English 317 at U of M (aka "How to be Gay") Makes Right Wingers Freak Out

I swear, I’m not making this up:

As reported in the Ann Arbor News on August 21, 2003, Michigan state representative Jack Hoogendyk has put forth a bill in the legislature which would amend the state constitution requiring “public universities each year to submit class lists to the Legislature with detailed descriptions,” allow the legislature to stop the “teaching of any class at a publicly funded university,” and to allow the legislature to deny funding to universities that ignore this rule. What has brought about Hoogendyk’s wrath? Well, according to the Ann Arbor News, there is a list of courses, including those offered at EMU; but the real course that has Hoogendyk upset is called “How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.”

Obviously, there are all kinds of basic “freedom of speech” problems with this legislation. Hoogendyk’s plans are extreme, facisitic, and dictatorial. Anyone who believes in any sense of academic freedom needs to take this assult seriously and needs to vigorously fight such laws. As the Provost at U of M put it, academic freedom has been central to development of universities and we need to protect “the bedrock foundation of the free and open exchange of ideas.”

But beyond this basic response, Hoogendyk’s fight against this “gay course” strikes me as being pretty goofy. First off, one of the things that surprised me is that when I did a search for this story with Google’s news search, all of the hits I got (except for an article in something called Gay Financial Network) were from very conservative sources. It has to make me wonder what is it about homosexuality that works people on the right wing so much? What are they afraid of?

Second, obviously a lot of the controversy has to do with the title of the course. The professor teaching the course was unavailable for comment this summer, but he said in a previous story about the course (he got himself in the news a couple years ago for the same reasons) that the “initiation” of the course title isn’t to encourage people to become gay, but rather to talk about what it means to be gay. Really, it sounds like the course isn’t that different from a lot being offered across the country nowadays. Some of the material that students read/discuss includes things like Oscar Wilde, various movies and music, and such. I’m sure they’ll be watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Pretty routine stuff, really.

So what I’m saying is the professor teaching this course is trying to be intentionally provocative and even irritating to the right wing and attract attention to the course. I don’t know how I feel about that, frankly. I guess whenever you teach a course and you are trying to get students to take it, you need to title the course in a way that makes it sound interesting, perhaps even more interesting than it really is. But I also have to wonder if it is really necessary to give a course a title that is intentionally going to piss people off.

But the third thing is this: don’t legislators think, just for about fifteen minutes or so, before they go through the process and use valuable resources to propose such stupid laws? Is Hoogendyk so unfamilar with the way that universities and colleges work that he thinks it would even be possible to review such courses? The Ann Arbor News said there are 2,000 undergrad courses at the U of M. I believe there are 10 public universities in Michigan, so we’re talking about (give or take) 10,000 different courses. How could the legislature possibly review these courses? And I can tell you as a professor that some times (too many times, frankly), you don’t really know where a course is going to go until after the course is underway. So, what would they do about that? What would they do about one of my mundanely titled courses that turns controversial after a group of students decides to to a project on gay marriage or whatever.

Think about the logisitics of this for a few more minutes and it will make your head numb.

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