How a Stupid Bill becomes a Law

by Kieran Healy on February 17, 2006

A bill presently working its way through the state legislature here in Arizona proposes that universities and colleges be required to “provide a student with alternative coursework if the student deems regular coursework to be personally offensive,” that is, where “a course, coursework, learning material or activity is personally offensive if it conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” The Arizona Daily Star and Inside Higher Ed have more. Although Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon, the bill was prompted not by evolutionary theory but by Rick Moody’s novel, The Ice Storm. No, really. Someone didn’t like the description of the wife-swapping key party in the book, which you will recall from the book and film is not exactly full of admiration and cheerful praise for the well-balanced people participating in it. (And even if it were, etc …) “There’s no defense of this book,” said State Senator Thayer Verschoor (R), “I can’t believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material.” (I heard recently that a book by some filthy-minded Irish guttersnipe containing graphic descriptions of bowel movements, urination, masturbation and sexual intercourse is on the syllabus of many college English courses. I can’t believe that, either.) Senator Jake Flake (R – Snowflake. No, really) partly disagreed, but mainly I wanted to mention that his name was Jake Flake, of Snowflake, AZ.

Since I’ve been teaching at the University of Arizona, my feeling is that my undergraduate students have been personally offended mostly by the reading and writing requirements for my courses. So in the (hopefully) unlikely event that this legislation passes, maybe I’ll have to provide an alternative “No Work/Sleep All You Like” option for them.

{ 37 comments }

1

Justin 02.17.06 at 5:19 pm

Is Jake related to Jeff (the Congressmen)? Jeff’s way off to the right, but he’s a very principled antigovernment conservative. Not that many of those out there anymore.

2

Kieran Healy 02.17.06 at 5:20 pm

I believe Jeff is Jake’s nephew.

3

pp 02.17.06 at 5:32 pm

At what point do you have to decide whether it offends your moral compass? Is it before the paper is due, or could it be during the test perhaps? Maybe after you see your score you could object that the book offended you to much to be tested adequately on its content.
I wonder if I could have convinced anyone that Jane Austen was just to ribald for my sensibilities.
PP

4

Jaybird 02.17.06 at 5:37 pm

Muslims do this too!!!

No, wait. That defense doesn’t work in this case. Um… I know, it’s like telling students in a Politics of Feminism course that they don’t have to read de Sade.

Um, no, that doesn’t work either.

Oh, I know what the response should be. Freedom of Speech is great but you shouldn’t abuse it.

And I don’t see much outrage against that.

5

Kieran Healy 02.17.06 at 5:38 pm

_Is it before the paper is due, or could it be during the test perhaps?_

Depends on whether you’ve exceed 2 dead grandmothers at that point in the course or not.

6

paul 02.17.06 at 5:52 pm

Time for the Bartleby the Scrivener Defense, “Professor, I’d prefer not to.” Before too long, students will be saying, “I think I’ll Bartleby this assignment.”

7

Doctor Slack 02.17.06 at 6:04 pm

So in the (hopefully) unlikely event that this legislation passes, maybe I’ll have to provide an alternative “No Work/Sleep All You Like” option for them.

I recommend that complaining students be directed to read the incontestably wholesome, morally uplifting novels of Bill O’Reilly and Scooter Libby.

8

Dave Hardy 02.17.06 at 6:25 pm

Dang, they’d passed this a few decades ago I could have raised my GPA. “I can’t take calculus — it’s one more path to the Beast numbering all mankind!”

Actually not surprising that there is a Flake from Snowflake. The town gets its name from the two pioneering families that settled it, the Snows and the Flakes. I’m serious.

9

Mrs Tilton 02.17.06 at 6:27 pm

Spare us yer scutterin Irish gobsheens, I have it on good authority that the Lord God Almighty Himself wrote a book, to be found on the syllabus at such dens of secular inquity as Bob Jones U., full of scatplay and ‘golden showers’.

I’m against that sort of thing, myself.

10

todd. 02.17.06 at 6:31 pm

And I don’t see much outrage against that.

I, for one, have to be able to parse a statement before I can express outrate against it.

11

Ugh 02.17.06 at 6:52 pm

All those poor students, forced to attend Arizona colleges and universities against their wishes.

12

John Quiggin 02.17.06 at 6:53 pm

Actually, I think this would be great for academics. Just advise all the slackers and dodgers in your course to declare offense at having to read any work containing words of more than one syllable. Give them all a passing grade for an appreciation of “The Cat in the Hat”, with extra credit for proficiency with Bullsh*t.

Then you can actually teach the students (or student) who came to university to learn something.

13

Zeno 02.17.06 at 7:53 pm

No, no, no, John! The Cat in the Hat is an anarchist manifesto that teaches children it’s okay to run wild as long as your parents don’t catch you. It would surely offend many.

I teach a lot of algebra at my school, so I’m certain that the Richard Cohens of the world would demand alternative assignments to spare themselves the necessity of dealing with noisome variables and nasty equations. (Hmm. Maybe I’d be better off without them.)

14

Steve 02.17.06 at 8:11 pm

Really an insane bill.
But not that unusual. African Americans don’t like the Western Canon because it consists of too many dead WHITE males. Feminists don’t like the Western Canon because it contains too many dead white MALES. Fundamentalists don’t like the current Canon because its got too much drugs and sex.

OUTRAGEOUS!!!

You reap what you sow, folks. Identity politics is identity politics. Religious folk have finally caught on. Its kind of fun to watch you squirm.

Steve

15

Kieran Healy 02.17.06 at 8:21 pm

kind of fun to watch you squirm.

I take it “you” refers to the giant homongenous glob of leftness to which we all belong — or rather, of which we are all indistinguishable components, like cubes of jelly.

16

John Quiggin 02.17.06 at 8:40 pm

Identity politics?

Is this the same Steve who doesn’t like us because we drink chablis, drive the wrong kind of car and didn’t (like him) enlist at 18?

17

John Quiggin 02.17.06 at 8:44 pm

I loved the Cohen piece! “Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact.”

Well, let’s say a generalization for which Cohen is a walking counterexample.

18

C. L. Ball 02.17.06 at 9:19 pm

In my intro IR course, I was trying to illustrate some of Schelling’s arguments in _Arms and Influence_ and decided a la one of the essays in Zechhauser’s _Strategy and Choice_ to use examples from films to do it. So I found clips from _Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Zeppo_, _Stand By Me_, _Crimson Tide_, _Way of the Gun_, and _Reservoir Dogs_ that illustrated various aspects of threats, hostages, and the diplomacy of violence. The resulting sequences featured profanity and violence. I showed the clips to two senior colleagues; they said basically “There’s no way you can show that. If just one student complains…” I thought it over (and decided to further edit the RD clip to remove Tim Roth’s blood-laden spitting and slithering), but showed them to the class.

Before the class, I said that anyone could leave during the clip, that I would be explaining the meaning afterward, and that I would offer a written summary of the scene to students who wanted one. No one left the room. They loved the videos.

19

Barry Freed 02.17.06 at 9:30 pm

African Americans don’t like the Western Canon because it consists of too many dead WHITE males.

What an abysmally ignorant thing to say.

20

Barry Freed 02.17.06 at 9:33 pm

re, steve et ilk, the politics of ressentiment indeed.

21

Bill Humphries 02.17.06 at 9:34 pm

I thought there was an alternative, wasn’t it called an “F”?

22

Ronald Brak 02.17.06 at 10:12 pm

I have an idea. Why not present potential students with like, a list of books that will be used in the course and if they think any of those books might offend them then they can opt not to take to take that course. I would call this wonderful invention of mine a “reading list.”

23

jet 02.17.06 at 10:17 pm

Bill Humphries,
While I would initially agree with your solution as optimal; until professors are better protected from idiot students with recourse in administration, I’m with John Quiggin. Screw the slackers who went to school to waste time. Focus on the students (student) who came to learn ;)

24

josh 02.18.06 at 12:15 am

As Mrs. Tilton suggests above, the Bible is pretty damn offensive (though I missed the scatology, myself — could you be confusing it with eschatology, Mrs T?). It (the Hebrew Bible, anyway) includes gang rape, dismemberment, and genocide (and that’s just the Levite of Ephraim story), not to mention a rancourous, vengeful deity. I’d certainly complain about my (non-existent) children being assigned to read it.
Which makes me wonder. Could it be that this bill is the trick we need to get the Christian Right to leave us (or rather Arizona college students) alone?

25

grackel 02.18.06 at 12:15 am

I like the symmetry of this bill and the one also offered this week here in beautiful Arizona which would require the display of the American flag in each and every classroom, I assume from kindergarten through the university level. I’m for equestrian statues of Dick Cheney, arms rampant, as it were, myself.

26

Mrs Tilton 02.18.06 at 3:37 am

If you’re looking for the biblical scat, Josh, just click on the link in my comment.

27

rollo 02.18.06 at 4:02 am

“cubes of jelly” manifests the dominant paradigm’s self-referential adulation of equal-sided polyhedrons.
That this has caused, and continues to cause the oppression of unequally-sided polyhedrons, even outside the closed world of academic metaphor, is no laughing matter.
“homongenous” is also a term of oppression, though I’m not sure exactly how – but it is.

28

Ted 02.18.06 at 10:59 am

It delegitimates the differences among “us”, operating to produce a coercive sameness and marginalizing and disempowering those outside the hegemonic definition.

Oh, wait, that would be “homogenous”. Never mind. :-)

29

Nat Whilk 02.18.06 at 1:17 pm

(1) Is there a valid middle ground occupied by those who think Trefzger’s concerns are not wholly illegitimate but that the proposed legislation would likely be a Pandora’s Box?

(2) I know essentially nothing about the content of The Ice Storm, so the following question is not rhetorical: If Trefzger’s professor were instead an office worker reading “the good parts” of The Ice Storm aloud in his cubicle, could he be considered in violation of U.S. sexual harrassment law?

(3) Perhaps I’d be more sympathetic with the doomsayers here if my discipline were something other than mathematics. The accommodations I am legally required to make for my students have to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those at my university who are supposed to know have informed me that unless I’m willing to bear the burden of proof and demonstrate in a court of law that solving problems expeditiously is a vital part of mathematical proficiency, I am required to honor requests for extra time on exams for those with diagnosed learning disabilities. (To keep the playing field level from my perspective, I now make my exams untimed for all of my students.)

(4) I guess there’s a chance that the sort of accommodations Arizona legislators are proposing might not be all that horrible. The alumni magazine from the University of Utah recently had an article celebrating the plan reached as the result of the settlement of a lawsuit from a theater student whose religious scruples prevented her from using profanity. (This might not have been her only scruple. If her theater professor had used his academic freedom to insist that actresses need to get used to doing topless scenes, she might have objected to that as well.) Perhaps the magazine sugar-coated the plan because many deep-pocketed alumni might have had sympathy with the student. If Matt Weiner’s still at Utah, maybe he can tell us exactly how rosy the situation really is.

30

Colin Danby 02.18.06 at 4:22 pm

Nat, I can remember a comp lit course I took as an undergrad whose prof let a students substitute something else for Burroughs’ _Naked Lunch_. That seemed reasonable, especially since Burroughs was doing his best to upset readers. Most instructors give considerable thought to how students will react to readings.

I don’t see the relevance of your points (3) or (4). We’re just talking about reading assignments.

For a lot of subjects, e.g. moral philosophy, you have to give students a range of different readings and some of them *must* “conflict[] with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion” — they can’t possibly agree with all of them. How could you teach Nietzsche, for example, or Machiavelli, who are guaranteed to get readers angry? And the inclusion of “sex” in the bill is almost certainly designed to go after literature with gay characters.

I assigned part of Allan Bloom’s _Closing of the American Mind_ last quarter, and he *really* offended several of my students! Can you imagine teaching a class in which different factions formed, each objecting to certain readings and demanding alternatives? What kind of classroom discussion would you have? Forget the question of timed exams — could you even have common assignments? Can you imagine how universities could possibly adjudicate all these things, especially since “offended” is a matter of states of mind — all the student has to say is “I’m offended — this is contrary to my beliefs.”

What you have here is a parody of a parody. As our tame troll “Steve” shows, there’s a widespread perception that academics are committed to a mindless identity politics in which everyone gets to read stuff by people like them and every argument is won by someone saying “I’m offended that …” So now you get this weird identity-politics for another group of students. As I’ve noted before there are some interesting questions about how to get students comfortable dealing with material that they think of as controversial. But this is about the worst way imaginable.

31

DeAnna 02.18.06 at 4:26 pm

It will serve Arizona right, when their medical schools are graduating Christian Scientists.

32

Nat Whilk 02.18.06 at 4:50 pm

Re #30:

The relevance of my point (3) is that professors in the U.S. are already legally required to make accommodations that many of us otherwise would not make, and yet we somehow muddle through. The relevance of my point (4) is that at least one major university is already dealing with constraints not entirely unlike those that may be imposed on Arizona universities in the future, and at least the public face put on those constraints is that they’re not so bad after all.

As for us “just talking about reading assignments”, that’s not what the proposal in question says. It is about alternatives to “a course, coursework, learning material or activity”.

33

Colin Danby 02.18.06 at 5:43 pm

Nat, if we are to take the word of its sponsor seriously, the proposed law is aimed directly at content — note the singling out of a literature class where the readings are rather important to the course content, don’t you think? I hardly see that the fact that the bill might affect *more* things than course content should make us less concerned about its effects on course content.

Disability rules do not give students a right to read different things; performing a play is not the same as reading it. How drama depts deal with objections that may come up around performing I don’t know.

If you taught in humanities or social sciences, Nat, you might be more aware (a) of how resistant a lot of students are initially to readings whose views they don’t share and (b) of how, in areas where legitimate controversy exists, you cannot possibly teach the subject without having students read a range of readings some of which they will, if they are paying attention, find disagreeable. This is why disability accommodation is such a frivolous comparison.

34

William Sjostrom 02.18.06 at 8:39 pm

Sigh. Law or no law, any modestly competent student can figure out how to get the “No Work/Sleep All You Like” option. Just find a spineless administrator. Universities specialize in mass producing them. A student who wants to dodge work just finds some administrator who will give him an incomplete, regardless of the rules, that does not have to be completed, because otherwise the administrator has to deal with the issue. Or he gets permission to take an alternative class because of this week’s emotional trauma. I have seen them in every university I have worked at, regularly. Just make a bit of noise, and the university will cave. Which is why, for example, so few academics in my experience will put in any effort to stop cheating. Welcome to the academic rathole, Kieran.

35

Harald Korneliussen 02.20.06 at 9:40 am

Todd wrote: “I, for one, have to be able to parse a statement before I can express outrate against it.”

How about up muhammed the the war for clean nuclear drawings energy, with and nudity bell curve Israeli settlements?

(Interesting to see if the spam filtering catches that)

36

Matt Weiner 02.21.06 at 11:30 am

If Matt Weiner’s still at Utah

Thanks for the thought, but I’ve moved on to Texas Tech, where I am unwilling to comment about the biology professor who wouldn’t write letters for creationists. Having done work on an alumni magazine in the past, I think “alumni magazine” and “sugar-coated” are practically redundant; one of my friends who worked their full-time said he sometimes felt as though he were reported the Dear Leader’s speeches for the official Communist Party organ. I can ask some of my friends at Utah whether the policy is making any difference, though the spam filter will probably have closed this thread before I do so.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank Dave Hardy for explaining how a town in Arizona could possibly have been named Snowflake. I had thought it might be a lucus a non lucendo thing, like the Lubbock newspaper being named the Avalanche-Journal.

37

Matt Weiner 02.21.06 at 11:42 am

My old posts on the Utah issue are here and here. You’ll note from the second one (which is from after I left) that the U. doesn’t just have to worry about deep-pocketed alumni; the State Legislature seems to be willing to use the power of the purse to punish universities that get out of line politically (and has in the past shown some hostility to the U. for excessive secularism). Also from the second post, the Utah policy is a lot less restrictive than the one proposed in Arizona; at least as Kieran quotes it, that bill requires that the student’s deeming the material offensive is enough to require the university to require an alternative, whereas in Utah the professor can deny the request, whereupon the student would have to appeal to the dean.

Also, as you can see from my comments, one of my friends who still teaches there doesn’t like the policy at all.

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