Thought Crime in the Writing Classroom

I taught writing for twenty years. I heard some shocking stuff—especially in the “Creative Nonfiction” class, which occasionally produced some, shall we say, highly confessional material.

And there was one outright psycho student who, lucky for me, fixated on a different professor as the cause of all her problems—not to mention accusing him in her writing (for me) of being a Satanic serial killer—and showed up at his house one night at 2 a.m. with a large knife.

I even had freewriting assignments that might have resembled “a place for a writer to try out ideas and record impressions and observations,” [containing] “freewriting/brainstorming” and “creative entries.”

But no one ever used his or her journal to discuss his or her sexual attraction for me (sigh).

If a student had done so, I would never have described the writing as “unlawful.” Immature or inappropriate maybe, but not something that would get a student kicked out of not just my class, but all his on-campus classes.

But Pamela Mitzelfeld, who teaches English 380, “Advanced Writing,” at a school in Michigan, felt she had to swing the big PC hammer on student Joseph Corlett.

Oakland University near Detroit has suspended a student for three semesters, barred him from campus, and demanded he undergo “sensitivity” counseling because he wrote in a class assignment that he found his instructors attractive. While the course specifically permitted students to write creatively about any topic, the university bizarrely chose to classify his writing as “unlawful individual activities.” Joseph Corlett came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

To call the university’s decision to suspend Corlett for three semesters for his thought crime a “wild overreaction” is putting it mildly. I hope that FIRE roasts them.

The philosopher Hypatia faced a similar problem with unwanted sexual attraction, the story goes, and dealt with it much more directly.

9 thoughts on “Thought Crime in the Writing Classroom

  1. Peg

    Just this week I have been forced to realize that college campuses are increasingly hyper-sensitive about all kinds of things that no one blinked at back in the 80s.

  2. Medeine Ragana

    Never mind the 1980s!!! Back in the 1960s Mr. Corbett would’ve been encouraged to continue his writing and turn it into a novel!!!!

  3. Remy

    What both Mr. Corlett and the FIRE article fail to mention, and in fact misrepresent, is that Mr. Corlett had repeatedly harassed and intimidated the professor and another student in the class. The writing assignment was a small part of a much larger picture.

    I would suggest to Mr. Clifton to also direct his readers to the Oakland Post article (the university’s student-written paper). The students and professors in the comments section there have more insight into this case than has been released and printed to date. The article can be found here:

    1. 1. I do not think that one can both “fail to mention” and “misrepresent” something. Those two terms seem incompatible. Pick one.

      2. Prof. Mitzelfeld should know that these days a class syllabus is virtually a legal contract. She cannot tell a student to do X and then say, “but I didn’t mean that you could do X if it made me uncomfortable.”

      Corlett’s response may be disingenuous, yes. He writes, in comments on the article to which you refer, “Conspicuously absent from Ms. Perdue’s comments is Ms. Mitzelfeld agreeing with graduate assistant Katie Lieder’s suggestion that I change the title of my anecdote essay to “My Boobs DVD”. In front of both women I again asked if there were any content restrictions and was again told there were none. I took their advice and earned a 4.0.”

      Such aggrieved innocence! Yet, how can the university argue that he did not earn the grades that he did thus far in the course?

      Prof. Mitzelfeld may believe in emphasizing the writing process over the final product. I think that she will have a hard time arguing that freewriting equals thought crime. I will be watching this case to see how it turns out. And although I doubt that I would ever see it, I would be mildly curious to see what wording she adopts in her next syllabus.

      1. Remy

        1. Please, you have a better control of the language than that. Of course something can be represented incorrectly, and have information left out – the two terms couldn’t be more compatible.

        2. It seems that you want to keep making this about his writing. It was not. There were a number of actions taken by Mr. Corlett that were considered in his University Conduct hearing. The evidence against him went well beyond his daybook writings. This is completely absent in the FIRE article.

        Also missing from the FIRE article is that Mr. Corlett has a history of harassing students (often female students) on campus. This was just the most recent in a string of deliberate harassment.

      2. Peter Schlemihl

        I see that FIRE is beginning to respond to allegations of a pattern of harassment on their blog

        There were apparently four instances making up an alleged pattern. The first has to do with him having pro-gun views and expressing them in what seems to me an entirely reasonable way and getting flack for it because it was shortly after Congresswoman Giffords was shot. The second has to do with a late night call to another student. He claims this was to ask about an assignment a little after 10:00PM. The third they have not yet covered and the fourth is the journal issue. Unless three is something really atrocious, this would only constitute a pattern of harassment in the mind of a very paranoid soul, which of course is precisely the kinds of people who seem to inhabit college campuses today.

  4. If you know about “missing” information, you might well have some connection with this case (since your address shows a location near the university). Why don’t you come out from behind your screen name and identify yourself and your connection to the university?

    As for Corlett, even if he were a complete jerk, I believe that it is wrong for him to be given the Spanish Inquisition treatment based on his writings. If harassment, instead, is the issue, then presumably the university has policies about that.

    1. Remy

      I’m a student at Oakland University. I wasn’t trying to hide that – clearly it came through in my posts here. I would prefer not to give my full name here because I do not have a direct connection to the case. All of my information is second hand, which is why I have refrained from submitting it in writing. It is not something I witnessed myself. I have had access to the rest of the story from first hand accounts, however – people I trust and find highly credible.

      As for Corlett, I don’t care if he were a complete jerk, he has that right. And believe it or not, in a vacuum, I don’t really care what he writes. It is a beautiful nation if for no other reason than our freedom of speech.

      But when that speech, combined with actions, creates an environment that makes both students and teachers fear the behavior of someone in a classroom, then it has gone too far.

      I refuse to make this a First Amendment issue. This was an ongoing case of harassment, and Mr. Corlett was pushing and pushing to see how far he could go before someone made him stop. Best case, he was looking for attention. Luckily for the rest of the students on campus, we didn’t have to wait for the worst case to happen before something was done. The way this was playing out, we’re lucky we only have harassment victims here and not rape victims.

      This was no Spanish Inquisition, nor was he mistreated by the university. It was a simple case that is only getting any attention because he has appealed, and only explained to the media outlets that it had to do with his writing. That was my only point to make from the beginning was that the blog post here was seemingly based on the information found in the FIRE article. FIRE being the same advocacy group that was defending Mr. Corlett – their primary source of information – in his university hearing.

  5. Pitch313

    My biggest crush on a prof at college involved my married and 4-5-6 month pregnant linguistics professor. But never, Never, NEVER would I have ever, Ever, EVER uttered a sentence which she might have diagrammed or parsed to discover the merest hint of the existence of such a crush. I held it tightly in the sparkings and crackles of my heart, where, something told me, it would do me the most transformative good.

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