Friday, August 03, 2007

On Teaching Explicit Material

This fall, I am teaching an Intro to Drama course that I haven't taught in five years, which means I'm reinventing large chunks of the course. One of the big changes is that I'm using a completely different anthology, one that has two texts that I'm thrilled to teach. One is Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9, a very funny late-70s play that takes on sexual politics with a comparatively light touch, but which violates any number of sexual taboos in the process. I've taught it before in my Brit II class with a fair amount of success, and it remains perhaps my favorite play (if I had to name one).

The second one is a riskier proposition: Sarah Kane's Blasted was famously reviewed by British drama critic Jack Tinker as a "disgusting feast of filth," (many reviewers have since recanted their initial negative reviews after Kane's death, after the positive enduring reception of her work, and after the revival of her small body of work) and is not only sexually brutal but also graphically violent.

I do have a point, and a major one, to make with these two plays, since the whole theme of the course is to think about the social function of the genre of drama, particularly as it contrasts with fiction and film. The liveness of explicit material, treated humorously or gruesomely as the case may be, exemplifies the mindsets of two major thinkers of 20th century theatre, Brecht and Artaud, both of whom were deeply concerned with theatre's ability to change minds. And remember, the title of this space is "To Delight and To Instruct." That very tension will run through the course.

But. BRU's average student is hardly cosmopolitan (though it certainly has some sophisticated students). This is an undergrad course, with slightly fewer than half of the students as majors. This is not a population just waiting to read texts like this. I don't want to move the plays from the syllabus, but I want to give them fair warning.

After a conversation with a close friend who is a magnificent teacher, I polished up a statement I want to include on my syllabus:

For a few of the works later in the semester, notably Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, you will encounter some images that you may find shocking or even disturbing. Both plays contain some taboo sexuality (although they treat it differently), and Blasted in particular contains some very graphic violence. As you approach these texts, I ask that you do your best to first try them out with an open mind. The point of including them on the syllabus is in part to explore how such material functions on the page vs. on the stage, and we’ll need to work toward having as open a conversation about these pieces as possible.

The goal here is to let people know that I'm not teaching these texts blithely, that I am not trying to trick them into reading something they object to terribly, but also that I do want to introduce them to new viewpoints, and Kane's, though brutal, is also important. I do not want to set up the "I'd like an alternate text to read" scenario, though, which strikes me as intellectually cowardly.

I know that there are those of you out there who teach explicit material to a variety of populations (cough), and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


Dr. Crazy said...

I teach Cloud 9 in intro to lit, and I teach explicit texts in a variety of other courses, and I've never included such a statement as the one you have here on a syllabus, and it's not been a problem. That said, in the courses where I've taught explicit texts, explicit stuff hasn't made up the bulk of the syllabus, which I think is one reason why I've shied away from such statements, which I think can put undue emphasis on the explicit texts over the broader goals I'm trying to meet with the course as a whole. Also, I think that it does matter where the explicit stuff falls in the course of the syllabus, and if it falls later, students are more likely to see where I'm going with including those texts, which makes a difference, too.

Now, in introducing explicit texts, I do verbally say things that are a lot like what you put in your statement, and I usually talk a bit about the fact that one of the roles of literature is to challenge us to think about things in different ways, even if that sometimes makes us uncomfortable. For me, that has been a way to reach a happy medium with acknowledging students' potential discomfort without unduly influencing the way that they read the texts in front of them.

I've never offered an alternate text option, and I understand your resistance to doing so. These are adult readers - they should be able to engage with a text even if it upsets them or if it contradicts their own beliefs. I'm not sure there's a difference between something explicit like Kane's play and teaching a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, for example, in that regard.

Ok, this is getting long - I think I'm going to drop you an email to talk about things a bit more (and a bit more specifically). I'd be interested in seeing what others have to say, too, though!

Sisyphus said...

I've TAd for WS courses where we had alternate assignments for _Bastard out of Carolina_ (the film and the book) and, what was it, _The Laramie Project_ (the documentary about Brandon Teena, not Boys Don't Cry). The thinking was that people who had actually experienced this type of violence shouldn't have to re-live it in the course. I think a lot of students used the alternate text stuff as an "out" cause they didn't want to do hard thinking or upset themselves. And a lot of them just took it as a week vacation from class 'cause when I called 'em on their absences they said "but the prof said we didn't have to deal with it!"

I also think that having the alternate assignments and written notice made it, if I can say so without sounding weird, a bigger deal than it was. This type of violence is terrible, but knowing about it won't kill you. And it kinda "worked up" my students into thinking that these weeks would be a big horrible ordeal and that they wouldn't be able to say anything about it because these ideas were so bad they can't be talked about. So it shut down discussion in ways I didn't like.

What to do _instead,_ though, I don't know.

Bardiac said...

I like the statement you're planning to put up. Are you showing film versions?

I find that most of my students (at a variety of levels) don't find drama texts too intense or problematic, but if I show a film (say, Jarmin's Edward II), then several will be really uncomfortable. Violence doesn't seem to bother most students at all, EXCEPT for sexual or domestic violence. I'm pretty flexible if someone's uncomfortable about that because I don't usually know what's behind things. But I've never been asked for an alternative for violence issues, just had some emotional written responses or office visits.

Dr. Crazy said...

I thought I'd check back in to see what others had to say, and also to add something related that I discussed with Medusa - that perhaps your gender matters here, which would be a reason to include the statement. As we were talking about it, both of us noted that perhaps we'd (both of us tend to teach explicit stuff) feel differently about including a disclaimer if we were male, which shifts the power dynamic in interesting ways. Because we're women, we're seen as less threatening, and the choice to include such texts takes on different connotations than it would if we were male (perhaps). Again, I think that the statement that you describe is fine, so if it makes you feel more comfortable I'd include it.