Yes, Please Offend Me (But Thanks for Checking)

Idaho professor asks students to sign acknowledgement that films in his courses might upset them. Are waivers good for academic freedom?
November 28, 2006

In an era in which seemingly anything can offend anyone, one professor at the University of Idaho is attempting to stay one step ahead by asking film students to sign a “statement of understanding” acknowledging the potentially offensive or repugnant content they’ll be viewing.

Dennis West, a professor of film and Spanish, said he thinks the statement, distributed on the first day of his film classes, acts as a check to ensure unsophisticated undergraduates know what they’re getting into. But others question the implications of a practice they believe to be well-intentioned but risky – should faculty be asking students to sign on to facing controversial subject matter?

“I guess I started to get more freshmen who would come to me and say, ‘Well gee, I can’t look at any film that has violence in it or nudity. So I developed a statement of understanding so people know ahead of time certain issues will be intellectually examined in some of these films, such as poverty, slavery, sexual themes, punishment and murder,” said West.

“Film is an extraordinarily powerful medium,” continued West, who counts among his visual texts Night and Fog, a documentary on the Holocaust that depicts the liberation of a concentration camp, and A Clockwork Orange, which features a rape sequence choreographed to “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“If you can’t bear to look at footage of the opening up of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp that shows bulldozers pushing human corpses, then maybe this course is not for you.”

West’s practice may represent a first – “a somewhat troubling first” – in how faculty members handle teaching controversial subject matter, said Jonathan Knight, director of the program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors. “What does it mean to say to a person, ‘Sign this statement saying you might be offended?’ I would be worried that this opens the door slightly more than is typical ... to submit sensitive material for pre-judgment by students.”

Knight added that such a policy could potentially “yield authority to the students as to what should be taught in the course,” more so than would be the case when students choose on their own to drop a course or submit negative evaluations. He also worried that students who sign the document might feel that they have waived their rights to debate the academic value of certain films: “It all seems rather odd,” Knight said. “I should think that the professor’s laudable goal of letting the students know what they’re getting in for could be well-accomplished by just describing the content in the syllabus rather than having them sign a statement that raises implications about the authority responsible for the course.”

But West, who doesn’t ask his literature students to sign a similar statement because he considers film images to be particularly powerful, said he doesn’t worry about whether he’s compromising his own academic freedom by asking students to sign on to a course’s content: “I select the films,” he said. “I don’t see it as an issue of academic freedom; I see it more as a statement to students from day one that we’ll be looking at potentially controversial subject matter.”

The statement is voluntary, and so far in the few years since he introduced it, no student has declined to sign and he’s had very few drops. Several of West’s colleagues have requested copies of the statement, he said, but he does not know if any of them have adopted it.

“What he’s doing strikes me as reasonable but I don’t know if I would want it adopted as a general policy,” said Don Crowley, a professor of political science at the University of Idaho and vice chair of the Faculty Council.

“The idea that students have to give clearance before they confront a difficult issue is not a particularly good idea for higher education,” added Crowley. “But I think given the nature of the class that Dennis is teaching and the fact that he’s showing films that at least have a high probability that someone will be bothered, getting this advanced clearance doesn’t strike me as problematic.”

“But I wouldn’t like to see it generalized.”


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