re: Showing Olivier’s “Othello” in class.
Posted by: BruceinIthaca 02:06 pm EDT 10/16/21
In reply to: re: Showing Olivier’s “Othello” in class. - den 01:24 pm EDT 10/16/21

I agree. In my later years as a college teacher, I wrestled with the whole notion of "trigger warnings" (and I hasten to add that the "Othello" example may or may not have been avoided with one). I certainly became aware of a growing awareness of intensified mental challenges to students (they may have always been there, but students were now coming to college more empowered to make such feelings known--itself probably a good thing, but not without complicated effects). I could not see my way, in teaching literature, to always foregrounding student reading with a list of possible "triggers"--without wanting to sound sadistic, sometimes the shock of the moment was what I wanted students to experience. At the same time, I wanted to do what I could NOT to add to their mental stress and anxiety. I taught a class on AIDS and the arts my second to last year. At the beginning of the course I said, virtually all of the texts you will read or see will feature serious illness, death, homophobia, often racism, violence, and other things that can give rise to trauma or simple sadness and sorrow. Assume that before you begin any of the texts.


And sometimes you can't know. Every year, in my intro to performance of lit class, I taught Willa Cather's magnificent story "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament," which does not end well for the title character. It is a beautifully written portrait of adolescence gone "off the tracks," with queer and possibly psychiatric subtexts. It ends sadly, but I never felt the need to forecast that to the students--I wanted them to experience the title character's journey as it unfolds. One semester, right before I walked into class to discuss the story with the students, a somewhat shy young woman in the class asked to speak to me in the hall. She was fighting back tears (and they seemed quite genuine--I didn't for a moment question the veracity of her words or feelings) and told me that a year earlier her brother had thrown himself in front of a subway in NYC and the anniversary of that was upon her family. She said, "It's a great story, but I just don't....." I jumped in and said, "Of course you must absent yourself from class today. I'd be a bad teacher if I made you stay or even if I encouraged you to stay." I know my own teachers might have said the equivalent of "suck it up" or have viewed me in lesser light for doing so, but I am convinced I made the right decision and also that I did right by removing the decision from the student (and assured her that the absence would not "count"). I tell this story not to pat myself on the back (might listening to others talk about the story proved helpful for her--who knows, but I am not a therapist and it was outside my area to try to make that call and possibly produce more pain than she was already experiencing). Should I have said, before students left the previous class, "If you have had bad experiences with trains, watch out!" I don't think so. But who knew a 100 year-old story could have such pressing and deeply personal pain for my 2015 students? Maybe I should have--after all, why else teach classes (for the pleasure and pain art can sometimes simultaneously produce in us). All I know is that I had to make a judgment call for this student in that moment.

I did not realize that the Olivier Othello had virtually no music (I have not seen it, only clips on TCM), so it may very well be that the instructor simply was showing what he thought was a canonical version with some of the greatest English-speaking actors of the century (Olivier, Maggie Smith, Joyce Redman, Frank Finlay all received Oscar nominations and are all first-rate actors) and no other filmed version may have done what he wanted the students to see and hear (yes, I know there is a version with Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, both fine actors, but, IIRC, that version was not received well critically). Would all of us on the board probably recognize that in order to show the film, one would do well to foreground it (including the fact that even in 1965 critics and audiences expressed some cringe at Olivier's specific enactment of Blackness)? I think so, but I still stand by the possible cultural differences that may account for the instructor's choice. And I don't think we should assume that non-US residents are as consumed by US tensions around race as we are. Obviously, any of us who teach need to adapt to each campus, each group of students (I spent a lovely semester guesting at Villanova, but it took me a few weeks to become accustomed to the presence of crucifixes in each classroom!). But I hardly think the extreme actions of removal of the instructor from the classroom are the right one--if anything, a (perhaps mediated by a third party) discussion between instructor and students would have been more in the spirit of learning.

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