The first homework assignment, to do a self-exam on your breasts or testicles, went over pretty easily. But apparently the class discussion about shorn nether regions was a bit too much for two students in Michael Schaffer’s human sexuality class.
George Washington University chose this summer not to renew the contract of the adjunct professor who had been teaching sexuality to a packed house for 17 years. Schaffer was given no explanation for the decision. But, he said, when he pressed Patricia Sullivan, the acting chair of the Department of Exercise Science, for answers, she told him "maybe you need to look at your student evaluations."
Two of the spring evaluations, from women who took the course, said that the course was demeaning to women. One of the critiques, which specifically cited a class discussion on shaving pubic hair, threatened a sexual harassment lawsuit. That evaluation also pointed to the “look before you lick” advice that Schaffer includes with his comments on all students’ final papers as “a little humor to teach about safe oral sex,” he said.
Schaffer, who said that to his knowledge no lawsuit has been filed, prided himself on making sure that no topic, whether contraception or masturbation, was off limits in his class. His candor became legendary among students, and his two sections of 75 students each would fill up quickly every semester. A stack of evaluations Schaffer has saved are full of phrases like: “open and understanding;” “covers real issues;” “he incorporates humor into serious subject matter;” “environment for self-discovery.” Nearly all of the negative comments are limited to things like: “[class] is too long;” “one less paper.”
The shaving topic came up when Schaffer read part of a paper aloud. He said he gives students the option to put a note on their papers saying they should never be read to the class, and when they are read, he changes identifying information. The paper asked “whether you should or shouldn’t shave pubic hair,” Schaffer said. “Think in terms of if you were to put your mouth on someone’s genitals. Would you want it to be shaved? Is a little topiary work appropriate?” Schaffer said the student who threatened the lawsuit found the discussion about women shaving to be inappropriate. “But I talked about men and women,” Schaffer added. “That’s a question people ask.”
When Schaffer continued to ask about his non-renewal, he said Sullivan simply said the department was headed in a new direction, and that she would not comment further. Sullivan did not return a call and email seeking comment. Tracy A. Schario, director of media relations at George Washington, said she cannot comment on personnel issues. As far as the department being headed in a new direction, there has been recent discussion in the School of Public Health, which houses the department, about becoming more research oriented. “If that happened, that could conceivably cut back on the amount of money that goes to the adjunct program,” according to Jerome Danoff, an associate professor of exercise science. Because he has been around “longer than anybody in the department,” Schaffer said, he makes more money than other adjuncts. But another adjunct is now teaching Human Sexuality, a course Schaffer introduced to the university.
Many of Schaffer’s former students think he is gone because of the two negative evaluations, and they are eager to voice their opinion that he should be brought back.
They say that Schaffer is accessible, even long after they leave the class, and goes out of his way to show he cares about students. “One of my good friends found a symptom for testicular cancer only because he learned how to search for it during one of Professor Schaffer's lectures,” said Dave Frenkil, a senior who took the class two years ago, in an e-mail. “He then asked Professor Schaffer who to contact and had the issue dealt with immediately.”
A senior woman who took the course two years ago said: “I guess I could see how if you write something and he calls you out on it as a girl, if you’re really sensitive, you’d be a little uncomfortable.” She added that paper topics were very loose and students were not forced to be explicit. “I don’t think he would call you in to talk if you wrote, ‘Oh, I had an orgy last night.’ But maybe if you wrote ‘I’m thinking about an abortion, and I’m scared.’”
Over a dozen former students wrote letters to Sullivan on Schaffer’s behalf when they heard he was not invited back.
“While [Schaffer’s] open attitude toward discussing sexuality may come off as ‘jarring,’... I found it to be equally, if not more so, healthy,” wrote Andrea Mandell, a student who took the course last spring. “During the class females learned to speak up in the bedroom, about everything from use of condoms to being comfortable expressing herself, and protecting herself against disease.”
“Given my background, where human sexuality in any form wouldn't be discussed in fear of offending someone,” wrote Talal Johany, who took the class last spring, “I enjoyed the class tremendously and felt that this subject which might be very sensitive in the minds of some people was handled with respect and dignity.”
The senior woman, who asked not to be identified, added that most students do not find discussing shaving genitalia offensive. “In my class, a lot of girls would have totally chimed in on that,” she said. “If you’re offended, why take the class? It definitely isn’t a requirement."