Today, CBLDF joined the National Coalition Against Censorship to oppose a “disclaimer” on the English 250 syllabus at Crafton Hills College. The college affirmed that it will not be “eradicating” any graphic novels from the course, but it has stated that future syllabi for the graphic novel course include a disclaimer “so students have a better understanding of the course content.”
Tara Shultz, who is working towards an Associate Degree in English, knew when she began the course in January that it focused on graphic novels, but said she “expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.” Shultz contacted her parents, and the family challenged the inclusion of four of the ten books taught by Associate Professor Ryan Bartlett: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Y: The Last Man Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, and The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman and various artists. Shultz remained in the class through the end of the semester on May 21.
The Shultz family disagreed with the college’s defense of the books, vowing to take the issue to the community college district’s board of directors and local lawmakers. The student’s father, Greg Shultz, has stated that “if they [had] put a disclaimer on this, we wouldn’t have taken the course.” He added that “people in the comic book world” are apparently “used to seeing that kind of stuff [in books], but for us it was shocking.”
While the college’s refusal to remove the books is commendable, the decision to include a disclaimer on the syllabus is of concern to free speech and academic freedom advocates. The course is the only such course at the school that would have a disclaimer. NCAC describes why the college’s decision to add the disclaimer is of concern:
When the school announced in mid-June that it would not be removing the course materials, it also signaled some agreement with Shultz on the need to warn students that a course in graphic novels would tackle some difficult subject matter. The school is considering adding a “disclaimer” of some sort to the course description.
The letter from NCAC executive director Joan Bertin — signed by the American Booksellers for Free Expression, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Association of American Publishers, American Association of University Professors, National Council of Teachers of English and PEN American Center — argues that such warnings “pose a significant threat to the methods and goals of higher education,” and links the college’s pending decision to the broader debate inside higher education over so-called “trigger warnings.”
The letter cites the criticisms of trigger warnings from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and argues that even a voluntary policy “would be ill-advised” and likely to lead to additional complaints from other students over reading material and other course content.
College is intended to be a time when students are challenged, often through complex and sometimes controversial reading material. Disclaimers pose an obstacle to academic freedom, creating potential for the exclusion of acclaimed literature from coursework over fear of offending students. In closing the letter, NCAC strongly urges Crafton Hills College to trust the academic expertise of its instructors by avoiding disclaimers:
We strongly urge the college not to set a dangerous precedent by adopting a general warning or disclaimer for this or any other course, but to leave the question of students’ sensitivities and preferences to be addressed on a case by case basis in discussions between individual students and faculty. This approach would defer to the professional judgment of the faculty with regard to the selection of educational materials, recognize the collective interest of the entire community in academic freedom, and respect the agency of adult students who are, after all, getting an education to help prepare for life in a world that doesn’t come with warnings.
The full letter is embedded below.