I teach at Brooklyn College, where the undergraduate writing program has for the past several years assigned a "common reading" to all incoming freshmen. This year the program selected my book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, in which I tell the stories of seven Arab-American men and women, all in their 20s and living in Brooklyn, coping in a post-9/11 world. The criteria for the common reading are that the book should preferably be set in New York City, have a significant immigration component (since many of our students are themselves immigrants or come from immigrant backgrounds), and be in the form of life stories. It should be by a living writer, since the author is invited to the campus to talk with students. My book fit the bill. (Previous readings have included Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)
Everything was fine until about a week before classes began. That's when the chair of my department called me to report that the college had received a small number of complaints from alumni and an emeritus faculty member about the selection. She assured me that the college was standing by its decision, and the dean of undergraduate studies subsequently told me the same thing. But I knew that in today's wired world, administrators worry about complaints' hitting the Internet and going "viral." And that's exactly what happened.
The tempest was kicked off when Bruce Kesler, a conservative California-based blogger who is a Brooklyn College alumnus, labeled me a "radical pro-Palestinian" professor in one of his posts and called the book's selection an "official policy to inculcate students with a political point of view." He said he was cutting out a "significant bequest" to the college from his will. (He didn't mention how significant his bequest would have been.) In another letter, posted on a different blog under the title "Brooklyn College-Stan," a retired Brooklyn professor wrote that assigning my book "smacks of indoctrination" and "will intimidate students who have a different point of view."
My first reaction was one of disbelief. Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn't actually read the book. Next I realized how insulting those objections were to our students, suggesting that they are unable to form independent judgments of what they read.
I hoped the noise would fade, but within days, tabloid news media had grabbed the issue from the right-wing blogosphere. Articles appeared in New York's Daily News, The Jewish Week, and Gothamist and were picked up by The Huffington Post and New York Magazine. The New York Post ran an op-ed by a retired history professor at City College who deftly illustrated that one need read only a book's Amazon.com page to reach conclusions about it. The op-ed called the selection of my book a "scandal" and claimed that it paints "New Yorkers in particular as completely Islamophobic" (patently untrue). I received calls at home from television news shows, and the local Channel 11 even broadcast my picture, calling me "this guy!" in the teaser.