Sunday, January 07, 2007

Curses, foiled again!

Well, I have just returned from reading a new piece in Inside Higher Education about academic freedom. The story is good, but the comments section is BETTER...

John Bonner goes off on a rant about his experiences with the community college system, his union, and the legal system, and comes to the conclusion that we are all going to hell in a handbasket because he gets in trouble for saying "cunt," "pussy," "blowjob," "fuck," and other lovely phrases in his English classes. I am not sure what I think, to be honest.

I have to admit, up front, that I am a curser. I curse at home, in my office, and in class--actually, I have started my semesters by admitting to students that I will endeavor NOT to curse in class, but that I sometimes mess up and one slips out. I do that now because I had students, early on, tell me that it bothered them and that it distracted from their learning. So, as a result of that feedback, I actually do try not to curse, because I think that students' learning is the most important thing. But, when I am tired, especially in night classes or late in the semester, I am more likely to slip up. I am also more likely to curse outside of the formal class time--during class breaks, before or after class, etc. When I am actively trying not to curse, I don't feel censored, just challenged to expand my vocabulary and stay alert.

That said, I am conflicted about the little I know about Bonner's case--they provided a link to a court ruling on the website. According to the court papers, he discussed Monica Lewinsky giving Clinton a blowjob. Well, I don't know if you remember, but when it was in the news, everyone was talking about it and either saying "oral sex" or "blowjob." Little kids were asking their parents to explain both terms to them. So, being in a classroom of adults, it doesn't seem like a big deal for Bonner to address it directly. However, I get hinky when I start thinking about an English professor writing a diatribe about a student complaint, passing it out in class, and posting it all over campus, along with a copy of the complaint (even if the student's name had been removed). I also wonder about someone who would write about his students with such disdain, students he is trying to teach.

As a woman who has been in many, many classrooms in a variety of disciplines, I have experienced both harassing male professors and those who just like to curse. The former made me feel small and uncomfortable; the latter entertained me and made me feel like they were just normal people (though perhaps with more education). But what is to differentiate them, apart from my feelings? And what if my classmates experienced these professors differently than I did? In fact, I am certain that they did. To this day, there are professors who I found completely repugnant during my time in school who are thoroughly loved and respected by other female students and alumnae.
One of my problems with Bonner is that he clearly had gotten feedback, via complaints (and, I would bet, student evaluations), that students were bothered by his profanity and vulgarity in the classroom. And it seems to me that he didn't care. I don't get that part. I have taught several classes on human sexuality at different schools, in which we discuss all manner of sexual materials and use a variety of sexual terminology, and I have not had a complaint. I think this is because we address the discomfort at the beginning, we talk about the purpose of the discussions as we have them, and the students know that the purpose is their learning, not some salacious thrill on my part. It seems that students' concerns were not relevant or understandable to him; rather, they were the target of his derision.
Of course, I have to admit that when I do curse or use what some might call "vulgar terms" in a classroom setting, I think that I benefit from being a woman. Few men will find me offensive or harassing, and women--straight, bi, or lesbian--usually don't see my cursing as sexually harassing. Honestly, the few complaints I have received from students had to do with what they perceive as my "agenda"**--feminist, lesbian, or just plain leftist.
I guess I finished the discussion not sure about whether protecting Bonner's in-class speech, which may or may not be gratuitous, but is purposefully and unapologetically incendiary; and his out-of-class writing, which is about as nasty and sarcastic as any I have seen; is necessary to protect my (admittedly feminist, progressive, and pro-LGBT) research, writing, and service and my supposed "agenda" in the classroom. If Bonner could have simply explained his rationale for his using these words in the classroom in a court of law, rather than in a mean-spirited, publicly distributed apologia, he might have won his case. That said, I left the discussion not quite sure that he was as committed to learning as he was committed to his right to do as he damn well pleased.
**P.S. I would not label the content of my teaching the same way as I would my research, writing, and service (feminist, progressive, pro-LGBT). I am careful to be open to dissent and discussion in my courses. While some may label me extreme or refer to my "agenda" because I choose to include cultural competence, women's issues, racism, and LGBT issues in my classes, I give room for people to discuss and argue perspectives with which I might personally disagree. Sometimes, when they falter in their arguments, I even help them... but that is a post for another day.


Rufus said...

I feel your pain. When a curse word slips out in class, I often feel terrible later. I generally work hard not to be a hostile presence in class. But, it still bothers me to do it because I think it suggests that my subject matter isn't owed the dignity that it is. Unfortunately, I also tend to be quite expressive while teaching, and often realize after the fact that I've let one slip.

Also, I agree that his reaction was weird. Not all student criticisms are valid. But, I think that treating them all as being open to discussion is part of the given relationship between us (senior scholars) and students (junior scholars).

Chaser said...

Thanks for a great post on this. I am very bad about swearing, and I don't like it!!!

SourDad said...

I'm guessing Bonner's tenured to rant publicly like that. Adjuncts like me, we need to stay anonymous. Kind of hard to sort through the ranting, but I think I got the point. "I want to be rude, and if I can't be rude I'll be rude.

I'm a curser as well. I love four letter words, but I'm asked to refrain at home by my wife and she's even turned the kids against me, well on the cursing part of me. Not that I'm more concerned with my students than my kids, but in class I know that students are really sensitive about that man up there with the grade book and what he's saying so some how I keep it under control, which really surprises my friends.

Oh if I taught English instead of Bio I could slip in a few four lettered friends here and there...

Tenured Radical said...

I think the larger point you make here -- which is very important -- is being aware of how one's approach to teaching is affecting one's students. I curse in class too -- sometimes too much -- but when I am aware of it, I realize that my brain has switched over into some mode where I am trying to get their attention about something. I use humor in this way too, and humor -- I have realized over the years -- can be just as damaging unless deployed with attention to how students respond to it.

I teach queer studies, and one of the things I have become very aware of is that students who have taken the class because they are identified with me in some way,and are either consciously or unconsciously seeking my approval, will take their cue from me. If I make a joke about a religious leader caught with his pants down, there are students who think they now have permission to vent about religion in careless ways that can be very thoughtless.

I like your blog, and I like the issues you are raising.

The Tenured Radical