Photo courtesy of storify.com
The Mary Sue Cushman Room was abuzz with laughter and conversation between panelists and students as both parties eagerly awaited the “Expression and Censorship Panel” hosted by the Writing House.
“Hello everyone! Nice to see all of you here; welcome to the Writing House’s panel on Expression in literature, as well as censorship,” began Marion Givhan (C’18). She followed her introduction by thanking both the panelists and audience for coming out, and gave Dean of the College Terry Papillon, the panel moderator, the floor.
The panel comprised four professors from different fields: Professor Jim Crawford, Associate Professor of Theatre, Dr. Maha Jafri, Assistant Professor of English, Dr. Paige Schneider, Assistant Professor of Politics and Women’s and Gender Studies, and Dr. Christopher McDonough, Professor of Classical Languages.
When asked about what each professor thought about freedom from censorship, the majority echoed an idea Jafri articulated that freedom from censorship means “being able to teach what I and other experts in the field have deemed to be relevant to student learning, what is important for students to know, read, and encounter, and to do that without feeling like I may come under attack or undue scrutiny for doing so.”
Crawford shared his determination to confront his students with provocative texts to help his students to grow as actors. He conceded, however, that he feels it “imperative to give [his students] room to absent themselves from work on a particular play that might hit a hot button.”
Regarding the question of whether students should have a voice in selecting materials for a course, many of the panelists seemed to suggest they tried to incorporate student feedback.
Jafri said that, from her perspective, “Literature is for everyone.” She suggested that sometimes student feedback is less appropriate in an English class, “I really appreciate the faculty who curated sets of texts for me to engage with, books that I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read on my own. Books that maybe even then and now I found tiresome or even at times racist, sexist, and so on, but am glad to have read.”
McDonough rebutted the idea that all texts will fundamentally impact students. “When I teach Homer, [it] doesn’t make me want to get in a chariot and kill people…” Eliciting laughs from the entire room, he added, “…much.” He concluded that “it’s one thing to study something and another to endorse it.”
Schneider contributed by discussing her use of “content warnings” and stated that some of her classes are simply not appropriate for students with serious psychological trauma related to assault or abuse due to the very nature of her Gender, Violence, and Power class.
Crawford added that “there is something different about stepping into a character and embodying it before people and really trying to take yourself there, which requires a different type of sensitivity than discussing a text in class would.”
Jafri gingerly shared her skepticism regarding the phenomenon of “trigger warnings,” stating that “I’m not convinced that reading literature is psychologically harmful.”
She suggested that the common ideas which many hold regarding what constitutes a harmful book are perhaps misguided. “When I think about harmful books … I would not consider Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which depicts rape, or Beloved, which depicts horrific racist violence…harmful books. I would consider The Fountainhead a harmful book. I would consider Atlas Shrugged a harmful book. But no one is going to give a trigger warning for those books.”
The panelists also discussed methods for dealing with unconstructive comments involving racism or homophobia within the classroom.
“I don’t try to humiliate or embarrass the student,” said Schneider. “I do really push them, to say, ‘If you’re going to say that, if you believe that, then what’s the basis for that, where is that coming from?’”
When asked how national politics might affect their classes, Jafri stated that she didn’t think it immediately impacted the curriculum, but that indeed “there is a larger context in which national politics does affect the classroom – in part because I’m a member of, like, five different cultural groups which are being constantly harangued quite literally and publically on the news… It’s hard not to feel like your authority is undermined, a bit.”
The panel involved a lot of planning in advance from both co-directors of the Writing House, Givhan and Mary Lynn Wells (C’18), along with all of the Writing House residents.
“Honestly, we threw around a bunch of ideas during the course of a few meetings and the censorship idea stuck for some reason,” said Givhan.
As she flipped through her notes from the event, Givhan commented, “I thought that all of the points were really, really cool. And now that I’m saying them out loud, so disparate!”