Dangerous Ideas

abookAfter a long hiatus from designing my own courses, I am again this year in the process of designing the courses I will be instructing. This is a privileged I took very seriously in past years, and one that has got me thinking deeply once again about the reading materials I have selected and hoping that they are well suited to inform students about the assigned topics.

One of the courses I am lucky enough to be involved in designing and implementing this year’s stated purpose is to inform future teachers about the production of homophobia within the school setting.  Wow.   In the face of so much silence and violence a space to converse about this topic.

And so as the story of curriculum creating goes, I have had the pleasure of looking for the best materials through which to teach this subject. And just recently I found and read a wonderful little book called Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade that I will be assigning, among other reading for this class.

And already, as I look at this wonderful reading list, I shudder at the political heat that this list could attract once the syllabus is online.  And I deeply sigh with each wonderful book I add to the syllabus.  To me this deep sigh is my affirmation that, no, I will not be the one to self censor away the reading materials I have found for teaching this sensitive subject.

But still the tension remains, for I carry with me the deep memories of many past battles in the war over sharing certain ideas and experiences on paper.  In my past life, as a middle and high school teacher, I had younger students and parents up in arms over such readings as Shane (for excessive use of the word damn) and To Kill a Mockingbird (which was just too ‘dark’ for young 14-year-old readers).  And as my students matured it was reading’s like The People’s History (for ‘revising’ history) that spurred public questions as to the very essence of my personal character.

Twenty years ago, as a new teacher, I early on learned about the resistance some books would invoke when the text shared with learners the unfamiliar, contradictory, and uncomfortable ideas that exist in our world.  The question of whether I would willingly participate in censorship started when I began my teaching career with 6th graders in Texas.  There parents and some other faculty expressed grave fears that children’s innocence would be tainted by the profanities in the western novel Shane.  That their minds would be infected with witch craft and anti-religious messages in Harry Potter and The Golden Compass. These well known works of fiction that brought many many children and adults as well, their first experience of connecting to and completing a novel were seen as predators in waiting by the parents of my early career.

Early on I wavered, blacking out with a sharpie, the 40-50 uses of the offending word ‘damn’ in the novel Shane (I personally had little love for  this novel and was forced to teach it by my mentor  teacher, so I felt little loss in my censorship).  But when it came to Harry and Lyra, I knew I would go down defending these characters and stories if necessary.  And then it seemed, it was not necessary.  The school administration simply allowed the offended parents to censor the course themselves and by having their children read alternative texts.   I, of course, was assigned to find those texts, create new teaching materials, and assess these students independently.

Later, in upper year courses, I would have parents and students alike question and spread rumors as to my political affiliation, my personal religion, my regional alliances etc. based upon the readings offered for a given course.  Again the systemic solution, not mine, allow for an alternative work of literature.   Supporting the desire to avoid ‘indefensible’ ideas.  And even now, knowing the controversy that will stir with this current course I am designing, I know that the system has already designed an avoidance path for students who do not want to be confronted with the materials I am compiling.

I suspect on these occasions that those at the top, designing systemic responses, feel both that they have avoided a headache and protected the instructor from confrontations by allowing for self censorship.  I am not sure I can hold to that theory and all that it implies about the materials in question.  But for the present time, I will be satisfied to have the cover as I totter out on baby feet once again.

Finally, all of this thinking has gotten me thinking about the one professional alliance I have always held most dear as a former English major and literature teacher, is the one I have to the American Libraries Association.  They of the Banned Book Week (September 26 to October 3) which annually resists censorship and celebrates the freedom of ideas and of the imagination.  The ALA is of course the wonderful professional association.  I picture them as a crew of bespectacled and worn sleeved bookworms who stand up time and again to promote the free flow of ideas,  a sort of Dumbledore’s Army that even stood up to the Bush Administration’s reading invasions codified in the Patriot Act.

And so I’ll close out this post with some reading recommendations from the ALA’s compiled list of last years most frequently banned books.  And hey, pick up a copy of Queer 13 if you are looking for a touching series of untold stories about early adolescence.  Happy reading!

Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2008
Out of 513 challenges as reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom

  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
    Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence
  3. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  4. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence
  5. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence
  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group
  7. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
    Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group
  9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  10. Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper
    Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group



Filed under Censorship, Curriculum Wars, Family Values, Heterosexism, Propaganda, Sexual Orientation

2 responses to “Dangerous Ideas

  1. Jeff

    What class are you teaching? Can I sit in or at least get a copy of your reading list?

    • jheffern

      The class is part of an Equal Opportunity Series and it’s called Homophobia.
      I’ll pass along the reading list when I have it done!