Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

Marvin and Me

            It’s astonishing when real life becomes a parody of fiction but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of Marvin’s Novel. Marvin, for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Marvin’s Novel, was a professor of journalism at Broadhurst University in Winnipeg. He came to Broadhurst fresh out of the Carleton School of Journalism and, although nursing some ambivalence about teaching as opposed to writing, was determined to make a go of it.

            As is often the case with young professors who are just starting out, Marvin was in for a rude awakening. The name of the game for most students, Marvin soon discovered, was getting good grades with as little effort as possible. To this end “they pushed prodded and cajoled” in their attempts to get Marvin to carve more and more assignments from the syllabus, complained about the difficulty of his tests and suggested that they had more to do than just study for his exams.

            Constantly feeling as if he were under the gun, Marvin vacillated between capitulation and sternness striving to find the magic formula to entice his students away from combativeness and into the arena of exploration, into a place where they could learn about life and the art of journalism. And finally, at least in one class, he hit pay dirt.  

            It was when they got into the subject of stereotypes that he devised a way of capturing their attention. “So anyway,” Marvin had said making an effort to keep a straight face, “when you're writing copy you've got to be careful to stay away from stereotypes. While they may seem like useful metaphors or similes at the time, short-hand descriptors as it were, stereotypes are just purveyors of prejudice. For example, if you write something like, ‘As most Jews, she exhibited a great deal of rhythm when she got out on the dance floor.’ or ‘As is typical of members of his race, Jordan Herron, the black fight promoter, lends money at usurious rates,’ you're just helping to maintain an incorrect world view of Jews and black people.”

            “But Mr. Keselman,” one of his students said, “you've got that wrong. It should be the other way around. It’s the blacks that have rhythm.”

             And that was more than Marvin could have hoped for—a perfect lead in to an exploration of how conflict between groups often results in the development of prejudice and stereotypes and why, once formed, such attitudes are extremely difficult to change. But unfortunately for Marvin, the ensuing discussion also was the catalyst for a disgruntled student charging him with prejudice and discrimination—a precursor, if you will, to modern-day university witch hunting.

            ``Witching hunting?” you ask. “Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?”

            If we’re talking about what goes on in universities nowadays (and we are), it’s hardly an exaggeration but rather an understatement. This is the era of political correctness. This is a time that marks the end of academic freedom. It is a time when open and frank discussion of ideas and thoughts has been subverted by the push to pretend that we are all the same and the demand that we all think alike.  And I’m not kidding.

             If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the things that are going on in universities today. Here’s a smattering:

            Some universities now require their professors to provide Trigger Warnings.  “Trigger Warnings,” you ask. “What are they?” They are warnings, for example, that some of the assigned material may be offensive or distressing to some people. But isn’t that what great literature is all about—reflecting and commenting on what happens in our world, describing events that are not always (or even often) composed of sweetness and light.

             And then there is the case of the student at a meeting in Edinburgh University who raised her hand to disagree with a point made at a Student Association meeting. This violated the “Safe Space” policy which demands people refrain from making hand gestures which denote disagreement. Check it out, if you don’t believe me.

            And finally, although there are many other examples of attempts to control communication and thought in universities, there is the recent case of a professor at Laurentian University. He’s been stopped from teaching a first year psychology class because he asked his students “to sign off on his use of vulgar language.” Is there some sort of irony here? Isn’t he being censured for, in fact, providing trigger warnings?

            “So what’s the point of all this,” you may ask. It’s the prelude to an invitation for you to come and join me at the Book Fair in The Carol Shields Auditorium at the Millennium Library (251 Donald Street) between 2 and 4:30 on Saturday, May 7th to discuss and share anecdotes of political correctness gone wild. Or, given the situation, perhaps it will be a chance for us to just stand together and keep silent.

             In any case, you’ll be able to get hold of a copy or two of Marvin’s Novel, It’s the story of a man who confronts the powers lined up against him and discovers that he can be the master of his own fate. But here’s a trigger warning: Marvin’s Novel is replete with “dirty” words and “offensive” scenes. But it is funny and fun to read and has a thing or two to say about life in our time.



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