Tuesday, January 09, 2007



Lesboprof has a thought-provoking post on cursing in the classroom. It's honestly conflicted, which I think is probably about right.

I'm of divided mind on this, too. Back in my teaching assistant days at Flagship State, I had an early-morning class in a ground-floor classroom in the back of a building. The dumpsters were immediately outside the window. Every so often, the scooper trucks would come and pour the contents of the dumpsters into something else, right in the middle of class. They were shockingly loud, randomly-spaced, and maddeningly slow. (No, there weren't any other classrooms available. I tried.) Although I'm not proud of this, I'll admit that the third time it happened, I let fly a blue streak worthy of Chris Rock on a good day. Nobody complained, I think because the sentiment was clearly directed at something getting in the way of actually conducting the class. I wouldn't handle it that way now, but hey, I was 26 and making a big 10k per year, so there you go.

That said, I think classroom cursing can fall under 'useful,' 'excusable,' 'distracting,' or 'harassing,' depending on context.

Useful cursing can include very rare and strong emphasis; extraordinary passion for a given argument; disarming humor (be VERY careful here, though); direct quoting; or making a connection from something seemingly abstract to something very real. The key here is that it has to be either very, very rare, or inextricable from the subject matter. A single curse dropped over the course of a semester is memorable; curses dropped every twenty minutes are simply tedious. As with comedians, I don't think there should be a categorical rule against it, but outside of a few narrow contexts, it's usually a sign of laziness. As my confidence and fluency in my field have grown, I've noticed my cursing diminish dramatically.

Excusable cursing would cover things like the dumpster incident. (I recall a math teacher in high school letting one rip when a projector screen fell down while he was writing on the board. Nobody complained, as far as I know, since we all probably would have done the same thing.) It doesn't really help, but I couldn't really blame someone for it, either. On 9/11, as we watched the towers fall over and over again on tv, I recall some usually-decorous folks letting their guard down, but I really couldn't blame them. Obscenity as a response to obscenity made sense.

Most in-class cursing, I think, is distracting. It's bad form in the sense that anything distracting is bad form when you're trying to get people to concentrate and focus. I'd put it in the same category as fidgetiness or a weakness for digressions about the local team. On balance, it probably detracts from the overall effectiveness of the teacher, though most of the time it falls short of anything I'd consider actionable.

Harassing is different, although in any given case folks can disagree on exactly where that line is. To me, cursing directed at a particular student would cross this line, as would anything lecherous. In practice, I also think that simple repetition can eventually cross over from annoying to unprofessional, though again, the line is fuzzy.

(Outside of class is another matter altogether. If somebody were to bug my car on the drive home, they'd hear a WASPy version of Sam Kinison with Tourette's. I find that a bracing round of profanity on the drive home cleanses the palate, and readies me for dealing with young children.)

(I may be wasting my efforts. Yesterday The Girl got impatient waiting for The Boy. TG – all of two and a half – yelled “Open the damn door!” Adolescence is going to be a hoot.)

There are times when nothing short of cursing really rises to the occasion. When you hit a deer on the highway at night with your young children in the car, “fiddlesticks” doesn't quite cut it. I find hanging curtain rods uniquely frustrating – don't ask me why – and any task along those lines usually leads to a blistering tirade questioning the parentage and chromosomal makeup of whomever crosses my mind at the moment. And of course, there's President George W. Bush. I won't go into detail about the viewing ritual The Wife and I have developed for the State of the Union address, other than to say that it involves language that would make a British MP blush, and some partial nudity.

Masters of the form often develop intricate curses of their own, or become amateur curators of cool curses they've heard elsewhere. (My fave is “son of a motherless goat!,” though I don't remember where it came from.) I've long envied the bilingual, since they always have a batch of useful curses at the ready. (Since I grew up in a largely Italian neighborhood, I've heard my fair share of Italian curses. Judging by the body language, they're pretty florid.) A single, sardonic curse, surgically applied, can be absolutely devastating – think of Bill Murray saying “you slut” in Tootsie. Done well, it works.

Lesboprof couches her sense of cursing context in racial and gendered terms, and there's certainly something to that. Different disciplines are probably different, too; all else being equal, I'd expect more latitude for cursing in a sociology class than in a math class (although it's probably reversed among the students). Comic timing and a sense of the moment are key, and relatively few academics, in my experience, have much of either. I suspect, too, that different regions of the country probably have different expectations – I'd guess that Brooklyn is more indifferent to it than Salt Lake City – and that very religious colleges probably have stricter rules. Since I'm a denizen of the Northeast, ensconced in a secular institution, I can assume a certain level of indifference.

Have you seen a case of classroom cursing in which it really helped? Alternately, do you know of a really creative curse that, well, gets the job done? The State of the Union is coming up, and I need to expand my repertoire.

First of all, I'm going to agree with Lesboprof that I think I can "get away" with cursing or vulgarity in ways that I suspect male professors can't do (although some students at my pretty conservative university think it's not ladylike, but still, nobody finds it harassing or bullying or complained about it to my chair or anything) precisely because I'm a woman.

Second, to answer your question about effective cursing in the classroom:

Everytime I teach writing to first semester freshmen, about halfway through the semester I give what I now think of as my "cock" lecture. We read Clifford Geertz's "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" and the use of the word "cock" in the essay is pointedly intended to make us think about the connection between masculinity and this aspect of Balinese culture. While it would be possible to gloss over this, I don't, mainly because I use the essay not to teach about cockfighting but to teach about how even "academic writing" can engage a reader through description, word choice, and even double entendre. Also, I think the fact that we have an extended discussion about the word "cock" really makes them feel like they're grown ups and in college - that they can talk about adult content as adults - and I think there is huge value in that.

Most useless of cursing in a classroom: When I couldn't get a projector to work and accidentally blurted out "motherfucker!" as I was trying to get the thing going.
Actually, I don't think I have ever slipped up. However, years of teaching high school (where I had to be very careful and set a good example) have led to what I call fantasy curses. I can, literally, string together long sets of curses in my head all day long . . . at students, fellow faculty members, the Miami Hurricanes, sosority girls who park in faculty spots, stupid drivers on the road, and the President. It feels so subversive and dangerous.

A colleague--who is a wonderful liberal, Bush-hater, out-of-school curser like myself--and I have grown quite fond of taking walks after we teach and letting them rip. It is such a stress reliever.

For fuck's sake.
Fat fuck.
What the fuck.
Stupid ass.

Ahh . . . I feel better already.
The phrase "son of a motherless goat" is used in the movie The Three Amigos, although it may not have originated there, for all I know. It's one of the things the Amigos call El Guapo when they still think everything's fake.
I'm a fan of "feckin'", from Hiberno-English, as in

"Those feckin' eedjits!"

Probably a reasonably close orthographic relationship with "frickin'", the Northern-Midwestern/Scandinavia Acceptable Alternative to "fuckin'".

As a jazz musician and extremely "colorful" out-of-class conversationalist, and a rather improvisational lecturer, I tend to have to watch myself very consciously in the classroom. But an occasional Steve Austinian "HELL no!" (provided in response to a manifestly-absurd rhetorical question I've just posed myself) does a pretty good job of providing emphasis and instilling recollection.
*squeals with delight*


Dr. Crazy, I'm sorry, but that particular article of Geertz's is one of my favorites. I was so sad when he died.

I used it in my thesis (and what a thesis it was - Geertz, Turkle, Haraway, Goffman, Fine, Ellul, and online games, heh.), and now I get all schoolgirlishly giddy when I hear someone mention it. I think I need to go back to school.

Anyway, back on subject - many of my male professors cursed. I can't remember a female professor doing it when it wasn't directly a part of the classroom discussion at hand. Only once or twice was it annyoing or distracting. (I found the political and religious joking to be far more distracting, even though it was generally aligned with my personal beliefs. Unless really well thought out, Bush jokes just detract from Chem lectures.) Most of the ones I could remember were wickedly funny about it, too. Then again, that's why you remember them, right?

I think the divisions you outline are pretty good, Dean Dad. The only thing I would add, is a qualifier for flexibility. Cursing that is otherwise unbojectionable becomes unprofessional if someone complains and it doesn't stop. The professor's ability to read the room and accurately assess the students' reactions (including unvoiced discomfort) seems more important to me than the direct contextual relevance of the cursing.

That said, I think that overall, it's useful. Both in and of itself (sometimes it's just what's needed in a situation, and there's a lot of literature you just can't discuss in any depth if you're not allowed to use the words on the page), and because stifling it categorically would bring more harm than good.
I used to teach Northern Irish lit., and one semester we were reading Patrick McCabe's novel Breakfast on Pluto. The main character in the book is a transvestite named Patrick "Pussy" Braden. Throughout the text, though, Patrick goes by the name Pussy. So one afternoon, without thinking at all about the rhetorical implications, I began my presentation by asking "What's the problem with Pussy?" Without missing a beat, a student (male) said "the fact that I can't get any."

Fortunately, everyone laughed.

Like the earlier commentator, I too am a musician -- blues guitar -- and this semester I'm teaching a class entitled "Literature and the Blues." I have to admit I am frightened about the language in some of the texts I've chosen. If you've read or seen August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, you'll know what I'm referring to.

Wish me luck ...
RL Friend's friend,

That's a wonderful political poem you have there, could you do a haiku for us? :D
It's an interesting problem and one I've wrestled with. I get away with cursing when I teach folklore because I have to discuss dirty jokes. In other classes, I try to go with the PG-13 words at worst.

I did have a student take a D in a class (folklore actually) because she was so offended by the novel I had them read and wouldn't write about it on the final. I told her that nobody had promised that college wouldn't offend. She wasn't impressed. Ah well.
My favorite really creative (but not too obscene) curse is "asshat" - as in, one who has his head so far up his own ass that he's wearing his ass for a hat. I believed it was coined by a college friend of mine, and it ought to be awfully handy during the State of the Union.
In terms of original curses, I'm partial to "shite and onions!" a Joyce-ism. Being in Utah, I do have to be very careful about cursing in class. The upside of not swearing much (in class, that is) is that, as Dean Dad points out, the rare use of a curse is extremely effective.
variations on "asshat" include "wide-brimmed asshat" and "assberet."

I liked the movie of "Breakfast on Pluto." whatsisname was ace in it.
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