January 16, 2009

“Danger” and diversity in American colleges

Posted in Education, Feminism, Wingnuts at 2:21 pm by The Lizard Queen

The Family Security Matters consortium has released its Third Annual List of America’s Most Dangerous College Courses, and naturally Michael Bérubé was all over it.  (Er, in the sense that he wrote about it on his blog, not that he appeared on the actual list.) Go here to check out his coverage, and read the whole post, because he includes his “remarks to Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni at our National Communication Association debate on ‘diversity in higher education’ last November,” which are well worth reading. A passage I was particularly struck by:

I currently serve on a task force that is trying to make Penn State more accessible, in class and out, for students with disabilities. (A subject you don’t often hear mentioned in these debates.) But the rationale for the formation of this task force, which is charged basically with getting people to obey a federal law, is that it will enhance diversity at Penn State. I’ll take that rationale if I have to, but given my druthers, I would prefer to talk about doing justice to students with disabilities, just as I would prefer to talk about doing justice to women and minorities who were barred from institutions of higher learning for centuries.

After reading Bérubé’s post I clicked over to the FSM list (the first time Bérubé referred to the Family Security Matters consortium as FSM in his post, I did a confused double-take, because for a moment I took the acronym as referring to the Flying Spaghetti Monster), hoping for a wingnuttery-inspired larf. Not really any luck on that point, I’m afraid; Bérubé already covered the best stuff. However, I was intrigued by this “dangerous” course:

Collegiate Sexualities at Occidental College: Professor Jeff Tobin at my alma mater is no stranger to this list – and the lists of many others documenting the absurd college courses that this professor teaches. There is something downright creepy about a middle-aged man talking to freshmen (some of which are mandated to take this course as part of a “core” curriculum) about hooking up with each other or last night’s mandatory reading of Boink: College Sex by the People Having It. Tobin simply appears to be a professor who uses terms like “heterosexist” and “intersexed” just to get administrators to believe he’s doing something more than engaging in crude conversations with barely legal teenagers. According to Amazon.com, Boink includes “graphic confessions, and no-holds-barred nude pictures of real university students” – students will surely learn oh-so-much in this ridiculous course.

If FSM’s depiction of this course is at all accurate, then yes, that does sound rather creepy and inappropriate. Of course, my gut told me that maybe the above description doesn’t accurately reflect the reality, so I went to Oxy’s website to try to find the actual course description. Here it is:

The objective in this class is to learn about U.S. college students’ sexualities. Is campus culture heterosexist, homophobic, or misogynistic? What are the personal and political consequences of identifying as gay, lesbian, straight, bi, queer, transgendered, intersexed, or something else? What constitutes a hook-up? Is hooking up emotionally damaging or sexually unsatisfying for women, as older critics have claimed? Is there a double standard for men and women (e.g., “He’s a player” but “She’s a slut”)? Do hook-ups usually involve drunkenness? Can drunk students give each other consent to engage in a sexual activity? To answer such questions we will read works by scholars from a variety of disciplines as well as works by journalists and college students. Texts include Peggy Sanday’s Fraternity Gang Rape, Laura Stepp Sessions’ Unhooked, Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, and Boink: College Sex by the People Having It. Each student will research and write a paper on a topic of the student’s choosing.

Is the subject matter (not to mention the overall approach) unorthodox? Sure. But could it be a useful subject for early college students – many of whom are indeed “barely legal teenagers,” as FSM so tactfully points out, living apart from their parents for the first time and perhaps therefore able to explore their sexualities in new and possibly more complex ways? I think so. The course description touches on the issue of consent, and I’m very curious as to the extent to which the course explores the rape culture and the various forms of sexual assault one might witness or experience on a college campus. I think a course that really delved into such issues could be quite valuable – rather than “dangerous” – at any college or university. Indeed, I think it’s far more dangerous not to talk about such things.

(Also, incidentally, it doesn’t at all look to me like that course is a required part of the core curriculum; it’s simply one choice among many, so if a student would be triggered or otherwise discomfited by the subject matter, it seems like it would be easy enough to take something else – say, Global Justice, Fairness, and Equality, or Issues of Gender and Interfaith Dialogue in World Religions. Wonder what the FSM would make of those?)



  1. whatsername said,

    holy fuck did you see what they said about Intro to Gender Studies and the course within White Studies?

    What a bunch of tools.

  2. Your Switch Witch said,

    The only creepy thing to me is the use of “freshmen” to mean men and women. Ick. Ick.

  3. Lizard Queen said,

    Huh. You know, the words “freshman” and “freshmen” are so much a part of my vocabulary that I’ve never given much thought to the actual breakdown of the words. Any variation on the theme, though (i.e. “freshmen and freshwomen” or “freshpeople” — which also makes me think of Soylent Green), doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement. Seems like we need a word that is gender-neutral, without having to go with “first-years” (since I’ve encountered numerous students who are classified as freshmen but are no longer in their first year). Does such a word exist, I wonder, or will we have to make one up? 🙂

    At any rate, I’m editing the post accordingly. Thanks for the tip! Also, I’m suddenly grateful for the word “student”… what a wonderfully simple yet broadly applicable word…

  4. Your Switch Witch said,

    See, the Scots use “fresher”, and I studied in the Scottish system first and in the American one later, so my default academic vocabulary tends to be Scottish, including that word.

  5. Susan Walsh said,

    As someone who blogs about the hookup culture, I think that sounds like a really interesting course! Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy of New York Magazine is a GREAT book. The array of books mentioned in the course description do not comprise one particular point of view, and I think that getting students to think and talk about the culture they’re a part of is valuable.


  6. jim said,

    That is great they are trying to make penn state more handicapped accessible. The federal law mandates all new construction and major renovation work to be compliant. The state of Texas laws for this are actually more stringent than the national ones. What I have noticed in the 20 years this law has been in place, along with the constantly improving medical tech, is you see more people out and about, who would previously stay home since it is now easier for them to get around.

    I am in the position right now working on a local community college to bring the school up to the current law, and it is very difficult and very expensive. on this particular job, it is going to cost over 100K to just change out the existing door hardware (door knobs are not compliant, it has to have a handle with a lever on it) and for signage that the blind can read, even though only 3% of all blind people can read braille.

    Also, every year the law gets more stringent and difficult to comply with from a renovation standpoint. You will never see a congressman who wants to keep his job go against one of these changes, because the next time they come up for election, their opponent can say “My opponent hates blind people!”

  7. YSW: See, the Scots use “fresher”, and I studied in the Scottish system first and in the American one later, so my default academic vocabulary tends to be Scottish, including that word.

    You know, I like it, personally (especially since I can imagine it said with a nice Scottish burr, which pleases me immensely), but I’m not certain it would catch on here. I think, though, that that uncertainty goes back to my initial comment — no matter what the replacement word was, it would be a difficult transition, because change is hard. (And of course, change in the name of gender-neutral language is particularly hard, because it leads to people throwing tantrums about political correctness and such. *sigh*)

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