Swerving off course

The path from GW freshman to Colombian School scholar is littered with cheap beer, tuition-induced poverty and J Street indigestion. But a true milestone for many freshmen may be an academic one.

The first day of every semester, freshmen walk into a classroom to complete their English requirement and emerge wondering whether they have crossed into a different academic arena.

English 11 classes, the gateway to more advanced courses – and to graduation – sometimes wander the fringe of the GW curriculum.

Several of the English 11 courses offered this semester address unusual topics, but the professors who teach them say the studies are intellectually valuable.

Professor Carolyn Betensky teaches English 11, section 17: “Dirty, Disgusting, Sick and Evil,” which lists Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting by James Kincaid among its required reading.

The course description poses several questions for students to consider during the semester: “What makes dirt dirt? What differentiates a cute image of a chubby newborn from a pornographic one? What, precisely, is `evil’? “

“We’re interested in looking at how we define what offends us,” says Betensky, who is beginning her second semester in the English department. “On one hand, we have the eroticization of innocence; on the other hand there is the story of child molestation in our culture told over and over again in great and lurid detail.”

“Who is the child molester? He is the cultural bogeyman,” Betensky says. “We eroticize children, yet then we demonize those who find them erotic.”

Another text used in the course, The Anatomy of Disgust, focuses on how society forms ideas of what is disgusting.

“Why does a hair disgust us when we find it in our soup, but not when its on someone’s head?” Betensky asks.

“Dirt is a relative term. Your dirt isn’t necessarily my dirt,” she adds.

As for her students, Betensky said they react with “intelligence and curiosity.”

“I warned people from the outset that we would be talking about offensive topics. I want them to analyze their offended feelings instead of saying `No. I won’t think about that.’

“We try as a department to engage students and challenge things we take for granted, leaving right or wrong aside. When we accept everything that seems obvious, without analyzing how it comes to be obvious, we close ourselves off,” Betensky said.

“My job isn’t to say molestation is right or wrong – although of course it’s wrong,” she said. “Erotic Innocence is a brave, scholarly, humane work in favor of children. It in no way promotes child molestation.”

“Some parents might pick up the texts we use and ask their kids `What’s this trash?’ but I expect my students to be able to articulate and explain the importance of it,” Betensky said.

“I do want to deepen thought and in some cases, if students find their rejection of various groups of people based on feelings of inexplicable disgust for them – I want to change their behavior. I want them to work through it and reject their own disgust.

“I want to change my students’ thinking,” she says, “not spend my day in the gutter.”

Professor Allyson Polsky is a Ph.D. student in human sciences who has been an adjunct English professor since last semester. She teaches English 11.10, “Alien Nation.”

The course description reads, “Within recent history, accounts of alien abduction have proliferated within mainstream U.S. culture. These accounts point to our fears concerning invasion and otherness as well as reveal our insecurities about technology and the future. . This course will examine how these fears and insecurities coalesce around the outer space alien and the immigrant/illegal alien as well as examine the more recent emergence of inner space aliens (foreign invaders within the human body).”

Polsky defends the class’s topic, saying it is a research class that culminates in a serious project.

“For instance, students could choose to look into mainstream versus tabloid press coverage of alien abductions,” Polsky says.

“My class is not just about little gray men. It is a metaphor for what’s strange. To say it’s `out there,’ well, that’s exactly what it is. Like they say on the `X-Files,’ `the truth is out there,'” she says.

“And just because it’s not mainstream doesn’t mean it’s some kind of politically correct agenda. This is not identity politics. I’m not saying aliens should have civil rights. It’s about why aliens are so popular, not whether we believe in them or not,” Polsky says.

Professor Patrick McGann, teaches English 11.30, “Walk Like A Man, Talk Like A Man.” He says his course focuses on masculinity and grew out of the women’s studies field in the mid-1980s.

“We deal with the moments of conflict that men have to deal with – like the notion that they are not supposed to be emotional, although most men are,” McGann says.

McGann says his course assumes some feminist theories can be valuable to men. He concedes the course is not a literature class – it is a course about writing.

“The old school of teaching said that professors should do everythingin a neutral way,” McGann says. “But the academic world is about challenges to thinking. Political correctness is tossed around to escalate tensions, but in the end, no teacher should pretend to be neutral.”

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