By Jana Naskova
A required reading in Academic Writing Skills (AWS) prompted students to send a petition to remove the text from the curriculum. The article, titled “Sins of the flesh: anorexia, eroticism and the female vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, was a feminist critique of the harm Victorian beauty standards caused to women.” It sparked controversy and discussion among students and teachers due to its descriptions of sexual violence and eating disorders. The petition was sent to all AWS teachers and was started by first-year students Mckayla Wehrli and Milan Matthes Kale.
Wehrli and Matthes Kale were motivated to start the petition, in early October, due to concerns about how the content of the article could affect fellow students. Matthes Kale says she found the article well-written, but that “the article vividly went into things like sexual assault and eating disorders. Without any context or warning, this could have potentially harmed someone who had gone through something like that.” In starting the petition, Wehrli and Matthes Kale said that they wanted the AWS coordinator team to understand that it wasn’t just a small number of students who thought that this was not a great topic for an article.
Wehrli and Matthes Kale emailed dr. Cor Zonneveld (who, together with dr. Dawn Skorczewski makes up the AWS coordinator team), to express their concern when the article was originally assigned. The petition itself was sent to the AWS coordinators and teachers two weeks after the article was assigned, along the typed student responses on whether the article should be removed from the curriculum. Fifteen students felt the article should be removed, taking issue with the graphic discussions of sexual violence and eating disorders in the text. Fourteen students felt that the article should stay part of the curriculum. The remaining forty students who voted in the petition felt an alternative reading should be offered in addition to the article remaining part of the curriculum. In their responses, some students also felt that the text warranted a “trigger warning”, while other students expressed concern that their grades would suffer because they decided not to read the article.
When the AWS coordinator team was interviewed for this article, they stated that the article’s title provided sufficient warning of its contents. They also say that not doing the assignment would minimally impact student academic performance, as the assignment only made up a very small percentage of the final grade. “The students could choose not to engage with this article further, if they wished”, said Skorczewski, explaining that mandatory discussion of the article took place during only one class period, which some students decided to skip.
“Trigger warnings are a big debate in the academic community, and at AUC as well,” said Zonneveld. “Finding an article which will not offend anyone is not possible, since having 300 students equals 300 potentially offensive topics. I am afraid that by avoiding difficult topics, we could end up with an article that offends no one, but also teaches nothing.” For Zonneveld, adding a trigger warning to this paper is a “no-go”, as he finds that shying away from uncomfortable topics now would not protect students from discussing such topics in the long term.
Skorczewski says that human pain and suffering are an integral part of the Humanities and it would not be possible to find an article which excludes such topics. From her perspective, it would be a misrepresentation of the field to suggest otherwise. Skorczewski therefore encouraged students who felt strongly about this article to channel this into their class writing for AWS, in particular the upcoming research essay.
The AWS coordinator team praised the petition for starting an important conversation. Skorczewski called the petition a “beautiful example of students entering the academic conversation”. According to her, part of “Sins of the Flesh” was in fact a successful article choice because it generated much discussion.
Because it took months to make the AWS curriculum, the course content will not be altered as a result of the petition. “Planning a course takes time, and you cannot immediately change the curriculum. Offering alternative readings would create difficulties at the organizational level”, said Zonneveld. Both Zonneveld and Skorczewski said that student feedback is always taken into account, especially in the course evaluations at the end of the course. However, they said that this does not mean that feedback will always result in immediate changes.
On November 3, the AWS coordinator team sent their response to the petition to all AWS students, which explained their choice of article, thanked students for their feedback, and expressed regret that there was no time to make changes to the curriculum since the petition arrived two weeks after the class in which “Sins of the Flesh” was discussed. They also expressed “regret that [they] did not frame the paper in a way that made it useful to some [AWS students], agreeing “that this topic cannot be comprehensively covered in a two-hour class.”
For Matthes Kale, a proper introduction to the article was warranted, and thinks such difficult topics should have been talked about in a safe space. She also advocates for more coping mechanisms and resources to be provided before discussing sensitive issues. She says, “Teachers need to learn more about these topics before they teach about them. In an ideal world, we would not just critique the article’s academic style, but also learn from these topics themselves.”
Wehrli and Matthes Kale felt that the AWS coordinator team’s reaction focused on explaining why they had chosen the article, rather than address students’ concerns with the article’s content. “I just wish they had responded to our actual issue, rather than responding to the credibility of the article,” said Wehrli. Matthes Kale agrees, saying, “I think that the school was missing the point in their reaction by not acting fast enough and not putting another option out there immediately.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. This is an updated version of the article; changes and additions were made to more accurately represent the AWS coordinator team’s position. A response to this article, written by them, will be published alongside the article in the coming days.