April 04, 2004

Lemony Snicket barred from speaking

Neil Gaiman posts a letter from "Lemony Snicket" (Daniel Handler) about a scandalous series of events at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. According to the letter and this SF Chronicle story, a writing instructor named Jan Richman was disturbed enough by a grisly short story submitted by freshman in her class that she went to her department coordinator for advice. Within a week, the student had been expelled (or at least sent home), and Richman had been fired (or more exactly not renewed, as she was on a term-by-term arrangement).

What the student did wrong was to write and submit an assignment that Richman says was "was full of sex and violence, incest, pedophilia. There was no story, no character development -- just hacking up bodies". What Richman did wrong, according to the university, was to have the students read a story by David Foster Wallace called "Girl with Curious Hair", which was not part of the authorized textbook, and which features an unsympathetic character named "Sick Puppy", who is apparently well named.

David Foster Wallace may be an arrogant and careless prescriptivist (scroll down to the bottom of this page for Language Hat's extensive critique of his 2001 Harper's Magazine screed on the usage wars), but firing a writing instructor for assigning his short stories is going too far. And expelling or suspending a college student for writing something (in this case, his own nasty story in imitation of Wallace) is wrong, in my opinion and that of many others.

Handler's letter adds that

the school has responded by announcing stringent policies regarding the content of students' artwork (writing, visual art, film, video game design, etc.), what can be taught in the classroom, and who is allowed to speak on campus. This was brought home to me when an instructor at the college invited me to speak to his class (along with the fired teacher and a representative of the First Amendment Project) and I was physically barred from entering the building.

[via Scott McCloud's Morning Improv]

[Update: more on this at RotR, including the news that the university now "require(s) all instructors to approve any supplemental instructional materials through [the] administration. Students are no longer permitted to distribute their work to fellow students. The teacher must now see it and approve it first." ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 4, 2004 09:23 PM