was required to read, but that doesn’t mean that I derived no benefit from it. Reading literature that makes you uncomfortable is not only a necessity for becoming a great reader, it’s a necessity for becoming a great writer. Maybe even more so.

    In addition, though I doubt this would be much comfort to your student, I don’t think that reading about sex, or characters having sex, necessarily means that you endorse the actions of those characters. I think that’s just as silly as someone thinking that reading “Huckleberry Finn” of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “The Known World,” for that matter, means that you endorse racism.

    I totally understand your desire to accommodate your student, especially when, as you say, the stories you chose weren’t chosen based on their content. Yet, choosing not to read a story because it offends your “conscience” is really a poor excuse, isn’t it? In addition to giving her another story to read, I would have asked that she at least give serious thought to her choice and exactly why she found it so offensive.

    As one commenter said above, the excuse that the material offends her “conscience” smacks of intellectual laziness.


  5. By the way, I thought “The Scribner Anthology” was amazing. And I didn’t even particularly like short stories at the time. Now, I’m a convert. :)



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