Student has it bad, so bad

‘Hot for Teacher’ lawsuit shows risk of journal assignments

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If there was ever a university story made for internet buzz, it’s this one about Oakland University student Joseph Corlett who was kicked out of his school after writing suggestive assignments about his English instructor, Pamela Mitzelfeld.

Not only does this story have the classic element of sexual tension between teacher and student, it also raises difficult questions about feminist sensitivities, free expression, and even public safety since, it turns out, Corlett is a second-amendment advocate, and his teacher was reportedly worried he might turn up with a gun.

Corlett, according to reports, wrote, as part of an assignment, a provocative journal entry called “Hot for Teacher,” riffing on the Van Halen song of the same title and speaking in detail about what he deemed Mitzelfeld’s distracting physical charms. Teacher was not so hot for the writing, though, and complained to her administration, saying that either Corlett had to go or she would.

Long story short: Mitzelfeld was pissed off, Corlett was tossed out, and now the whole thing is the subject of a multi-million dollar lawsuit. You hardly need to google any further to imagine how this is playing online.

But as a stodgy, aging academic, what concerns me most is what this story says about the state of English writing assignments. In short, consider how much of this brouhaha might have been avoided if the teacher in question had refrained from assigning journal-style writing in the first place.

Journal-type assignments are much in vogue these days among many instructors because they seem to promise a way out of the limiting, pedantic, old-fashioned essay. The journal, in other words, allows students to say what they really want to say without worrying about conventions and expectations.

Which is a laudable goal, of course, until students actually say what they really want to say without worrying about conventions and expectations. Like, for example, how their instructor reminds them of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.

Say what you want about the traditional essay, but there are reasons for the conventions and expectations, not the least of which is that they help keep the whole process on track, and indeed protect all parties involved.

Case in point: if the professor had assigned a more traditional academic paper, the student would have likely felt less inclined to muse about her sexy accent and provocative mole. And if he did write about such things, the professor could have simply failed him on the grounds that the writing was inappropriate to the assignment. Instead, she has to fall back on poorly-defined notions of feelings of safety and an atmosphere of disrespect.

I once fell into a similar trap, allowing students to substitute a poem for an essay in my introductory courses. But then, one day, I got a poem from a student about how disgusting and stupid fat people were. And, I, a man of some size, felt, shall we say, like the atmosphere had become a bit disrespectful. I don’t offer that option anymore.

Corlett may be the victim of an over-reaction. Mitzelfeld may be the victim of a student who doesn’t understand boundaries.

Both might have avoided victimhood if their course had been structured differently from the beginning.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.




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Student has it bad, so bad

  1. According to thefire.org site you linked to, “Mitzelfeld wrote him back” after the first harassing journal entry “and asked him to stop.” That seems to be the Rubicon in this situation. Journal-style assignments are not inappropriate across the board, but when a student abuses freedom of expression by continuing to write things that make his prof uncomfortable, after he’s been asked to stop, then the fault lies with him.

    My course outlines always include a proviso stating that I will not tolerate any comments or writing that includes “sexist, racist, or homophobic material, or any content that undermines other people’s dignity.” With that stated up front, a prof has grounds to object when a student’s journals get out of line.

  2. I’m a student and I love journal-style assignment because they give me a chance to reflect on something freely instead of stressing about paragraph format. I don’t disagree with you per se, but in a post-secondary institution its expected the students coming in have at least some level of maturity or at the very least respect. This case is not an institutional failure or a failure of the professor. I think it’s all on the student who doesn’t have enough common sense telling him being hot for teacher is not something you should express in an assignment to the aforementioned teacher.

  3. Mr. Sharplin:

    The “Note from Ms. Mitzelfeld” was written by me, not her. It’s in my own handwriting in my Daybook.

    Not only was I never told to stop and earned A’s for previous sexually oriented work, but OU’s own Diversity Director instructed the Student Conduct Committee that my Daybook assignment did not meet the DOE’s Title IX standards for sexual harassment and therefore, as a Title IX school, didn’t meet OU’s standards.

    I applaud your specific instructions to students regarding your expectations and I’ve experienced same in other classes. Having done so, I repeatedly asked for guidelines, once on the first day of class in front of the class and again in front of Ms. Mitzelfeld’s female assistant. I was repeatedly told there were none.

    No one has a constitutional right to not be offended, especially college professors.

    http://www.thefire.org

  4. The problem with joural style assignments is that they are largely under the control of the student, the writer. This is a bad preparation for real life where this is not likely often to happen. Causes could include the unwillingness, or inability, of the instructor to take control, the abandonment of any sense of responsibility in most people today or some combination of these and other ills.

  5. In the 21st century, why do women continue to be blamed for the unwanted sexual attention they receive? While the journal assignment might ostensibly be the scapegoat,the writer clearly believes that the real problem lies with the professor herself: she is just too darn sexy. In other words, she asked for it. How many times must women explain: sexual harassment is never okay and no means no?

  6. DO NOT BLAME THE VICTIM! Do not blame the female professor for the student’s inappropriate behaviour. What part of that don’t you Tom Pettigrew understand? It would have been a totally different story had the prof been a male. The system always works against females and you are one of those who perpetuates this. STOP VICTIMIZING FEMALES and treat them with the respect and professionalism that you give to males.

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