I don’t remember much about my seventh grade Health class, but I do recall one particular unit vividly—sex education. Slides—so many slides—anatomical illustrations of unmentionable body parts and graphic photographs of the damage caused by sexually transmitted diseases. The student reactions varied from terrified silence to uncontrollable laughter, making for a pretty awkward learning environment that week. At the time, of course, it didn’t even cross my mind if my teacher felt “awkward” teaching this type of material. I know now from my own experiences teaching, he might have felt frustrated, awkward, or something along those lines.
Every college classroom is going to include a range of students with varying comfort levels when dealing with certain subject matter—that’s a given. As instructors, we strive to make the learning environment safe and comfortable for all, which I discovered is sometimes rather tricky when teaching a novel in which the protagonist enjoys sleeping with dead women (more on that later). However comfortable or uncomfortable my students may feel about discussing sex in literature, I’ll be the first to admit that I often feel pretty uncomfortable.
Those young people downright scare me at times. I dread those “over-sharing” students who feel as comfortable talking to their instructors about the private details of their lives as they do with their best friends. I don’t want to know what they are up to on a Saturday night!
On a more serious note, I believe that part of my personal discomfort also inevitably comes from fearing the consequences of unintentionally crossing the professional boundaries that can affect one’s employment—and I really enjoy being employed and would like to stay that way. But when it comes to sex, we all know it can’t be avoided in literature, so what’s the most effective way to teach it without blushing with embarrassment?
Several years ago, I taught an American literature course that fulfilled a “diversity and pluralism” course requirement. In a nutshell, the course was designed to expose students (mostly freshmen and sophomores), through literature, to the diverse range of experiences of living in America. Instructors who teach this course usually opt to construct the course around a theme. My particular theme was “alienation.” To provide some context, questions under consideration for this course included:
How does an individual construct identity in relation to any number of sociological circumstances? In relation to family? In relation to community? In relation to nation? Historically speaking, how have these relationships changed over time? How does an individual navigate the movement among various social circumstances? What drives an individual to want to “fit in” and feel “acceptance” socially? How does an individual cope with and overcome feelings of isolation and alienation?
One of the books I selected for the course was Cormac McCarthy’s short novel, Child of God (1973). Set in Tennessee, the novel’s protagonist, the ex-jailbird and socially inept Lester Ballard, essentially stumbles upon a dead couple in a car, and shortly thereafter has sex with the dead woman. After losing this first female body in a fire, he actively kills other women to serve as new sexual partners. I certainly didn’t anticipate my students would show up to class proclaiming, “Wow, what a great book,” but I also didn’t anticipate their hostility about having to read about such a “disgusting” man. That was the general consensus, quite simply: Lester is “disgusting” and what he does is “unacceptable.” End of discussion. (Check out Brie Jaquette’s post on dealing with discussion-ending character labeling in her experience teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)
I found it difficult to push my students beyond this, very appropriate, gut response and into productive discussion. My students were not interested in considering why Lester would do such a thing or how he ended up the way he did, because it seemed that any such consideration would be some kind of justification for necrophilia. Every time I prodded students to consider Lester’s past, his community, and why necrophilia might make sense in his head, the conversation eventually looped back to how “disgusting” Lester is. It seemed clear that some of my students spoke only to explicitly state that they did not support necrophilia and would never do such a thing, especially after reading the narrator’s “accusatory” comment that Lester was “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.”
I was transported back to my seventh grade Health class, except this time I was seeing it from my teacher’s perspective. In addition to the horrified and disgusted students that I’ve described, I also had a few of the “uncontrollable laughter” types who only made the situation more frustrating. One particularly “vocal” student would interrupt with lines like “Well, Lester should just try to get a job at a morgue.” Another student proclaimed, “Wow, this book sounds so messed up, maybe I should actually read it.” Womp, womp, womp…
Students became so frustrated with my pleas to look beyond the “disgusting” that I honestly started to worry that they thought I condoned Lester’s actions. I thought, “do I also need to explicitly state that I do not support necrophilia? Has it come to that? Are my students going to describe me as a ‘sexual deviant’ on my evaluations?”
As silly as it sounds, I feel my fear was legitimate based on how easy it is for an instructor to get into trouble for nearly any kind of verbal misstep, especially as a contingent instructor with tenuous job security. In addition to sex, we know there is a whole range of “sensitive material” addressed in literature to which students can “officially” claim offense.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt encapsulated all of my fears about student complaints in their article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” published in the September 1, 2015 edition of The Atlantic. They write:
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. (44)
Lukianoff and Haidt further explain that in order to avoid causing any “emotional distress” to students, colleges and universities suggest instructors issue “trigger warnings.” They write:
For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma. (44)
While Lukianoff and Haidt advocate against requiring instructors to provide “trigger warnings,” I’ll admit I feel compelled to provide them to protect myself. (Some academics are more supportive of “trigger warnings” than others.) I began using “trigger warnings” years ago, long before I taught Child of God, when I was contacted after a student’s parent filed a complaint that I taught “sexually inappropriate” material in the classroom—one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. When I pointed out the implicit sexual references, the student smiled and nodded and said, “Oh, I didn’t catch that,” but according to the parent, the student was “deeply offended and embarrassed.” Despite knowing I had done nothing wrong, the week-long back and forth of the debacle was scary—I was in my mid-twenties and I had only been teaching for a few years. Luckily, the matter was resolved quickly and easily, but others aren’t always so lucky as Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s article explains. I didn’t let that incident dictate the types of texts I bring into the classroom, but at the same time, the memory of the event is always looming in the back of my mind.
I love Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and I want to teach it again, but I will definitely need a new plan of attack. I wonder what I could do differently to engage students while keeping that “awkward” feeling that comes up when discussing necrophilia out of the air. So today, I’m asking for advice: what do others do when teaching “awkward” texts?