At the Univ. of Texas, in answer to criticism that he has turned a freshman English composition class into a one-sided debate on political correctness, English department chairman Joseph Kruppa has made several strongly worded replies. The concerns of his most outspoken critic, Professor Alan Gribben, are “nonsense.” Gribben et al. are “people of bad intentions” who have been guilty of “misrepresentation and misinformation.” The “only person with a political agenda is Gribben,” and the college dean’s postponement of the class (which was to have been taught in its revised form last fall) made Kruppa feel “sickened” and “disappointed.” Barbara Harlow, an associate professor of English who also supports the revised course, was even less temperate, telling the student paper, the Daily Texan, that “The army hasn’t been called in to UT, and the University hasn’t been closed, but we need to recognize that there are academic death squads operating on our campus.”
What is going on here is a fight over a change in a basic course in English composition. Though around 50 percent of UT’s freshman test out of English 306, 2,500 to 3,000 students are required to take the course, which has traditionally covered argument and analysis and English grammar. In the past 306’s teachers have had a choice from among three readers, with the freedom to bring in outside works as they deem appropriate, and the writers covered have ranged from Aristotle to Jonathan Swift to Jessica Mitford. A 6-page research paper was the final assignment, and the purpose of the class was to prepare students for the variety of writing that would be required of them in other UT courses, whatever their eventual major.
Citing a need for focus and the beneficial “side effect” of sensitizing students to their obligations toward various minorities, the course as it presently stands (the curriculum has been revised at least three times since last April) uses no textbook. Instead there is a required packet of readings on “difference,” which is to say civil rights issues, and a syllabus that the teacher may not deviate from.
Among the readings studied are Peggy Mcintosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Richard Scotch’s “Disability as the Basis for a Social Movement: Advocacy and the Politics of Definition,” and Dennis and Harlow’s Yale Law & Policy Review article, “Gay Youth and the Right to Education,” plus a number of court cases.
The original textbook, which over the summer was dropped in response to the criticism, was not an English readings book at all but a sociology book edited by Paula Rothenberg and entitled Racism & Sexism: An Integrated Study. In her introduction to that book Rothenberg gives the following definition for racism: “racism involves the subordination of people of color by white people. While an individual person of color may discriminate against white people or even hate them, his or her behavior or attitude cannot be called racist. He or she may be considered prejudiced against whites and we may all agree that the person acts unfairly and unjustly, but racism requires something more than anger, hatred or prejudice; at the very least it requires prejudice plus power.” Though the book has since been withdrawn by Chairman Kruppa and the author of the new 306 syllabus, Lower Division English Director Linda Brodkey, Rothenberg’s viewpoint surely reflects their own.
Hence the criticism. Alan Gribben, a full professor who has been at UT since 1974 and who has taught composition classes, argues that Kruppa and Brodkey have taken a course in which “the subject matter has never been particularly important,” because the real subject was English, and turned it “upside down.” The focus of the class is now not composition, but civil rights.
Gribben questions the propriety of having faculty and graduate students in English discussing complicated legal issues. Furthermore, sociological articles and law decisions are proverbial for their bad style and lack of clarity. Gribben says with astonishment that the departmental committee of six that originally okayed the revised course “was not able to show me any evidence that style had been a consideration in choosing the reading.”
John Ruszkiewicz, an associate professor of English and another critic of the new 306, points out that “the writing component of the course has been reduced to a unit on logic, which was a late addition. In my opinion, it wasn’t part of the design they originally proposed. But when I pointed out they had no composition in the course at all, they suddenly added logic.” It is clear from the syllabus that student writing has been de-emphasized. No assignment is more than 700 words long, and there is no term paper. It has been replaced by a 500 to 700-word “legal opinion,” in which the student finds for either the plaintiff or the defendant in an assigned court case. But because undergraduates are not allowed to use the law library at UT, 306 students will be limited to the legal materials provided by their instructor and the course packet.
As mentioned above, this is a course that affects the university as a whole, and according to Gribben there is widespread dissatisfaction with the change. An ad expressing concern Gribben ran in the Daily Texan was signed by 56 professors, from a number of departments. But within the English department there is mostly support: a September vote on the new 306 reading list (the Rothenberg book having been cut) saw 46 votes in favor of the class, with 11 against and 3 abstaining. Up until now, despite the “death squads” rhetoric, it has seemed probable that the course will go through; in his announcement of the course’s postponement the college dean expressed his enthusiasm for it. But the administration’s ardor may be dampened by the largely negative publicity the case has received. As we go to press there are rumors at UT of a compromise, and the dean has resigned.
Chairman Kruppa maintains that “personal political beliefs are inevitable in the classroom,” which in a limited sense is true. But that begs the question of substituting grammar for indoctrination, and Kruppa has not answered the charge that the readings on the course curriculum list present only one side of the affirmative action debate, or done anything to allay fears that some “illiberal” students will be penalized for their viewpoints. In any case, even a compromise will probably be a Pyrrhic victory for Gribben and Ruszkiewicz, who have been shunned by many of their colleagues and by their chairman. In their opposition to English 306 they have proved themselves too intolerably traditionalist, even for Texas.