Book Challenges in Higher Education
Recently I found myself reading a series of graphic memoirs that led me to Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I’m more than a decade late in announcing that it is amazing. I was already aware of some challenges, I have one from a New Jersey school, but what fascinates me are the challenges in higher education. While I certainly know that students complain often about various courses, calls for removing certain material from the curriculum are rare. This is partly because the purpose of higher ed is to challenge and expand student horizons. It is also because students are all adults and thus age appropriateness does not enter into the discussion as it does for K-12 curriculum battles. The most important reason, however, is that students are able to self-select in a way that they are often not able to do in K-12. Some institutions go even further. For example, my institution has a core beliefs policy that I put on every syllabus. It basically states that the student has the duty to check the syllabus and come to me with concerns about content that violates their core beliefs; I’m not actually obligated to offer an accommodation to students, though basic issues of fairness would require that I treat all such requests equally. (My colleague published about her experience with this policy here.) This all resulted from litigation that the University of Utah got involved in about 20 years ago. I’ve never had it once come up in seven years. And it isn’t because I avoid controversy, some of my courses are all controversial material (to some at least). It’s because students who object don’t take the class. If you believe that queer people shouldn’t have rights, you aren’t likely to take a class that’s all about how they got (some) rights and protections. (Though a few stories from colleagues around the country suggest that I may just be lucky in this regard). Challenges do sometimes occur in higher ed and, as with high schools, they tend to be aimed at English courses because that’s where the real depravity is!
Before I go on, Vox did a wonderful piece noting the “controversial” panels and putting it in context. However, it does include spoilers and I can’t recommend the book highly enough so read at your own risk.
Of course, one of those higher ed challenges had to come out of Utah. In 2008, a University of Utah student complained about having to read Fun Home in an English course. While an alternative assignment was provided under the policy noted above, a local group calling itself “No More Pornography” petitioned to have the book removed from the English curriculum. As with many challenges I’ve encountered, the depiction of nudity and/or sex is equated to pornography in their objection. One member complained “[i]t's like they're turning their back and pretending graphics, depiction of oral sex, are not an issue.” Apparently no action was taken on this demand. In 2015, a college student taking an English course on graphic novels objected to four of the books, including Fun Home. The student complained, “I didn’t expect to open the book and see that graphic material within. I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.” After suggesting a moderate approach of “get[ting] a warning on the books,” the student went further: “At most I would like the books eradicated from the system. I don’t want them taught anymore. I don’t want anyone else to have to read this garbage.” This is truly a baffling argument because, first, the student had warning. A syllabus is distributed with the works assigned—any well-designed syllabus is inherently a trigger warning because it tells students exactly what to expect—and the books are available in the bookstore and online for easy perusal. The second odd part of the argument is that no one is forced to read anything in college. Students choose to take a course and are responsible for making informed choices, especially when they are this sensitive. Ultimately, the student’s complaint is that she was too lazy to check the content before add/drop. Luckily the college backed down from requiring warning labels, a truly idiotic idea.
And then there are the protests of the use of Fun Home as optional reading for incoming students. Many colleges adopt these programs providing a recommended book as a means of creating a common text for students moving into dorms and for orientation. Even though by definition no student had to actually read Fun Home, the very act of suggesting it and providing a copy was scandalous. In 2014, South Carolina punished the College of Charleston for assigning Fun Home by cutting its budget by $52,000, the cost of purchasing the book for incoming students. And in 2015, some Duke University students complained when it recommended Fun Home for all new students. One even published an opinion piece in the Washington Post about his objections as a Christian. He makes all the same arguments about this being pornography and offensive to his beliefs that challengers often made against queer lit in particular. Ultimately, he refused to read the book.
While I certainly do not agree with his view of Fun Home or the fact that he based his opinion on ignorance of the actual text, the Duke student responded as we all should in that circumstance: if you object to a book, don’t read it. The book was not required and no negative repercussions came from refusal to read it. If you can’t handle material that challenges your assumptions, avoid it. To seek to have it removed as an option for others, however, is unacceptable because your tastes are not universal. Many people would find beauty and depth in Bechdel’s book and their curriculum should not be altered to accommodate an objector. To go further and take punitive budgetary action against a college that dares to assign works you disagree with is an even more dangerous precedent. Yet, for some reason, when we hear about intolerance to free speech on college campuses, the South Carolina budget cuts don’t come up.