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You Can’t Always Read or Write Just What You Want to Read or Write

Recently, I was doing some research for a forthcoming book that I am working on. I still have more work to do, but I was able to make some good headway in archives, came across some good online primary sources and was pleased with what I have been able to come with at this point. Given the fact that I am person who likes to do work in increments, I took periodic breaks and perused a number of entertainment, academic, sports, psychology and religion-oriented websites. As you can imagine, there is not a shortage of provocative material out there.

One article that drew my attention was on a contemporary religious website. The author of this particular essay (a literature professor) discussed an experience in which a devoutly religious student who was offended by a book that had been assigned for the course asked if the professor would assign her some alternative book. According to the author, the student was offended by the book’s profanity and sexual situations. Livid, the professor refused to grant the student her wish. Not content with the initial outcome, the student proceeded to have her mother pay a visit to the professor. He engaged in a battle of verbal wits with the mother and stood his ground. Outraged by his impervious stance, the student soon withdrew from the course.

While I was very intrigued by this story, I cannot say that I was all that surprised. As someone who has been in academia for almost two decades, I am well aware of stories of offended students, defiant academics and the battles that occasionally arise when both factions refuse to accommodate the other party. In fact, I, myself, faced such a predicament several years ago when I taught a senior seminar on African-American culture at a local college in the area. One of the texts I assigned for the course was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. When the time came to discuss the book, I noticed that more than 30 minutes had passed, and one student who had always been an avid participant in the course was uncharacteristically quiet. In fact, she only made two comments the entire class period.

Afterward, she informed me that she was offended by the profane language in the novel and that she had gone to the college dean and made her displeasure known. Amusingly, at least to me, she informed me that he was not as “understanding” as she had hoped he would be. Translation — the dean did not agree with her position.

While the dean never contacted me about the issue, I did take it upon myself to contact him to see what information I could gain. He informed me that he had told this young lady that “Invisible Man was a classic,” (which it is), and furthermore that as a student, she simply could not dictate to a professor what sort of material she would decide to read without potential ramifications. Upon hearing this, my mind and heart said “AMEN!” I thanked the dean and told him that I appreciated his confidence and support.

In all fairness, I realize that some young people can be acutely sensitive about various issues and matters. The same can be said for many grown people. After all, we are all human. That being said, I would be remiss and somewhat dishonest if I did not mention the fact that when I was an undergraduate student in my late teens, I went to a professor’s office and told him that I did not like the arguments that the author had made in the first few chapters of the book, and I did not intend to complete it.

What happened next was classic. He cracked a smile and leaned forward. He lost the smile, gained a frown and told me that he did not give a “damn” (he used another more colorful and blunt four letter world) if I liked the monograph or not. Moreover, he said that I had best complete the book, have the essay turned in by the due date or else I would get a zero for the assignment. Needless to say, at this point the conversation was over. I left his office very angry — fighting angry, to be honest. But over time, I eventually gained an appreciation for what he said to me.

That experience taught me that all of us (or at least the majority of us) may have to do things we may not necessarily want to and that learning to compromise was a crucial, perhaps even necessary fact of life. I was somewhat of an aberration in that I was a student who was probably a little more confrontational than many of my peers. I was part of the generation where students (at least those who were supposedly sane) did not challenge or offend the professor. We knew the power of the grade — good or bad — that he or she had over you. None of my professors were that vindictive, and neither am I.

The fact is that a number of young people (not all by any means) tend to believe that given the fact that they are consumers, they have the right to come to class at whatever time they want to, turn in papers when they decide to, read what they want to and set the rules for the course in question. Some students believe that refusing to read or complete certain assignments is an effective way to exercise their racial, gender, alternative lifestyle, religious or regional prejudices. I make it clear to them in no uncertain terms that in my courses, they do not have such an option.

The fact is some students are going to be in for a rude and perhaps much needed awakening as they stubbornly and arrogantly journey through life.

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