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Winthrop students study controversial book, support academic freedom movement

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Jeff Sochko - PHOTOS BY JEFF SOCHKO
Leah Smith holds up a copy of the book “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel as a Winthrop theater class discusses sexuality and gender in an honor symposium course on May 2.

As academic professionals decry South Carolina lawmakers’ attempts to cut money from two colleges that asked students to read gay-themed books, an honors class at Winthrop University has taken on one of the controversial works as extra reading.

Students in the honors theater course held a group discussion of “Fun Home” for their final exam last week. To discuss the book, they went outside to Winthrop’s designated “free speech zone” in front of Byrnes Auditorium, near the university’s main entrance.

While it was coincidental that class was held in the free speech area, it was intentional for the discussion to be publicly held outside, professor Laura Dougherty said. The class would have traveled to Columbia to read the book on Statehouse grounds, she said, but she didn’t want to add stress to the students’ already busy exam and study schedules.

The S.C. House voted earlier this year to cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s budget after school officials assigned “Fun Home” to incoming freshmen. The action also took $17,000 away from the University of South Carolina-Upstate, which asked students to read “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio.”

The S.C. Senate is still debating whether to uphold the House budget cuts before approving statewide spending plans.

“Fun Home” is a memoir with illustrated drawings about a woman from Pennsylvania who tells her parents in college that she is a lesbian. The book chronicles her life, from growing up in a dysfunctional family to dealing with grief and loss after her father’s death.

“Out Loud” is a non-fiction book about South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show.

Many college professors and presidents statewide have pushed back against the cuts, saying lawmakers shouldn’t dictate what books universities assign students to read. Along with other schools, Winthrop faculty members signed a resolution to send to the General Assembly in support of academic freedom.

Lawmakers who voted to take away money from the College of Charleston point to some illustrations in “Fun Home” that they say are too sexually graphic for freshmen students to see.

The students reading “Fun Home” at Winthrop say the book isn’t too explicit for adult readers and isn’t a one-dimensional work about gay issues.

In discussing the book on a recent Friday, the group of five honors students described “Fun Home” as an exploration of family relationships, finding identity after childhood and grief experienced after the death of a loved one. The class also talked about literary techniques and differences between the text and “Fun Home” the musical, a Broadway production based on Alison Bechdel’s novel.

“Fun Home” is not just a gay-themed book, it’s a story about childhood and family, said Riley Ketcham, a 20-year-old theater student. Bechdel’s story is told in a non-chronological way, showing a life unfolding through various memories and events.

The book is honest and has themes that any reader could relate to, Ketcham said, adding that “Fun Home” explores Bechdel’s family’s “secret keeping and the boundaries that were kept” as she grew up.

Sarah Bruce, a 19-year-old theater student, said “Fun Home” also explores the friction between parents and children.

“Every family has a secret,” Bruce said, “even if you don’t know there’s a secret.”

In “Fun Home,” Bechdel’s secret is that she is a lesbian, and her father’s secret is that he is gay and has had affairs while married to Bechdel’s mother. When he dies mysteriously, the family struggles with the possibility that he committed suicide.

Though not originally on the reading list for the Winthrop honors theater course, “Fun Home” fits with the topic the students have explored throughout the semester. The optional, one-hour credit course is called “Gender and Sexuality in Theatre and Performance.”

When officials at the College of Charleston – with help from private donors – scheduled a performance of “Fun Home” the musical last month, some Winthrop theater students traveled to see it. The stage adaption was organized after the House vote to take away $52,000 from the Charleston school.

Dougherty said her students experienced in Charleston what she describes as “theater responding to something in our state in a really major way.”

Studying “Fun Home” and the political controversy and academic freedom fight around the book, she said, helps college educators achieve an important goal: teaching students to think critically.

“University education, especially in the liberal arts, is about thinking,” she said.

Political opposition to colleges challenging their students and exposing them to new ideas shows a disconnect between lawmakers and the mission of higher education, Dougherty said. State leaders should be encouraging public universities to help students think about ideas with which they might not be comfortable, she said.

“If we can’t create spaces where people can do that,” she said, “then what business are we in?”

State Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, led the effort to take money away from the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate. In March, he told The Herald that he asked both colleges to provide alternative reading options to the books but officials refused.

Some senators said this week that a compromise is in the works that would free up the money for the colleges and allow for alternatives if a student finds an assigned book offensive.

Arguing academic freedom doesn’t hold, he said, when “their freedom infringes upon someone else’s rights.” Smith was particularly upset that some parents and students had to pay for books – through tax dollars or tuition – that offended them.

The recent opposition and budget cuts for controversial books raises a question, said Emily Carter, a 20-year-old Winthrop student who read “Fun Home.”

“How far are you going to let government get into your education system?”

It seems that many of the same politicians who advocate for less government involvement in individual lives, Carter said, are the ones trying to meddle in professors’ and students’ curriculum.

The budget cuts for the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate put South Carolina politics in the national spotlight – but not in a positive way, the Winthrop students said.

For 20-year-old Gabrielle McDowell, a psychology student at Winthrop, the “Fun Home” reading assignment achieved exactly what college students expect when they pay tuition.

“Universities are suppose to expose you to different things,” she said. “If you want to keep everyone in a little box, then we’re going to be even more ignorant than the rest of the country.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068
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