While waiting for Journalism class to start today, I was handing back papers, fussing with the computer, talking with our fantastic guest speaker (Mark Bevis, News Director for NHPR), and generally preparing for class. Not many people had arrived in class, maybe a half-dozen, when I paused to compliment a student on a story he had done the previous week. In the course of the conversation, he very casually used the "C" word.
Yep, that one.
I'm not going to give more context because while the person he was referring to was not a student in the class, only a few hints would be enough for some to figure out the identities of all the characters. I don't want to stir up anything between them and, besides, what difference does it make who it was? Anyway, before the kid (for he was clearly demonstrating his lack of maturity) could finish his sentence, I shouted "Whoa! You don't say that in a classroom!"
Bevis added "Or anywhere."
In six years at Plymouth, I can honestly say this was the first time anyone had used that word in my presence. I was stunned. I was offended. I was embarrassed. I was hurt. I was knocked off-balance.
Other than that initial response, I said nothing.
It gets worse. Here's the furious email I sent as soon as I got home (in fact, this is what I was writing when the Li-Young Lee story I mention in my earlier post came on TV):
I wanted to follow up on our conversation before class today. In six years at Plymouth, you are the first person to use the word "c***" in my hearing. I'm not very uptight about formality in my classes. However, as far I'm concerned, there is never a time to use that word. Certainly, I won't tolerate it in class. It's not only incredibly unprofessional, it demonstrates the worst kind of ignorance and sexism and easily violates my stated participation policy or any standard of professional conduct. As a writer, I would have imagined you would acknowledge that words have real power...and real consequences. Because I thought highly of your work last issue, and because there was a guest in our class (who was obviously as offended as I was) I was surprised and put-off and did not respond as forcefully as I should have. Had I not been taken off guard, I would have A) challenged your offensive language, and the underlying attitudes/bias, in an even more public manner in class, or B) asked you to leave class altogether. Consider yourself warned.
And option "B" is why I'm writing this...I don't support speech codes. That was my anger getting the better of me. The First Amendment protects stupid and hurtful speech precisely because such speech is presumably unpopular, a characteristic it unfortunately shares with most speech that would move us forward.
How should I have handled it? I spoke to my friend/colleague/mentor/confessor, Robin DeRosa tonight and she says that, had it happened outside of class-time, she might have reacted similarly (minus the speech code bit). Maybe she's just saying that to make me feel better. But had the event happened in class, she would have spoken about the freight that word carries--not just what it denotes, but what it communicates about the person who uses it. Namely that they are (to paraphrase my email) ignorant and sexist and unprofessional. In short, rather than forbidding the use of the word, she would have expressed her anger and disappointment, but she would have also turned it into a "teachable moment" where the student, and the class, could confront the consequences of their language. Her "safe" classroom would thus remain an open classroom.
When my students misspeak in regards to a question of theory or application in Journalism or Tech Comm or Poetry, I press the teachable moment. "Funny you should mention that... Why do you feel that way..." And we very purposefully talk about sexism, racism, etc. in class. In fact, we even begin the semester talking about the five "fault lines" along which most journalists form biases (race, gender, class, geography, & generation). I should have pressed the moment. But, in essence, I failed to react. Then, presumably when I had had time to cool down, I reacted in a manner that was less than thoughtful.
So here's the point. Because I believe words have consequences--and for some reason that printed (or online) words may have even more consequence--I'm making a public pledge (for me and the three people who read this blog every time I drop the hint that I've made a bi-annual post) to do better.
- I will not create a speech code...but I will confront students on their language choices: its intentionality, its implications.
- I will react to that language...but I will also articulate how the speaker must often own the reaction.
But there seems to be a third promise that I can't quite articulate. I'm ashamed that this happened in my classroom. As if something I've said or done must have invited this. Somehow, language that would be unthinkable in other classes/settings (not because of speech codes, but because of respect and professionalism) was deemed OK in mine. I want to have an open classroom. I don't want students to be guarded in their language or ideas. Does an open classroom simply (ha!) force me to struggle with the same paradox that forces the ACLU to defend the Ku Klux Klan even while they despise their views? Or am I right to fear that whatever low-frequency signal in my classroom that allowed one student to feel comfortable expressing that sort of misogyny is being received by everyone?
We now end our broadcasting schedule... [Queue the anthem]