Why It’s Good To Offend Students

Alison Bechdel, scene from "Fun Home"

Alison Bechdel, scene from “Fun Home”

Do yourself a favor and read this stimulating Salon article by a Brooklyn political science professor about a swirling controversy around Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The graphic novel was assigned to all entering students at Duke University this fall, and one self-described Christian is refusing to read it on the grounds that it is, well, unchristian.

Corey Robin believes that the assignment is valuable because it is creating a stir. What better way to stimulate thinking, he asks. He explains what the controversy is about:

The latest bomb in the campus wars was set off by Duke University freshman David Grasso’s announcement on Facebook that he would not read Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” which the university had recommended incoming students read over the summer. Bechdel’s graphic memoir narrates her relationship with her closeted gay father; she, too, is gay. The book visually depicts a scene in which the narrator masturbates and another in which she gives oral sex to another woman. Grasso thinks the book is pornographic; reading it, he says, would violate his Christian beliefs.

In his article, Robin includes a great quotation by Kafka about difficult books:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Robin says that he would rather have students attacking the books he assigns than remaining indifferent to them. He cites the wonderful Bertolt Brecht poem “The Burning of the Books” (I’ve posted on it here) in which the poet is outraged to find his work missing from the list of condemned books:

Burn me! He wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!

Robin goes on to defend the protesting student:

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.

Robin is careful about being flip since he’s witnessed instances where a book was so controversial that it tore a campus apart. But he is right that there are few things harder to fight than indifference.

In my current research on how literature shapes history, I’ve noticed that those who attack books often see more power in them than those who defend them. I don’t automatically see them as correct since sometimes they are just paranoid. (Robin mentions Stalin, for instance.) On the other hand, sometimes defenders downplay their impact in order to escape controversy. While Plato banned poets from his perfect republic because he worried about their pernicious influence, Aristotle, more positive, narrowed their influence and just talked about audience members having a personal catharsis.

I don’t know what Daniel Grasso’s current beliefs are but, if he currently demonizes the LBGTQ community, then it’s true that reading and discussing Bechdel might challenge his worldview. Not because it paints an entirely positive picture of LBGTQ people because it doesn’t. After all, Allison’s father is a jerk and he might be a jerk even if he weren’t a closeted gay man. But once one starts to discuss literary characters in a college setting, the world become three dimensional and nuanced. A good college challenges black and white thinking.

Grasso’s vision of the world could really be turned upside down if it turns out that he himself is a gay man in denial. Fun House could help him come out. At the very least, it could make him feel better about the fact that he masturbates (assuming he does).

Part of me wonders why Grasso is attending Duke. If he wanted a closed education, why not go to Liberty University or Bob Jones. Bechdel won’t be the only controversial book he encounters.

Incifentally, I am spending my sabbatical at a college that was set up by people worried about the impact of college. Plantation slave owners, unhappy that their sons were being exposed to abolitionist ideas at Harvard and other northern universities, set up the University of the Sewanee  in 1857 to preserve southern values. That may be why union troops marched up the mountain and burned the college down before it ever had a chance to open.

And speaking of exposing people to dangerous ideas, the novel itself, from the beginning, has always been viewed with suspicion by moralists because of its ability to create sympathy for even shady characters (Moll Flanders and Tom Jones, for instance). If Grasso were to get his way, we’d have to stop teaching much of what we teach.

But I’ve learned to stop guessing how the books I teach impact my students because the responses vary so widely. The liberal hope is that we will create independent thinkers who can make sound moral judgments. The rightwing fear is that we are indoctrinating students with our narrow agendas.

Previous posts on Bechdel’s Fun House

Bechdel Uses Lit to Understand Her Life

Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Artist

This entry was posted in Bechdel (Alison), Brecht (Bertolt), Kafka (Franz) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Susan Schmidt

    I was thinking of a previous post you had written, Robin, about students warning professors about possible trauma triggers in books. In talking about this with another professor, I wondered if colleges would do a good job if they alerted students to three areas of discomfort that they will in all probability encounter when they come to campus. The first is “normal” discomfort. This is social/emotional that comes when you enter a new environment, have to navigate a new system and find a new network of friends and support. Typically, staff (both institutional and residential – Resident Advisors, for instance) are well equipped to help students deal with this sort of discomfort.

    The second type of discomfort comes from being exposed to new and perhaps confusing intellectual ideas. This is what your post above addresses and actually what college is supposed to do. A well-seasoned professor will be able to put this in a larger context. A faith-based campus might also encourage the chaplains or spiritual leadership to assure students that although previous structural ways of thinking are being challenged or dismantled, they are still in a safe environment where they are valued and cared for and that the goal of the college is to help students rebuild a more substantial or even more flexible intellectual/spiritual way of ordering their world. Even some faith-based colleges will challenge ways of thinking that students can feel threatened by. Threatened students may then write home to mom and dad who pull their children and tell their churches, etc. that this is an unsafe or heretical institution – a big problem for the college I’m most connected with.

    The third type of discomfort comes from being exposed to things that trigger past trauma. Reading literature about a rape if one has been raped, etc. is an example you mentioned in your post on Leda and the Swan. (http://betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/leda-and-the-swan-warning-necessary). Triggers are actually helpful if you have a counseling center with well trained professionals who deal with trauma effectively. Far from ignoring or trying to shield themselves from triggers, positive engagement with trauma triggers, especially if symptoms are taught, can lead students to deep healing which leads to greater freedom. On the trauma front, I am deeply gratified that new techniques, EMDR and others I don’t know the names for but am hearing about, are making huge strides in helping people recover from PTSD.

  • Robin

    This is a very wise response, Sue, and one that I like a lot. I hear you saying that it is not enough just to, as it were, throw students into the deep end of the difficult text pool and expect them to learn how to negotiate it. It’s our responsibility to be sensitive to how students may respond and structure special learning moments around those responses.

    Of course, no learning can happen if one is absolutely determined not to enter into engagement. If one’s ideological blinders are so fixed (usually by fear) that one screens out all that doesn’t fit, then growth cannot occur. But I’ve found few students who fit that description.

    I’ll add that teachers can have ideological blinders too, especially when it comes to the religious beliefs of their students. But it’s striking how much dialogue can occur once one starts off from a position of respect.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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