Virginia Tech: it’s all the fault of English teachers

26 04 2007

Virginia Tech: the blame game continues. Debbie Schlussel blamed Muslims foreigners. Dinesh D’Souza pointed the finger at atheism and secularism. Ken Ham blamed Charles Darwin.

Now Townhall’s Mary Grabar, herself a Temporary Assistant Professor of English at Clayton State University, Georgia, is blaming English teachers and professors.

If you were a student at Virginia Tech last fall and had a propensity for the gruesome and violent you could have satisfied your thirst for the bloody and course requirements by enrolling in Professor Brent Stevens’s English 3984 class, “Special Studies: Contemporary Horror.” And, as a plus, you wouldn’t have to read many books because some of the “texts”–as they increasingly are in English classes today–would be movies. [gasp! shock!!]

Guess who took that class that watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and explored in papers and a “fear journal” how “horror has become a masochistic pleasure,” according to the course description? Guess who read a graphic novel (a book with pictures, i.e., a comic book) titled From Hell by Alan Moore [Smelling salts! Stat!!!], presented by Professor Stevens as “one of the most popular and accomplished writers in the medium,” as well as the work of scholarly “criticism,” Men, Women and Chainsaws? [Argument from scare quotes. If Grabar wants us to convince us that the work in question is indeed of questionable scholarly value, she needs to demonstrate how. Just placing "scare quotes" around the word "criticism" is no subtitute for an actual argument. One hopes she doesn't model such poor reasoning in her own classes.] Guess who was drawn to the course described by the professor with these words: “We are consuming horror on an unprecedented scale. But the rules have changed. Until recent years, lead characters could be counted on to survive the invasion of zombies/homicidal maniacs/vampires. But this margin of safety no longer exists; horror has become a masochistic pleasure”? Guess who said to himself, “Bingo! That’s the course I want!” to a course description that ended with the words, ‘WARNING: Not for the faint of heart.”

Cho Seung-Hui proved, indeed, that he was not “faint of heart.” His own massacre of 32 fellow students and professors on April 16 demonstrated that if he did have a heart it was filled with evil. Cho outdid Freddy Krueger.

Minor quibble: Didn’t one of the victims in Texas Chainsaw Massacre escape the killers? Never mind. In effect, Grabar is laying the blame for the VT shootings on Brent Stevens and his “Contemporary Horror” course.

In a feature story on his class last year, Stevens commented that “The goal of the class was to get students to think analytically about the books and films they reviewed.” This would be stating the bleeding obvious to anyone who has taken or taught an English or cultural studies unit at university, be it a general film studies unit or, say, a unit on Utopian Fiction or Postmodern Gothic (the latter of which might find one encountering Anne Rice novels or The Crow). In such courses students are encouraged to think critically about the texts they study: in terms of how they privilege or marginalise certain values or social groups, perhaps, or how they engage with prevailing or obscure ideas and philosophical currents–both contemporary as well as those which prevailed at the time the film or book in question was first produced. (I can already hear the STRAIGHT FROM CHAIRMAN MAO!!!!!!!!! tripwires being set off in certain brains.) The point is, thinking analytically about a book of film–regardless of whether a Leavisite or poststructuralist methodology is applied–requires on the part of the reader an ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

In my experience, many students hate this. I taught a cultural studies unit at a local university a few years ago, and I remember students complaining to me that they were no longer able to enjoy the latest megaplex blockbusters because they had become so accustomed to reading films through the lens of semiotic analysis. They still had to learn, I responded, the art of knowing when and when not to suspend disbelief. Being able to suspend disbelief willingly, of course, is itself dependent upon the capacity to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Given the aims of his class, it would not have been unreasonable for Stevens to expect that each of his students–being university students and not five-year-olds–possessed this capacity when they signed up for his class: indeed, it is difficult to see how one could have passed his course without the ability to suspend disbelief and attend to horror films and fiction critically and analytically.

All of which escapes Grabar, who is apoplectic at the very notion of [cue fainting spell] horror films being used as objects of study in university English courses:

The showing of the videos and writings left by Cho has stirred up much debate by commentators. But what about the videos and books that were considered “texts” in an English class in an institution of supposedly “higher learning”? Would NBC and other stations be criticized for airing footage from one of the required class texts, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on prime time? But this is what Cho and his classmates were writing term papers on.

Of course, Grabar fails to offer any sound reasons why texts like Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be considered unsuitable for use in a university English course. She just asserts that it is, and proceeds to assert a post hoc ergo propter hoc link between Cho Seng-Hui’s enrolment in Stevens’s class, and his subsequent killing spree. Again I ask, would she accept this rubbish from her own students?

But it’s not all Stevens’s fault, Grabar is careful to point out. There is also the fact that public schools and universities are secular institutions, owing to some document called “the Constitution” and some quaint notion of “the separation of church and state.”

In our schizophrenic universities students are taught that Christianity is evil and that heroism is a passé idea of old fools; at the same they are trained in pacifism and sensitivity. College classes extend from high school the training in respect and appreciation for the practices of every other culture, while disparaging our own. Students, steeped in relativism, scoff at the notion of original sin, insisting that it is our culture, especially its religion, that corrupts the heart and mind of the inherently innocent child.

When most college freshmen are presented with Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion that government should encourage religious belief and that atheists should be “marked as the natural foes of the whole people,” they gaze with horror. How dare he state that an atheist’s ideas are less valid than a Christian’s! How judgmental and intolerant! Why atheists, they insist (sometimes pointing to themselves), can be “good people.”

You see, events like VT happen not just because Gawud and Jeebus have been expunged from the classroom, but because the evil English professors teach kids to hate God! I mean, they actually teach kids that Christianity is evil!! And even worse than that, they even have the temerity to insist that atheists can be “good people” and should not be considered the natural enemies of the nation. (Even Daddy Bush insisted that atheists weren’t really citizens.) And–and in the nation’s kindergartens, they show kids videos of donkeys fellating elephants!!!

I mean, come on. It’s one thing to make unsupported and fallacious assertions about the link between screening horror movies in English class and students shooting up the entire campus, but it’s entirely another thing to just make shit up like the notion that students are taught that Christianity is evil. Please, Grabar, please provide the evidence that this endemic–if it occurs at all–across the “schizophrenic” (exactly what makes them schizophrenic Grabar doesn’t say–I guess if Grabar says it, we’re supposed to believe it) universities of America. While you’re at it, you might like to demonstrate exactly why it is impossible for atheists to be good people. Don’t worry about the donkeys fellating elephants thing–I made it up–but it’s no less credible than anything Grabar is selling.

So how does this “godless-education-leads-straight-to-school-shooting-massacre” thesis work? I’m not really sure, but apparently after 13 years of secular indoctrination you get students who are:

only eighteen years old, but they are firmly set in their beliefs in gay marriage, unrestricted abortion, the prohibition of prayer in the public arena—and in cynicism about previously cherished values like heroism, nobility, and honor.

And as we all know, it’s but a hop, skip and a jump from advocacy of gay marriage to mass murder.

To aid and abet this moral leveling we have a curriculum made up of titillating ephemera. Among the panoply of trivia are grievance tracts by “overlooked” writers, cave paintings, scalp dances, performance art, pornography—and horror flicks–that professors think will draw student-customers. It’s not that the great writers did not depict evil and horror; just read Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Flannery O’Connor. Pious literature is no more great literature than slash-and-burn movies are great cinema. But great literature, while providing the cathartic experience of tragedy, engages us in moral questions.

Two points. First, on what grounds has it been decided that you can’t use horror films to explore moral questions? Yet another unsubstantiated claim. And second–leaving aside the unsubstantiated claim that professors select course texts based on what they think will attract enrolments–what’s a Republican doing bandying about a term like “student-customers” in such a derisive fashion? This is the party that embraces the very neoliberalist business models that universities have been forced to adopt in order to maintain their funding levels. Newsflash: the business model that Grabar, as a Republican, has such a hard-on for couldn’t give a flying fuck about Shakespeare or morality.

Bottom line: Cho Seng-Hui did what he did because he was mentally ill–if this made him more susceptible to the so-called deleterious influences of exposure to violent images (as some suggest), it is because he suffered an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Interestingly, by advocating that English classrooms be transformed into sites of Christian indoctrination, Grabar is advocating that students be indoctinated into a mindset marked by a similar inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Rather than being sites where critical thinking is nurtured, Grabar wants to transform English classrooms into places where magical, dogmatic thinking is privileged. Therefore, I read Grabar’s attempt to blame the Virginia Tech shootings on Stevens’s horror film and fiction course as a classic case of projection. She subscribes to a religious ideology that values credulity, dogmatism and literalism over higher-order cognitive, critical and interpretive skills; hence she assumes that anyone who takes Stevens’s class will be as credulous, dogmatic and literal-minded as she is.

Grabar seems to be the kind of Christian who would maintain that the only thing preventing her from perpetrating her own VT massacre is that God told her not to. This makes her far more dangerous than any evilatheistevilutionistabortionisthomosexualistleftwingprofessor with a scholarly interest in horror.

Thanks to Sammy Jankis for bringing this to my attention (at Bruce’s). Cross-posted at Punditocracy Watch.

UPDATE: More thoughts on Texas Chainsaw Massacre at But Don’t Try To Touch Me.


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23 04 2012
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I attended the Stevens’ English 3984 class, “Special Studies: Contemporary Horror” and was in the same class as Cho. Like a lot of people taking English courses I took this class because I was hoping it would help my GPA. Unfortunately the class was overly ambiguous and seemed more of a pet project created by Stevens with unclear motivations. It was also unclear what he was trying to communicate and if there was any real positive value being offered to his students.

During class, Stevens would discuss themes found in horror movies which he seemed to identify with on a personal level. I remember Stevens being slow to grade papers and unwilling to provide reasoning behind the grades he assigned. Stevens’ lectures had an obvious anti-establishment sentiment. One of many underlying themes of the class seemed to be that we (as both protagonists and antagonists) are victims of our society.

I remember feeling exhausted after classes after being force fed Stevens’ conclusions that necrophilia and “loss of innocence” themes were in every horror movie/book we watched or read. Stevens was brilliant at engaging students and having them look at film and literature with a more analytical eye; however, lectures allowed students to look analytically at questions while providing no clear conclusions. At times, Stevens himself seemed severely demented while painting horror films and literature as art; never fully making the distinction between entertainment and reality.

After I received my final grade for the class, I was expecting an A and received a C- with no reasons provided by Stevens. I went to the dean of the English department to question my grade and there was no assistance offered. If professors are derelict in their responsibility to communicate reasoning behind grading, it is no question that they would be just as unwilling to act when it comes to matters of actual consequence.

In my opinion, Stevens can only be blamed for unknowingly spewing out an entire semester’s worth of questionable rhetoric to a deranged and troubled student. Unfortunately, The responsibility of teachers to act as leaders, counselors, and role models remains vague. Luckily for Stevens, and all professors in public sector academia, no responsibility for the well being, learning, success, or failures of students has been assigned; therefore, there can be no accountability outside of reallocating public funding. Hopefully public funding leaves the hands of the English department sooner than already expected.

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