Rita Bernard’s “Why Not to Teach Coetzee” comes off as a rather bizarre critique of J.M. Coetzee’s work, and its instruction within liberal academic institutions. The most prominent object of her attack seems to be Disgrace, a novel which almost seems to revel in the shear multitude of difficult issues and uncomfortable legacies it seeks to conjure up. While taking issue with the book’s canonization and its reading as an allegory for “The New Nation,” Bernard primarily focuses on the portrayal of the relationship between David Lurie and Melanie. At best, David plays the role of an anti-hero who spends almost a quarter of the novel stalking, pursuing and making sexual gestures towards her. In doing so, he abuses his position of power over his student to force her into an extremely painful situation bearing disastrous consequences for Prof. Lurie, Melanie and the university as a whole. The fact that this episode paints the pedagogical relationship between students and professors in such a negative light — ranging trivial and frivolous when David’s students seem totally disinterested in his musings on romantic poetry, to predatory and strangely eroticized with regards to Melanie — appears to be unsettling for Bernard. Seeing his body of work as being problematic, she fears that students, who might not necessarily be well-informed or motivated, could use it such a way to discredit the merits of a liberal education and undermine the authority of their instructors.
Even though, Coetzee’s portrayal of academia is markedly derogatory on all fronts (both pedagogically and administratively) this shouldn’t discount one from teaching it. First, a professor could simply, as she stated, gloss over all of these issues by simply casting Melanie’s rape as a precursor to Lucy’s later on, as well as a necessary plot device that forces David to leave Cape Town. Secondly, if done properly, there’s no reason why the sexual harassment and assault against Melanie, David’s lack of formal charges, and the administration’s willingness to work with him are all necessary topics students should be exposed to. Undoubtedly, due to the efforts of academics and activists alike, serious strides have been made in terms of how people discuss these issues — thus, shying away from or avoiding the text altogether seems completely counter-productive. This is not to say that there are not legitimate criticisms of this novel, its overall portrayal of the post-apartheid state and Coetzee’s status in literary circles vis-à-vis his black South African counterpart; however, none of this will be resolved by ending the conversation. Instead English departments should strive to rework and innovate their means of discussing Disgrace to foster more fruitful and favorable teaching outcomes.