Another Day, Another Offended College Student

This time, the graphic novel Persepolis is to blame.

Another Day, Another Offended College Student

The best works of literature challenge us and make us think, but some college students don't want to be challenged, or to think too hard. The Internet is always abuzz with stories of censorship on college campuses. Coming from the right wing, you have stories of religious students (and often parents, unfortunately) who raise their objections to "immoral" books, films, and essays. Coming from the left wing, you have calls for "trigger warnings," designed to safeguard those who'd rather not approach potentially uncomfortable themes in course reading materials. At our universities, there is an ever-burning desire to condemn and censor any ideas that are deemed troubling, insensitive, or just plain wrong, even though the avoidance of serious intellectual discourse is the exact opposite of what the college experience should be about.

Okay, let me take a step back; this topic really grinds my gears, so I'm probably not looking at it as objectively as I should. Speaking from experience, the vast majority of college students are eager to engage with challenging ideas and hear the opinions of others, even when disagreement may be strong. But the few who are unwilling to afford others their right to free speech sure are vocal in making a stink about it, and, from what I can tell, really enjoy seeing themselves in the news.

The offended party in question this time is Tara Shultz, a student who is pursuing an associate's degree in English from Crafton Hills College. Shultz had this to say about Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's bestselling graphic novel that is considered an essential part of the feminist and postcolonialist canon:

“It was shocking, I didn’t expect to open the book and see that graphic material within. I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography." 

Problem number one: Anyone who expects Batman and Robin to grace the syllabus of a college-level literature course probably needs to realign their expectations, and may not be ready for the whole "college-level" thing entirely. That quote sounds like it could've been taken straight out of a comedy sketch lampooning politically-correct culture. College is not a place where discussion is confined to innocuous, fun-for-the-whole-family children's fare, and those who take this position, however few in number, pose a threat to the future of academia, because the tendency among college leaders is to capitulate to the demands of the offended.

io9's Andrew Liptak raises an important point about this situation that I missed: Shultz's offense may have arisen from her perception that graphic novels are exclusively for children, or at least deal in common, family-friendly tropes like superheroes and talking animals. Although that may sound true to the uninitiated, the graphic novel has pushed boundaries for a long time. Art Spiegelman's renowned Maus tells a story of the Holocaust through anthropomorphic animal characters. To suggest that a particular art form is somehow immune from graphic content shows utter cluelessness about artistic innovation.

The college has said that in future semesters, it will add a disclaimer to the course's syllabus. Perhaps they would be better off putting such a disclaimer at the campus gate, and inviting those who are unwilling to engage graphic content or opposing ideas to spend their time elsewhere.

Visit io9 for more, and watch John Sexton share his thoughts on the future of higher education:  

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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