Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Risha Mullins Case: Getting a non-emotional grip on the issue of literature in schools

When I started getting comments the other day on an old post defending the teaching of classic literature in college preparatory classes that was prompted by a controversy in a Montgomery County, Kentucky school, I began to wonder: Why the renewed interest. I didn't even think to check my Sitemeter. When I did and saw that I had gotten over 2,000 hits on Tuesday, I looked to see what caused it.

It turned out to be a post on Risha Mullin's blog about the 2009 incident. She was the teacher who was virtually run off from the school as a result of the controversy over a college prep class in which she was using young adult literature which a few parents at the school found objectionable on various grounds. My post was directed at the issues involved in the controversy, making the case that young adult literature does not have a place in an advanced college preparatory course.

In the course of the post, I had mentioned Mullins only in passing. My post was based on the news reports of the events. Her post of Oct. 2, however, gives a detailed and emotional account of what happened to her.

I have mixed emotions reading her post, which readers of this blog ought to read.

My first reaction is sympathy for her. She was an enthusiastic teacher at a school which evidently (judging from her comments) was seriously deficient in the way of administrative leadership. The family and professional issues she has had to endure would try the best of us.

My second reaction is antipathy for the school. The school administration was clearly in panic mode. When you are an administrator of a school, you have to stand by your staff. If there is a controversy involving moral terpitude, deal with it with swift justice. If it is a policy issue, calm down and treat all parties fairly. This case was clearly the latter, and it seems as if the administration just simply lost their heads. Shame on them. But, of course, part of the problem is the whole system of public education and school governance which, quite frankly is a mess in the first place.

But I have two other reactions: one on the way Mullins views her situation, and the other on the issues involved in the cause she has chosen to champion.

Mullin's post is understandably emotional, since she has suffered in her personal and professional lives. But when you take a stand on an issue, there is a price to pay. When you do battle, expect blood. I have been involved in public controversy for 20 years (longer than that if you count my involvement as an editorials editor on my college daily paper). You take public positions and you've got to take the hits.

If Mullins finds criticism from her school and a few parents intimidating, she should try waking up in the morning to find herself the personal target of the lead editorials in the state's two largest daily papers some time. It's happened to me twice. It doesn't really bother me because I believe in what I'm doing, but it obviously isn't for everyone. Her situation obviously is unpleasant, but if she were to read a few history books in addition to the teen fiction she champions--where a boy looking at the girl askance has severe emotional consequences--she would get some perspective on what it is to truly suffer for her beliefs.

And by the way, to characterize how she was dealt with as "censorship" and calling her treatment a "witch hunt" is not only hyperbole, but it isn't even accurate. If you are going to engage in controversy, you should expect to take some hits, and you should deal with disagreement by meeting it with reason and evidence--not name-calling. Were the actions of her school administration cowardly? Probably. But censorship? I don't think so.

One of the hits she took was from me. She refers to my post (the reason all her readers ended up here on this blog) as one of the things that caused her to lose her composure, calling it "fallacious." But I have trouble taking seriously the charge of "fallacy" from someone whose arguments consist primarily of emotional appeals. Which of my arguments were fallacious? She doesn't say.

She also accuses me of deleting the comment she wrote posted in response to me. This is simply false. I never delete posts except for the reasons explicitly laid out in the disclaimer of the comments section, and even there I exercise a great deal of leeway, as anyone who frequents this blog knows. I open up this blog to anyone who wants to criticize what I write--a privilege which my detractors take liberal advantage of. If she had correctly posted a comment, it would have appeared with no interference from me.

But what are these beliefs for which Mullins thinks she is a martyr?

In her post she characterizes herself as a champion for reading. But let's put this whole issue back into the perspective of what actually happened. First of all the course that was the subject of the news stories was, and I'll emphasize this for those of her fans who keep obfuscating it: AN ACCELERATED COLLEGE PREPARATORY COURSE. The issue was not whether kids should be encouraged to read through creative approaches to teaching or whether kids should read young adult fiction on theIR own time or in some minor capacity in school. The issue was whether pop teen fiction should be the focus of reading in an ACCELERATED COLLEGE PREPARATORY COURSE.

It is interesting that nowhere in Mullins account does she mention the exact nature of the course for which she was criticized for including young adult fiction.

The argument in my original post was that advanced college preparatory courses should focus on advanced college preparatory material. Pop teen fiction is not advanced college preparatory material. Therefore it shouldn't be the focus of an advanced college preparatory course. No one ever responded to my argument: they simply went on about how they liked young adult fiction and how isn't it great how it gets kids to read and this poor teacher was persecuted and on and on and on.

Folks, get a grip on your emotions. I realize that rampant, uncontrolled emotions may constitute great teen reading, but let's focus on the issue. And the issue is whether, in the limited amount of time a school has to spend on advanced college preparation the time is best spent on popular books for young adults or whether the time could be spent better using classic literature--you know, the kind they will encounter in college.

The fact that teens can get excited about reading teen fiction is great. Now can we spend the energy getting them excited about great literature? This is the question, however it may be obfuscated by those who champion, as Mullins does, young adult literature.


Zach Hudson said...

I hope it's not terribly gauche of me, but I'd like to repost a comment I made which is now buried in the sea of 273 other responses to your original post. This response directly address your implicit assumption in your two most recent posts: that because a book is written recently and concerns the lives of modern teenagers, it is inferior to "classics". First, please look at some classics and their subject matter. Think of Pride and Prejudice—it's all social struggles of young people, who is in and who is out, miscommunication... Think of Madame Bovary—it is an examination of sex, boredom and shallowness, but apparently it's OK because it's old. Remember that Madame Bovary was banned when it was published, as were countless other classics you would now presumably endorse.

It seems to me that what is going on here is that some people think that Old is Good and Literature should take Work. But no one (outside of James Joyce, maybe) intended their novels to be difficult to the audience of their time. Good books are written to be accessible. Not fluffy, but accessible. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, they were populist, meant to be enjoyed by the rabble. The classics at that time were in Greek. When Blake was writing, no teacher would have dreamed of teaching his poems. They were all teaching Shakespeare. Did any school teacher teach Virginia Woofe’s novels when she wrote them? Of course not: they were teaching Blake. Someday Laurie Halse Anderson will be considered a classic. It depresses me to think that when that time comes, someone will be trying to shut out whatever new books are being written.

Of course a good English teacher can aid in making an old book accessible, but to build an entire high school course around the classics sends two incorrect messages to students: 1) Literature is old, dead, white and mostly male, and entombed on dusty shelves, but certainly not something currently being created, as we speak, by authors around the world; 2) Your life is fluffy and shallow, and so are any books written about it. No real author writes about his or her peer group and its surroundings. None. Not Hemingway. Certainly not Salinger…

Art said...

One of the hits she took was from me. She refers to my post (the reason all her readers ended up here on this blog) as one of the things that caused her to lose her composure, calling it "fallacious." But I have trouble taking seriously the charge of "fallacy" from someone whose arguments consist primarily of emotional appeals. Which of my arguments were fallacious? She doesn't say."

Is hypocrisy a fallacy?

Anonymous said...

I am new to this whole thing, I just happened to get linked to Ms. Mullins' original post from a friend. I read her story and felt for her, but I decided to read the other articles she mentioned as a way of getting both sides. I have now spent the entire evening reading through your blog posts and comments, and I must say, I somewhat weep for the fact that you are a very close-minded person. At least when it comes to Ya lit. I am now a senior in college. I was a straight A student in an Arts high school. I was in all the lovely advance College prep classes, especially AP lit and Language and Comp. My teacher for these classes was a young guy and wanted to engage students, so we read YA Lit mostly. Reading books such as Harry Potter, where I honestly learned more about symbolism, allegory and foreshadowing than I have in ANY "Classics" I despise Poetry but the poetry in books such as What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones and Cranked by Ellen Hopkins helped me fully understand how to read it now. So I can read poets such as Coleridge and Poe and actually understand what is happening and how to dissect and enjoy it. Honestly the only "Classic" I have probably read in High School was Catcher in the Rye, which I enjoyed but found many more books that I felt taught me more.
In other words, I was exposed to pretty much nothing but YA Lit in my college prep classes and I am now a straight A college student studying Classical Civilizations. So when I have to dissect the Iliad I remember how I was able to read and enjoy other YA works and apply it to some of the 'tougher' material.
I fail to see why you insist that just because it is geared toward a younger audience, something that children will be interested in, is automatically considered Trash. Just because it is not 'Your cup of tea' doesn't mean it is anywhere near the 'Literary Fluff' you make it out to be. I fail to see how anyone could count books such as Harry Potter, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky, or Unwind by Neal Shusterman as anything BUT Literature.
Even if we say that YA Lit books are 'lesser' than the Classics (which I refuse to believe)if a student is still learning how to critically read and understand something, why does that something have to be "Classic" literature? I can honestly tell you, in my College classes I have never come across something that my YA Lit based college prep has not helped me understand. And honestly, the only Classical Lit I have come across is that of the Greeks and Romans because of my major.
All in All, as a Straight A college student, who was taught on YA lit, I think you need to reevaluate what you are saying, because clearly you don't understand.

Anonymous said...

As a former student of Mullins, I can say that you are a bit confused in your facts. The course was not built around YA lit; as a matter of fact, only a small portion of class time was spent on such. We read much classic literature such as Shakespeare, Beowulf, Dracula, etc. The YA books were used to enhance our understanding of these classics. Similar themes were highlighted which enhanced our ability to think critically and analyze literature on a college level. Also through this YA lit, we were given a stronger understanding on how to diagram sentences.

All in all, my highly conservative high school based on the socio-economics of select families was in the wrong. Mullins' teaching methods were too complex and radical for them to wrap their minds around. However, I feel that I am at a true advantage in my third year at the University of Kentucky because of the basics I learned from Mrs. Mullins.