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Department of WTF?

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This seems rather pointless, but then again, I don’t live in Idaho:

In an era in which seemingly anything can offend anyone, one professor at the University of Idaho is attempting to stay one step ahead by asking film students to sign a “statement of understanding” acknowledging the potentially offensive or repugnant content they’ll be viewing. . . .

“I guess I started to get more freshmen who would come to me and say, ‘Well gee, I can’t look at any film that has violence in it or nudity. So I developed a statement of understanding so people know ahead of time certain issues will be intellectually examined in some of these films, such as poverty, slavery, sexual themes, punishment and murder,” said [Dennis] West.

I don’t have any quarrel with the idea of explaining to students on the first day of class that we might be discussing some unpleasant issues and that they might be reading and viewing some rather unsavory texts. I teach American history, after all. But to actually introduce a waiver into the relationship strikes me as an unnecessarily legalistic approach to problem of student reception of controversial texts. Does the university or the professor bear any legal responsibility — comparable to, say, an actual human subjects project — for any mental anguish that might result from a student’s viewing of Clockwork Orange? It’s a brutal film, perhaps, but it’s hardly the Stanford Prison Experiment, and it’s nothing like the clip of Budd Dwyer blowing his head off on live television (a clip I actually watched in an undergraduate sociology class).

But if it’s an issue of informed consent, why wouldn’t a clear, verbal explanation of the course content on the first day of the semester suffice? Something on the order of, “Look, we’re all adults at a secular, public, liberal arts university. Certain aspects of human experience are heinous and irrredeemable and violent; our language is clotted with vulgar expressions, and our brains are larded with grotesque ideas that we express more occasionally than some people would prefer. In this course, these experiences — and the language and images that spring from them — will now and again bubble to the surface as if from a ruptured sewage line. One of the awful burdens of being educated is knowing how to deal with this sort of thing.”

I’m not a law-talking-guy by any stretch (though like many, law school nearly lured me away from my dissertation). Regardless, I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on this.

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