Potty-mouthed Professors: Why They’re the Best
Trust me. I should know. I’m one of them. And if you are someone easily offended by foul, vulgar, profane language, this essay might not be for you.
There is an amazing essay written by Jordan Schneider in The Chronicle of Higher Education that covers why swearing in class 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 also swears in class, probably more than I ought, it’s an essay I post to my all my digital course spaces. 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 professors connect with students.
For many of my colleagues, first days are all about making impressions: it’s a performance. They dress in their Sunday best—freshly starched shirt, crisp tie, business suit and briefcase, polished shoes—looking as if they drive the latest model E-class Mercedes Benz rather than the fifteen-year old Nissan Sentra parked in the lot. I, on the other hand, opt for a much more casual tone. Think Friday night, Harley Davidson, biker bar. Now, picture that character 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 (Brett Michaels-style), a cut-off T, usually sporting a Slayer, Black Sabbath or Motorhead logo, 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, nor is it all I do, but it sure is the most memorable. And now that I’ve got their undivided attention, I begin to teach: like every other professor, I cover the syllabus, the digital space in which they access and turn in assignments, requirements for the course, attendance policies, class etiquette, etc. Once students get past the professor’s appearace, and perspicacious propensity for pathological profanity-laden puerility, they understand that this course is going to be all business. They begin to understand that this course will involve successful 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.
Some students are shocked. Some are offended. Some will run to administration to complain. And yes, I’ve been called in to the chair’s office on several occasions. But here are the facts:. 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.). However, if any of my readers have ever picked up an American classic such as Slaughterhouse 5, Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lolita, or (dear God!) Naked Lunch, they will be aware that vulgarity, racism, pedophilia, and whatever the fuck is happening with William Burroughs, is about par for the course. But seriously, William Burroughs is fucked. Emily Dickinson’s “A narrow fellow in the grass” is essentially about a dick meeting a vagina. Shakespeare is chock-full of dirty jokes, euphemisms and sexual innuendo. When a character references another’s baldness it’s almost always a reference to venereal disease–syphilis. How about the infinitive “to die”? Elizabethan slang for having an orgasm. 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, aNd T… Well, it’s rather profane, lowbrow, ‘innit’? Swearing, political incorrectness, uncomfortable and irreverent situations, dissent: these are hallmarks of great literature.
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 or emphasis rather than for attention-grabbing.
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 who have been to college may have found themselves in exactly this situation, this state of mind at some point; I know I did as a student: I still feel this way as a professor. Vulgarity is explosive. It demolishes a student’s preconceived notions of who we (professors) are and what we do: ideas, I fear, many professors perpetuate. I know I’m god-damned well doing something right when: a student voices her uncertainty in her own ability to perform or maintain the type of diligence this course will require for a whole semester on the very first day, in front of, the entire class, rather than after or during an office hour: or when a student with a documented disability that prevents them from speaking in class becomes one of the main contributors to class discussion. In a (student) culture where silence, not chatter, is the norm, getting one student to contribute often means others will follow; because, despite what students think about themselves, they run in packs, not as individuals. Sometimes, you need only inspire one to inspire them all.
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 (of which foul language is not mutually exclusive), 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 noise”; 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?”, tell ‘em, Professor Norman. Professor Norman gives a fuck.