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?
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