Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Judicious vulgarity

I'm realizing how much I enjoy the judicious use of vulgarity in the classroom. Yes, it's empowering (I'm the teacher, so I get to say these things!), and yes, I may be trying too hard to seem cool--but I think it's mostly about destablizing my students' expectations: of the texts we're reading (whoa! there was some dirty stuff going on back then!), but also of me as their instructor. Whatever expectations my students may have for their other instructors--and I have no idea what goes on in my colleagues' classrooms--I'm 100% certain that my students do not expect me to swear. Indeed, many people my own age--colleagues, casual friends--seem shocked, SHOCKED when I swear. I don't know what that's about, although the phrase, "but you always seem so proper!" has been thrown around in my presence.

I think it's useful, pedagogically, to keep students on their toes. But mixing registers is also so much of what I do in my daily life, whether in talking about current events or in discussing my scholarship with friends (you should hear me describing a day's work to George Washington Boyfriend--"So he's doing more of that crazy shit in this other poem, where he's all, 'check ME out. . .'"), and I think it's good for students to see that. I think it's good to model how to use the expletive as occasional intensifier, and to show the comedy that can result when you throw a casual vulgarity into a complicated sentence full of arch circumlocutions and technical terms.

I hope to model, I guess, how to be smart and yet "normal"--how my students could incorporate scholarship and criticism into their own lives. I want them to feel that there's not a huge yawning gulf between their experience and their abilities, on the one hand, and the texts we read. (There may in fact be such a gulf, but they need to be able to ignore it.)


So, although I have no expectation that I'll break the "fuck" barrier in any of my classes--not unless I'm reading aloud from a text--here are some of the things I've said in class in the last week or so (third-person pronouns always refer to a character, author, or narrator--not to anyone in the classroom):
He really is a little shit, isn't he?

She's got some balls.

So, is he just a total bastard, or what?

It's all about proving who's got the bigger dick

I think he wants to have his ass kicked.

Why is he acting like such an asshole?

UPDATED TO ADD: Check out Horace's post on a similar subject.


Margo, darling said...

You know what's weird? I don't think I've ever said "dick" in a class before, though since I teach gender studies and, often, psychoanalytic theory, I do say penis all the time. But I have broken the "fuck" barrier. (example: "No, seriously, guys, what the FUCK is going on in this sentence/paragraph/article?") I break it all the time. I wish I could patch up that broken barrier, in fact, because I do worry it's going to get me in trouble some day. But maybe the fact that I usually use it in conjunction with close reading redeems me somehow.

medieval woman said...

Hee, hee - I don't think I've ever said "dick" in class either, but I am really fond of the judicious "shit/damn/bastard" in the classroom. Sometimes I "mime" the word "fuck" (as in, "Frodo is standing on the brink of Mount Doom screaming *FUCK*!).

The other day I did use the phrase "what do you guys think of this phallic laser light show?"

I'm all for keeping the students on their toes, Flave!

phd me said...

I'm not averse to a little cursing in the classroom, for exactly the reasons you give (although I couldn't have articulated them so well!). My contribution today, although relatively mild, definitely got my students' attention when I realized they hadn't done the reading: "Well, what the hell are we going to talk about today?" And suddenly they got the message.

Flavia said...

Margo, you're my hero. But you already knew that.

I sometimes think that being a woman--especially a small-ish, young-ish, professional-looking woman--provides some insulation from student claiming that their sensibilities were offended (although I'm glad that I haven't had to test that theory). I imagine that male instructors are more likely to curse in the classroom, but that students are also more likely to take their cursing seriously--which is to say, as just vulgar.

Horace said...

I have posted something similarly, just now, and am all for the occasional cursing for emphasis (and for those keeping score: Dick, no. Fuck, yes.

I also in the first week of class give a little schpiel about my teaching style where I actually say that sometimes I will curse for emphasis, but that it's a switch I can turn off if people find it offensive, which they should feel free to tell me early and often. Some have taken me up on that offer, and I have really tried to respect that. It does ruin some of those great moments of emphasis, though. Especially when talking about "My Last Duchess'" broken cherry bough.

Anonymous said...

Flavia-flav, my love,

It IS shocking to hear profanity coming out of you, because you do not seem like an obvious source of it. I remember being taken aback the first time you used some heavy duty profanity around me!

The oddity of my own classroom profanity is that I swear so comparatively little, given my dirty mouth off the job, even though I don't consciously try to hold back. I sometimes take myself aback when it happens, because I usually don't know the obscenities are coming. (And bear in mind, I work in a school where profanity is REALLY typical in student conversations.)

Then again, there are days like yesterday, when my all male freshman literature class failed to get the dick joke in Sonnet 20, and I had to point it out, very loudly, to them.


kfluff said...

Flavia, my sister in profanity! Yes to everything that you've said here, and I'll add one more: for me, occasional interjections of the profane is a way to model a very different version of professorial practice than the ones that they're getting from some of my very buttoned up colleagues. This is becoming ever-more important as more of my students question whether they want to go on to grad school. I like to think that using profanity is just one way of showing students that the words that they use are words professors use too.

My favorite phrase, recently, has been less explicitly profane and more subtly implying illicit behavior, as in: "Whoa, is the end of this novel a harsh toke, or what?" :)

smalltown prof said...

If I used language like that in class, one of our precious little Christian students would complain to the Dean. Then I'd get called into his office and get gently reprimanded. This happens with some regularity here. Probably the worst I've said to a class was that some of the baseball players were "pissing me off." I asked a student 1-on-1 last year if he "gave a shit about this class" (he didn't, and eventually got an "F"). Go you!

Tim Lacy said...

I must confess that I have occasionally cursed for effect. It does get the students' attention, but of course it can't be overused. In my classes they are basically going to hear swear words one way or the other: I often show Gangs of New York (boo!) in my post-CW survey, and one of the characters uses the four-letter c-word. To quote Tony Soprano, what can you do? I think the instructor's judicious use of a few choice words undermines the shock value of the inevitable time that a student use's one "for effect." ... But I'm loath to break the f-barrier. - TL

Oso Raro said...

What a potty mouth you have! I am shocked, I tell you, SHOCKED! Donna, bring me my smelling salts!

I used to curse quite a lot chez Sadistique, but since coming to Cold City, have held back. I do use Fuck, maybe once or twice a year, and since I teach sexuality studies, I use clinical terms all the time, very soberly (vagina, orgasm, clitoris, penis, anal sex, penetration, top, bottom, butch, femme, you know, stuff like that). I have come to think of cursing as less dignified, in some way, although outside of a classroom I curse like a sailor, a talent taught to me by my mother, who had quite the talent for the effective use of certain terms.

Maybe this is an effect of age on the gravitas given by students to the professor (i.e. I'm getting wrinkles, yuck), and of course I am a (gay) man, so curse words can seem just vulgar from the mouths of men, as you noted in a comment above.

But it is true that the judicious and pointed use of a curse word can electrify a class.

Anonymous said...

Just over a month ago, in the second week in my very first teaching job ever,and my being in a temporary short-term contract and all, I was called to a private meeting with the professor of my subject (who is at sick-leave at the moment, hence the private meeting) at eight o clock in the morning to be informed that one student had made an official complaints about me. The extent of the complaint was that I had used crude language "like bollocks and shit" in class, as well as having giving my students chocolate as a means of breaking the ice in my second class. The look of horror on the professors face, the way she uttered the words "bollocks" and "shit" were one of utter shock. I was then asked if I was going to continue to use that sort of language and informed that it was not considered to be up to the highest teaching standards of the University I am teaching at. Whereas I know that I used the word bollocks in one class, once because my chalk broke, and once in the context: "this argument is complete and utter bollocks", I then immediately apologized to the class in case they would have taken offence. They all laughed. So, in short, whereas I would love to break the fuck barrier, I think that I might just not. I envy you thoroughly and can I please come and teach at your university?

Anonymous said...

OK, spelling nerds out there: corrections: a complaint, not complaints, and given, not giving, chocolate, just so you know I'm not completely illiterate, and no, I don't teach English!

muse said...

Hmm. Well, I've had it work and I've had it do the opposite-- entirely deflate the classroom because my students shocked to pay attention other than to think "She cussed in class! But she's the professor-- does she know it's wrong? Is she doing it on purpose? I can't think about "Gawain and the Green Knight" at all right now, all I can think about is whether she cusses at home a lot or whether this was a slip up, or whether she is even aware that she cussed in class. And I can't stop imagining flames of damnation licking at her skirt. But she's the teacher, so maybe it was just to make a point and maybe she's not already damned."

I've found it usually works wonders in upper level (advanced and graduate student) seminars, but really kills the joy in a lower level course with non-majors or freshmen and sophomores.

But maybe that's just because I'm in the South.