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Student asks court to force poetry prof to give her an A

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/06/2017 Sari Lesk
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, shown in June 2016, has about 9,400 students. © Megan McCormick, Marshfield (Wis.) News-Herald The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, shown in June 2016, has about 9,400 students.

STEVENS POINT, Wis. — A student who didn't think her poetry professor's reading list served her needs as a "mainstream" student has sued her teacher, asking the court to get her failing grade raised.

Donna Kikkert, 59, of Gleason, Wis., who is pursuing a bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said she wanted to study the classics when she took her Advanced Creative Writing Poetry course.

But the selected texts — rather than including Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe and others of interest to Kikkert — focused on "lesbians, illicit sexual relationships, incest and frequent swearing," she said.

She asserts her complaints resulted in an F in the course. She believes she deserves an A and filed suit Dec. 30 in Portage County Circuit Court here when she couldn't get the university to change Professor Patricia Dyjak's grade.

"She has swung the pendulum far to the side of LGBT students and, in doing so, has chosen to totally discount the importance and the validity of the mainstream student population," Kikkert argued in her claim.

Kikkert said her failing grade was "capricious retaliation" for her raising concerns about the course content and Dyjak's behavior. Kikkert also alleged that the professor exposed her breasts while showing the class a back-shoulder tattoo.

In addition, Kikkert asked the court to suspend Dyjak for a year without pay or fire her.

"Kikkert's complaint fails because it does not provide any legal authority or other basis (and the defendant's counsel is aware of none) upon which this court could require Dyjak to teach the work of certain poets in a college course ... or to provide any particular student with the grade that student believes she deserves," Katherine Spitz, Wisconsin assistant attorney general wrote in court records.

A Portage County judge dismissed the case in May. Kikkert said she is mulling an appeal.

Dyjak, who had state attorneys representing her because she is a state employee, declined to comment.

Kikkert's case focuses on course content rather than freedom of expression that has been a hot topic on college campuses. It questions university policy protecting academic freedom — professors' right to teach their subject matter as they see fit.

While the American Association of University Professors supports teachers' freedom in discussing their subject matter, it also says students are free to take "reasoned exception" to any items offered in a course of study.

"We're interested in teaching you the skills necessary to think and form your own judgments," said Greg Summers, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "Part of that is encountering ideas that you may not be comfortable with and you may not agree with and being able to encounter those ideas, empathize with them enough to take them seriously and then form your own judgment."

Kikkert said she believes a university should challenge students but also thinks that a professor's job is take students seriously when they suggest a topic for study. 

"I think professors need to incorporate having a sensitivity to what students would consider as wanting to learn," she said.

Follow Sari Lesk on Twitter: @Sari_Lesk

 

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