Confessional: the teachable C-word

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.

  1. I will not create a speech code...but I will confront students on their language choices: its intentionality, its implications.
  2. 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]

7 thoughts on “Confessional: the teachable C-word

  1. I must admit that I have never heard that word in one of my classes but I have heard a number of other choice terms, none of them though representing any racial or gender negatives.

    I will offer this in response to your third promise. You've provided and environment in your classroom where students are comfortable enough to be who they are. Typically that is a wonderful thing and something I strive for at the start of each semester. Building that kind of community enhances the learning experience a hundred fold. Sometimes though, seeing who students really are means seeing these dark shades. And yes, that is where the teachable moment presents itself.

    Of course you've mentioned above just what there is to be taught in the moment. My immediate response would have been to take the student out into the hallway and have the discussion from above. I then would have followed up to the class in general the next time we met, or potentially in Blackboard/WebCT/etc. with a reminder of the policy from your syllabus. I would not correct the student in front of the class other than to have said, "That's not appropriate. Can I see you outside for a second."

    And of course, being a Biology teacher I might have gone into a detailed discussion about female anatomy, asking him for more details just so we could figure out exactly what he was referring to. 🙂 Can everyone reading your blog see this? If so and you don't know me...that's just a joke.

    I for one certianly hope that my local NPR station picks up this story from the wire when Bevis puts together an exposé on his visit to PSU. 🙂

  2. I got a reply this morning from the student. He was embarrassed. He claimed he was surprised as anyone that he had said it. He spoke eloquently about the destructiveness of the word and his thoughtlessness for using it. So I consider the episode over.

    As for the series, you are--of course--right. If you value an open classroom, you will have the occasional ugly moment. But it's hard not to wonder if I invited it somehow.

  3. First, let me say that I am enjoying your blog (you mentioned the 3 people who read it) so knock another notch on the computer desk leg.

    Second, as I'm not a teacher, I'm not sure I can address the "teaching dilemma" but coming from a former (in the sense of college, not of learning) student/mentee maybe I can add another angle. I have had some wonderful open and safe classes, where the only obstacles were my own inhibitions. I always valued the professor's opinion - of my work, of me - and although its not necessarily that his/her idea of me is most important, it does play a good size role. So, in this case, I don't think the teaching moment is lost. I like the idea of a multi-tiered teaching platform. Your reaction certainly let the student know how powerful his words can be - your email in particular. But now, if you go back to him/the class to have a discussion around that word or more generally, I think that safe environment you've created will be strengthened. And maybe even reading your email to the class will help to show them the effect words can have.

    To another point, I have a female friend who uses that word frequently. It does make me uncomfortable but she brings up the point (as I have heard before) that words only have power if we give them power. Sort of like the black community reinventing the "n" word. Her stance is that if she uses it in common speech, she's taking away the power of it. I'm not sure I agree, but it is an provocative idea.

  4. Great to hear from you! How do you have time to read blogs when you're living in the big city???

    The question I would ask your friend is if we all started using c*** more frequently would we be stealing its power by separating the word from it's connotations, or would we be attempting to steal its power to shock us by becoming desensitized to those connotations? I think the re-adoption of the "n" word is a good parallel. While some might agree that it has been "reinvented," I suspect some others would say its usage signals a sad acceptance of the term and all its freight. Since I believe words have the capacity to hurt as surely as if I whacked you with a tree branch, I tend to be skeptical when someone wills themselves not to be hurt by the tree branch.

    But let me be clear--I am not opposed to tree branches...or trees.

  5. I'd like to applaud you for your reaction to this situation. I'd like to think that I would have reacted as calmly and then reflected upon the experience in words...but then I wonder if I would reacted more physically. I have witnessed the power of hurtful words and how many times words turn into physical actions/reactions. The safe setting of your classroom has provided a forum to discuss what happened, which in my eyes is a blessing when compared to almost any alternative scenario.

    I respect that your student had the courage to admit their lapse in judgement, and your strength in using this as a learning moment beyond your classroom. I agree with your notion that using the "c" word or "n" word to take away its power is in reality desensitizing us to the pain which it has caused. Outside of the educational system we rarely find an oppertunity to openly discuss these kinds of issues. You can bet that if the same comment had been uttered in a different setting the consequences would have probably been any number of harmful things; and if any lesson was to be learned it surely would have only come from the aftermath.

  6. Having worked one floor down from you for as long as I did, I agree that the consequences for such language in the so-called "real world" would have been swift and probably would have involved packing boxes.

    In that regard, he got off easy.

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