Education and Entertainment; University and Community

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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54 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    1. Next time someone cuts me off in traffic, I will likely call them a “fuck-saw”.
    2. I agree with you completely about the replacement of education with entertainment and the ill-effects of that over time. I like to think my classes are not entertaining!
    3. People ask me why I don’t think the educational value of courses should be judged solely by enrolment levels (in the grand SUNY Albany style)- this is why.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F. says:

      1 — Excellent use. I may do that myself.

      2 — One of the professors I mentioned once stopped in the middle of class and asked us whether it was going to be necessary for him to make the class more boring in order to get us to ask/answer questions.

      3 — So something else (minor) that has bothered me about this story. The class has 600 people enrolled. The demonstration had, it seems, 100-120 attendees. But students say that only about 20 left at the end of class before they brought out the, erm, device. Which would mean maybe 150 out of 600 students were there to begin with. Either the reporting is vague (entirely possible) or this is itself pointing toward a problem with the “cool” classes.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        Maybe the kids who sign up for the cakewalk courses aren’t particularly motivated to attend them. It’s an elegant answer to that question.

        The problem with the cool classes is that people come to university because they’re uneducated and want older people to educate them, so it’s likely very disconcerting to have the universities tell them, “Oh, no, you tell us what subjects have academic merit!”Report

  2. Will says:

    Excellent post.Report

  3. Creon Critic says:

    Calling it a matter of academic freedom is meaningless—not merely because there was nothing academic about it.

    You’re free to impose these limits on your own academic freedom, were you running the course, you would not have proceeded – fair enough. Your position does impinge on Prof. Bailey’s academic freedom though. As you’ve stated it here he is “free” to be “responsible”. Responsible to you, to your mores, to act as a good citizen in your view. After that grinder, his freedom seems pretty circumscribed.

    His explanation seems entirely fair, why should he not be free to exercise his understanding of academic freedom given the surrounding circumstances: not obligatory to attend, no material in the panel discussions is in exams, students given fair warning about the topics and events, etc. Bailey says, “I did not wish, and I do not wish, to surrender to sex negativity and fear.”

    It seems like an instance of the circumstances you outlined,

    At times, this responsibility will require it to object to and vehemently oppose the actions of the community-at-large. At times, its intellectual obligations will put it at odds with the community-at-large.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Creon Critic says:

      The fact remains that, voluntary or not, this was a demonstration on university property organized by a university professor for university students. That is, even though voluntary, it was a demonstration/discussion that was still circumscribed by that network of community/freedom/responsibility outlined at the end of my post.

      There are several reasons this does not meet the criteria of the circumstance you bring up. Firstly, you’d have to argue that society-at-large is doing a grave wrong by circumscribing my so-called “right” to use a fuck-saw in public. Secondly, the demonstration itself was utterly unnecessary. As a twenty-something male, I think you can say “fuck-saw” and the imagination will take care of the rest pretty well; showing the contraption without using it on a person would also have been significantly less objectionable.

      Finally, and more importantly: we’re talking about two incompatible ideas of freedom, academic and otherwise. I hold that my freedom, like Professor Bailey’s, is inherently limited; that without these limitations it would be something broader yet lesser than actual freedom. I’m no libertarian; when push comes to shove, I’m on the same side as Andrew Bacevich, Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, Will Herberg, etc. (The opening chapter to Bacevich’s THE LIMITS OF POWER is a pretty good place to start for a better understanding of what I mean by a freedom inherently limited.) I’m not trying to “impinge” on his academic freedom; I think it’s inherently limited and that this demonstration transgressed that boundary. He’s free to disagree with me — frankly, I think this argument about academic freedom will be a lot more productive than Horowitz-style ranting.Report

      • Creon Critic in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        this was a demonstration on university property organized by a university professor for university students.

        To me, all these are points in Bailey’s favor. He is teaching a course on human sexuality. I view academic freedom as giving him wide latitude in doing so, that is, it is up to Bailey to decide what is necessary.* Imagine some possible alternatives, could we require professors to pre-clear all outside speakers with the administration, could the administration have veto power over professor-organized events? Yes, but those are some serious limitations to the latitude I envisage, and I’d argue academic freedom envisages, professors in possessing. These are adults students making decisions about their education, both teaching and learning. Barring a pre-existing policy on the matter, Northwestern is a XYZ university and our moral standards hold that ABC is forbidden, I think Bailey has the stronger argument. I assume he’s given a great deal of thought to his sentiments about sex-negativity and fear, my limited offhand knowledge says he’s right when he claims that sex researchers face obstacles – Kinsey comes to mind. I can see how someone who views the broader society as holding puritanical views of sex (dirty, hidden, sinful) – Bailey – could come to the conclusion that he is not going to permit that worldview in his course.

        Note that I was reacting particularly to your observation that, “Calling it a matter of academic freedom is meaningless—not merely because there was nothing academic about it.” – I’m arguing one could meaningfully contend this event, given the context, is a matter of academic freedom.

        * On what is necessary, Lear’s exchanges with his daughters comes to mind,

        Hear me, my lord;
        What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
        To follow in a house where twice so many
        Have a command to tend you?

        What need one?

        KING LEAR
        O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
        Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
        Allow not nature more than nature needs,
        Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
        If only to go warm were gorgeous,
        Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
        Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,–
        You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!


        • BSK in reply to Creon Critic says:

          But musn’t there be SOME sort of educational value to the lessons/demonstrations? If I’m a math teacher, can I just pop on “Stand and Deliver” and call it a day? I mean, the movie is about math, sorta. So why not? If Bailey could demonstrate the instructional value of the lesson, then go with it. If the possibility of female ejaculation was relevant to the course, great. If learning the methods and approaches to studying sexuality was relevant, go with that. If understanding contemporary controversies within the field was integral, that’s fine to. But if the point was to show pussy and masterbation for pussy and masterbation’s sake, under the guise of “pussy and masterbation are related to sex”, it just seems pointless to me. They might as well have watched a basketball game.Report

          • Creon Critic in reply to BSK says:

            musn’t there be SOME sort of educational value to the lessons/demonstrations?

            Yes, I agree there need be some educational value, but I think I’m willing to give a lot more leeway to the professor in determining what has value and what doesn’t. Academic freedom means far less when JL Wall, you, or I decide what’s worthwhile and what isn’t. My first remark about JL Wall not saying yes to the demonstration was not meant to be glib, to be honest, I don’t know that I would have said yes to the demonstration. But for institutional reasons at the very least, Bailey needs to be free to say yes without worrying about frustrating the dean, the board, and the university’s donors (see J.L. Wall @ 12:21 pm). Calling the professor semi-sovereign in their classroom might be overstating my view, but it is something approaching that strong a grant of authority over course materials – especially given all the accommodations Bailey rightly made (optional to attend, not on exams, etc).

            In undergrad I took a course on European History. Alongside the normal class lecture and outside of scheduled class time, the professor screened films to go with the topics she was discussing, Danton was the first film I think. Could the film series have replaced the lectures? No. But it was a memorable complement to the lectures. Having a film series, having students to go to an art gallery or an opera are all not strictly necessary for education. I don’t see why education and entertainment are posed in such starkly adversarial terms, they aren’t mutually exclusive.Report

            • BSK in reply to Creon Critic says:

              Well, I would contend that art galleries or operas or films, and even sexual demonstrations, certainly can be education AND entertaining at the same time. There is no doubt about that. But if something is done solely for the purpose of entertainment, especially if done during class time (events outside of class hours, as this appears to be, ought to have more wiggle room), and has no educational value, than that time is wasted.

              If there is educational value to the demonstration, that changes the situation. As I understand the situation, there was none. But, as you note, I’m far from the expert in this field. However, if questions are raised to the educational value of a given lesson, the professor in question should be prepared to justify it. Yes, we probably teach best when we are semi-sovereign. But lacking accountability will undermine that and our effectiveness.

              You are right that we might be too quick to criticize. But as I said in another post, if you’re going to dabble in touchy subjects, you need to be extra prepared to defend yourself. Fair or not, that is reality.Report

        • J.L. Wall in reply to Creon Critic says:

          If the goal is to demonstrate the sex is good, rather than sex is dirty, I’d advice against choosing anything called a “fuck-saw” for the live demonstration. I don’t see how painting sex as an act of violence (think about the words involved there) is an effective strategy on those grounds.

          And, again, what academic value is there in a fuck-saw demonstration? People across the internet and beyond have been making references to a certain Monty Python sketch — but wouldn’t that, arguably, have more academic value (following the argument of its defenders) than a fuck-saw? If, however, there’s the assumption, “They’re in college; they already know what ‘basic’ sex looks like; let’s show ’em how to do something new/kinky,” then we’ve gone from the academic study of sexuality to X-rated sex-ed.Report

          • Creon Critic in reply to J.L. Wall says:

            Suppose the goal was to say sex need not be hidden? Or suppose the goal was to say we need not fear sex? Maybe he wanted to say our culture tolerates oceans of violence, take any given action movie, but sex continues to suffer from, if not ongoing taboos, the legacy of taboos. On a personal note, only after I saw a sex ed video from the Netherlands did I realize how utterly tame, cowardly really, the US is about sex and sexuality. Even if it were no more than X-rated sex-ed it could still be within the bounds of academic freedom. In my view, Bailey must be entrusted to make the final determination. Regarding the demonstration itself, I think we might have a Marcel Duchamp type argument going on, it’s a urinal, no it’s art, but it’s a urinal… Is it prurient entertainment or a legitimate exercise of academic freedom regarding human sexuality? I’ll admit, it could be both.

            Beyond fixing the meaning of the demonstration itself, I’d argue Bailey must be insulated from the dean, the board, and the university’s donors you mention below. I think this insulation from outside pressures, such as it is, I’m sure Bailey’s getting an earful from all quarters, is a positive feature of universities. As you said earlier, we are beginning with different notions of freedom. Forgive the caricature, but you’re saying Bailey is free to obey the community. Inasmuch as you’re saying he should have a care for the community’s concerns, I agree, but given that Bailey has taken account of differing sensitivities by giving students freedom to opt-out without consequence, I say Bailey has taken account of deeply held opposition.Report

  4. DensityDuck says:

    Are we to believe that the professor honestly had no idea how to find porn on the internet?Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to DensityDuck says:

      See, the funny thing is, if he’d shown a video of this, rather than letting it be done live, I doubt very many people would have cared. Instead, he’s now got to deal with a dean who’s frustrated because the board is frustrated because donors are (or are going to be when they hear of it) frustrated.Report

  5. Gorgias says:

    I recall an economics class where the students were given laptop computers and ran competing gas stations on a map. It was entertaining, of course, but it also reinforced in a more visceral way the tendencies of prices to reach equilibrium, as well as the way changes in the supply chain can affect price. Assuming maximum student involvement, there were probably better ways to teach the lesson, but putting it in the context of a game, I think, put students much closer to that maximum involvement than they would otherwise be.

    It seems to me that classes dealing with sexuality can use many of the same techniques. No one doubts that real-world demonstrations have superior pedagogical properties than videos or lectures, or that they at least tend towards greater student involvement. No one would tell my economics professor that the entertaining way in which he taught his class is demeaning academic inquiry because he could have just as well gotten the point across with power point slides and lectures. I submit, then, as much as you’ve tried to divorce the matter from your personal feelings on sexual explicitness, that your prudery has compromised your opinions on the issue.

    I suspect that your point about following community mores would find itself being voiced much less vociferously in instances where you considered the dissent more academically respectable. The moment Nietzsche and Marx scholars consider their dedication to community mores more valuable than their commitment to honest inquiry is the moment the Academy has ceased to challenge or benefit the body politic.

    In short, your bias against sex-positive scholarship blinds you to the legitimate academic and social ends of such a demonstration. You may not believe that modern discourse about sexuality is in earnest need of reform- well, and good, neither do I believe with Marx that capitalism is irredeemably corrupt. But my agreement or disagreement with those values bears not one whit on the concept of academic freedom- and neither you nor I are in a position to declare one academically respectable or not.Report

    • Ben in reply to Gorgias says:

      Seconded. The comment above about showing a video rather than an actual demonstration supports this argument. “The legitimate academic and social ends of such a demonstration” are not captured by a video of a demonstration, in the same way that a video of a performance art piece does not capture the aesthetic and intellectual goals of the performance art piece. If one has an appreciation of sex-positive scholarship, and recognition of the goals of the demonstration, this point is not easily missed.

      I’m not so keen on ascribing the lack of appreciation of this point to personal feelings about sexual explicitness; we all have intellectual blindspots and not all of them grow out of the personal taste to the subject matter being considered.Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to Ben says:

        Well, I still would have had an objection to a demonstration of a fuck-saw through video. I just don’t think the headline “Professor shows video of fuck-saw” would turn as many heads as “Professor Demonstrates Fuck-Saw.”Report

        • BSK in reply to J.L. Wall says:

          Did he himself use the fuck-saw on the female? Was the female the student? If the answer to both is “yes” that seems problematic for a whole host of other reasons.Report

          • J.L. Wall in reply to BSK says:

            No, he hired people to come in and talk to the class about, it seems, “kinky sex” or somesuch thing. They decided that a video the class had been shown about a female orgasm wasn’t effective and asked permission to demonstrate a female orgasm, utilizing what they’d brought as an example of a kinky sex toy. Bailey said yes, warned the students, and let the couple go at it.Report

            • BSK in reply to J.L. Wall says:

              Gotcha. Yea, still doesn’t work for me. What was ineffective about seeing the video? Did they want kids to jump out of their seats? Break out camera phones? Scream and shield their eyes? When I adjust a lesson, I do it through assessing how I am approaching (or not) my objectives. What was their objective? What evidence did they have that they did not reach it? What reason did they have for making the adjustments that they did?

              If they want to justify this as an academic exercise, it should be held to the same standards as any other. Obviously, bad practices go on and don’t get written about as much s I’m sure this has. But when you’re playing with fire (and like it or not, you are when dealing with human sexuality), you can’t be sloppy with it.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BSK says:

                What was ineffective about seeing the video?

                An analogy suggests itself. What if this were a class about, say, the anthropology of food? We would never call a video perfectly sufficient then. It could certainly be useful, but a live cooking demonstration would obviously be better, if only because one could ask questions of the participants. And one could taste the food, too.

                Here, the issues with consent, disease, and all the rest preclude actual participation in sex. But a sex demonstration doesn’t seem that far removed, does it?Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Ben says:

        I think I’m clear on the terms. At least, I’m pretty familiar with sex-positive feminism and am fairly sure “sex positive scholarship” grew out of that. I’m at a bit of a loss though about why emptying sex of all emotional content or situational context or even sexuality and treating it like a cross between Jackass 3-D and a hardware product demo isn’t really sex-negative. It just sounds like another sort of prudism to me- I mean aside from the question of educational value.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Gorgias says:

      I tried to avoid going after the course itself — I never took it, mostly because I’m skeptical of all 600-person courses that people trip over themselves to take, or courses that are described most frequently as “fun.” I have no doubt that academic study of sexuality is valuable. It may well be that the course is as rigorous as a 300-level course with 600 students can be. I have doubts that demonstrating a fucksaw in class counts as “academic.” I’ve no issue with being positive about sex. I’m stodgy and old-fashioned, but I’m also no fan of dualism. I listen to Leonard Cohen and read John Donne: I may be religious, but I see no problem and great value in talking about sex and God simultaneously.

      So my complaint is with his spur-of-the-moment decision to allow an actual demonstration of said fuck-saw in use. This, and this alone, was what I meant to critique. Now, perhaps I have some sort of blind spot, as has been said; if so, could someone please explain to me the academic value of fuck-saw demonstrations?Report

      • BSK in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        Sorry, I’m playing catch up. Was the decision to demonstrate spur-of-the-moment? That reaks of desperation… “Uh oh, I’m losing them… I’ll use the fuck-saw!” If it was that easy, every teacher would have one…Report

      • Gorgias in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        The value of a live demonstration in sexuality studies is similar to the value of a live demonstration in any other field: a tangible and personal connection to the fields studied. There’s a reason why we have high school students replicate the results of experiments we know the results of, at some expense to the school. There’s a reason why ecology courses have students do actual field work instead of just listening to lectures. Mere classwork can occasionally give one an impoverished or at least not wholly complete picture of one’s field. On these grounds, I think it should be obvious why practical demonstrations are even more necessary in the field of human sexuality than in those of the hard sciences.

        Furthermore, to the extent that an academic believes that modern discourse about sexuality is flawed or oppressive, promoting healthy discourse falls in line with “[academia’s] responsibility…to object to and vehemently oppose the actions of the community-at-large.” Consciously violating social norms regarding sexuality is in this case not petulant or vulgarity for its own sake. It’s a conscious decision to practice what one preaches, and to be an example of the values that one’s scholarship leads one to in the real world.

        I think much of the point comes from the notion that, “well, it violates community norms, so we ought to require a pretty good reason for it. As BSK says above, “you’re playing with fire (and like it or not, you are when dealing with human sexuality).” But from the perspective of an academic that takes his duty to question the mainstream seriously, disagreement with dominant mores is a reason to become more committed to expressing one’s opinions, not less so.Report

        • BSK in reply to Gorgias says:

          What I question has more to do with the fact that the demonstration was not originally planned and instead added, seemingly last minute. Now, such adjustments can be the mark of a great teacher, who is capable of changing on the fly to ensure success. They can also be the mark of the irresponsible teacher who throws shit at a well and hopes it sticks. As I noted in another post, if it was the former, than I would hope that Bailey (or the presenters) could demonstrate how they knew an adjustment needed to be made, why they chose the specific adjustment, and how they vetted its success or failure. Even if it failed, if it was purposeful and deliberate, I wouldn’t have a problem. But if it was for shock value, that’s just bad teaching. And I would say the same thing if I saw a teacher standing on his head to make his kids clap at the end of a math lesson. Let’s hold the teacher to the same standards we’d hold any other, regardless of the subject matter. I just think he would have been wise to have been mindful of the response, even if only to prepare himself to deal with it. You are correct that eliciting such a response might have value in and of itself, but if he is not prepared to engage that response, it is hard to buy that line of argument.Report

        • J.L. Wall in reply to Gorgias says:

          Bailey has made more enemies than you or I could probably do if we tried because he’s done research that has pissed off the left, and he’s done research that’s pissed off the right. He’s clearly, in his research, out to demonstrate something about the accuracy of our views of sexuality. And that, in fact, is the whole purpose of his post-class lecture series. Northwestern deems that dialogue valuable enough that the university helps to fund it.

          The decision to allow a live demonstration was a poor decision on his part as a member of the Northwestern community and the Evanston/Chicago community. But it was also a poor decision on his part as someone who wants to change the way Northwestern and society at large view sexuality. It was terrible strategy on that count — so terrible a strategy in comparison with the other things he does that I have trouble viewing it as anything but vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity. Which is entertainment, not education. (Or education that is also entertaining.)Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Gorgias says:

          “I think much of the point comes from the notion that, “well, it violates community norms, so we ought to require a pretty good reason for it.”

          Right, but your response sounds like you’re saying academics have a responsibility to violate community norms, which is news to me anyway.Report

  6. North says:

    I really don’t think I want to know what exactly the “saw” in question actually is.

    That said, based on the other facts you’ve presented I don’t see where there’s been anything objectively “wrong” done here; though from a utilitarian perspective I suppose one could argue that the controversy being stirred up may harm the University.Report

  7. BSK says:

    I make my class as entertaining as possible. I use voices, I sing song, I break out toys, I tell jokes, I act flat out ridiculous, I use puppets, I use animals, and I try to keep lectures to under 15 minutes. Then again, I teach 4- and 5-year-olds. And even to them I sometimes say, “I know this isn’t as fun as the other stuff we do. But it is just as important and you need to work just as hard.” I would hope that, by college, this message has sunk in.

    Of course, that is not to say that we should excuse poor instructional methods. Teachers should be engaging. The material should be engaging. But entertainment is not necessary for engagement. And engagement, as I understand it, inherently means both parties are involved. I don’t believe that one can be passively engaged.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to BSK says:

      I was worried as I wrote this that I was being blunt with my talk about “entertainment.” I’ll just second what you said and hope people notice that.Report

      • BSK in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        I don’t think you were being blunt at all. I think you are drawing attention to a bigger issue. If I, as a teacher, submit to the ideology that, “I must be entertaining to engage and educate my students”, I am also tacitly saying, “If I am not entertaining, it is understandable and acceptable if they are disinengaged and learn nothing.” Do we really accept the latter? If not, how can we accept the former? I may choose to be entertaining, because that is how I roll. If so, good for me. But if students demand that I am so that they can learn… ya know what… fuck them. These aren’t children. These are young adults. They’re paying (or borrowing or being gifted) good money to attend class. If they want to waste it, so be it. That is there perogative. If I am derelict in my duties to be minimally engaging, that is on me. But if not, it’s on the students and (ideally absent the helicopter parenting and coddling that goes on) they ought to fall flat on their face.Report

    • Heidegger in reply to BSK says:

      BSK writes:

      “Then again, I teach 4- and 5-year-olds. And even to them I sometimes say, “I know this isn’t as fun as the other stuff we do. But it is just as important and you need to work just as hard.” I would hope that, by college, this message has sunk in.”

      “But if students demand that I am so that they can learn… ya know what… fuck them. These aren’t children. These are young adults.” Which is it? In the course of two paragraphs, you have gone from teaching 4 and 5 year old “children” to teaching 4 and 5 year old “young adults”.
      Never have 4 and 5 year old children ever been categorized or classified as young adults.
      “But if students demand that I am so that they can learn… ya know what… fuck them. These aren’t children. These are young adults.” These aren’t children? When did the change occur? When did 4 year old children become “young adults”? And what’s with “fuck them”? You’re the one to have chosen to use puppets, songs, jokes, animals etc.–what child wouldn’t want you to continue on with such entertainment? “Fuck them”–sorry, that’s just weird especially when used in the context of four year old kids and their expectations that you have already established as being part ot their learning experience. That being said, I’m sure you’re an excellent and beloved teacher.Report

      • BSK in reply to Heidegger says:


        Not sure if you are being sarcastic or not. You are parsing together two different statements. When I was referring to young adults, I would hope that you would have gathered I was talking about the college students.Report

        • Heidegger in reply to BSK says:

          Oh no BSK, no sarcasm intended. I just didn’t see any trans formative nouns, verbs, adjectives to indicate any change in age or environment—no verbal bridges to link present to future–thus, I read it to indicate all events were happening in the present. Sorry, my mistake. Nonetheless, a very ice post–I have the very highest respect for teachers, good teachers, a group of which I’m sure you’re one of. It is a most noble mission you’re on, and I wish you the very best of luck, BSK.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    This is actual evidence of the liberal bias in academia! If they wanted balance, they would have also brought it… wait for it…


    THANK YOU !Report

  9. Kam says:

    This is awful! That is not education, or any means theatrical. I’m a Theatre actress, and am appalled that anyone would ever make the comparison, as I read in a previous article. This teacher seriously has issues, disturbing issues, and the girl obviously has severe issues as well. Just because people do not condone this, does not make them a prude, but a respectful human being. The teacher should be fired, and then checked to see how many porn sites he looks at every day. This girl obviously has no self respect, and must be pretty desperate for attention. How is this ethical, educational, or appropriate for the classroom in any way? What’s next? We let our academic professors film it, and make money off it. Gross on all forms. These people need help!Report