Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Causing offence

Morning all. How are you? You miserable bunch of…

Well, perhaps not. But yesterday evening Gandalf and I went to an English Subject Centre discussion about teaching potentially offensive material, what 'offence' might consist of, and how it affects our teaching practice. It was mostly the stylish young men of Birmingham City University, plus a senior academic from Keele and one from Newman (Birmingham's Catholic university).

True to form, Gandalf and I provided most of the examples from our wide repertoire of edgy teaching material (his Unpopular Texts module which examines taboo subjects, my Olivier Othello, Sappho, Rochester, Beauty, Freshers et al.) while the others provided the intellectual input, and the discussion was so good that we ignored the excellent buffet and carried on talking for almost three hours. I certainly picked up new perspectives and hopefully everyone else did too.

So over to you: have you taught or been taught anything which you found offensive, or feared that others might? What did you do? I certainly have. For instance, Rochester's poetry is deliberately crudely sexual - try being a young male lecturer reading that out to an all-female class.

Then there are the texts which I think are dubious. Samuelson's Beauty attracted a complaint of immorality because characters swear and look at porn. That didn't bother me: what made me very uncomfortable was the author's assumption that he - white, middle-class - could adequately inhabit the inner life of a young Asian woman, for whom he eventually decides that sending her back to care for her ageing parents constitutes freedom and the only honourable way to live. Faced with a class including many young Asian women, I worried about cultural sensitivity - perhaps needlessly. They split between finding the book true to life and laughably stereotypical, which was fascinating.

I could go on forever on this topic…

Meanwhile, could you contact your MP (via Twitter, or and ask them to sign EDM1185, asking the government to reconsider the closure of the Subject Centres - vital networks for sharing good teaching practice at university level, something the government apparently feels we no longer need?


Zoot Horn said...

So reading Rochester out to a female class isn't an uncomfortable experience for OLD male lecturers eh? Are you saying that teaching sexual stuff is easy once you're past it?

Well that's a relief.

The Plashing Vole said...

Well, your experience must help.
I've also taught Ol' Dirty Bastard's 'I Want Pussy For Free'. That was a tense one.

Ewarwoowar said...

Vole, you just, quite literally, made me spit a load of tea all over the keyboard with that comment.

The mental images of that are quite fantastic.

The Plashing Vole said...

Yes, it was always an interesting experience. I think they just liked to hear me recite the song in my cut-glass received pronunciation accent.

I'm toying with recording an album of grammatically-correct, non-slang covers. Madonna's 'Please don't tell me what to do, Pater', Aerosmith's 'This gentleman (appears effeminate)', 'Insist on your right (to celebrate)' by the Beastie Boys, 'Young Ladies Merely Wish To Enjoy Themselves' by Cindy Lauper, The Pretenders' 'I Will Remain Supportive',Cee-Lo Green's 'I am considerably annoyed by your actions' etc.

Ewarwoowar said...

That sounds magnificent, Vole. You've found your calling there.

You'll be the next William Shatner!

The Plashing Vole said...

Add your suggestions.
Rolling Stones' 'Prostitute Woman'. Bikini Kill's 'I Enjoy Sexual Intercourse', Blur's 'She's so intocixated'… Aidan John Moffatt remains rather challenging.