Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Politics Of The Classroom: Is It Homophobic To Teach About The Scriptural Basis For Homophobia?

Janine Giordano Drake, over at Religion and American History asks us to think about a university classroom inflected by sacred beliefs that do not coexist comfortably with contemporary cosmopolitan ideas about diversity, respect for personal dignity and human rights. In doing so, she raises the question of whether the absolute separation of secular knowledge from ideological or faith-based knowledge is desirable, or even possible. For those who want to read more of Drake's thoughts about being a Christian scholar, click here.

The incident which prompted Drake's post occurred at the University of Illinois which, as a public university, has special vulnerabilities around the separation of the sacred and the secular. In a nutshell, a Catholic theologian circulated an email to his class about why heterosexuality, and the gender binary system, are "natural" and "real"; and why consent does not provide a moral basis for performing sexual acts that ignore the divine reproductive function of sexuality. A student complained to the chair of the department about this and similar statements made in class that articulated a conservative Catholic position on sexuality. The professor, the student reported, "allowed little room for opposition to Catholic dogma." But to the best of my understanding no particular student, or students, were picked out to be shamed or personally degraded by the teacher; and the views expressed had directly to do with the subject of the course and the course readings. The teacher -- who was an adjunct connected to the Newman Center on campus -- was not renewed. It is unclear whether it was because of this conflict, or because of other pedagogical or budgetary issues.

Drake has linked to the original documents to help us think about this incident and the larger questions it raises. In doing so, she demonstrates one good strategy for teaching things that our students may find objectionable, and for helping students learn to disagree respectfully with each other and with us. When they provide primary documents, professors can speak out of a personal belief system, but also bring a range of voices into the classroom that allow students to attach their own beliefs to, and test their views against, knowledge and authority that is not internal to the classroom and to the student-teacher relationship.

Whether you decide you are on the same page as Drake or not after you read her piece, I think you might agree that she makes two generative points. She notes that theological positions which advocate for the divine role of reproduction in sexuality are often poorly or partially represented, even in the best scholarship (and by extension, in the best classrooms.) Because of this the influence of these views is often understated and perceived by students -- most of whom are (metaphorically) milling around in a vast political center -- as eccentric. Second, she very gently raises the question of why it is necessarily oppressive or wrong for students to be a captive audience to views that they find objectionable. An argument might be made on behalf of the email sent by the professor that goes like this: the views in question (sodomy is always morally wrong, and is the equivalent of pedophilia and bestiality, even when both parties consent), appalling as they may be to many of us, express a scripture-based point of view that many people in this country actually do believe, and that are the basis of a well-organized opposition to GLBT human rights. Furthermore, they provide the logic for powerful statements like "marriage should be between a man and a woman," "love the sinner, hate the sin" and "gay marriage destroys the family" that otherwise seem merely shallow and mean.

For the reason I just described, in my "Politics of Sex After 1968" survey, I teach a documentary film produced by a Christian organization in which "former" gays and lesbians talk about the pain, confinement and isolation of their lives as queer people. They discuss how they came back to heterosexuality, and were able to marry, by being reborn in Christ. I teach this film in part because the vast majority of my students understand coming out as gay as an opposite experience, when in fact it is quite similar to what the Christain ex-gays describe: as the discovery and affirmation of a genuine self, as a release from isolation, and as being welcomed into a caring community of others "like them." I think students need to understand that any experience of the self is particular, not universal; and that profoundly different views about possible relationships to a sexual self are possible at the same historical moment.

Despite the fact that many of my students have suffered, and are struggling, with a variety of anxieties and burdens related to their sexuality, since most of them are pretty secular, I think it is also important for them to try to understand a relationship to sexuality, and to faith, that isn't just social. Many of my students find this film objectionable, and for that reason it is very hard to teach because I often have to overcome a refusal to engage. But another reason I use it, year after year, is to teach them that if you are going to be a really good historian, you can't be selective about who you listen to or have empathy for. I think our struggles over this film are worthwhile, but many of them just hate it. Some really let me have it in the teaching evaluations for bringing "hate speech" (the phrase used by the complainant at the University of Illinois) into class.

But here's something that has never happened to me. What Drake doesn't mention is that the student who complained was not even in the class. Rather, he claims to be writing on behalf of "a friend" who did take the class and passed the email, and information about the class, on to him. Identifying himself as a heterosexual male, but imagining himself as a gay man who would have been shamed by having to listen to such views, he writes:

I am in no way a gay rights activist, but allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable. It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.

It's OK, in other words, to teach religion as long as you don't teach anything about it that I would find degrading or offensive.

Don't get me wrong: the point of this post is not some narcissistic desire to demonstrate how super-tolerant I am of homophobic, right-wing theology. My question is: do we think it is OK to do unto others as they would do unto us? Do we guarantee academic freedom for some people and not others? Most important, to avoid public controversy of all kinds, is higher ed simply going to give students permission to shut out things they find offensive as if they live in an entirely different country from the people they disagree with? Worse, should we not begin to talk about how students -- in their teaching evaluations and in complaints to the administration -- are now routinely urging that teachers be fired who do not provide suitable validation for their students' view?

18 comments:

Katrina said...

You (and Drake) have raised some very interesting issues. I have tended to be against classroom activism, in the sense in which professors are accused of attempting to indoctrinate to particular views.

But I feel that there is a misplaced belief among some students that a right exists to never be offended, to never encounter any views with which they disagree (and if they encounter any material that doesn't fit with their worldview, to complain).

Surely one of the key elements of a truly liberal education is to be exposed to a range of knowledge, beliefs, thus to enable one to form opinions of one's own. It's unfortunate to see curricula that only replicate one point of view, as normative, and the students who share that view are never challenged, or forced to articulate an intelligent rationale for their views (some of which are simply absorbed from the zeitgeist, without any critical analysis on the student's part).

Students with unpopular views on some campuses are forced to articulate a defence of those views, and in some cases I have observed become much better at rationalising their positions to others than people who have simply absorbed the "mainstream" view. (what counts as mainstream of course depends on the community).

I see some parallels here with the (stupid) idea that high school students should only read books to which they can "relate" (basically, books about teenagers). This is so limiting, because the whole point of literature is to get to see OTHER perspectives on the world, not just to receive affirmation for your own.

Tim Lacy said...

Well said. I have little to add other than it's particularly ironic that this is taking place at the home institution of AAUP President Cary Nelson. I believe Nelson, by the way, is in favor of defending Kenneth Howell (the defendant, as it were). - TL

Libby said...

I want to go read the piece you linked to, but one small thing strikes me here: a colleague at my university had a similar thing happen this year when he taught R Crumb in his class--a student who was not in the class raised objections "on behalf of" students who were in the class. I'm starting to wonder about this move--the objection from outside, rather than within--and what it means about how we teach. It feels a bit like surveillance, and I don't like it. Inside the classroom, I can deal with student objections to material by talking about it directly--making the objection the subject of our conversation. I can't do that with someone who's not even in the room with us.

Susan said...

I think what's most important is helping students to understand not just that the self is particular and not universal, or that historians have to listen/pay attention to perspectives they reject in their personal life, but also that ideas we may find reprehensible often are grounded in a complex set of philosophical and theological ideas. They do not just represent ignorance and prejudice (although they may do that.)

To follow up on Katrina's point -- teaching about an idea is not hate speech; it becomes problematic when in the classroom it is not subject to critical analysis.

Adrian said...

While I take the broader point you're making, I don't think this particular case is helpful in illuminating it. In particular, I'm having a difficult time reconciling your hypothetical defense of the professor's email with its content. How does the paragraph beginning "One example applicable..." in any way present a "scripture-based" approach to same-sex relationships? This paragraph contains only the author's own (patently false and very offensive) opinions, cloaked in his own authority and that of "a physician." I'm all for a vigorous defense of academic freedom; but distributing this paragraph in an email to students is, to me, a firing offense.

Anonymous said...

Great post, TR, and it’s good to see these issues being raised. I agree with many of Katrina’s and Susan’s points, because I find that at my school I’m surrounded by a number hyper-liberal students who believe that their education should specifically cater to their personal beliefs (whatever they happen to be at the time) and that they should not be called upon to experience a truly diverse range of knowledge and beliefs, especially ones they have labeled religiously or socially conservative or not in line with their interpretation of “diversity.” These students are always the “most liberal” ones on campus who, with the support of many faculty, run around patrolling classrooms, making demands, and reporting faculty--even taking up formal grievances against them as a tactic to punish those who won’t toe their line. They patrol on religion (ironic because we’re a historically religiously-affiliated college) and especially on issues regarding race and diversity (ironic again because of our good history on diversity)--making sure that their version of how things should be taught are privileged. They have even succeed in getting themselves removed from required classes to be taught instead via independent study and a different text list by a more sympathetic faculty member who was not even a member of that department (I want to be clear that there was nothing wrong with the original faculty member other than the fact that they refused acquiesce to changing their syllabus to a list of texts the students wanted to read). And to avoid controversy, the college has let them get away with this. As a result, there’s a huge amount of pressure on students and on faculty like me to bow to the will of this mob--and it is a mob--and change my syllabus, or censor what is uttered in front of the chalkboard, for fear of setting off an attack by the cabal. It really is political correctness run amok, which I say knowing full well how ironic it sounds coming from a professor of women’s studies.

I’ve found that too many of my self-labeled “liberal” students are proud of the fact that they are incapable of civilly disagreeing with a position different from their own (supposedly a major point of our liberal education), while it is my more moderate students (normal ones?) who actually have a larger range of exposure to a variety of beliefs and knowledge and are better able to articulate and understand the contexts of a variety of positions. Maybe it’s because their life experience runs the gamut and can touch on conservative positions--they might be Republican, or rural, or working-class, or Christian (often Catholic Latinas), or have family members in the military, etc. and they have learned to expect that others will question or judge their standpoints and thus have developed reasonable responses to those questions and judgments and don’t necessarily have their whole world caved in if they are questioned or judged. By real-world measures they are actually pretty liberal, but not in the in the artificial world of the academy. But they’ve also learned that on this particular field of battle, the best course of action is retreat, so that they can live to see another day.

I’m sad that our classrooms have become such sharply divided battlegrounds where deep conversations and real learning are prohibited out of fear, or are shut down by someone lobbing the “hate speech” bomb.

Heather White said...

I'm pleased to see attention to the question of how to teach anti-homosexual religious doctrines. As someone who makes it her work to research and teach about these things, I think that students, regardless of their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, need to better understand the variety of faith-based arguments made about homosexuality. Quarantining students from anti-gay religious views only adds to their perceived power and danger.

That said, the approach of the IU instructor leaves much to be desired. He is teaching Catholicism, but a responsible presentation of any religion must also address the variety and debate within it. Catholics do not agree on abortion any more than they agree about birth control, and dissent to the teachings Howell presents may be found among clergy as well as laity. By presenting his own views as a monolithic Catholicism (or so it appears from the texts I have access to), students' only recourse for dissent is to disagree with Catholicism in its entirety. This kind of teaching of anything, but particularly religion, makes me cranky.

Tod Robbins said...

Thank you for the analysis. There is something very valuable in Katrina's statement regarding offense. The subject of immunity to offense is very important. Should a liberal education include offense? I believe so. How else can someone rationalize or evaluate their worldview without the options. And there is also something pernicious about basing all reaction on emotion alone.

Agian, thank you TR.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Furthermore, they provide the logic for powerful statements like "marriage should be between a man and a woman," "love the sinner, hate the sin" and "gay marriage destroys the family" that otherwise seem merely shallow and mean.

I don't understand this statement at all. Are you really implying that if there is some kind of cockamamie made up fantasy bullshit that credulous bigots convince themselves lends credence to their bigoted attitudes, then their bigoted attitudes are no longer shallow and mean?

Catherine said...

Let me start by seconding Heather White's comment--Catholicism is very big and very diverse, and the theology of the body in question is extremely controversial among theologians. The hierarchy (bishops, pope) are more united about it, but by no means unanimous. Therefore a responsible professor would be well-advised not to teach this as *the* Catholic position but rather as *a* Catholic position.

But there are other problems here. I'm a PhD candidate in theology at a Catholic university, by the way, so I have nothing against professors holding strong religious views. (Actually, I think we have no choice but to hold strong religious views--even if they're humanistic or atheist or what have you.) And I don't think that a professor laying out the Catholic view in question is wrong at all--it exists, it's out there, thus to learn about it is to gain valuable knowledge about what's going on in our world.

But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the one the prof chose seems inappropriate to any undergraduate classroom but especially to one at a non-religious school. At a Catholic school, there's some justification for teaching as if there was no other possible view than the one you hold (though many, many of us do no such thing). At a state school, you ought to take a step back and leave a layer of objectivity in there. It's not that hard to do. Instead of claiming that the *only* way of looking at the body is this way, you just say something like:

"There's a longstanding view in the Catholic Church that (explanation here). Many well-known theologians, including Pope John Paul II, take this position."

You could even add a paragraph at the end that says something like "Personally, I find this argument quite convincing." -- with the stress on the "personally," with its implication "I will not grade you down for disagreeing with me."

The key here is that you have to acknowledge that other views exist--you can't claim that your view of the body is the only one that is intellectually respectable. That's where you cross the line into religious advocacy, and it's inappropriate in a state-school setting.

So I think the issue is a different one than whether or not students should be exposed to views they find 'offensive.'

Vellum said...

There's a lot of commentary going on about this over at "Alas, a Blog" if you're interested. A lot of comments are being centered on the man's logic, and his poor understanding of homosexuality:

"To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men."

If someone's going to take a public stance at a secular institution about why a certain religion views homosexuality as wrong, perhaps he or she should learn a thing or two about it first. It reeks to high heaven of bad scholarship.

The letter in its entirety can be found here:

http://www.news-gazette.com/news/religion/2010-07-09/e-mail-prompted-complaint-over-ui-religion-class-instructor.html

Historiann said...

This is all fascinating.

I have to question your use of "scriptural" in the headline of your post, TR. There's no scripture in that e-mail from the instructor. What I see is an appeal to (as other commenters have noted) *a* Catholic tradition that emphasizes something they call "Natural Moral Law." Now, NML is nothing but Aristotle plus about 1,000 years of frequently contradictory Catholic teachings. There is nothing natural about it, but it is an important issue in Western intellectual history. (In fact, it's an important intellectual issue w/r/t the current U.S. Supreme Court! So it's an important perspective for people to understand, all right.)

I actually don't have a problem with the e-mail in question so much as I have with the concept of someone not even in the class--someone who didn't even officially receive this e-mail--registering this complaint about the instructor, let alone having that complaint acted upon! This is ridiculous. How on Earth did that get taken seriously?

The instructor is wrong, and his use of homosexuality to illustrate Utilitarianism was perhaps stupid, but it's not a firing offense IMHO. His e-mail was lengthly and thorough, and it appeared to be focused on clarifying issues for students in the class. Since the students in the class didn't find it offensive enough to complain, that's good enough for me.

twblalock said...

Academic freedom, much like freedom of speech, entails that students and faculty will have to put up with some odious or stupid things being advocated by other academics. (John Yoo comes to mind here.) It is the price we all have to pay for academic freedom, which is on the whole quite a good thing.

It seems that the real problem here is that academic freedom can conflict with codes of conduct about hate speech in the classroom. There doesn't seem to be a way around that.

Janine Giordano said...

In response to Historiann's, "There's no scripture in that e-mail from the instructor." You might be confusing Protestants and Catholics a little bit here. Catholics are in general much more concerned with defining Church teachings by seeking the wisdom of other "Church Fathers" who have passed down their wisdom over the generations. Protestants are more inclined to define their wisdom for Christian living today on a Scriptural "basis" --oftentimes literal quotations from the Bible, especially from the epistles.

Howell was right on in his exploration of Natural Moral Law as the basis upon which Catholic theologians determine right from wrong. Yes, maybe it is Aristotle plus 1000 years of other teachings, but that is a very crude way to describe someone else's religion, don't you think?

Also, TR raised the issue of presenting various perspectives on the same issue. As an historian myself, I do very very much agree. However, Howell (as I understand him) is a theologian before an historian. He was teaching in a RLST department--a discipline at the crossroads between literature, philosophy and maybe anthropology, so the alternate perspectives he needed to bring to the table were not necessarily the ones we might think of. I would also like to see a course on Catholicism cover all kinds of Catholics and raise the important question of "What is a Catholic today?" But, we can't Howell didn't do that on the basis of this one email he wrote to his students.

The other issue here is that Howell's salary came from the archdiocese, even though the University took in the tuition dollars for his classes. (The student was mistaken in saying that tax dollars were going to his salary.) Will Howell be replaced at the expense of the University of Illinois? I doubt it.

takingitoutside said...

Catherine hit it on the head for me. I can think of various objections to Prof. Howell's comments, but he should be able to make them. It sounds like he's elaborating a point that students didn't get, which means that he's doing the responsible thing (i.e. attempting to re-explain something that wasn't learned the first time).

The problem lies in his heavy-handed approach, the way he seems to say that this is the way it is, no discussion or disagreement allowed. That really came out for me at the end in this section:

"Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter."

As Vellum pointed out, the professor himself does not appear to have done extensive research into homosexuality. Yet he's making a moral judgment.

Personally, if I were a student in this class I would be extremely cautious for the rest of the semester, because he's just said that I'm unable to judge a central concern of the class. To extend his own example, do I really need to research murder and learn about the history of moral thought regarding murder to decide that it's bad? That's not to say that we shouldn't study those things, but to underline that one can make moral judgments about something without being an expert at studying it in a given way that a teacher is clearly partisan to.

Historiann said...

Janine--I made my comment because I wanted to distinguish the conservative Protestant critique of homosexuality from the conservative Catholic critique of homosexuality. As someone working in the history of Catholicism right now, I'm usually the one battling the protestant Anglophone hegemony in American religious history. My point was simply that Church teachings are not "scripture," because I am unfamiliar with this word being applied to anything other than the Old and New Testament. If Catholics consider NML "scripture," then I'll consider myself enlightened. I have never heard of NML referred to as "scripture."

I'm sorry that you found my description of "Aristotle plus 1,000 years" of contradictory teachings condescending--it wasn't intended to be so. I affirmed its importance to intellectual history, after all. I merely wanted to make the point that the e-mail spoke from a particular religious tradition rather than from the usual (and typically protestant) quotation of Leviticus.

Patricia said...

Would you mind posting the name of the documentary? It sounds fascinating, I'd really like to see it.

Bridget said...

I would really appreciate both the name of the documentary and a copy of the syllabus. I'm working on creating a course on sexuality and inequalities, and this sounds like it could be a great addition to the course.