If You Don’t Do The Work, You Should Fail The Course

Back when I was taking my English core courses at UIC, I had a professor – well, OK, a grad student – who was gay, who I assume was specializing in gender theory, and who was having us read various texts through that lens. I objected to this.

At the time, I was conservative and Christian. I felt that students shouldn’t be forced to read literature with such a narrow critical focus. I felt it was inappropriate to have a core course focusing on gender and homosexuality, featuring clips from “Drag Race.” I felt that this was insensitive to the beliefs of those of us who might be conservative and Christian. So I filed a complaint with the English department, the head of which told me that this grad student was teaching the class satisfactorily, and that I should expect to have my comfort and my beliefs challenged as an undergraduate student. And that was the end of the story: I could refuse to do the work and fail the course, or I could grit my teeth, do the work, broaden my horizons, and move on. I chose the latter option.

I didn’t get a Washington Post op-ed for any of this. Duke freshman Brian Gasso did, though, for refusing to read Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic novel Fun Home per his religious beliefs. Explains Gasso:

“In the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. ‘But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,’ he says in Matthew 5:28-29. ‘If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.’ This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, ‘flee from sexual immorality.’

I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.”

I don’t actually think that this is an unreasonable response on Gasso’s part. His beliefs are his beliefs, and he has the right to act them out however he wishes to. He elaborates on how he’ll do that, too: “I assume that having to view graphic images of sex for a class will be rare. If it does happen, I will avoid any titillating content and encourage like-minded students to do the same.”

Gasso is co-opting the language of trigger warnings when he goes on to say that “I believe professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral.” I could be wrong, but this sounds like Gasso believes he should be able to pass a class without doing the work because of his religious beliefs. And to me, this throws light on the big problem with liberal and leftist requests to let students opt out of confronting material that is upsetting to them: If you’re going to pad the intellectual experience for some students, you might have to pad the intellectual experience for all of them.

I say this as a person who experiences trauma flashbacks and has horrific, insomnia-inducing PTSD nightmares; who has had flashbacks triggered in class; who is at present very leftist and very much a secularist. But I’ve been on both sides of the political and religious fence, and I can empathize with Gasso as much as I can empathize with victims of trauma. Deeply-held religious beliefs inform your experiences and shape your identity, and they’re a valid reason to object to course material, just like experiences of trauma are a valid reason. I do not doubt the depth of meaning that religion provides in the life of a person of faith.

Everyone’s experiences are valid, but individual students’ experiences can’t have bearing on how a qualified professor teaches, or on the content that they choose to teach, so long as they’re doing their job to the university’s standards. My hope is that Gasso’s professors and administration will present him, and present any student with any objection to approved and diverse material, with the same options I was presented: Do the work or fail the class.

Students can advocate for more diverse material, more diverse professors, more funding for programs that are important to them. Students have avenues through which they can tell the university that they want more representation: Protest, petitioning, student government, campus-sponsored extracurriculars. If a professor is genuinely out of line with their conduct, students can lodge complaints. In a worst-case scenario, there’s the Department of Education and the justice system.

But students who choose to opt out of classwork, who choose individual classrooms and individual syllabi as their venues for advocacy, are being strategically short-sighted at best. While schools can be respectful toward, honor, and validate each student’s experiences, they don’t have to honor that short-sightedness. Universities are not students’ churches, nor are they students’ therapists. Students, whether you’re conservative, leftist, religious, secularist, or anything else, the point of being a student is to trust your teachers to teach. Learn. Do the work. Don’t expect to be accommodated if you don’t.

[Washington Post]

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