Teaching Today

Keeping Conversation on the Syllabus

When it comes to what should go on a syllabus, the toughest questions are often best answered by students, argues David Ebenbach.

October 30, 2018

In the long-overdue Me Too era, many faculty members are taking a hard look at their syllabi. We’re considering all the authors and scholars we’ve been teaching: Have any of them been revealed as people who’ve done seriously bad things? And, if so, do these authors stay on our syllabi?

As a number of people have argued -- Sandra Beasley’s piece in The Washington Post is one of the best examples -- these are not easy questions to answer, and the stakes (educationally, personally and more) are significant. Whatever we do is going to have to reflect the difficulty of the situation. In Beasley’s words, “To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention. We’re saying, This is worth your time. Unless we actively complicate the conversation, our students will perceive that as a form of admiration.”

As it happens, however, in some cases that complexity is pedagogically valuable; as my experience this past spring reminded me, the toughest questions are often best answered not by professors but by students.

Last semester I taught an undergraduate course called Wording Your Identity, which examined the way that many Jewish authors have used fiction and poetry partly in order to figure themselves (and their Jewishness) out. The syllabus -- the one I was taking a hard look at -- had Elie Wiesel’s essay “Why I Write” on it. We were scheduled to talk about it during a class session looking at the influence trauma has on our sense of self. Perhaps ironically, given that we were going to be talking about trauma, in a 2017 Medium article a woman accused Wiesel of groping her years before. Although this was a single alleged incident, and certainly wasn’t as extreme as the behavior of Bill Cosby, say, or Harvey Weinstein, I still wondered whether I should remove the piece or leave it on the calendar. I ultimately decided to keep the essay, but under one condition (to myself): I had to explicitly pass my question along to the students.

When I got to class on the day that reading was discussed, two months into the course, I began by asking the group what they knew about Elie Wiesel. A few things came up: that Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, that he was one of the most important writers on the Holocaust, that he won the Nobel Peace Prize. And then one student raised her hand and described, to the surprise of some of her colleagues, the accusation against him.

“Right,” I said. “So today’s first question is this: Given that accusation, should I have cut Wiesel out of this syllabus, or was I right to keep him?”

I should say that my approach had some risks. Most important, it’s possible that harm had already been done by the time the session started if students in the room had known about the accusations against Wiesel and simply reading his work had triggered past traumas. I’ll say that I wouldn’t have taken the same approach with an author who had been accused of a larger number of bad actions, and/or significantly worse ones -- but, of course, my judgments about severity could be misguided. Who, in fact, am I, to judge? It was also risky for me to have this conversation, because students could have reasonably been angry with me for forcing them to deal with this author. If things went that way, it would be crucial that I not get defensive.

As it happened in this case, the students seemed unruffled and even excited about the question. They took it on with the thoughtful, serious, open-minded attitude they’d been displaying all semester long, and we spent about 45 very productive minutes discussing the dilemma before moving on to the other authors for the day.

The class came up with a number of compelling reasons for why reviewing and discussing Wiesel’s essay could be problematic. They wondered if some of his ethically charged ideas were inherently weakened by his alleged actions. They noted that, given the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses, most classrooms contain people who have been through the kinds of things laid out by the author of the Medium article, and who might be negatively impacted by reading Wiesel. They generated the same kind of argument that Beasley did about how we privilege authors by including them.

Yet the students also came up with a number of compelling reasons for keeping him on the syllabus. One student was actually in the midst of writing a paper about Wiesel for another class and pointed to his importance in the field of Holocaust studies and his significant positive deeds. Others described how personally powerful his writing had been for them. Above all, they raised larger questions about how to make challenging ethical judgments like this. They felt that we had to consider the severity of the misdeed -- as subjective as that can be -- and the number of accusations. They thought that it mattered whether the author was still alive (Wiesel is not) and therefore able to materially benefit from being supported. They thought that we had to consider the weight of the academic value against the potential harm. In other words, they, too, thought it was complicated.

As I suspected would happen, different students came to different conclusions, and some were undecided. In a later paper, in which I required students to choose and cite the ideas they related to from among the many authors we’d studied, a few included Wiesel, while others did not. That seemed right to me; I hadn’t wanted consensus but rather earnest and meaningful engagement.

And that, as I’d expected, definitely happened. Contrary to the “snowflake” stereotype that gets thrown around about college students today, I’ve found that, when I approach my students thoughtfully and respectfully, taking care to consider their intellectual development and their well-being as I make my pedagogical choices -- again, I wouldn’t have tried this with an author whose actions were especially brutal -- they can handle whatever comes their way.

And although we didn’t reach a firm conclusion on the author we were discussing, one student had this to offer: “There’s only one thing I’m sure of,” she said. “It’s good that we’re having this conversation.”


David Ebenbach teaches in the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and works at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.


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