Before this campus makes a martyr of former professor Michael Schaffer, it would do well to consider whether his human sexuality course was as academically sensible as it was popular. In the fracas surrounding Schaffer’s dismissal, the two have been easily equated. They shouldn’t be. A professor’s popularity is not a reliable barometer of his skill, nor is a trendy course necessarily a sound one. Although Schaffer was dismissed in an inexcusable manner, his self-designed sex class should still be subject to critique.
In declining to renew Schaffer’s contract, Patricia Sullivan and the department of exercise science may have committed a shameful foul-up. Receiving an empty threat in a student evaluation is not a firing offense; any student leaving malicious remarks may have been as appalled at his or her own grade as the professor’s teaching methods. Furthermore, if the University was indeed planning to eliminate the course, it should have done so concurrently with Schaffer’s dismissal.
Sullivan’s actions sent two explicit messages, assuming Schaffer’s account is accurate. One, now being broadcast to academia, is that GW is an institution that makes a charade of due process. This ignominy could have lasting implications on this University’s respectability.
The second message, though, is the more ruinous one – the message sent to GW students and professors. Sullivan and her department effectively told us that individual students now hold license to decimate a non-tenured professor’s career. They told students to view their professors not as mentors but as predators; students should see themselves as fragile prey in need of protection.
Despite GW’s folly in how it handled Schaffer’s dismissal, though, details have emerged which demand a critical examination of both Schaffer’s teaching and the content of his course.
A sexuality course certainly has a place in a university, but, if taught well, should remain a scholastic endeavor. It should not be group therapy. It should not be an “honesty session.” Rather, it should engage with the major thinkers on sexuality from Plato in the “Symposium” to Freud, Kinsey and Foucault. This more serious approach may not be as fun as watching clips of men and women masturbating or discussing the shaving of pubic hair – two reported lessons from Schaffer’s course – but it would at least salvage the course’s propriety.
Schaffer’s course, as reconstructed from his own syllabi and public remarks, set the intellectual climate of this University rocketing to new levels of frivolity. Schaffer made flippant innuendos in both course handouts and in written responses to student work. Students were asked to view assignments not as formal papers but as tell-all diary entries, the classroom as a “laid-back atmosphere.” Suggested topics for written work included “giving good head” and “my first orgasm.”
Additionally, Schaffer conducted surveys in which he asked students what they wanted him to teach. This practice would be acceptable in a free course taught at a health clinic, but certainly not in a university. In fact, it points to a larger crisis within the University: the goal is now pleasing students, not cultivating them. Professors become cheerleaders rather than counselors; Schaffer seems to have been captain of the squad.
Students argue that Schaffer helped them immensely in their “real lives,” yet street-smart lessons are precisely what the University need not teach. Students are awash in worldliness, especially in sexual matters. The University is supposed to offer a perspective detached from the world; we justify charging exorbitant tuition because we claim to provide an experience unavailable in the world.
The only unique experience Schaffer seems to have offered is that of reckless candor. Schaffer’s expectation that a student know how to “give good head” is certainly a long ways from the Delphic oracle’s difficult, abiding command to “know thyself.”
The principal defense of Schaffer’s course – its astronomic popularity – is also its fiercest indictment. The University, one must admit, is in a regrettable condition wherever the sober pursuit of knowledge has been usurped by an adolescent student clamoring for prurience.
-The writer is a sophomore majoring in English.