Saturday, April 19, 2014

South Carolina Upstate and Whether to Be a University

Yesterday I promised more contenders for the 4th Annual Curmie Award, presented to the individual or group who most embarrass the profession of education. At first I wasn’t sure whether this story qualifies or not. On the one hand, the real idiots of the piece are GOP state legislators who neither know nor care anything about education (insert boilerplate apology for redundancy here)—they can hardly embarrass a profession they don’t come close to representing. But those who capitulate to the hypocritical and anti-intellectual posturings of small-minded and censorial zealots: they are not without culpability. And so it is that the administration of the University of South Carolina Upstate is officially in the running for the [not so] coveted Curmie.

This is a multi-part story that begins with the university’s decision to assign Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio as the “Preface text” for incoming students. In other words, every Upstate freshman will read and discuss a single text. It’s a strategy that has been around for a long time—I participated in a variation on the theme when teaching at a small liberal arts college over 20 years ago.

The question, obviously, is what text—something canonical or something worthy but unknown? Something that will reaffirm students’ belief systems or something that will challenge them? Something everyone can agree on or something that will be applauded by many and despised by some? Upstate officials’ choice was a collection of personal stories from the Rainbow Radio program, which “has grown into a grassroots-driven community radio show that, since 2005, has offered diverse, accurate, and often unparalleled stories of gay and lesbian Southerners, their families and their friends.”

In making this choice, USCU opted for the latter path in each of the binaries described in the previous paragraph. Were they attracted in part by the potentially alluring naughtiness of assigning gay-themed reading matter at a state university in South Carolina? Perhaps. And so what? College is different from high school, and, done right, it challenges students to think critically and to respond objectively and professionally to material that may be utterly novel: any belief system that cannot withstand a little scrutiny is one best abandoned.

The response was a classic of symbolic petulance—a technique mastered by blue-state state legislators: Upstate and another public university, the College of Charleston, had their budgets cut in House committee by the precise amount spent on the book programs. In Upstate’s case, that totaled $17,142. One Garry Smith, a state representative, spearheaded the cuts, arguing that students ought to be able to opt out of having to read a book that is “purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.” Curmie hasn’t read the book (and he’s got 20 bucks that says Smith hasn’t, either), but I’m willing to posit the idea that the only thing being “promoted” is the idea that individuality isn’t such a bad thing. And I don’t recall being asked if I wanted to do the reading for any course I ever took.

The idea that the state legislature ought to be interfering in such matters is particularly laughable (or it would be, if the stakes weren’t so high) coming from the right, who are all about “small government” except when… well, they’re the government, and they get to tell other people what to do. And, as J. Bryan Lowder writes on the Slate site:
The trouble is, if your goal is to excise scary gay stuff, that route pretty quickly gets you to a place where Homer’s Iliad (one of the seminal texts of Western literature) would need to be cut—unless you want Achilles and Patroclus promoting their homoerotic lifestyle all over the seminar table. Smith and his ilk most assuredly don’t want that; and, based on their willingness to entertain this kind of embarrassing intellectual prudery, they apparently don’t want South Carolina college students to come out of the state system any wiser or more prepared for work in a diverse world than when they entered it.
One might also note that most of the classics of literature feature behavior outside the normative: Hamlet and Macbeth commit regicide, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are but two of many adulterers in “great books,” and Oedipus was a real motherf… you get the idea.

Moreover, as Terry Adams points out in one of the finest short essays Curmie has read in a long time (seriously, click the link and read the whole thing), conservatives’ new-found interest in government oversight is not merely hypocritical but deeply problematic:
If South Carolina's government can tell colleges what is and is not beyond the pale, if they can determine what is and is not appropriate on the subject of knowledge, if they can decide which manner of thinking is acceptable, if they can tell students when they are and are not ready to engage the significant issues of our time, what can we reasonably expect them not to control?
Anyway, the Upstate administration seems to have come through this brouhaha pretty well. They figured out a way to withstand the cuts, and they didn’t back down to the headline-seeking legislators.

A little later, they didn’t do so well. The university hosted and apparently sponsored a symposium called Bodies of Knowledge: New Normals, Old Normals, Future Normals in the LGBTQ Community. It appears to have been indistinguishable except in subject matter from virtually any other scholarly conference: a series of papers, a plenary session or two, some entertainment that may or may not be relevant to the conference’s disciplinary focus.

One of the events originally scheduled for the symposium was a one-woman play entitled How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less, which was to have been performed by performance artist Leigh Hendrix. The show’s website describes the play thus [note: the website expired a couple of days ago; I quote here from the article of Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Education]:
… a hilarious coming out story for queers and non-queers alike. Motivational speaker and expert lesbian Butchy McDyke deftly guides her captive audience in an exploration of self-discovery and first love, coming out, lesbian sex, queer politics, and a really important Reba McEntire song as they learn to confidently shout, 'I’m a big ‘ol dyke!' Writer and performer Leigh Hendrix weaves a story that is one part instructional seminar, one part personal story, and one part wacky performance art. At turns funny and poignant, silly and earnest, How To Be A Lesbian in 10 Days or Less is the perfect guide to gay for budding lesbians, no matter their sexual orientation!
All of which, of course, led state senator Mike Fair to come to the inevitable conclusion that “It's just not normal and then you glorify, or it seems to me, that the promotion at USC Upstate is a glorification of same-sex orientation…. That's not an explanation of ‘I was born this way.’ That's recruiting.” Yes, Mike Fair is transcendently stupid, even by Republican state legislator standards. That puts him about on a par with an over-ripe kumquat in the smarts department. Seriously… Butchy McDyke? That’s not a clue that there may be something a little sardonic about the play and its title?

Here’s Terry Adams again:
The title is ironic, as are the portions of the show that “teach” audience members how to be gay. But as is the case with most things deemed “political” in South Carolina, black and white are the only colors in our palette, and irony and humor are nowhere to be found. How daft can these people actually be? One cannot be taught to be gay. And if individuals claim that they were, then it’s highly likely they are charlatans. Being gay is not like adapting a core philosophy or set of principles. It is innate, and no more the product of choice or persuasion than our impulse to breath.
In other words, Fair and his brethren are utter idiots, so the university obviously did the only
"Butchy McDyke" responds to the cancellation
logical thing: they capitulated. Yes, really. Tammy E. Whaley, the university’s vice chancellor for communications sent forth this peculiar missive:
The title of ‘How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less,’ while deliberately provocative, is satirical in nature but has not been received as such. The controversy surrounding this performance has become a distraction to the educational mission of USC Upstate and the overall purpose of the Bodies of Knowledge symposium. As a result, we have canceled this segment of the symposium.
In another statement, she said:
So many people were interpreting her performance as an instructive session rather than the comical or satirical nature of the show. Elected officials and religious community members were thinking it was a class requirement verses [sic.] a symposium that was open to the campus and community.
Wait, what? I thought you were a university—you know, folks whose job it is to educate. Why on EARTH would you not take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate that the play in question is indeed exactly what Hendrix says it is: “I’m not here to tell you what to do. No, I’m here to ask you who you are.” What possible reason is there to hand over a heckler’s veto to the likes of the dullard Fair and his equally misinformed allies?

Ah, but the Idiot Fair and his colleague Lee Bright (“We want to make sure that there isn't an attempt at indoctrination and that’s what it appears from the outside.”) actually voted against reappointing USCU trustees because of the scheduled production. So freaking what? Are you a university or the legislature’s lapdogs? Wait—don’t answer that. I’d rather not know. What I do want to know is how these two jackasses got named Fair and Bright, when it’s abundantly clear that neither is either.

In the aftermath, the university is trying to act as if it were… you know… a university. Chancellor Tom Moore issued a three-page official response to the kerfuffle, entitled “On Being a University.” He makes a number of salient points: that programming oriented towards the LGBTQ community is necessary, and that the two controversial elements—the book and the play—are “but two of thousands [of activities] that occur on our campus every year and it is their challenging and thought provoking nature that helps us to achieve that desired balance.” But he still weasels out of responsibility for closing down the How to Be a Lesbian performance. (Interestingly enough, there was a panel at the symposium entitled “How to Be Queer,” which seems to have gone ahead without incident. One wonders whether the problem with the play was its theatrical nature, its gender specificity, or its promise of fast results.)

Perhaps he’ll get away with it. Variations on the word “force” are all over the articles on the events in South Carolina: “State legislators force USC Upstate to cancel LGBT play,” that sort of thing. But I don’t see forcing. Those who think they have the right to dictate a university’s curriculum and activities are legion. The correct response to them, more often than not, is a monodigital salute and the word “no.” Fair, Bright, and the rest of the censorial ignoramuses who comprise the South Carolina legislature should, in the words of General Barker in one of my favorite episodes of M*A*S*H, be given a high colonic and sent on a ten-mile hike.

Moore, Whaley, and their lot talk tough in the aftermath, but they were cravenness personified when it mattered. This game was long since over by the time they decided to prove that they’re vertebrates. That’s why they’re in Curmie contention.

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