November 30, 2022
|“||Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.||”|
|— Frank Herbert, Dune|
On the last test of my world literature classes, I ask two questions that I use for extra credit. They simply ask which was the student’s favorite text we studied this semester and which was her least favorite text. These questions are interesting to me to see if I should make alterations to the syllabus, and they give students to opportunity to earn up to 10 points of extra credit for thoughtful responses. For example, last fall, I received this response about Ovid:
|“||My least favorite reading this semester was the Metamorphoses by Ovid. I am a survivor of sexual assault, and I would have at least liked a warning of what these stories would be about back when I had the chance to take a different class instead. Or even an alternative read, where I could stay in your class but just discuss different ancient literature. I knew most of these stories already from a childhood love of mythology and reading Ovid's interpretations of them changed their tone drastically. I was taken away from the simple humor of Zeus stupidly changing his lover into a cow and trying to dupe Hera into a horrifying story of a girl whose life was changed forever by no fault of her own. I understand that reading mythology in college is going to take a deeper look into themes and I'm all for that. But a warning as to the stories in the Metamorphoses and what we would discuss about them would have been greatly appreciated. The fact that I had to sit here and write a Short Answer about Io's story being a metaphor for rape and its aftermath was a horrifying experience I should not have had to go through. I wish you would have not made it mandatory and instead provided a different question that I could discuss instead.||”|
A thoughtful response that made me, in turn, think. I have a simple “trigger warning,” on my policies, but perhaps that isn’t enough—like students read my policies anyway. I do not want to dismiss her response, but it seems as if she (1) is OK with texts when she does not look to closely, and (2) that Ovid should be removed from the syllabus entirely so as to not have to look at this difficult subject. I am no psychologist, nor do I lack sympathy for her continued trauma from an experience that I cannot even image, but the best art engages with the most difficult questions of humanity. In “Io and Jove,” Ovid does not satirize Io’s trauma, but compels us to look at her ordeal and the very real consequences it plays in her life. I think this is an important text, and I’m still teaching it.
Not all answers are as poignant. For example, this semester, I received this answer for favorite text:
|“||This one is more of a tough one to answer, especially considering the Christian in me is like “none of them, none of them follow the word of the Lord—they all believe in other Gods!” However I do understand its a different culture so I will look past that and say: the Odyssey. I think I may have read it in High School so it was easier to follow along with but also I really like that its basically a story about a man who is coming home from war and he is just trying to come back to his wife and child. Of course he is also looking for glory and fame, but still—even on Calypso's Island he still only truly desires his wife and he was on that Island for years! I loved that aspect of the Odyssey.||”|
So, let me see if I have this right: because you’re a Christian, you should only read texts that “follow the word of the Lord”? And the Odyssey is OK if you have to choose one, since you feel that Odysseus longed for home because of his respect for the bonds of marriage? And you are already familiar with it because you read it in high school? Interestingly, I had another student who could not write “gods,” but instead wrote “g-ds” on her tests. Is this really a thing? Is identifying as a Christian akin to putting on holy blinders and only looking at things sanctioned by what someone has told you God approves of? Am I getting this right?
The theme continues in his answer for least-favorite text:
|“||Honestly, I have to apologize because I didn't really care to much for Ovid's Metamorphoses—to many sick and twisted events for someone who is trying to be a good Christian. Daughters in bed with their fathers, lusting over inanimate objects, lots of rape going on too. I don't like that. Also, It was not like a 'story' that followed a plot line, it was more like a collection of stories—I guess I'm more of like a one story kind of guy. For some reason I had a harder time following along with this one than all the others we have read.||”|
So you have nothing to learn from Ovid because you are “trying to be a good Christian”? The Metamorphoses is not a how-to manual. Ovid is not advocating “lots of rape.” Just because he does not share your ethos does not mean that Ovid—or anything else in the whole wide world—is not deserving of consideration or there just to tempt you away from the one true path. Why are you even in college? How do you even come out of your house everyday?
This mentality seems to be at the heart of wokeness. To be “woke” is bad, apparently. Following this logic, it seems that the preferred way of being, then, is asleep. When you are awake, you question, make critical observations, and are less likely to just accept. The whole goal of higher education is to wake people the f— up. If you want to stay asleep, then stick to church and vote Republigun.
Seriously, these attitudes seem prevalent when considering education in this country. College is fine as long as it trains you for a job, but if it gets you to interrogate life or reality, it’s somehow inappropriate or verboten. With the alt-right (or can we just say “the right” now?) pulling us further right, and critical exploration of traditional attitudes or institutions is anathema. I’ve written about this before, so I’m not going to rehash it here. The increasingly right-wing critics of education call us educators “groomers” and accuse us of “indoctrination.” But more and more by the time students get to my class, they have already been well indoctrinated for years, and there’s very little I would even be able to do about it.
I can’t get students to put their phones down or to read a syllabus—how am I going to be able to topple years of religious conditioning?
12/07 UPDATE: Finishing up my grading this morning, I received this feedback under the least question: “I also did not like all the controversial topics that were in the readings.”