Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Too Easy Ethics?

Today went smoothly. A bit too smoothly.

Normally the ethics day provokes more argument among my students. I toss out questions like "Is there anything we shouldn't write about?" It's a serious question, not a rhetorical one. I use it to make sure we're all on the same page about what might come up in class and to get a baseline for how comfortable different people are with different subjects. Generally speaking, there are a handful of very vocal free-speechers who want everything to be fair game (either "we're adults who can handle it" or "this is a university and things ought to be open") and a number of "well, whatever s/he says" students.

Most of the responses today were either measured or lukewarm. "So long as you're respectful" was perhaps the winner. I say this is either measured or lukewarm because being "respectful" in one's writing is often an excuse for choking off one's writing. We agreed that the classroom is not the real world, and so writing here may (and perhaps should) differ from writing in the real world. At the same time, it might be a betrayal of the intent of personal growth that is supposed to come out of this class. If we remain so concerned with what others will think, we'll never put out that personal story that could truly move someone, or that disturbing bit, or that political manifesto that will empower someone. We batted that idea around a bit, but the shorter class period stuck us in a limbo of abstraction. They chafed for specific examples, so I laid out a few:

*Drug use - so long as it only affects the writer, I'll avoid calling the cops. I mentioned a former student (not by name) who wrote better when stoned, noting that I don't think drugs actually help in writing as a rule and so won't encourage drug use.
*Politics and sexuality - I remain neutral. I'll try to help you say what you say.

Thus far everybody continued to nod and agree. This seems to suggest that the others will follow the same guidelines in responding. Then came:

*Self-harm - If you're a cutter, or write something that implies you're suicidal, I will talk to you about seeing a counselor. It's not high school, and I don't call parents, but this is a serious matter. It goes beyond writing and into the rest of your life.
*Harming others - In an appropriate story, a war piece or whatnot, OK. Anything involving anyone in class, explicitly forbidden. A couple of the students were shocked that my mind even goes here, but it's not as though there's never been a writing class where a student wrote violent (murder or rape) fantasies and tried to pass them off as burgeoning literature. It destroys the trust that develops among classmates, even if intended as a joke (in very poor taste).

Aside from the shock (shock) that anybody would write a violent story about the person next to them, most of the class skimmed along. Took everything pretty easily. No major complaints. No searching for loopholes. No arguments. Possibly very mature.

Now, it may be that the subjects of ethics really is boring. It may be that the classroom is warm. It may be the time of day. It may be that it's the first week. About a third of the class got involved in discussion somehow or another, so we'll see if that raises up a bit on Friday (we'll finally get to the mechanics of John J. Stazkinski's "Lessons in Amateur Stalking," which will do double-duty as a segue into ethical considerations of the writer and a segue into nonfiction as a whole).

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