Monday, February 17, 2003
Miami student columnist held up to ridicule
Article on graphic French film costs job
Critics say the French film Ridicule is "handsome, ravishing, witty, intelligent and quintessentially French."
"It's a very successful and respected film taught in a lot of French departments," said Jonathan Strauss, chairman of Miami University's French and Italian department.
But Miami student Aaron Sanders says some students think Ridicule looks more like a French postcard. In his column in the Miami Student, he said showing it in a French class was "bordering on pure pornography."
Now Sanders has been "terminated" as a columnist.
What most critics don't say is that Ridicule opens like a zipper, with a graphic close-up of a man urinating on another man's head. The only review I found that even mentioned the scene said, "There it is, big as day, a penis on screen."
OK, so it's a matter of opinion. But so was Sanders' column. He described the movie, quoting unidentified students who watched it in Claire Goldstein's French class, "Text in Context." The students didn't want to be quoted and risk a bad grade, Sanders said, but some were deeply offended.
"Time and again, professors will try to pass along nonsense for what they believe is education," he wrote on Jan. 17 under the headline "Hold MU professors accountable." He said Strauss also "consistently subjects (students) to books and films that contain lewd, sexual content, rape and incest - many seemingly condoning it."
Le merde hit le fan. Strauss protested to the Miami Student faculty adviser, journalism professor Cheryl Heckler. "We both agreed it was incredibly irresponsible reporting," Heckler said.
Heckler wrote an e-mail saying she told Student editor Jill Inkrott to: "1. Order a letter of apology from Aaron to Claire and to the French department. 2. Drop Aaron as a columnist. Really. This one, I think, requires a bigger response here."
The campus paper ran dueling letters from professors and students. Strauss was given space for a reply to Sanders that got tres personal: "In fact, singling out sex from the vast array of materials that we do study reveals a fascination with it on the part of the column's author. Well, fine, to each his own."
Inkrott canned Sanders, and Heckler told him in an e-mail, "Your thoughtless determination to remain ignorant on getting the fuller picture ... has caused greater pain to a dedicated, careful, VALUABLE professor than you can possibly comprehend."
Sanders said he's a victim of ideological discrimination. Heckler and Inkrott said he was fired as an unpaid columnist not for his conservative opinions or any reporting errors, but for his "approach."
They said he did not see the movie before writing about it. But that's true for most reporting. Sanders didn't claim he saw it - he indirectly quoted students who did.
They said he should have warned Strauss that he was writing an opinion column before he quoted him. But Sanders said he asked Strauss to justify "excessive use of sexually explicit material."
"I thought it was apparent from the way I worded the questions that we were discussing opinions," Sanders said. "Either way, his answer to my question should not have changed depending on what type of piece I was writing. Right?"
Heckler and Inkrott said Sanders had a conflict of interest because he used his girlfriend as a source. But an Enquirer managing editor said if the story checks out, so what? Sanders said he used several sources.
Inkrott said Sanders did not act quickly to complaints by Strauss. Sanders said Strauss refused to discuss it over the phone and was too busy to meet immediately.
Heckler said she has been unhappy with Sanders. "He has a stronger interest in being provocative and getting a response than thinking through an issue and making an intelligent argument."
But we're talking about a student newspaper - a place to learn. What lesson is Miami U. teaching? That only faculty members are valuable?
The plot is more tangled than a French movie with subtitles, but this much seems clear: Sanders' column angered Strauss. He raised hell, and Sanders was fired. Any more questions about faculty accountability?
Goldstein argued that Ridicule is a valuable part of the context of her course. "I do respect my students," she said. "I have made ample allowances for students who are uncomfortable with this."
She said she doesn't know why Sanders was fired. "He shouldn't be punished for his beliefs. He shouldn't be censored."
Critics say Ridicule is all about the power of words. And it looks like the faculty got the last word on Sanders: Off with his head.
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