Education

Questionable Academic Courses: A Recent History


A controversy recently sprung up over a course that promised to smooth out its students’ Southern twangs and help them “feel confident” and “be remembered for what you say and not how you say it.” The class, planned at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Tennessee-based research facility used to educate employees of the Energy Department, was canceled amid objections that it was insulting to the Southern-accented, reported Inside Higher Ed.

The incident of drawl discrimination occurred in a continuing education setting, but it’s easy to turn up potentially offensive course subjects in America’s college classrooms. It’s part of college instructors’ job to push boundaries, and often they succeed. They expand students’ minds and get them to think deeply. Sometimes, though, faculty members miss the mark. They go for something unorthodox and end up with something racist, homophobic, or just plain offensive.

Here are four college classes that made students squirm, or at least pushed major boundaries. How far down the list can you get before you start composing an angry e-mail?

“We are at war. Act like it.”
At the Joint Forces Staff College, a class called “Perspectives on Islam and Islamic Radicalism” showcased some perspectives that cast all Muslims as enemies of the Western world. A lecturer’s PowerPoint denied the existence of moderate Islam and the class taught soldiers that the U.S. should wage a “total war” on all Muslims, Wired reported in 2012. “Some actions offered for consideration here will be seen as not ‘politically correct’ in the eyes of many, both inside and outside the United States,” according to course material.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, repudiated the class and ordered a review of Pentagon teaching materials.

The “deviance” of homosexuality
A 2012 class at Franciscan University of Steubenville, intended to explore the roots of deviant behavior, included homosexuality as an example of one such behavior. “The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior,” the course description read, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Gay alumni at the Roman Catholic university pushed back with strong words: “To classify the normal day-to-day life of gay and lesbian citizens as being on par with that of murderers, rapists, and prostitutes is offensive, untrue, and an example of religious ideology being allowed to trump the scientifically demonstrated truth of the matter.”

The oldest profession, dramatized
A University of Colorado professor got in hot water in December because of skits about prostitution that she presented in her lecture about deviance. Colorado’s Daily Camera reported that sociology professor Patti Adler was asked to retire after she had teaching assistants dress up like prostitutes and sex slaves, and then discuss “their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes,” according to the newspaper. For her part, then-senior Caitlin McCluskey, one of the assistants who said she played an ““upper-class bar whore,” said the skit was voluntary and “a lot of fun,” according to the Daily Camera report.

The university suggested the professor may have violated the school’s sexual harassment policy, the newspaper reported, though Adler came back to teach the next semester after students rallied around her.

An X-rated demonstration
One Northwestern University instructor went even further to teach students about sex in 2011. Psychology professor J. Michael Bailey’s human sexuality class included an optional session on sexual fetishes in which a naked woman interacted on a highly personal level with a mechanical object that … we’ll let the Daily Northwestern explain.

The shocking scene prompted condemnation by the university president and the cancellation of the course. “I’ve been in academia for 32 years. I thought I had seen everything. I hadn’t,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro told the Chicago Tribune.

Weinberg is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering business schools.

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