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pushing the edge

I start teaching a critical thinking class next week, and awhile back, after a long discussion with my wife, I made an adjustment to the syllabus. I like to assign at least one movie in every class I teach. The main difference between this semester and earlier classes is that I’ve chosen one of those big-ass textbooks that covers the basics of critical thinking, instead of my usual method of choosing several shorter books. I mention this because part of that textbook is devoted to “current issues,” and I wanted a movie that would fit into that package.

I chose Juno. Or rather, I replaced my original choice with Juno. I think this will work out well … it addresses teen pregnancy and abortion, and what’s more of a hot-button issue than abortion? So let’s just say I haven’t made my life any easier by choosing this movie, but it will fit well, especially since abortion is covered in the textbook.

I waver in my commitment to assigning texts that will challenge students, believing strongly that college is a place where you are exposed to different ideas, but also accepting that some things are so bothersome to large numbers of students that you never get past the bothersome part. I took an undergraduate course on the Western at Cal, and the professor showed Junior Bonner. I was puzzled by this, and asked him why that and not The Wild Bunch? He said something to the effect that some movies, like The Wild Bunch, had such a strong (and perhaps mostly negative) effect on students that it became very difficult to do any real analysis of the film. I thought he was wrong … and if it was me, I might still show The Wild Bunch … but I found myself understanding his position the first (and only) time I showed Natural Born Killers to a class. (More than one student’s paper included the admission that they hadn’t watched the whole movie because they couldn’t take it. This was at Cal, BTW.)

There are several factors that enter into the selection of texts in my current environment. My community college students are a varied bunch, as is true in all classes at all levels. And, just as at a top university like Cal, there are good students and lesser students … and the good students can be just as good as their Berkeley counterparts (I attended three junior colleges, myself, before transferring to Cal). But in general, the Sacramento area that supplies most of my student body is more conservative than Berkeley (not that hard … it’s Berkeley, after all). This doesn’t mean we can’t push the edge, but the edge is in a slightly different place in Sacramento than it is in Berkeley. Also, I teach online classes, and it is much more difficult to push the edge when you don’t have regular, face-to-face encounters where you can hash things out.

So … I chose Juno, which pushes the edge a bit, but I decided it was a better choice than my first pick … and if you’ve made it this far, I hope you are wondering what I had in mind that I thought would be more troublesome to my students than a movie about, among other things, abortion.

That movie was The Rapture. I love The Rapture more than most people do, and I’ve long wanted to teach it in one of my classes. I was a bit concerned by all of the sex in the early parts of the movie, but decided that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for my students. But when I told my wife about my choice, she started a serious discussion that led me to chance the movie away from The Rapture. And it had nothing to do with sex.

No, it was religion. She reminded me that I tend to avoid religion as a topic in my classes, far more than I do with any other “controversial” issue. And she reminded me that the setting for my class, where I wouldn’t have daily face-to-face with students, would make it hard to get my points across. I argued that The Rapture doesn’t take sides, but she noted that such a statement is a bit loose … the movie’s version of not taking sides is to piss off all sides equally, or at least everyone in the audience who doesn’t welcome an honest examination of the role of God and religion in our lives. One thing is for certain: no matter what you bring to the table, The Rapture does not make things easy for you.

And that’s when I knew I had to change the syllabus. My wife convinced me that the class would never get past the uncomfortable, pissed-off part, would struggle to get to a place where rational analysis could take place. I think The Rapture is a better movie than Juno, but a syllabus isn’t just about selecting your favorites, or we’d read Camus and watch The Godfather every semester.

What really interests me, what inspired this long post, is the realization that the basis of my decision is that I think religion is the one topic I just can’t face up to in the classroom. Whether it’s because I don’t think my students could get past their own beliefs, or because I don’t think I could get past my own beliefs, religion is still something I avoid in my classes.

(I am fully aware that my students can read this, if they bother to google me … heck, some of my ex-students are Facebook friends who will see this when it gets cross-posted. It would be interesting to see what they think of my teeth-gnashing.)