Is Reading Greek Mythology Toxic For Students?

That’s the buzz at Columbia University where students published an editorial complaining about reading Greek myths in one of their classes. They said in part:

“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote the four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”

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I would expect Columbia students to write somewhat better and not misuse the word “wrought,” and also to have italicized Ovid’s long poetic work that retells Greek myths rather than using quotation marks of any kind. Those things aside, what are they doing in that class? Why are they reading any texts in the Western canon if they feel the way they do?

I was in love with Greek mythology when I was in elementary school and I came from an extremely low-income background. These amazing stories fired my imagination, and though I wasn’t a person of color, I was a minority as a Jew in a majority Christian country. Worse than that, I lived in a house steeped in horror and trauma because my parents were Holocaust survivors. Greek mythology offered me escape, not oppression. It didn’t exclude me, it offered me wings. Anything that was different and exciting gave me a pathway to freedom.

Is there any book anywhere that couldn’t require a trigger warning? Think of The Great Gatsby which some students have complained about for its domestic abuse, graphic violence, and suicide. As blogger Abigail Breslin puts it so well:

“In reality, trigger warnings are unrealistic….They are the dream-child of a fantasy in which the unknown can be labeled, anticipated, and controlled. What trigger warnings promise — protection — does not exist. The world is simply too chaotic, too out-of-control for every trigger to be anticipated, avoided, and defused.”

What would be helpful and productive is for professors to do what many I know already do: ask students at the beginning of a class to inform them privately if they have any issues that might interfere with classroom learning and proceed from there. But blanket warnings on syllabi or books themselves are a waste of time and verge on the ridiculous.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Commencement Speeches Are Not Free Speech

It’s that special time of year when protests erupt over commencement speakers at various colleges and universities around the country.  Then editorial writers and talking heads blather endlessly about the subject, and comment sections on web sites erupt in abuse and foolishness.

2014-09-30-talkingheadsI’ve watched the yearly uproar about commencement speakers being invited (or uninvited) with disappointment.  Why?  Because the discussion is consistently off base.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker’s invitation interfere with free speech. That’s just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights.  Someone like Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to.  And he does. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and are paid to do so.  It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression.  That’s simply not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  The Washington Post editorial board hasn’t been alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools even have two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.”  That’s a joke.

graduates_1Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A.  They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining.  Funny, if possible.  They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context.  And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration.  The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved,A it’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if someone gets invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and is uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with.

colbertLev Raphael is the author of the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Larger Classes Can Cheat Students

As the author of twenty-five books in many genres, I do a lot of touring and public speaking.  That includes speaking at universities where faculty clue me into their struggles in and out of the classroom.  One of the things that gripes professors at state schools is when they hear administrators publicly congratulating themselves on doing “more with less” in the face of budget cuts.

It sounds lovely and even heroic, doesn’t it?  But it never seems to apply to the administrators themselves.  What exactly are they sacrificing? They don’t take pay cuts and work harder, or work longer hours.  Their salaries keep going up, as national surveys show.

One thing it does mean is that their underlings–professors and adjuncts–teach ever larger classes.  The pressure on class size across the country is insidious and undermines educational excellence, but nobody in charge seems to care or understand its impact.

A year and a half ago, I had a class of amazing fiction writers who were funny, smart, wildly diverse, and hard-working–but there were twenty-nine of them.  That’s right, twenty-nine.  In a creative writing class.

There was no way I could give individual students the attention they needed.  I did the very best I could, though, and got a hearty round of applause the last day.  I applauded them back because I was so proud of their work ethic and their talent.

But I think that like many students around the country, they deserved a much smaller class.  Creative writing is intimate, intense, and has the potential to change people’s lives.  I saw that more recently in another creative writing class that was equally talented, but had only eighteen students.

These students got to know each other’s work and each other in a much deeper way.  They quickly formed a private Facebook group; chipped in for a coffee machine and coffee to use at breaks; and they were were concerned when someone was absent. They shared class jokes; they shared moments of deep emotion; their writing changed; they changed.

Thanks not just to their personalities and interests, but to the class size, they became a devoted community of learners and teachers.  Isn’t that we hope for?