'Hot for Teacher' lawsuit shows risk of journal assignments
If there was ever a university story made for internet buzz, it’s this one about Oakland University student Joseph Corlett who was kicked out of his school after writing suggestive assignments about his English instructor, Pamela Mitzelfeld.
Not only does this story have the classic element of sexual tension between teacher and student, it also raises difficult questions about feminist sensitivities, free expression, and even public safety since, it turns out, Corlett is a second-amendment advocate, and his teacher was reportedly worried he might turn up with a gun.
Corlett, according to reports, wrote, as part of an assignment, a provocative journal entry called “Hot for Teacher,” riffing on the Van Halen song of the same title and speaking in detail about what he deemed Mitzelfeld’s distracting physical charms. Teacher was not so hot for the writing, though, and complained to her administration, saying that either Corlett had to go or she would.
Long story short: Mitzelfeld was pissed off, Corlett was tossed out, and now the whole thing is the subject of a multi-million dollar lawsuit. You hardly need to google any further to imagine how this is playing online.
But as a stodgy, aging academic, what concerns me most is what this story says about the state of English writing assignments. In short, consider how much of this brouhaha might have been avoided if the teacher in question had refrained from assigning journal-style writing in the first place.
Journal-type assignments are much in vogue these days among many instructors because they seem to promise a way out of the limiting, pedantic, old-fashioned essay. The journal, in other words, allows students to say what they really want to say without worrying about conventions and expectations.
Which is a laudable goal, of course, until students actually say what they really want to say without worrying about conventions and expectations. Like, for example, how their instructor reminds them of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.
Say what you want about the traditional essay, but there are reasons for the conventions and expectations, not the least of which is that they help keep the whole process on track, and indeed protect all parties involved.
Case in point: if the professor had assigned a more traditional academic paper, the student would have likely felt less inclined to muse about her sexy accent and provocative mole. And if he did write about such things, the professor could have simply failed him on the grounds that the writing was inappropriate to the assignment. Instead, she has to fall back on poorly-defined notions of feelings of safety and an atmosphere of disrespect.
I once fell into a similar trap, allowing students to substitute a poem for an essay in my introductory courses. But then, one day, I got a poem from a student about how disgusting and stupid fat people were. And, I, a man of some size, felt, shall we say, like the atmosphere had become a bit disrespectful. I don’t offer that option anymore.
Corlett may be the victim of an over-reaction. Mitzelfeld may be the victim of a student who doesn’t understand boundaries.
Both might have avoided victimhood if their course had been structured differently from the beginning.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.