Too Perfect?

By Antonio Chaves [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons
Maybe it was just too perfect a topic for my classes today. Certainly, though, I couldn’t resist. It had everything. It had:

  1. Topicality that would keep students interested;
  2. Relationship to our university system (City University of New York);
  3. Room for discussion of student value, something particularly important for first-year college students;
  4. Relevance, in that it deals with relations between students and professors;
  5. Room for me to introduce avenues for redress for students feeling sexually compromised on campus;
  6. A variety of possible interpretations  and assignments of guilt;
  7. Opportunity to introduce the difference between primary and secondary research; and
  8. A place for talking about rhetorical styles and manipulation of audience.

And more, actually.

What teacher of First Year Composition doesn’t pray to have something like this dropped into their lap at the beginning of Fall semester?

Thing is, it also made me furious and, indeed, a little chary about bringing it into the classroom. Would the students understand? Because of the delicate nature of the topic, would someone possibly blame me, somehow, for abusing my position by bringing it up?

“It” is a big concern at CUNY right now, though only one student in each class had heard about it. There were stories about it over the weekend in The New York Times and the New York Post, and something about it today on InsideHigherEd. I chose to concentrate on the one from the Post, for it was the most obvious in attacking the particular CUNY college (though doing so in a way that gave the paper deniability), John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Also, its headline, “College Professors Allegedly Sold Drugs, ‘Pimped’ Out Students,” is the most provocative.

Four John Jay professors are now on “administrative leave” as a result of accusations of rape, sexual assault, drug use, and drug dealing.

Of course, I have no idea of the truth of the matter–which is one of the things that made the topic irresistible. I was exploring it with my students instead of guiding them through a thicket whose paths I already know. But, even if the charges are only partially true, I am horrified. No professors should approach the outskirts of any of the activities described. No one should, but especially not college professors whose professional ethics demand that they keep student growth at the center of all of their activities.

My students got all the points I had hoped they would, even walking me through the pieces of primary research they would perform, had they time and access, and distinguishing its value from that they could gain through secondary research. They began to see the complexities of the situation and the damage that jumping to conclusions can do. They may even have looked at themselves a little differently after class, for I had scoffed at the idea of CUNY students in general needing “snowflake” protection even while we discussed that not every CUNY student has the ability to ward of predators.

But I came away from the classes saddened and even a little scared. Though the topic was perfect for what I wanted to do, I felt reduced by the alleged actions of these distant colleagues of mine. The particular type of trust I want to engender between me and my students will certainly be a little harder, now, and my profession has been diminished, just at a time when I’ve been writing opinion pieces to promote it.

If I could, I would be angry at the John Jay professors, but all I can generate is disgust.

I am scared because bringing such topics into the classroom has itself become dangerous. What if one of my students were to misinterpret my message and purpose? What if I were to end up in hot water? We are living in an age where we have to be extremely careful with all that we do, but particularly in the classroom.

We cannot, however, avoid topics such as this one. It is too perfect a learning tool to be avoided, even if it can carry a little risk.

I used it for the sake of my students.

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