Trust me. I should know. I’m one of them.
Forewarning: if you’re offended by foul language, vulgarity and/or profanity, you might consider skipping this post. It won’t be excessive, but I’m definitely gonna be droppin’ an f-bomb… or ten.
There is an amazing essay written by Jordan Schneider in The Chronicle of Higher Education that covers why swearing in class really isn’t that big of a deal; or, at least, why it should be totally acceptable. He makes an excellent case. As a professor who swears in class, probably more than I ought, it’s an essay I post to my digital spaces whether classes meet face to face or not. I don’t intend to rehash or parrot Schneider’s argument here; I do intend to build on one of his points: how swearing helps him/me connect with students.
For so many of my colleagues, the first day of classes is all about making impressions; and I don’t disagree. However, whereas some of them dress in their Sunday best— freshly starched shirt, crisp tie, business suit and briefcase, polished shoes—looking like they drive the latest model E-class Mercedes rather than the fifteen-year old Nissan Sentra parked in the lot, I opt for a much more casual tone. Think Friday night, Harley Davidson, biker bar; but goof-ball rather than hard-ass. First, you have to picture me in the classroom, in the space occupied by intellectual authority: 5’10, 270 pounds—it’s not all fluff—with a rugged beard that hasn’t been trimmed or shaved in weeks, perhaps months, a black or white bandana tied widely around my head and pulled down to cover my eyebrows (picture Danny “The Count” Koker from Counting Cars), a cut-off T, cargo shorts or black jeans (depending on weather) and my backpack slung over my shoulder. The looks on students’ faces say more, “what’s happening right now?!” than they do, “you’ve got to be kidding me”; but probably that too. My appearance tells them: Question. Everything. Including your preconceived notions about what a professor is/should be.
Swearing is not the first thing I do. Although, I have been known to bow reverently, palms together and say, “Namaste, bitches”. Always good for a laugh. Once I address the fact that yes, this is happening, and yes, I really am your professor, I do what every other professor does in the most professional manner possible: I cover the syllabus, the digital space in which they access and turn in assignments, requirements for the course, attendance policies, class etiquette, etc. It’s just that I do it by salting and peppering my lecture with shits and fucks, throwing an asshole in here and there and finishing off the performance with a good ol’ fashioned Goddamn. Swearing is not the first thing I do, but it sure is the most memorable.
Are they shocked? Without question. You can see it written all over their faces: mouths agape, eyes wide, once-drowsy students previously staring blankly at desktops suddenly wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, presumably thinking, “What did he just say?!”. Some students think it’s funny. And certainly, I know that some students are/will be offended. And yes, I’ve been called into the Dean’s office on several occasions. That is simply unavoidable. Some people are also offended by nipples and breast feeding in public. Whatever. For most students, the shock, as I read it from the relationship I develop with them over the course of the semester, comes not from the fact that they are offended by foul language, but rather from the fact that they don’t associate that type of language with the University (capital “U”, as in, the whole system, the ivory tower, higher ed.). But have you ever read an American classic? Slaughterhouse 5, Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lolita, and what about Naked Lunch for crying out loud? Vulgarity, racism, pedophilia, and I don’t even know what the fuck is happening with William Burroughs. Seriously, that shit is fucked up. Filthy language and uncomfortable, even irreverent, situations is what my field (literature) is all about. The language they encounter in me as a professor is no different from – might even be considered tame when compared to – some of the language they will encounter in literary masterpieces.
Swearing is also the norm in our society, not the exception. I teach at a medium-sized state university dominated by students from working- and lower middle-class backgrounds. While we have housing, most students commute: about a 60/40 split. We have lots of first generation students—students who are the first in their family to go to college. This means that, for the most part, students don’t show up with a blank check from mom and dad eager and ready to do nothing but be a student; some do, sure, but only a very, very few. The majority of my students work at least twenty hours per week. Some manage to work a forty-hour work week and attend school full time: usually a twelve to fifteen-credit course load. I hate to cast aspersions upon the working and middle-classes, but being one of them I feel somewhat justified in saying that the way I talk in (and out of) the class room is probably closer to the way they talk, generally, than other professors who don’t swear. Also, there is some research to back this up. Professor Timothy Jay, of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of Why We Swear and Cursing in America, highlights the fact that the working class swears more than either the “elite” or middle classes in the U.S.; but everyone swears; it’s part of our everyday vocabularies. U.S. News and World Report informs its readers that the average person spends 0.5% of their vocabulary per day swearing: How Stuff Works reports that that roughly 58% of Americans swear in public. Whether people realize it or not, swearing is the norm. So, it’s not that my language in class is somehow more vulgar or uncouth than the average American’s on a daily basis, it’s that society doesn’t associate this type of language with the type of spaces within which I work. What a pile of horse shit!
It is true, however, that one must be aware of what they’re saying and where they’re saying it. There is a difference between letting loose in a classroom, in a department meeting, and one on one with students. Using vulgarity in the wrong context or setting, one risks coming off as insincere, crude, uncouth, intimidating, unintelligent, as trying too hard. Dropping the motherfucker of all shit-bombs in a department meeting or a conversation with the Provost just doesn’t go over the same way as it does in the classroom. (This also depends on your relationship with that person.) When students pop into the office during office hours or by appointment, I tend to be much more on my guard with my language and keep the swearing to an absolute minimum, if I swear at all; I probably do. If I do swear one on one with a student, it’s often for comic effect: we may be reading a line from Shakespeare for instance—Shakespeare is chock-full of dirty jokes—and a character may reference someone’s baldness—almost always a reference to venereal disease, usually syphilis—or the verb “to die”—Elizabethan slang for having an orgasm—and I’ll lean in and drop an f-bomb because that shit is hil-fucking-arious. Take this line from Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her very C’s, / her U’s, and her T’s; and thus makes she her great P’s.” CUT was a reference to the vagina. But if you spell it out, C, U, annnnnnnnnnnd T… Well, it’s not so sweet is it? And what about those P’s? Ha! Use swear words for effect, not exclusively out of habit. Use them too much, they lose their power.
Once students get past the professor’s perspicacious propensity for pathological profanity-laden puerility, they understand that this course is going to be all business. Okay, not aaalllll business; but they begin to understand that this course, like any other, is going to involve a good degree of time management, dedication, planning and forethought. I give my students a fairly heavy reading load considering the fact that they’re mostly freshman and sophomores—roughly 100 pages of reading per week in my lit courses. Students are concerned about this. I know this because they tell me in class. The fact that they even voice this concern in my course on the first day speaks volumes to how comfortable they feel. In a (student) culture where silence, not chatter, is the default setting, voicing concern says, “I trust and respect you enough to not bullshit you by quietly sitting here and pretending like I’m getting it.” I like to think this is because my behavior, my appearance, and my language tells them, “I’m a person too. The stereotype of the professor is a staged performance.” I try to get students to recognize that, in most cases, the way in which they see their professors is the way in which their professors want to be seen. A professor’s presentation to his or her students in the class room is little different than a singer’s relationship to their pop-song. A pop-song may really have nothing to do with the personal experience of the person singing it. In fact, the vast majority of pop music is not even written by the artist. For instance, Max Martin wrote fully one half of the last Taylor Swift album. I’ve digressed. The point is, your professors are probably a lot more like you than not: we swear; we fart in the office when no one’s around (or maybe that’s just me); we live with mental illness; we battle addiction; we laugh; we cry; we struggle with life: we don’t have it any more together than anyone else, it’s just that we’re occasionally better at faking it, and our position in society and as professionals lends itself to certain preconceived notions that are not always accurate.
My swearing lets them know that if the professor is willing to risk talking like he does, maybe they can risk a statement or question about the anxieties that they themselves are experiencing. In an environment that is new for most students, many of them need reassurance; I fucking give it to them. Many of them quietly think and feel, “I don’t know what I’m doing here”, “I don’t belong here”, or, “I’m not sure that I have what it takes to be successful in college”. I don’t think this is in any way revelatory, as many of my readers have probably found themselves in exactly this situation; I know I did as a student: I still feel this way as a professor. What is a revelation is that when a single student decides to break the code of silence it has profound ramifications for the entire class all semester. For instance, when, on the first day of classes, a single student vocalizes her worries about the uncertainty of her abilities, you can bet the rest of them are thinking exactly this. (Despite their protestations to the contrary, students run in packs, not as individuals.) If one student speaks up the rest are likely to follow. And now, I am not teaching; instead, we are having a conversation where all ideas and comments are welcome. Swearing helps me achieve that.
The point of all this is that students need to know they can be themselves, and that very few things, so long as we keep an atmosphere of consideration and respectability, are off limits. Experience has taught me that showing them they can be themselves by modeling that behavior often makes a stronger impression than simply telling them it’s what I want. Rather than showing up in tweed and elbow patches with an “air” or authority, I strip it down; I say fuck that bullshit; I say here I am: the guy you get in class is pretty goddamn close to the guy you get at a barbeque on a Saturday in July. Let’s have a fucking conversation. My message, in all its forms, tells them that I will take them seriously no matter how they choose to express themselves in class, and that I want to hear what they have to say no matter the types of words they may use to convey it. And it all starts with letting them know that even here, in this ivory tower, we can use dirty language. So the next time someone asks you, “who gives a fuck?”, let ‘em know: I do.