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Avoid Whatever Offends You

February 17, 2006

When faculty leaders talk about the various versions of the Academic Bill of Rights circulating among state legislators, many single out a bill in Arizona as the worst of all.

The legislation there would require public colleges to provide students with "alternative coursework" if a student finds the assigned material "personally offensive," which is defined as something that "conflicts with the student's beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion." On Wednesday, the bill starting moving, with the Senate Committee on Higher Education approving the measure -- much to the dismay of professors in the state.

The Arizona bill goes beyond the measures that have been pushed in other states -- in fact it goes so far that David Horowitz, the '60s radical turned conservative activist who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, opposes the measure. "It doesn't respect the authority of the professor in the classroom," he said. "This authority does not include the right to indoctrinate students or deny them access to texts with points of view that differ from the professor's. But it does include the right to assign texts that make students feel uncomfortable."

Horowitz's opposition to the bill is of little comfort to professors in Arizona. Although the legislation has a long way to go before it could become law, the idea that the Senate committee charged with overseeing colleges would approve the measure is upsetting to academics. They are also angry because the evidence cited by lawmakers to support the bill appears to be based on a misreading of an acclaimed novel.

The sponsors of the bill did not respond to messages seeking comment. But local news coverage of the session at which the bill won committee approval quoted Sen. Thayer Verschoor as citing complaints he had received about The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody that was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. "There's no defense of this book. I can't believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material," Verschoor said at the hearing, according to The Arizona Star. Other senators spoke at the hearing, the newspaper reported, against colleges teaching "pornography and smut."

Actually, there are plenty who would defend teaching The Ice Storm, including the professor whose course appears to have set off Verschoor. The course -- at Chandler-Gilbert Community College -- was "Currents of American Life," a team-taught course in the history and literature of the modern United States. The literature that students read is selected to reflect broad themes of different eras, according to Bill Mullaney, a literature professor. For example, students read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

The Ice Storm was a logical choice for teaching about the 1970s, Mullaney said, because the novel looks at suburban life at a crucial point in that decade: the collapse of the Nixon administration. While two families' lives are dissected, Watergate is always in the background and the relationship between private morality and public scandal is an important theme.

Adultery is central to the novel and one of its most famous scenes involves a "key party," in which couples throw their car keys in bowl, and then pull out keys to decide which wife will sleep with which husband (not her own) after the party. From comments at the Senate markup of the bill, it seems clear that lawmakers had heard about the wife swapping, but Mullaney and others doubt that they actually read the book. If they had, they might have realized that Moody's portrayal of '70s culture is far from admiring.

"The book is a satire of this culture," Mullaney said. "There are these incredible moments of human connection that get through the morass of '70s culture. But if you read the section on wife swapping, it's showing how empty and unfulfilling and morally corrupt it is. So for these legislators to believe that this book is condoning wife swapping, the sad part is that they are passing this bill and they haven't read the book." (Privately, some faculty members less charitable than Mullaney think that the legislators may have read the book and just not understood it.)

Chandler-Gilbert officials said that Mullaney and all of their professors take a number of steps that indicate that they do respect students' rights to avoid certain material. Mullaney, for example, had a reference on his syllabus to the controversial nature and "adult themes" of some works, and he draws students' attention to that reference on the first day, when they have time to switch courses or sections. In the case of the student whose complaint apparently set off the bill, however, he ignored the warning and demanded an alternate book several weeks into the course, saying he hadn't paid attention when Mullaney noted the material earlier. The student's mother also called the college president (although the student is over 18).

Mullaney said that he respects the right of students to decide which courses to take, but that students can't dictate books to be taught. "This is totally unworkable in the classroom," he said. "If you have students demanding alternative books, and one student is reading one book, and one another, and one another -- it doesn't make any sense in terms of how you teach."

If the bill became law, he added, professors would have to avoid controversial books so they wouldn't risk losing control of their reading lists. "I joke that what I'll do is just teach To Kill a Mockingbird -- all the time," he said.

Faculty and administrative groups are opposing the bill. Janice Reilly, president-elect of the Maricopa Community College District Faculty Association, said that the bill "very much infringes on academic freedom." Reilly, a professor of counseling at Mesa Community College, said that "students have their own personal responsibilities" to pick courses, and that expecting professors to alter courses "hurts other students," who want the emphasis on the original material.

Arizona State University has also come out against the bill. A statement from the university said that the bill is "overreaching" and that "informal processes" deal with any problems that come up with students who are uncomfortable with material. The university said that it hoped further discussions with legislators could produce a solution that deals with their concerns while also "protecting the academic enterprise."

The Arizona Daily Star quoted Senator Verschoor as acknowledging that additional negotiations might be needed. He said that he doubted colleges would follow the bill's provisions now "because of the whole academic freedom thing."

To many, that "whole academic freedom thing" is indeed the crux of the matter. Mullaney said that a positive aspect of having his reading assignment get this attention has been the "unbelievably supportive" way his college's president, Maria Hesse, and other administrators have backed him.

And he said that the experience has reinforced for him the value of teaching. "This all was a little difficult at first, with a flurry of e-mails attacking the college and my integrity," he said. "But the more I've learned about academic freedom, the more sure I am that what I'm doing is right and that it matters -- to teach students to think critically, to help students come a little bit out of their comfort zones."

For now, at least, that's still allowed.

 

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