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Making Students ‘Uncomfortable’ With Sexually Graphic Novels Is Not ‘Challenging’ Them

A student at Duke, Brian Grasso, is refusing to read the book that the university assigned to its incoming class as common reading.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t be news, but Grasso’s stand has made him the target of national media.

The book is Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, her comic-book style memoir of growing up in rural Pennsylvania with a gay father as she experiences her own sexual awakening as a lesbian.  Grasso, a Christian, objects not because of the theme but because of the explicit “graphic visual depictions” of sex acts.

Grasso, of course, is being mocked as a closed-minded prude. Among the mockers is Paula Young Lee at Salon who thinks Grasso has no idea how much sex is in the Bible. Lee suggests that Grasso may have “peeped” at the dirty pictures in Fun Home, and also that he is distorting the Bible’s “noble message of Christian love and goodwill” to suit his own “moral framework.”

Meanwhile over at Slate, Jacob Brogan skewers Grasso and other Duke students who object to Fun Home as common reading. Brogan finds the scenes of “women engaging in oral sex” to be integral to the story and “critically moving,” and suggests that Grasso’s objections are “reenacting” the dilemma of the closeted gay father in Fun Home. Grasso is “homophobic” as well as foul-minded, because he has removed the sex scenes from their “living, breathing context.”

The controversy vaulted to national attention after The Washington Post reported it with the freshman Grasso the lead figure.

But for me the story began a little earlier.

“What do you think about graphic novels?” The question from a college administrator came at end of a talk I was giving about the books assigned to freshmen as “common reading.” I’ve studied trends in these assignments for the last six years. Graphic novels and graphic memoirs comprise a growing segment of the field. Nine of the 350-some colleges with common reading programs assigned graphic somethings last year. What do I think about them?

I’ve read much of Fun Home and I would say that the author, Bechdel, seems more interested in pushing boundaries than exciting prurient interest. The story, now a Broadway show, is thick with literary references and includes many of the artifices of highbrow fiction, such as looping back to retell the same episodes. It was well-reviewed when it came out, but a substantial minority of readers respond with words like “pretentious” and “dull.” And some with words like “offensive.”

I’ve been told that there is value in giving college students graphic novels because they provide a new dimension in which to appreciate the craft of the author. Bechdel is, no doubt, a skilled illustrator. Arguably it takes just as much work and thought to craft the pictures together with the dialogue and narration as it does to compose a book made up only of printed words. Colleges like to use graphic novels as common reading assignments because they more readily tempt students who might not otherwise care to read an assigned book outside class.

But my answer to that college administrator who asked me what I think of graphic novels for common reading is that they are a poor choice. They open students’ college careers with a beguiling misrepresentation.

One of colleges’ top purposes in assigning common reading is to give students a first sense of what the institution’s academic expectations are. What are Duke’s academic expectations? Are most texts on regular course syllabi full of comic strip pictures? If no, then Fun Home sets the bar too low and students will have an introduction to college intellectual life incongruous with what they will be doing for the rest of their time. If yes, then the school’s standards overall are in jeopardy.

Either way, a graphic book is easier to read than a picture-less one. The latter is preferable for the same reason it’s better to read the book before watching the movie version – there’s value in using imagination and not having images ready-supplied. We need to treat students as adults. College-level reading should be rigorous, and even a freshman summer read should prepare the way for a higher level of thinking.

Duke ranks highly as an elite private university, but it doesn’t seem to worry about the academic rigor of its common reading selection. The problem is that Duke, like many colleges today, has a confused concept of what it means to “challenge” students. It thinks challenging students means jarring them.

That’s apparent in the words of one of the Duke students who was on the committee that chose Fun Home. She said that it “made me uncomfortable at times, which I think is one of the most telling reasons why it’s so important for students to read.”

“With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking,” a university spokesman, Michael Schoenfeld, told the Washington Post. “We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.”

The Salon author righteously pointed out, “Learning is not always comfortable.”

Grabbing students’ attention and making them “uncomfortable” is not the same as challenging their minds. Colleges rightly want to challenge students’ “ways of thinking,” but they wrongly believe the way to do this is to find opportunities to be transgressive. The everything-your-parents-told-you-is-wrong approach is, by itself, vain. So is the compulsion to “lean into” controversy. A better way is to stretch students intellectually—to ask them to read books they think are too hard and lead them to appreciate ideas outside the inward-facing self-awareness genre.

Brian Grasso, the student who decided not to read the book, is being accused in Slate of perpetuating the infantile trend of requesting trigger warnings for disturbing classroom material. He said he would like his professors to warn him about similar images in the future. The recent rise of calls for trigger warnings has focused on shielding students from disfavored ideas (such as gender stereotypes) rather than from things that could cause them real psychological trauma. Is Grasso doing the same thing—acting like a coddled child? Is his request similar to that of the Columbia students who asked for trigger warnings for some of the University’s core texts, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

Grasso said he had made his choice not because he wasn’t open to new ideas (he described a conversation with a Buddhist bisexual in which they each learned from one another about their beliefs), or because he was traumatized by the material, but because he was disturbed by the images in the book, which depict NC-17-level male and female nudity, masturbation, and oral sex.

He makes a valid point: “There is an important distinction between images and written words.” This is just common sense. Advertising companies know the difference between words and images as they affect viewers’ memory, and research shows “visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text.” Professors may legitimately offer students an advance warning before showing them pictures or films containing violence, nudity, or other disturbing visual material (such as pictures of the results of abortion). We have film ratings for a reason. Words can be disturbing too, but pictures and movies are different in a way that everyone understands.

Grasso’s accusers are right that not all nudity is pornographic. But neither is it necessary to make the sexual pictures in Fun Home part of Duke students’ welcome to college.

So what do I think of graphic novels? Intellectually, they are too easy. Giving students picture books is coddling them. Giving them trigger warnings for ideas is coddling them too, though there is a place for trigger warnings for visual matter. Colleges need to set higher standards for both students and themselves. They need to show that they understand how to challenge students intellectually, not just how to make them uncomfortable.

Ashley Thorne is executive director of the National Association of Scholars.

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