Duke, Berkeley, Columbia, Oh My: What are our students are trying to tell us

My Sunday column in Salon uses the latest campus controversy—the Duke student who refuses to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—as an opportunity to take a second look at what these students with their trigger warnings and sensitivities are trying to tell us. I’d really like to get this aspect of the controversy into the conversation, so even if you disagree, it’d be great if you could share this column as widely as possible:

No one knows the power of literature better than the censor. That’s why he burns books: to fight fire with fire, to stop them from setting the world aflame. Or becomes an editor: Stalin, we now know, excised words from texts with about as much energy and attention as he excised men and women from the world. As Bertolt Brecht archly noted of the East German regime’s efforts to control what he wrote: “Where else in the world can you find a government that shows such interest and pays such attention to artists?”

This week, as I head back to the classroom amid controversy — from Columbia toBerkeley to Duke — over what college students will or will not read, I’m mindful of Brecht’s observation. Could it be that the men and women who most appreciate what we, professors of the humanities and social sciences, have to offer are the students who’ve been vilified as coddled and cosseted, demanding trigger warnings on syllabi or simply refusing to read the books we’ve assigned them because those books make them uncomfortable? Could it be that they, like the censor, are the ones who truly understand the power of the books we teach?

That’s why I’m less bothered than some of my colleagues are by today’s students. I see in their fear a premonition of what a book — and an education — can do. We live in an age, we’re often told, where reading has become rote or has simply disappeared. Half our students don’t do the reading; the other half submit dutiful book reports, barely registering the effect of what they’ve read.

Yet here are students who seem to understand, however faintly and problematically, what the literary critic Alfred Kazin called “the raw hurting power that a book could have over me.” They seem like throwbacks, these students: not to the Midwestern evangelism of Elmer Gantry but to the urban hothouse of the New York Intellectuals, those anxious and oversexed minds of mid-century for whom a Henry James novel or Walt Whitman poem was a holy fire. “Writing Was Everything“: that’s how Kazin titled one of his memoirs. In their refusal to read a book, in their insistence that professors warn them of the trauma it may contain, that is what students are running away from: writing that consumes them, writing that’s everything.

Even so, there’s a greater threat to reading and readers, to education itself, than trigger warnings or students objecting to a text. And that is the downsizing administrator, the economizing politician, who refuses to believe there’s any value in reading a difficult text at all. While the media debates Mr. Grasso’s refusal, I, as chair of my department, anxiously scrutinize our daily enrollment reports, knowing I have to defend courses with 12 students from administrative economizers — simply because the intimacy, attention and focus of a senior seminar doesn’t register as a value to men who can only see value when it is expressed as a number on a spreadsheet. Given the choice of defending a book to an aggrieved student or a course to a phlegmatic accountant, I’ll take the student any day: at least she and I agree that the book in question has power, and the experience of reading it, reality.

In this age of the neoliberal university, these students may be our best allies, for they seem to be among the few who understand that what we do matters. The administrator and the politician, the trustee and the pundit, think that we professors are worse than subversive; we’re useless. These students, by contrast, think we’re dangerous. Rather than dismissing them, maybe we should say: Thank you, we thought no one was listening, we thought no one cared. And then turn around and figure out how to use this as, ahem, a teachable moment — about the radioactivity of books and the fact that radiation has its uses.

Read more here.


  1. Joanna Bujes August 29, 2015 at 7:58 pm | #

    I think this would be the first time I wholeheartedly disagree with you. There’s a logical fallacy there. Though I am not sufficiently well trained in philosophy to label it.

  2. Joel in Oakland August 29, 2015 at 9:48 pm | #

    I’ll just point out that there’s a difference between refusing to read something and refusing to *continue* reading something. (I’m thinking of the Duke student who wrote a thoughtful short piece about refusing to read some assigned book past what he thought was a reasonable stopping point, after which it became porn, which he wanted nothing to do with).

    Make of the difference what you will, and decide for yourself to what extent his response is reactionary and to what extent thoughtful.

    In a wider view, I have no doubt that writing can traumatize, though that Duke student asserted that his objection was not to written material but to the accompanying graphics. He was willing to *read* most anything.

    I agree with him that visual images presented to one via movie or drawing can more powerfully affect (and thus can more powerfully traumatize) than the mental images one creates while reading, I get flashbacks from having read descriptions of really awful things that have happened to people (and sometimes continue to happen), usually inflicted by someone else, but sometimes by some *thing* else.

    If the assignment were to watch a particularly disturbing movie, certain kinds of violence would certainly make me decide to walk. I have more than enough of those kind of images flashing back from time to time to last what remaining time I have.

    There’s cognitive dissonance and then there’s trauma, and they’re different (though authoritarian regimes intentionally conflate them).

    And there are reactionary responses, and there are thoughtful ones. One would like to see more thoughtful ones – and more importantly, development of increased capacity to move through one’s reactions, to not get so caught up in them that that one’s reflective functions are/remain taken off line (though the political climate and the media’s business plans mediate against that).

  3. xenon2 August 29, 2015 at 9:49 pm | #

    First time ever, a student has been turned on by cartoons.
    Has he tried xkcd.com?

    I understand it can really get ‘nasty’.

  4. Roqeuntin August 30, 2015 at 10:41 am | #

    You give students like Grasso too much credit. Any time I get nostalgic for what being on a university campus was like, scandals like the one at Duke rain on that parade in very short order.

    There was a film produced by Christians last year called “God’s Not Dead.” It is most certainly a terrible film, filled with gross charicatures on all sides. It’s worth paying attention to, however, simply because of how well it captures the mindset of the American Christian conservative, how they want to be seen and how they see the world. I realized just how seriously it was taken last year on vacation in North Carolina, when a reference to it appeared on the sign in front of a little country church. It was brought back into my mind recently because I had a long conversation with a coworker about how hatred is personal and local. The groups people truly have it in for are those that are like you, but just a little bit different, people doing just a little bit better. It was in the context of explaining the appeal of Donald Trump psychologically.

    They flat out despise snooty liberals on the coasts. The thing is, the wealth of someone like Donald Trump doesn’t offend them. It’s so astronomically large that it doesn’t seem real. Whether they acknowledge it or not, being that rich is 100% an unattainable fantasy for them. While they would like to have that money, it doesn’t flip the rage switch in their brains. It doesn’t make them feel threatened. What does, however, are the people doing marginally better. Those making a low six figure income. That’s just close enough that they can envision themselves having the cash. That’s just close enough to remind them that maybe they could have had that much had they done things differently. Cue narcissistic injury. Cue narcissistic rage. Displaying the signifiers of a college education, especially a non-STEM education, is a manifestation of this Cue liberal vs conservative politics in the US. The racism is this same mechanism on the opposite side. A big part of their ego-ideal is being higher up in the social hierarchy than Mexicans. Being seen as on the same level is a massive narcissistic injury. Cue talk of a wall. That’s all segregation was ever about. Being able to point at black people and say “Sure things are bad, but at least I’m not them.” They’ll do nearly anything to ensure that this psychic economy is maintained. Anti-intellectualism typically doesn’t extend to STEM (well, excluding evolution and global warming) because it leaves this system intact.

    To bring it back to this film, that’s the entire point. They want the prestige of a college education, but in such a way that it leaves their cultural signifiers intact. One of those signifiers is homophobia. Crossing that line clearly puts you in the opposing camp. A graphic novel like “Fun Home” is a perfect example of one of those signifiers. A cultural boundary has been demarcated. Grasso is stating that he is clearly on one side of the line. The fear of the images of gay sex, the fear that he might like them a little too much, is just an added bonus.

  5. Hank August 30, 2015 at 11:55 am | #

    To play devil’s advocate… there are politically important books that I just refuse to read, notably those by Solzhenitsyn. I tried ‘one day in the life…’ just a few months ago and could not get past the first chapter.

    Kozinsky too: I read about half of The Painted Bird a year ago and just could not bear any more of it.

    I’m 67 and I’ve read a LOT in my life. When I was in college 45 years ago, my real problem with the stuff that we were asked to read was that it was so tepid (at least from my vantage point): Scarlet Letter; Bridge of San Luis Rey; even something like Lord of the Flies, which is not tepid in itself but anyone who was paying attention already KNEW what it was about and was not about to be horrified.

    A little Dostoyevsky would have been refreshing back then, but was only offered to World Lit majors, and I was an English major, and so got stuck with Dickens and Hardy as my ‘radical’ authors.

    Conrad (the REAL Conrad: Nostromo, not Lord Jim) I had to discover on my own.

    At any rate college IS wasted on the young: the best you can do is show them what is out there, and hope they remember it ten years later.

    • dtr August 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm | #

      Kozinsky was an accomplished con-artist:

      If the fake Holocaust memoir is by now a genre of its own, the godfather of that genre would have to be Jerzy Kozinsky, whose novel The Painted Bird, published in 1965, was one of the first Holocaust stories to be first celebrated and then attacked as fictional. Of course, in Kozinsky’s case, the book actually was a fiction: He always insistedThe Painted Bird was a novel, not an autobiography. Yet he and his publisher deliberately blurred the line between the two genres, cultivating the idea that the experiences of the book’s unnamed child narrator were really Kozinsky’s own. In time, more charges were brought against Kozinsky, including the suggestions that he had plagiarized The Painted Bird from various Polish sources, and even that the book was not written by him at all, but the product of a ghostwriter.

      Now, we have the case of an intellectual granddaughter of Kozinksy who hit paydirt by claiming to have been rasied by wolves(!), but is tragically being forced to give up tens of millions of her ill-gotten gains:


  6. Lirael August 31, 2015 at 12:36 pm | #

    I appreciate what this article is trying to do, but it feels like it’s conflating too many things. While there are always people who will attempt to use tools incorrectly, trigger warnings (which existed online for many years before the current debate about their use in academia) aren’t meant to be about an objection to the presence of material on the syllabus in the first place. They aren’t meant to be censorship – I put trigger warnings on my own blog posts, I’m not trying to censor my own writing! They’re about a heads up. If I were in a history class* and watching a documentary, and it contains footage of the Chicago PD during the 1968 DNC, I would like a heads up about that so that I don’t flash back to my own experiences with the Chicago PD a few years ago and have a panic attack. I’m already aware that the “radioactivity” of intense material has its uses.

    This is different from someone trying to get a text removed from the curriculum. And it is very different, not just in degree but in kind, from the censors of the Stalin-era Soviet Union or East Germany.

    For that matter, while as a queer person I don’t have much personal sympathy for him, a student declining to read something from what I understood to be an optional summer reading list, and explaining why on a forum, is also different from someone trying to get a text removed from the curriculum (and different from a student asking for a heads up on certain content). Though a student saying it shouldn’t have been on the list in the first place is closer.

    *I’m a grad student in STEM, so this is unlikely to happen anymore, but I have an activist friend, who interacted with the Chicago PD at the same time and in the same context that I did, who had this exact thing happen to them in a history class. And I’ve had it happen at an activist event, where we were watching a movie about illegal abortions in the ’60s and there was a segment about the 1968 DNC in it for reasons I don’t remember. I ended up bolting from the room and hyperventilating in the hallway while leaning on a countertop for several minutes, and being rather distracted from the rest of the movie after I went back in. If such a thing had happened in a class, I don’t think it would have been helpful to my learning the material.

Leave a Reply