Too Hot for Professor?

February 13, 2012

The guidelines for the "Writer’s Daybook" in English 380 at Oakland University specified that students should write regularly, using their notebooks to "try out ideas and record observations." While students were told they had to use it regularly, and have their entries dated, they were generally encouraged to stretch. Spelling and punctuation would not be checked. Students were told to "try to relax and allow this to work for you."

One of the students may have been too honest in his writing — and he has since been suspended for three semesters, and told to undergo counseling if he wishes to enroll in the future. The university maintains that Joseph Corlett violated a rule that states that "no person shall engage in any activity, individually or in concert with others, which causes or constitutes a disturbance, noise, riot, obstruction or disruption which obstructs or interfered with the free movement of persons about the campus…. [N]or shall any person in any way intimidate, harass, threaten or assault any person engaged in lawful activities on the campus."

The statements in the student’s journal that set off his suspension came in an entry called "Hot for Teacher" in which he quotes the Van Halen song and then goes on to talk of his affection for an instructor. He writes of her physical characteristics, and says that there’s "no way I’ll concentrate in class," when he can see "a sexy little mole on her upper mole beckoning…." In another entry, he says he is "not a maniac for every female," but that he tries to "find something attractive about everyone."

He writes of a number of female instructors’ physical characteristics. In one entry directed to Pamela Mitzelfeld, his writing instructor, he speculates about how — after the course is over — they might become Facebook friends. While the entries describe various women in ways that might make them identifiable to those on campus, and are written in ways many would find immature or insulting, the entries don’t contain threats against any of the women. (The entries can be read here, where the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is demanding that Corlett be reinstated, has posted them.)

FIRE maintains that Corlett’s rights were violated by the university, and that there was no reason to treat him as threatening. "It is not against the law to be — or to be perceived as — a creep," said Adam Kissel, vice president of FIRE. Noting that many great writers have expressed their admiration for women (in ways that shocked and offended many), Kissel said, "I can hardly imagine what kind of counseling Oakland would have required for Quentin Tarantino, Vladimir Nabokov, or Stephen King."

Officials at Oakland, a public institution in Michigan, declined to comment on the case, and said that the institution could not do so without violating privacy rules. Mitzelfeld did not respond to an e-mail message seeking comment.

FIRE obtained many documents about Corlett’s treatment, and they reference an additional concern that FIRE does not consider valid. An e-mail from Mitzelfeld to various officials, in which she complained that the administration was not acting on her concerns about Corlett, said that he had a "gun obsession" that was public and that made her and other females on the campus feel unsafe. She specifically noted that he had written to the student newspaper defending the right of concealed carry of a weapon on campus. "I cannot feel safe knowing that he might have a weapon with him at any time. He might have had a gun in his backpack when he sat 20 feet away from me at the writing center last week," she wrote.

Corlett has in fact written a letter to the editor of the student newspaper about concealed carry.

But Kissel of FIRE said that Corlett is entitled to have an opinion on guns. "I understand that the student never carried a weapon on campus or broke any school rules relating to weapons," he said. "The entirety of this aspect of the concern" is about Corlett’s opinion about an opinion, not anything Corlett did, he added.

When Student Writing Alarms Professors

The Corlett dispute is one in a series of instances in which students have been scrutinized for their work in writing classes — more typically when the writing is explicitly dealing with violence. Colleges and universities have been criticized both for failing to act on student writing and for overreacting. The issue is complicated, writing instructors say. Instructors note that many students are immature, aren’t good writers and mix fantasy and reality without much attempt to differentiate the two. As a result, many say that if colleges took action about every odd paper or journal, many perfectly harmless students would be treated as dangerous.

But there are instances in which writing instructors do want their institutions to take action. After Cho Seung-Hui, a student at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people there in 2007, word emerged that the co-director of the creative writing program there had warned university officials that he might be dangerous.

In another instance, the Community College of Baltimore County was widely criticized when it told a student, based on an essay he wrote about his feelings as a veteran, that he needed to get counseling to remain at the college. The essay described the student’s feelings about killing soldiers, but its language worried some at the college. The student opted not to return to the college.

Schools: Oakland University Cases: Oakland University: Student Suspended over His Writing Journal