Teachers Probably Prefer Not to Grade Essays About How Sexy They Are

Remember, kids and pervs, the Constitution doesn’t protect all speech.

America—land of the free, home of the married 56-year-old pervs who get off on harassing college professors and hiding behind the Constitution. That’s my takeaway from a story that broke last week and burned out rather quickly but deserves some further thought. It involves aspiring writer Joseph Corlett, a student who was banned from Oakland University’s campus after penning some rather graphic journal entries about his female English professor. Admittedly, what hooked me was the Van Halen angle in the headline: “’Hot for Teacher’ Essay Lands Student In Trouble.” It sounded hilarious at first glance—I’m picturing David Lee Roth driving a school bus and this Corlett dude’s class turning into a beauty pageant. But the details of his creative writing exercise and righteous crusade that followed aren’t funny.

Corlett’s instructor, Pamela Mitzelfeld, encouraged her students to write in a journal and record, according to at least one account, their “uncensored thoughts.” What she found in Corlett’s notebook was less Hemingway and more Penthouse Forum—an essay inspired by the ’80s rock hit in which he wrote this about Mitzelfeld: “She walks in and I say to myself ‘Drop, motherfucker, drop.’ Kee-rist, I’ll never learn a thing. Tall, blond, stacked, skirt, heels, fingernails, smart, articulate, smile … I’ll search for something unattractive about her. No luck yet. Shit.” Corlett’s point was that he should drop her class rather than continue to fantasize about her sexually, like he’d done with so many other female teachers. If that wasn’t creepy enough, here’s another professor-turned-lust-object described in his essay: “Her skirt came unzipped in Comp 2 one day and her polka-dotted panties were exposed. I was a perfect gentleman and discretely told her to pull her sweater over. She smiled and thanked me. It is our delicious little secret.”

The university dropped a sexual harassment charge but found Corlett guilty of intimidation and banned him from campus. It also required proof of psychological counseling before he could apply to re-enroll. Corlett’s response? He lawyered up, threatened to sue if his appeal isn’t successful, and said this: “The real issue here is the First Amendment. It’s about academic freedom and about due process … the sooner we can get past the titillation of it and see those issues, the better.”

Of course, titillation is exactly what Corlett was trying to achieve. Anyone with a lick of common sense would leave their teacher out of a sex essay. Let’s get real here: This is yet another self-deluded jackwagon wrapping himself in the Constitution. Neither free speech nor creative writing gives a person the right to intimidate, harass or threaten without consequences. If I walked into the Philly Mag offices and asked a co-worker if she was wearing a new bra because she looked “stacked” today, her next move should be a visit to human resources. When Corlett included Mitzelfeld in his long list of women he fantasizes about, he crossed a line. Ironically, for all his talk of being distracted by his teachers, I imagine it’s Mitzelfeld who couldn’t concentrate in class if she knew Corlett was on the lookout for a wardrobe malfunction.

The same ridiculous argument has been raised in Haverford, where a billboard ban has been challenged as a restriction of the First Amendment. Free speech doesn’t mean the right to erect a 672-square foot sign wherever you please, either. Of course, if there’s someone willing to file a lawsuit, you can bet there’s a lawyer somewhere willing to throw a legal Hail Mary; the locally based Foundation for Individual Rights In Education found an attorney to take Corlett’s case. Yelling about Constitutional rights is so hot right now. Thankfully that document is strong enough to withstand all the knuckleheads who are twisting its words.

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  • Mark Cofta

    If the teacher assigned a journal inviting students to write their “uncensored thoughts,” then Corlett was merely following instructions. Richard, you misrepresent and sensationalize the situation by calling his journal a “sex essay” and by comparing a journal to public harassment. Journaling is a legitimate writing assignment meant to spark creativity and productivity by removing the barriers involved in formal essay writing. (Didn’t you ever take a writing class?) If this was an essay assignment, then the student showed poor judgement by crossing a clear formal line — but it wasn’t.

    This teacher got what she wanted from a journal assignment: unrestrained, honest writing. I assign something similar in my college English classes, and students write frankly about all aspects of their lives, including their feelings about me (though not, I’m relieved to admit, in a sexual way — they mainly complain about homework and my verbosity — but if I was young and attractive, then lascivious thoughts would fall within my guidelines). I’ve never found this a problem, though, because I encourage them to write sincerely and spontaneously in order to gain confidence and satisfaction from the act of writing. A journal is about writing for oneself — not for an audience, not for academic standards, and certainly not for public scrutiny.

    The teacher betrayed the student’s confidence by making his journal public. To ask that the student write “uncensored thoughts” and then take disciplinary action against him for doing so is reprehensible. No student of Mitzelfeld’s will ever write an honest word again, and who could blame them? Journaling is about writing spontaneous, often private, thoughts for oneself, not for teacher; as long as my students write originally and in English, I respect any and all self-expression that the journal assignment entails — and I respect their privacy.

    Mitzelfeld, if you can’t deal with what students write in a journal inviting “uncensored thoughts,” then provide clear guidelines, as teachers should for all assignments — or at least warn your students that if you don’t like their writing, they might face charges.

  • Mr. Cofta-

    How comfortable would you feel, regardless of the situation, if you had a student, male or female, write in their journals their sexual fantasies about you? With all due respect, it’s not about “betraying the student’s confidence” or Mr. Corlett “merely following instructions”. This is about the teacher’s rights too. And contrary to your belief, she didn’t like what was being written which caused her a little bit of an issue and she told her superiors. That’s what anyone else would do.

    I’m all for creativity and unfiltered, raw, spontaneous writing. But when you boil it all down, you’re basically saying that it’s okay if he writes about her that way, even after she asked him not to.

    Please, re-read that second to last paragraph of this piece of writing. See what the author of this post is saying. It’s not okay for him to do the things that he has done. I’m sorry, but it’s not. Period.

  • Mr Cofta:

    First, the student, not the faculty member made it public at thefire.org website, where I first encourntered it. From my research and that shared at Jezebel.com, I’ve learned that the teacher shared it with her supervisors after finding the content objectionable, which is no betryal of trust.

    Have you read the assignment? If you are a writing teacher, you might recognize its original author, Donald Murray.

    Unrestricted topics are not the same as objectifying the teacher. If the student had been asked to keep a private journal or diary, the teacher would not have grounds to collect or read it. This was to be submitted for a grade. The student understood the consquences. He even wrote of them in the assignment.

    It’s appropriate to have an opinion, even one that conflcicts with mine, but it is unwise to express and uninformed opinion on such a serious matter.

    Please make an effort to response rather than react in future posts.

  • Mark Cofta

    Justine, my information came from Richard Rys’s post, so if I’m uninformed, so is he — and if he is, why are we reading his words?

    The wording Rys quoted is “uncensored thoughts,” not “unrestricted topics” — you’re obscuring the case just as he does when he calls a journal a “sex essay.” When you talk down to someone, you should get your facts straight and avoid errors like “an effort to response,” “and uninformed,” and “betryal.”

    Actually, I do grade my students’ private journal assignments, because if I didn’t check that they actually wrote, the vast majority would not. I offer them extra privacy (they can fold pages over, or even show me their journal themselves, upside-down to my view), I promise not to show anyone else no matter what, and I return them in the same class period in which I collect them. I grade on essential format, regularity (3 entries a week), and completeness (each entry about 150 words). If I ever had an issue with content, I would address it with the individual, not run to anyone else.

    Robbie, it IS okay that he writes about her that way; that’s a right protected by the First Amendment. It’s even okay if Rys imagines his motives, and if Mitzelfeld feels uncomfortable. This teacher, like all of us, has the right to not like what she reads; she also has the power to tailor assignments to limit her exposure to what she doesn’t like to read from her students. Rys’s second-last paragraph assumes a lot and makes a weak analogy to office behavior.

    When a teacher directs students to write “uncensored thoughts” and then complains because her students’ thoughts are — surprise! — uncensored, the student hasn’t done anything wrong. Asking what I would do if a student wrote sexual fantasies about me isn’t relevant, but I’ll answer: nothing much. What I would NOT do is contradict my own assignment or betray a student’s confidence. My responsibility is to respect the writing that I encourage, even if I don’t enjoy reading it. This teacher needs to clarify her standards, and people like you (Rys, Robbie, Justine) need to tolerate everyone’s freedom, not just the freedom of people whose fantasies meet with your approval.

  • craigster

    YOU ARE THE HACK! She told him anything goes, that nothing was off the table, that he could write about whatever he wished to write about. that said, there is no going back. The University also had him read a story about an illicit teacher/student relationship, if this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is. He has every right to write what he pleased, she wanted unbiased thoughts and musings, and even gave him 4.0 grades for other writings with a sexual theme. She deserves to be fired and the University sued.