Ethics Quiz: The Case Of The Creepy Student

Muse and Artist, Victim and Harasser, or Censor and Victim?

Muse and Artist, Victim and Harasser, or Censor and Victim?

Joseph Corlett’s essay, though I have not found the full text of it,  is undoubtedly creepy.

In fall 2011, the 56-year-old countertop refinisher was taking a writing course at the Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. His teacher, Pamela Mitzelfeld, gave the class an open writing assignment for their journals, and, Corlett says, assured them that any topic was acceptable, with no-holds barred.  She said, Corlett’s lawsuit now asserts, that she wanted “the raw stuff.”

That’s just what she got. Corlett wrote an essay called “Hot for Teacher,’ inspired by a Van Halen song by the same name, describing how his sexual attraction to Mitzelfield was irresistible. “Tall, blonde, stacked, smart and articulate…” he described her in his daybook. “Are you kidding me? I should drop right now. There is no way I’ll concentrate in class especially with that sexy little mole on her upper lip beckoning with every accented word. And that smile.”

Mitzelfield alerted university officials, saying that Corlett’s essay frightened and upset her, and that she refused to teach him any further. Moreover, she insisted that either he be ejected from the campus, or she would quit herself. He was escorted out of Mitzelfeld’s class a few days later by the Oakland University Police. A sexual harassment charge was dropped, but a hearing by university officials found Corlett guilty of intimidation and he was expelled for the rest of the semester. University officials allegedly told him that he would be arrested if he returned to the campus. His suspension lasts for  three semesters, and he must go through sensitivity counseling before he can reapply.

Aided by The Fire, Corlett is now suing for over two million dollars in damages, maintaining that his First Amendment rights have been infringed. “The university has essentially issued a straightjacket to every writing student to protect the delicate sensibilities of faculty and staff,” says Greg Lukianoff, FIRE advocate. The legal issues look pretty clear: Oakland University has a terrible case. “Write anything” means write anything, and certainly cannot mean “write anything except something the instructor will freak out over, in which case we’ll fix you good.” If it is true, as Corlett alleges in his lawsuit, that Mitzelfield made no objection to other sexually themed compositions by him that referred to her, his treatment by the school is indefensible. That’s not the ethical question, however. That question is your Ethics Alarms Quiz for the day, and goes like this: Conceding that Oakland University mishandled the episode…

Was Corlett’s essay ethical and blameless? 

My assessment?

Well, I told you it was creepy, and in fact the journal entry was worse than that. It was that true rarity, blatant sexual harassment that can’t and shouldn’t be punished. Maybe it was innocent, but I doubt it. Maybe Corlett didn’t mean what he wrote, but was instead writing a piece of fiction pretending that he was obsessed with his teacher. I’m not buying it. Maybe he wasn’t trying to communicate with her, and using the assignment to convey his creepy fixation, but that’s not how it looks to me. I think this man, who was older than his teacher, exploited the situation and did so like a virtuoso.

In a creative writing class at a university, Mitzelfield’s “anything goes” assignment was a perfect loophole to harass—for someone so inclined, an invitation to harass. Having said what she said, if she said it, any student was granted a pass to write in the voice of a pornographer, a homicidal maniac, a committed terrorist, a racist, a homophobe or the owner of a mind so sick and threatening that Clive Barker would vomit upon reading the entry, and there was nothing the teacher could do about it other than give it an ‘F’ and tell that student never to write anything remotely similar again.

I think Corlett seriously upset his teacher, and she found herself in a dilemma. She couldn’t teach this guy knowing that he was internally think God knows what about her, yet she knew she had given him permission, albeit unwittingly, to write what he did. She gave the university a “him or me” ultimatum, which, I believe they should have responded to with, “OK, it’s you. Next time, don’t tell a class that anything goes if you know there are some things you can’t handle.”

Nevertheless, she should have been able to trust the students not to write essays that any reasonable teacher would view as threatening or degrading. The fact that Corlett is protected by the First Amendment and his teacher’s overly broad waiver of consideration, respect and good tastes does not justify what he did. His essay was unethical. And creepy. And wrong.
_______________________________Sources: The Fire, Free Press, Mail Online

50 Comments

Filed under Character, Education, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Rights

50 responses to “Ethics Quiz: The Case Of The Creepy Student

  1. Guy was a bit dense to know that a woman in position of teacher might find it creepy but I don’t think he set out to harass. Not too surprising that a lonely middle aged roofer might get a warm fuzzy feeling for younger lady teacher, but expressing it even after an anything goes ticket is not going to have a good ending. Having said that, for her to charge him with harassment seems over the top too.

    Having been on the wrong end of numerous female student complaints when I taught, I now have a bit of a jaundiced eye for the subject. Attempts to legislate how men and women interact seem to just create a new mess somewhere else. For instance, it seems feminists are trying to rewrite what female sexual consent means. I realized after reading an article on Jezebel that I have been raped a time or two but didn’t know it.

  2. As you explicitly ask:

    Is his essay ethical?

    No.

    Can it be punished?

    No. The teacher left unethical essays as an option. By saying write anything.

    Golden Rule, he should have known what kind of reaction such an essay could elicit.

      • “If it is true, as Corlett alleges in his lawsuit, that Mitzelfield made no objection to other sexually themed compositions by him that referred to her,”

        If that does hold true, then it does not alleviate the unethicality of his essay; but if she were truly offended, the she ought to have had a *professional* discussion with him alerting him to her discomfort on the FIRST such offense that it was obvious what he was doing.

        • Yup. I agree. It does make a difference legally, though.

        • Michael R.

          It is possible that she was behind on her grading. When she finally got around to grading the journals, she found entry after entry like this and freaked out.

          It is possible people are being a little too hard on the student. I had a professor who only wanted essays about phallic symbolism, sexual oppression, or sexual liberation. She wanted it controversial. I really resented this and felt more than a little uncomfortable for these to be the only acceptable topics in he classic literature course. She said she wanted to force us out of our comfort zone. I wonder if the Oakland U. professor told the student something similar. I can see this guy thinking “OK lady, here you go” and when he didn’t get any negative feedback thought “well, I guess that IS what you wanted” and kept writing it.

          • Don’t you think he would have cited such in his defense?

            • Michael R.

              You would think so, but I have found that many people don’t construct logical arguments very well. He is a 56 year old countertop refinisher taking what sounds like a freshman creative writing class. I wouldn’t be surprised if his response is not the best or most polished in the world.. Keep in mind, I just finished grading a stack of reports titled “Identification of an Unknown Acid”. About one third of the reports forgot to identify the acid.

  3. Ok, I’ll venture out in the other direction here. I see nothing unethical about his essay. Journaling assignments are, by design, intrusive into the thought processes of the student – doubly so when they’re encouraged to be honest. He was encouraged – by the nature of the assignment, the teacher’s own words, and the fact that he had written similarly before without receiving any warning that he was crossing a line. When those barriers of consideration, societal approvals, and respect are instructed to be set aside, you get the raw truth – which is sometimes not very pretty, but it IS the material that artists are supposed to work with. He spoke his thoughts freely as he was instructed to do, and was punished – not for the quality of the writing, not for straying beyond the bounds of the task, but because the teacher wasn’t comfortable with what he thought. He may or may not have been proud of what he was writing, but he was most likely brutally honest.

    If she was uncomfortable with what he wrote, it was her duty as a teacher and as a confidant to inform him of that fact BEFORE demanding that he be punished. I simply don’t have much patience with people who demand the truth, then respond with anger when the other dares to deliver it – and it isn’t what they wanted to hear.

    • I agree that he didn’t violate ethics by completing the assignment as required. He violated ethics by not thinking about his subject content in relation to the professionalism of the teacher-student relationship, or even just inter-personal behavior. Although that seems contradictory, I don’t think it is.

      • But the terms of the assignment were to write without regard to the professionalism of the teacher-student relationship or inter-personal behavior. He didn’t. He was (I assume from what I’ve read) not informed there was anything wrong with it. So he did it again. And was punished for it. What are the long-term lessons learned by him about this? Either that doing what he’s asked to do may result in praise or punishment, and that he has no way of judging which; or that no matter how much people want him to be open and honest, doing so will result in punishment and humiliation. Neither one of those sound like lessons that will make him a more ethical man.

        • “But the terms of the assignment were to write without regard to the professionalism of the teacher-student relationship or inter-personal behavior.”

          And that’s why he shouldn’t be punished. He completed an assignment as instructed, fulfilling his ethical obligations as a student.

          The topic he chose to write about violates the Golden Rule in regards to the teacher, that’s why the actual essay itself, that is to say, the content of the essay, IS unethical.

          • tgt

            If the terms of the assignment include ignoring professionalism of the teacher-student relationship and inter-personal behavior, then an exception is created where the golden rule doesn’t apply. Really, it’s even more than that. If the student consciously decided to follow the golden rule in this situation, he would be violating the precepts of the assignment.

            If I request an unfiltered comment from you, then it’s appropriate for you to give me an unfiltered comment. It might upset me or it might cause me to not want to be around you, but no matter what it is, your making the comment to me cannot be unethical; I requested it.*

            *Note, I’m not actually requesting it. I know that unfiltered comments between the two of us is likely to not end in a happy place.

            • Perhaps you didn’t read

              You aren’t absolved of decent behavior because someone says “do whatever you want.”

              Golden rule still applies.

              Just because one *can* do something (the assignment), doesn’t mean one *should* do something (ethics).

              A commander ordering his soldier to go eliminate an enemy Observation Post, doesn’t absolve the soldier of choosing to eliminate the Observation Post by taking it prisoner and then summarily torturing, mutilating and then executing the prisoners. “But sir! You told me to eliminate the OP!!!” The soldier FOLLOWED orders (which is his ethical duty), but the manner in which he followed orders opens up a whole new way to judge his ethical behavior.

              In that analogy, yes, the soldier would have violated laws of war, whereas the student has not violated any laws (at least not yet proven laws), but it still holds as an analogy.

              You giving me permission to say whatever I want to say to you, may allow me to cascade upon you a great deal of deserved criticism, and legalistic reading of your permission would give me license to make things uncomfortably personal in a sexual manner (which is what the student did to the teacher). It would be unethical for me to do so, and believe me, I wouldn’t.

              The student could very well have written an open critique of the teacher’s classroom methodology that may have made the teacher uncomfortable. No problem.

              The student could have done all manner of very blunt prose. But we regard items of personal sexual nature to be particularly taboo in culture. And rightly so. He crossed an ethical line there.

              But again, he can’t be punished because the teacher was explicit that it was an *anything* goes assignment.

              But again, that doesn’t mean he *should* write about it. Therefore, yes, his essay was unethical, but not punishable.

              • tgt

                Your military example isn’t parallel, as the bad behavior is done against third parties.

                The rest of your post is just silly. This passage shows the problem:

                But we regard items of personal sexual nature to be particularly taboo in culture. And rightly so. He crossed an ethical line there.

                If the point is to throw out the the rules if inter-personal behavior, then even the desired and good rules of inter-personal behavior have to be thrown out. Otherwise, the assignment would be a politically correct sham.

                • It does parallel.

                  There’s no need to re-demonstrate here. You are wrong, plain and simple.

                  I will reiterate: just because you *can* (the assignment) doesn’t mean you *should*

                  That’s ethics. Which is how the question was worded.

                  Jack even posted something you pointed him too. I assume you would agree with the assertion

                  The concepts are the same: just because you could get away with bad behavior doesn’t mean you ought to engage in it.

                  • Again, he can’t be punished though, because he was given license.

                    But that doesn’t make what he wrote ethical.

                  • tgt

                    It does parallel.

                    Harming a 3rd party makes it obviously different.

                    I will reiterate: just because you *can* (the assignment) doesn’t mean you *should*

                    In general, I agree. This though, is not just a *can*, but a *requested*. If mentally competent person A asks you to do X, then, so long as no one else is hurt, you can ethically do X. If person A is in a position of authority over you, and X does not harm you as well, then you are required to do X.

                    The concepts are the same: just because you could get away with bad behavior doesn’t mean you ought to engage in it.

                    It’s not at all the same. X is not bad behavior if the person X would be considered bad to requests it. It’s socially unacceptable and clearly bad to grope people, but if someone requests that you grope them, then groping them is not necessarily unethical.

                    • You are redefining the situation to be favorable to your assertion.

                      That is dishonest.

                      The teacher didn’t ask to be sexually harassed.

                      She left the scenario open to be sexually harassed without repercussion (which is what the blank slate assignement was) but no, she did not ask to be sexually harassed (which if the student were ethically guided, would have chosen a different topic to write about).

                      Your assessment is accurate but answering the wrong question:

                      The question isn’t “is it ethical to punish the student?” Which the answer is no (for all the reasons you’ve explained)

                      The question is “was the student’s essay ethical?”

                      To which the answer is no (for all the reasons I’ve explained)

                      And my very original assertion which you still have not grasped answered both those considerations as bottom line up front answers.

                    • tgt

                      I don’t think I’m redefining the situation. You are suggesting that a subset of the requested behavior was not requested. It’s an incoherent position to take.

                      I’m assuming your original statement was what you linked me to above (if you meant something different, please tell me and I will respond to whatever it is): “He violated ethics by not thinking about his subject content in relation to the professionalism of the teacher-student relationship, or even just inter-personal behavior.”

                      That though, begs the question. He was supposed to not think about the professionalism of the teacher-student relationship or even just inter-personal behavior. Doing so would have been in direct contradiction to the assignment.

                      We can say that what he wrote about shows him to be a disturbed man, but that doesn’t mean his expressing that disturbance was unethical. He did what he was asked to do. Aaron explained this better than I can: “When those barriers of consideration, societal approvals, and respect are instructed to be set aside, you get the raw truth – which is sometimes not very pretty, but it IS the material that artists are supposed to work with.”

                      His closing was also excellent: “I simply don’t have much patience with people who demand the truth, then respond with anger when the other dares to deliver it – and it isn’t what they wanted to hear.”

                      If someone asks for the truth, giving them the truth is not unethical.

                    • Again, all you are doing is explaining information pertinent to the question:

                      Is it ethical to punish the student?

                      And again, to beat a dead horse, that wasn’t the question.

                    • tgt

                      Everything I said applies to the ethics of writing as he did. She requested truthful and unfiltered work. He, responded with the truth, despite it being ugly, and something that would usually be filtered out. That’s inherently ethical behavior. That the content itself is ugly is irrelevant to the ethics of writing the content in this situation.

                      Again, you are suggesting that the student was unethical because he responded to a request for truthful, unfiltered work, with truthful, unfiltered work. You think he should have responded with filtered, socially sanitized work. You think that the student should have been politically correct, even when he was asked not to be.

                    • Let me boil this down for you. Again.

                      X tells Y “Do *anything* you want”
                      (*anything* includes subsets of ethical anythings and unethical anythings)
                      Y chooses to do an unethical something

                      The question posed: Was Y’s action unethical?

                      Yes.

                      Again, everything you are explaining, has already been accepted, but you are still only giving assessments pertinent to considering the question “can Y be punished for what Y chose?”

                      But again. Not the question.

                      If I tell you that unethical behavior is an option, it does not change your behavior to ethical if you so choose to engage in unethical behavior.
                      It simply does not. It just means I can’t get mad when you so choose, as long as there isn’t a cultural understanding between the two of us that does temper open-ended permissions like that (in this case it is clear the teacher did not establish that understanding…but again, doesn’t alleviate what the student chose to do, only mitigates that the teacher be rightfully mad).

                      The golden rule applies. This doesn’t have to do with political correctness, so don’t drum out a straw man. I have not demanded he fulfill that assignment in any other way; I have merely identified that student did fulfill the assignment unethically. And that is the question that was asked.

                      Since you avoid the question asked, you are still wrong. I even gave you an out to re-adjust back to the original question.

                    • tgt

                      That was all trash. The assignment was to ignore social senses of propriety and tell the truth. It’s basically, “don’t let ethics constrain what you write.”

                      If the student moderates what he wants to say because of social norms, then he’s not following the assignment.

                    • I’m certain you don’t appreciate the logic. Convenient to dismiss when it consistently debunks your argument.

                      His behavior doesn’t change ethicality because of permissiveness.

                      You are clearly to dense to grasp this. Moving on.

                    • tgt

                      His behavior doesn’t change ethicality because of permissiveness.

                      It’s not the permissiveness that changes the ethical nature of the writing. It’s that ignoring the rules here was DESIRED.

                      When it’s requested that someone ignore specific rules, it’s ethical (and proper) for them to ignore those specific rules. You can’t seem to understand this.

                      You think that the request to ignore the rules has no real bearing. You think the request should be ignored if following it would result in actually ignoring the rules in a way you deem inappropriate. It’s still a silly position to take.

                    • First of all, you still have redefined the terms to be favorable to your conclusion. This is dishonest as identified before.

                      There is no reason to immediately assume that absolute license was specifically requested or demanded. This is made up by you. All we have is *alleged* by the student (who coincidentally we only have his side of the story in terms of how the assignment was clarified).

                      He indicated he asked three times if he could write about anything, he indicated that her answer was yes. He never made any indication that this was truly hashed out (as you assert in detailed legalistic implication).

                      At a bare minimum that means he asked:

                      “we can write about anything?”

                      “Yes, anything.”

                      “Like…Anything? (giggle)”

                      “Yes, anything”

                      “So…you mean, I can…you know, write about….any….(snicker)….thing”

                      “Yes, anything!”

                      No where in there is a *demand* or a *request* to ignore ethical rules or professionalism as a minimum for the assignment. There is an implied permissiveness, however, to do so, if one so chooses.

                      So you are wrong. Still. You are dishonest to add to this by saying there was a specific request or demand to forget the rules of ethics. However, you need this to be the case for your argument to have any weight.

                      At a minimum we can only assume, that the teacher’s simple answers were an *implied* permission to be unethical. Not the same as a direct request or demand in the likes you described (and even if it were, it wouldn’t change whether or not the student chose to be unethical).

                      Additionally, although an irrelevant side issue, it is worthy of note, because you are wrong on it as well: the students being told to write about whatever they want, would not be violating the rules by censoring themselves, because if they wanted to do so, they would still be writing about what they wanted.

                      So, again,m for the umpteenth time. I don’t know how you fail to grasp the simplicity:

                      Just because you *can* (the assignment) doesn’t mean you *should* (ethics).

                      He chose an unethical thing to write, therefore he was unethical. (what the original question asked us to assess)

                      She invited it, therefore it would be unethical in turn to punish him. (what all your objections actually relate to)

                      It is so painfully cut and dry, I fail to see how you stumble on it further.

                      Your attitude requires ignoring the ethical Golden Rule and also that a person can’t absolve you of ethical behavior just because they say they won’t be offended by it. This is a failing on your part.

                • But, so you know you aren’t completely lost on this, just misdirected:

                  Your assessment would be useful if the question were:

                  “Is it ethical to punish the student?”

                  But that wasn’t the question.

  4. Bill

    I did the same thing in a art class when I was assigned to draw a woman in reclining in the nude. I made the mistake of using my art teache as inspiration . 24 year old female art teachers tend to frown on 17 year high school boys drawing them in the nude. I got an A on the assignment and was reassigned to another class taught by a 55 year old former Marine and WWII get who told me that if I drew any nude photos of him he would kick my ass. Lol

  5. Isaac

    Does the paper qualify as sexual harassment, and is that conduct against the law and/or campus policy? If so, I am inclined to think that it doesn’t matter what the teacher’s instructions were.

    If I am in an improv class, and the instructor says “do something controversial and crazy” and I punch a fellow student in the jaw, dislocating it…I think I would still be subject to assault charges and probably escorted off of the premises, and unable to use the teacher’s instructions as a shield of any kind.

    I might be missing something here, as I have not read the paper in full and don’t know what exactly both sides here are arguing in court.
    Should it have been understood that “write about anything” still ruled out writing things that are illegal or against the institution’s rules?
    Or is the argument here that, because of the terms of the assignment, nothing written about the teacher could constitute sexual harassment?
    What if he had fantasized about killing her, or wrote at length about his desire to do so? Would the consensus that he should remain at the school change, and if so why?

    • I think that is what is waiting to be proven.

    • The paper would qualify as sexual harassment almost certainly, if it were not a free writing assignment. By definition, sexual harassment must be unwelcome, and that which is invited cannot be unwelcome as a matter of law. If indeed the student was told “anything” was appropriate, then a fictional or honest ode to the teacher’s sexual assets was appropriate too.

      But we’re talking sexual harassment as a legal concept. Factually, yes, that was sexual harassment, and pretty obviously so. That’s why I think the essay was unethical.

    • tgt

      If I am in an improv class, and the instructor says “do something controversial and crazy” and I punch a fellow student in the jaw, dislocating it…I think I would still be subject to assault charges and probably escorted off of the premises, and unable to use the teacher’s instructions as a shield of any kind.

      LIke tex above, you created a situation with a 3rd party. It’s not parallel.

      Should it have been understood that “write about anything” still ruled out writing things that are illegal or against the institution’s rules?

      If the school has rules about not writing certain things, FIRE should come down on them.

      What if he had fantasized about killing her, or wrote at length about his desire to do so? Would the consensus that he should remain at the school change, and if so why?

      Anything other than a true threat seems within the bounds of (our hypothetical of the) situation to me.

  6. Jack,

    If you chase some of the article links further, you see there is further reason why the teacher became so uncomfortable by the student.

    Apparently he was vocal about the right guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment and had written several essays about it as well. She said she was uncomfortable knowing he owned guns as well as her discomfort about the sexually electrified essay he wrote about her (and also about other staff on campus).

    • Yeah, I saw that and decided not to get into it, since why she was so determined to get rid of him isn’t the ethical issue, and muddles the story. Yes, she sounds like she’s paranoid about guns—supporting an absolutist version of the 2nd Amendment doesn’t make you dangerous, but even if she found out that he had collaborated on Wisconsin Sickness, she was estopped from punishing the guy for writing something clearly within parameters she had dictated herself.

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