University could fire writing professor over “deviant pornography”

Soka University of America is accusing its only queer professor of color, Aneil Rallin, of exposing students to “deviant pornography” and “vaguely pedophilic” materials in a class called Writing the Body.

A faculty committee at the California campus will consider the case later this week. It will then make recommendations about disciplinary action—up to dismissal—to the same interim dean who charged Rallin using those terms.

Rallin says the accusations are based on complaints from three students who took writing the Body in the fall and from one student outside the course. Only one of the complaints has a clear submission date, but all appear to have been written in December, Rallin also says. Yet Soka only verbally informed them (the pronoun Rallin uses) of the complaints at the end of March, halfway through the spring semester.

Last month, Rallin received a letter from Michael Weiner, interim dean of the faculty, formally alleging that they’d violated Soka’s principles of faculty conduct, its policy on teaching effectiveness and this faculty standard: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching, controversial matter which has no relationship to their subject.”

Paraphrasing the student complaints, Weiner alleged that Rallin “did not create a safe space” and said students “felt violated since they were required to read graphic, deviant pornography, discussions on rape and assault, watch a video and a reading about the sexual activities of a couple, gratuitously violent material, etc.”

“Students found a writing to be vaguely pedophilic,” Weiner also wrote. “One student was a rape victim whose mental health issues were triggered as a result of the material and mandated to write with rage regarding her body. Another student was a survivor of sexual abuse.”

Despite the fact that Soka considers the claims serious enough to warrant possible dismissal, Rallin was never suspended from teaching in the fall or this spring.

Soka declined to share any details about the student complaints, citing student privacy. But it says that as the claims against Rallin center on classroom content, a faculty adjudication committee of peers is the appropriate body to review the matter.

“We received a series of concerns about classroom conduct and content. We take these claims seriously and act in accordance with our established policies,” Katherine King, university spokesperson, said via email. “The university relies on the determination and recommendations of the faculty in these cases. We will await the output of the faculty adjudication committee’s review and recommendations.”

‘A Long, Ugly History’

While Soka says it’s following procedure, a number of students, faculty members and alumni, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, are urging the university to end its inquiry into Rallin altogether. They that teaching-based complaints about professors are often first addressed outside formal disciplinary channels at Soka and that Rallin never had an opportunity to address such concerns before being threatened with termination.

These supporters also express concerns about retaliation, as Rallin co-wrote an essay with students criticizing Soka’s climate for diversity, equity and inclusion in December, between when the student reports appear to have been made and now. Weiner is pushing Soka’s writing program toward a writing across the Curriculum model, over the objects of some faculty members, as well.

Some of Rallin’s supporters also note that accusations of pedophilia and deviancy have historically been used to malign or otherwise target LGBTQ people, and they say Soka is wrong to use this kind of language. Ralin agrees.

“Regardless of what students may or may not have said, it’s shocking that the dean of faculty would reproduce this kind of homophobia at our university,” Rallin said. “This is a well-known homophobic trope used to target queer folks, including queer teachers, and has a long, ugly history, amply documented.” (Currently, for instance, Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law prohibiting any discussion of sexual orientation or identity in K-3 classrooms is described by some of its supporters as an “antigrooming” law.)

Rallin guessed that any student reference to pedophilia referred to a passage from Samuel Delany’s “Ash Wednesday,” in which Delany says that his longtime friend Maison had been introduced to New York City’s “working-class gay culture,” including “gay movie cruising, ” by a friend of Maison’s father whom Maison had grown up referring to as his “uncle.” But there is no suggestion in the passage that Maison was underage when this happened.

Of the Writing the Body course in general, Rallin said, “None of the course texts represent or reference children in a context of sex or sexuality.” Nor do they “fit any definition of pornography.”

Writing the Body is one possible option for students to fulfill a Soka writing seminar requirement. The syllabus describes it like this:

Taking as its purview the production, regulation, and circulation of bodies in the context of racial capitalism and globalism, this writing seminar aims to consider how bodies are politically, socially, sexually, racially, culturally, metaphorically, and historically constituted, as well as to promote the invention of rebel forms for reading and writing bodies that do not reinscribe the body in narrative myths and dualistic structures that dominate conventional understandings of bodies.

Our particular writing/composing, research, reading, viewing, and discussions will thus center on the politics and performances of the body as social product, matrix, and mediation. We will consider a variety of texts from across disciplines, genres, and media; interrogate the ideas/questions these texts raise; and think carefully about the implications of these texts for our own composition practices. As socially and ethically responsible citizens/scholars/thinkers/activists, you’ll intervene in these textual conversations by producing your own multimodal critical/creative analyses/meditations/compositions that contribute to discussions about the body. My hope is you will produce work that matters toward your own dreams and desires and imagination for what our world could be.

Rallin has taught writing the Body for many years, but recent iterations include works by Sut Jhally, Lisa Linn Kanae, Alan Pelaez Lopez, Claudia Rankine, Randa Jarrar, Roxane Gay and Ocean Vuong, among others. Some texts are sexually explicit or include discussions of sexual assault, Rallin said, “and I gave trigger warnings for those texts. I made it clear that students did not have to read or respond to work that they thought might be triggering for them.” Students were not required to share with the class anything they’d written if they didn’t feel comfortable doing so, either, they say.

Beyond written texts, Rallin said that after conferring with the class during a particular discussion this fall, they also decided to screen Isaac Julien’s 1993 short film, The Attendant. The film depicts sexual fantasies in a museum setting (hence the attendant), and while it was considering boundary-pushing and perhaps scandalous upon its release, attracting the attention of bell hooks and other scholars, Rallin said it came off “somewhat cheesy” in late 2021.

In any case, Rallin said, “it’s shocking that the dean is seeking to oust me from a tenured position on the grounds of these student complaints—the first student complaints against me in 16 years of teaching at [Soka].”

Rallin received the Soka Student Union Professor of the Year Award in 2015. Kiana Barrington, a fourth-year student who took writing the Body in the fall, when the complaints were filed, said she was shocked to hear of the case against Rallin, because the course “is probably one of the most popular courses—it’s so good. Ever since I got here, people have been telling me, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve taken this course; this is the best course ever, it changed my life.’”

Barrington said the course did defy her expectations—positively—in that she imagined it would be about such obviously “physical” issues as race or weight, but it ended up presenting a more “inclusive” sense of the body, to include sexual orientation.

“When I took the class, it was very clear to me how it was all related,” she said. “The way of your identity and your preferences and your interests impact the way that you engage with the world and people.”

Contrary to the notion that Rallin created an unsafe space for students, Barrington said that Rallin was constantly checking in with students about their comfort levels and how they thought the class was progressing. Barrington, who identifies as Black, said she also felt grateful for how Rallin handled an incident in the class in which a non-Black student said the full N-word in reference to its use in a student text.

“They made it clear to me that they were going to address it in class and make sure that that doesn’t happen again,” Barrington recalled of Rallin. “And considering the topic of the course, a lot of students mentioned [at the beginning]’I feel weird sharing these very personal things about my body and my experiences,’ and [Rallin] told us, ‘We can work with that. We can redact as much information as you need to feel secure.””

Soka has no trigger warning policy, leaving the matter up to individual professors. Barrington said that she once complained to Weiner, when he was still serving as a professor of East Asian and international studies and not as dean, for offering no trigger warning for sexual assault prior to screening a film in his class about mid-20th-century Japanese “picture brides” living in Hawaii. (Soka did not respond to a request for comment about this.)

Soka University of America was founded by Daisaku Ikeda, the founder of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist movement, and emphasizes the liberal arts and human rights. It is a small institution with a large share of international students. Rallin is from India and many of Soka’s students are from Japan, where the institution has a bigger sister university.

Ryan Ashley Caldwell, an associate professor of sociology at Soka who also uses they/them pronouns, said they resigned as chair of the university’s curriculum committee over the case against Rallin.

“I did resign in protest and solidarity but also to protect myself,” they said. “It is not possible for me as a queer professor to chair a committee that oversees the curriculum while also having another queer professor targeted for what they teach in their classes. It’s a personal conflict of interest in the deepest sense.”

It’s “not a huge leap to assume that what is happening to [Rallin] could happen to me,” said Caldwell, “and I think faculty should be outraged for similar reasons.”

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