Yes, I deleted a provocative story from my syllabus in a maternal impulse. I happen to know one of my students, and I know he has a pornography addiction. (However, I might be writing about a previous semester.) I attend the LDS addiction recovery services weekly with a young man who is trying to overcome a drug addiction. I go to the family support sessions, where we often have wives or fiancees of porn addicts. I see their pain. I hear them say, “I’m ready to give up. I hate that he keeps relapsing,” or, “I can’t do this anymore.” Usually, “I keep praying. I keep praying.”
I take all addictions seriously.
In many ways, this censorship of my reading assignments goes counter to my literature-loving self. I am a real fan of Saul Bellow, and wanted to include his “Something to Remember Me By” in my syllabus. But I am very aware of the Bellowesque descriptions of a woman’s sexual organs. Can I teach a brilliant story which has such graphic descriptions? What if this story is simply too much for my addicted student, and what if there are others like him in my class? Where does my responsibility lie?
Previously, my solution has been to provide a warning (but could that also be an invitation?) about the story, and to also provide alternative reading, but to keep it in my syllabus. I am personally unaffected by the images Bellow evokes, just astounded at his skill and at the unity of the story’s elements. Finally, the couple of pages devoted to sexual imagery (a prostitute seems to be seducing a kid, but ultimately just steals his clothes) are only a minor part of the whole story, which is rich with meaning and insight. I gained new thoughts from my reading of it, and plan on reading it again as I prepare to teach.
Remember that BYU and all Church schools are different than others. I know for sure that if one of my teachers said, “I thought this story—which is one of the best ever written—might do some moral damage to some of you who have less sophistication than I have”, I’d be offended—and then I’d go read the story. But I approach my classes with a rather maternal attitude. I become a midwife to my students’ creative work. Do I also help expand their imaginations by the stories I introduce them to? But shouldn’t they get to know Bellow? Shouldn’t they learn to see the whole story and not stop at a provocative paragraph?
The question is, should we get to the truth through an alley which is simply too dangerous for some readers? Do I have a right to decide what my students are prepared to read and what they should approach with caution? If they don’t learn to read Bellow, have they kept themselves from some of the greatest literature in the world? As a corollary, do people who never learn to read well suffer by not experiencing the literary journeys of Dostoevsky’s Ivan, Morrison’s Sethe, or Twain’s Huck Finn? Do they settle for sugary kitsch when they could be sitting at Babette’s feast?
For now, my decision is to delete Bellow from my syllabus. Perhaps this sort of reaction just happens when English teachers become grandmothers.