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Danish cartoon lets students test their intellectual chops

By Greg Brewis

Protests and riots in Europe and the Middle East were sparked earlier this year by Danish newspaper editorial cartoons that implied Islam tolerates violent extremism. Half a world away, the controversy became the latest lesson learned as part of PLU’s tradition of inquiry beyond the classroom.

Hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Program, two round-table discussions of the cartoon controversy and the changing demographics of Scandinavia drew more than 100 students and community members to Hong International Hall.

“The discussions were an important way to share with the community some of the challenges faced by contemporary Scandinavia,” said Claudia Berguson, assistant professor of Norwegian and Scandinavian studies. “And holding the discussion outside of class gave us the opportunity to reach more students and to call on faculty experts from several disciplines.”

Islam expert Paul Ingram, emirtus professor of religion, and his wife Regina.

The faculty panel included Peter Grosvenor and Ann Kelleher of political science, Mark Jensen of French, Cliff Rowe of communication, and Berguson and Troy Storfjell of Scandinavian studies.

Several members of Tacoma’s Islamic community attended the first conversation and brought perspectives that students otherwise would not have heard.

“Often the classroom becomes an overly sanitized setting and we fail to realize that many of the topics we discuss are critically important to many people,” Storfjell said. “In discussing the Danish cartoons we had authentic contact with people who feel very strongly about the issue. As a result, students were very interested in and very engaged with members of the local mosque.”

Students also learned that many of their preconceptions about Scandinavia are wrong.

“Many times conversations about Scandinavia are about heritage and about ancestry. But this event showed Scandinavia in a more problematic light and I think that’s a good corrective,” Storfjell said.

According to Storfjell, the transformation of Scandinavian nations into multicultural societies over the past 30 years has resulted in internal ethnic tension. It was in that context that the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper commissioned the cartoons and printed them. The paper takes a strong anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim stance and its cultural editor is well known for his view that Muslims are attempting to take over Denmark, Storfjell said.

“For the first time, much of the world was seeing that Scandinavian societies are not perfect and that they have their own issues and challenges to deal with,” he said. “And it was certainly an interesting experience for me professionally to have a discussion on a Scandinavian cultural topic and have standing room only.”

The Danish cartoon forum was the latest in a litany of extracurricular conversations that have characterized campus life for decades. There have been discussions of war and peace in Vietnam, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. There have been conversations stemming from conflicts over sexual orientation and politics. There was even a discussion of Princess Diana conspiracy theories.

According to Ed Inch, dean of the School of Arts andCommunication, these round-table discussions are the best opportunity for students to take what they have learned in class – all the skills they have developed in public speaking and decision making – and put them to use understanding real-world problems.

“These conversations give students a chance to integrate all they have learned and flex their intellectual muscles a little bit,” Inch said.

Inch sees the extracurricular discussions as part of the foundation of Lutheran higher education: the community is uniquely challenged to debate and understand issues with an external focus and with individual responsibility to integrate into the world with commitment and caring stewardship.

“The commitment to meaningful dialogue of this kind is part of PLU’s culture. Students attend these discussions not because there is a requirement they have to meet. They attend not because there is a grade associated with it. They attend because they want to be able to interpret things, they want to be able to explore ideas and they want to interact with students and faculty they might never encounter otherwise.

“Participating in these sessions and hearing other points of view in an open dialogue breeds tolerance,” Inch said. “I become more tolerant of people who disagree with me because I understand the alternative. I like that. This is what we do well at PLU. I find it very rich.”

These important conversations outside of class also have a lasting effect on choices students make in their course of study and career objectives.

“Students have an opportunity to explore new interests and examine core values in the context of these wider conversations,” Berguson said.

“Both informal discussions such as the Danish caricature-controversy round table and more formal ones such as the recent Wang Center symposium on Norway’s approach to democracy and development have a lasting influence,” she said.

“As a result, I’ve seen heightened student interest in Scandinavian studies and in the complex ways that Scandinavia is engaged in the world today.”



Alicia Batten was awarded a 2005-06 Graves Award in the Humanities. The $8,200 award will fund Batten’s planned sabbatical next school year, during which she plans to travel to France to study French Biblical interpretation during World War II.

Batten, an assistant professor of religion, will study Andre Trocme, a protestant pastor in a French village called Le Chambon sur Lignon during World War II. Trocme urged his congregation to give shelter to Jews during the war, and helped some of them escape to Switzerland.

The prestigious Graves Award is presented each year to college and university professors across the nation who demonstrate unusual skill and enthusiasm as teachers. It supports projects that will enhance their ability in the classroom.

Four other PLU faculty have received Graves Awards: Patricia O’Connell Killen, religion (1991), Beth Kraig, history (1993), Lisa Marcus, English (1997) and Jim Albrecht, English (1999).

Three prominent fellowships have been awarded to Robert Marshall Wells, assistant professor of journalism and media studies.

The American Press Institute Minority Journalism Educator Fellowship sent Wells to the institute’s headquarters near Washington, D.C., in April for a seminar examining changes in media consumption habits.

This summer Wells will participate in the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation’s Summer 2006 Educator in the Newsroom Fellowship. This project places college journalism educators in local television and radio station newsrooms around the country for four weeks during the summer.

Wells was also selected for the Summer 2006 International Canadian Studies Institute Fellowship. Sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Canadian Studies Consortium and the Canadian Consulate General in Seattle, this fellowship is designed to demonstrate and strengthen the economic, cultural and political bonds between the United States and Canada.



© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2006

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