Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Yesterday a parent filed a complaint with the dean’s office about my freshman U.S. history class. This irrate mother was shocked, SHOCKED!, that I assigned a history of gays and lesbians in World War II. She knows that I am pushing my radical, queer agenda on her innocent son. For this, she said, I should be fired. She stopped herself from asking for my immediate execution.
This morning I received a note under my office door from another student who wants to meet with me. She said that she is “concerned about the course content and direction.” I have a pretty good guess what she has in mind.
I don’t live in some never-never land. I know, for instance, that it is unlikely that Joss Whedon will ask my advice as he directs the Wonder Woman movie (but who will explain Reform Island to him?). It seems even less likely that he will ask me to star in it.
Given this healthy sense of reality, it does not surprise me that assigning gay and lesbian history causes hand-ringing among certain Texans. As I start each semester, I always try to prepare for some backlash against my classes.
What I find baffling about the first event, though, is the way parents perceive their role in universities. Federal Law prohibits universities from discussing a student’s academic performance with parents. Why? Because the law assumes that university students are adults. Yes, adults! Meaning that they are supposed to be able to make their own decisions about course work and studying.
Given the way many students behave, though, adulthood no longer seems to be the expectation. I am convinced that a few students still go home to breast feed, though I have no direct evidence.
I wish that I could claim an ingenious radical queer agenda. My goals for teaching history are modest: I want my students to be exposed to a wide variety of perspectives. Part of going to university, it seems to me, is learning about people and ideas that were omitted (or actively silenced) in their god-forsaken Texas high schools. On my syllabus, I spell out my expectations that we will read historians writing on Latino, African American, Asian, feminist, and queer issues. Naively, I expect that students will be excited to learn things about the past that they did not know. Every semester, however, I face complaints about all or part of these readings.
Fortunately, my department head and the administration supports my academic freedom and the books I assign (even if members of the department do not). For this I am grateful.
I know I could save myself this grief if I taught without assigning these things. I simply can’t teach “by request,” though. Ultimately, I have to do what I think is the most ethical.
Then again, maybe Mr. Whedon will offer me a career change. . .