Peddling Pedophilia, Murder, Lesbianism, and Suicide: Teaching Controversial Texts at a Religious College

Marianne Cotugno, Mount Olive College

As an Assistant Professor of English at a religious college, I have had to consider the following question: How (and just as importantly, why) does one teach Lolita and other potentially controversial texts to students whose religious background and beliefs encourage many of them to immediately dismiss these works?

This paper explores my experiences teaching two such works: Lolita and Robin Beckerís All-American Girl, a collection of poetry that deals with lesbian relationships, the anxieties of families, and suicide. These books provide a means of examining the current classroom environment as a social space. A classroom in a religious school lays bare many of studentsí often silent assumptions and beliefs in non-religious settings.

Surprisingly, through my teaching I found that students are far more shocked by the poetry than by Nabokovís novel, and I want to explore why, and what it says about the classroom environment today versus half a century ago when the novel first appeared. At a time when the Osbournes is one of the most popular TV shows among traditional college age students, Nabokovís dysfunctional family may not seem so strange or disturbing. Rather than students rejecting texts such as Lolita as morally repugnant, the current crop of reality TV shows illustrate that such works may even have a certain vogue amongst students. This paper will examine the effects of Lolitaís potential ďordinarinessĒ on how we read and teach his novel.

Despite these circumstances (and because of them!), both Lolita and All-American Girl emerge as ideal tools for provoking students to consider their often deeply embedded views on what constitutes the family and home. Additionally, teaching these texts helps me to reevaluate my pedagogical assumptions and practices. With this paper, I hope to provide practical suggestions for faculty who teach controversial texts.