Advice

Why I Curse in Class

In encouraging students to find their voice, I have to use mine, and it includes a lot of words you can’t say on TV

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

October 26, 2016

S o there will be a certain amount of New Yorkiness in this. I’m from Queens, home of the Mets and the birthplace of Donald Trump. There will be profanity. If you were me, you’d curse a lot, too.

I curse in class. Not every other word, but probably more than would be deemed appropriate by many. And I’m OK with that. While it might not be the most formal use of language, I don’t plan on stopping, and I think there are good reasons to keep at it. So here, briefly, is why I curse in class.

Part of it is the subject matter. I teach English, usually freshman composition and introductory literature courses. A big part of my classes consists of engaging students and getting them to feel safe and comfortable enough to express their own opinions. I can urge my students to tell me what they really think in class, but that command is contradicted by their 12 or so years of bad experiences and past failures on that front. They need to believe that I mean it, and speaking like they speak is one way to get past that wall — a wall that is real, strong, and will not be paid for by Mexico.

I teach in the City University of New York system, including at a community college, and a lot of my students have learned very well to hold back. Many have experienced racism and sexism in school. Some are immigrants from countries with formal and constrained relationships between students and teachers, and some students are just too cool to be seen caring about their education. That restraint hurts them, particularly in writing courses.

I’m encouraging them to find their own voice, to strengthen and develop it. To do that, I have to use my own honest voice, and mine happens to include a lot of words you can’t say on network television. If I have to hold back, they will, too. If I can take risks and speak my mind, so will they.

There is no rule that says intelligent or educated people have to avoid strong language.
That’s why I don’t encourage every teacher to let rip with the expletives. If you’re uncomfortable cursing in life, don’t do it in class. It’d be just as unnatural and stilted as my voice is when I try to avoid it.

My cursing in class also dispels the notion that obscenity is the tool of the inept, the uneducated, and the poor. Well, I’m an adjunct, so maybe that last one isn’t true, but there is no rule that says intelligent or educated people have to avoid strong language.

Profanity pops up in a lot of literature, some of it canonical. Comedians, some of the best writers there are, use curse words often, and profanity is all over modern music, movies, and cable television. Those words are written by people being paid to write, people whose work is shared and celebrated by millions, so the objection to using them in class isn’t so much about skill or effectiveness. In fact, I think expletives are often shunned because they are too effective.

Curse words express strong emotions, directly enough to be impossible to ignore. I can say to someone, "Masticate upon the results of your individual defecation, and then please be so kind as to cease animate biological functioning," but it doesn’t have the same simple power as "Eat shit and die." Profanity strips away a level of pretense and politeness, exposing the audience to the real intent and message of the speaker. While that type of expression might not always be appropriate for a purely intellectual exercise like a college essay, it is fully fitting for a classroom where emotions, desires, and insecurities mix in the form of your average college student.

Though, to be fair, the preconceptions about profanity work to my advantage when I use it. Students, especially freshmen, can be overwhelmed by the seeming seriousness of college. They wonder if they can make it through, or if they even belong there at all. It seems a very serious place, and their needs and fears make it even more so. Profanity is a way to humanize it.

In such a serious situation, cursing becomes an act of sedition, a subtle act of rebellion. It shows them that maybe, just maybe, their instinct to call something "bullshit" is more accurate than they would otherwise realize. It gets me on their side, and quickly. It seems like I’m breaking the rules and letting them in on a secret.

It is ultimately up to you to decide what you say and who you are in front of that classroom. I just hope you care enough to think it through.
At the same time, my foul mouth shows them very clearly that they are not in high school anymore, that they have entered the adult world, a world which — thankfully — allows for salty language when the situation calls for it. They’ve had it drilled into them that being an adult and a college student is a huge responsibility. It can be onerous, overwhelming, and frightening, and the tasks get harder and bigger, so showing them some of the freedoms and joys of being an adult seems only fair.

I know some readers will think that cursing is a cheap and easy trick, a crutch used to support a lack of linguistic strength. It can be, certainly, but so can pretentious diction, a love of hyphens, obfuscation, and overcomplication. And the academic world has no problem with any of those.

At least with cursing, everyone knows exactly what I mean. The question isn’t which four-letter words are used, but why, how, and how effectively they are used. Profanity gives a hard edge to what I say, which is exactly what I want when I use it.

Cursing in class can be dangerous. I’ve only had one actual complaint in 15 years of teaching, but some students believe that education equals suffering, and that if the teacher is enjoying him or herself, that means the class isn’t worth taking seriously. Cursing makes it harder to hide a weak syllabus, low standards, or professorial incompetence. Being relaxed, having fun, making jokes, all these need to be balanced by rigor, ability, care, and real educational value if the students are going to respect the teacher and the process.

I think that’s a good thing. Cursing means I have to push myself and my students harder, and because the class is more fun for me and for them, it lets me push them harder.

I’d almost call cursing in class an advanced teaching technique — one that should only be used once a teacher has proven confidence and competence. Its benefits can be detriments: It cedes some of the formal authority naturally given to professors. Some teachers struggle with boundaries and gaining respect from students, and being familiar and informal can make those issues worse.

In the end, though, word choice is something every speaker and writer has to deal with, and is one consideration among many when teaching. Profanity doesn’t define my class or my teaching style. It’s dangerous and risky enough to require some forethought and justification, but that’s something every teacher should be engaging in anyway. It is ultimately up to you to decide what you say and who you are in front of that classroom. I just hope you care enough to think it through.

Jordan Schneider has been teaching college-level English since the Fall of 2001. He has taught in several New York area institutions, including St. John’s University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is currently an adjunct lecturer at Queensborough Community College, Queens College, and Westchester Community College.