C-word, N-word, R-word: Forward!

Seriously considering putting a warning in my syllabi for spring semester:

CAUTION! Profanity Uttered Here.

By me, by other students, by Louis C.K. in our pop culture unit in my composition classes….

Probably thinking, "man, I don't want to be in a composition class."

Probably thinking, “man, I don’t want to be in a composition class.”

When I was tenure-track, I was getting some negative comments from students about my profanity in the classroom, (probably based on The Five-Paragraph Fuck) and my student evaluation numbers weren’t as high as they needed to be to make satisfactory progress on what I used to call “the march to tenure,” so I made swearing less one of my goals. At the time, I asked myself “how important is swearing to me vs. making sure I get tenure?” Seemed like an easy choice.

Since then, I had the honor of working with a male professor who swore like crazy in class, and got terrifically high student eval numbers (mostly because he was an amazing teacher). One of the conclusions I drew from that, rightly or wrongly, was that it’s o.k. for boys to swear. Girls, not so much.

Well, fuck that shit.

It isn’t as though I swear a whole lot, actually, in life or in class. More as a writer probably than any other time. But the freedom to do so feels important, and gosh, sometimes it’s just fun.

But I suppose I’m wanting to give my students fair warning, in case they’re likely to take too much offense. Of course, we’re a small campus, so there aren’t very many sections of any given class, so it isn’t as though students have a lot of choice in course scheduling. So maybe I just want them to steel themselves….

I guess showing Louis C.K. in class gives me automatic membership in the “It’s Our Job to Complicate Students’ Worldview” Club.” Note: I have also shown Slapshot in class. But it isn’t as simple as that.

I have two goals as a teacher that often come into conflict with each other:
1. I want to create a learning environment where students feel safe to learn and grow.
2. I want part of that learning and growing to come through experimentation and boundary-expansion.

So, for example, #2 is being satisfied when students have to grapple with the episode of Louie called “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie goes absolutely nuclear on a female heckler. He calls her a c*&t and calls her mother a c*&t. He says, at one point, “You’re the worst thing that ever happened to America.” I ask students to analyze it (and some episodes of Roseanne) in terms of humor, and it didn’t take very long this past fall semester for students to notice that Louie doesn’t fare so well in that episode, that every offensive thing he does gets punished one way or the other. Then they did research, and many of them found this article: “The Filthy Moralist: How the comedian Louis C.K. became America’s unlikely conscience” from the Atlantic. So there you go, worldview complicated.

Well, worldview complicated for a lot of students. Complicated in one way for students who were appalled by his humor and needed to see how freaking brilliant he is. Complicated, too, for students (primarily male and white) who already thought Louie was hilarious, but couldn’t imagine he might, possibly, be making fun of THEM for laughing and not thinking.

You’ll notice I couldn’t quite bring myself to spell out the c-word. The DVD I had bleeped it, and we had some relatively hilarious, inadvertently hilarious class moments when we discovered that not everyone knew what “c-word” stood for, or what the word meant, or why it struck some people as different than saying “dick” instead of “penis.” #whyIloveteaching

And this takes me back to point #1 above: in our culture, the c-word has a lot of baggage, much of it painful for women. As a teacher, I now feel it is my duty, to be even-handed, to find something that some male students might feel not-just-offended-but-wounded by in the same way some way some female students felt in response to Louie’s rant. Open to suggestions here. (Seriously. Post suggestions.)

My big concern, in other words, is that I don’t guide students in pursuing #2 at the expense of the same people over and over–people who are often picked on in our society.

Just in the realm of vocabulary alone, it’s hard for me to think of a _-word that slams a heterosexual white man without any obvious disabilities. But if we were brainstorming, insults for women, those in the LGBTQ community, people of color, people who are differently-abled…those insults would just spring trippingly and quickly off our tongues.

I’m completely comfortable deleting a post on my own Facebook thread when someone casually uses language I am offended by (or worry a friend might be offended by). In the classroom, the rules of propriety and etiquette don’t seem as clear to me.

As part of my ongoing creativity research, and in preparation for spring semester, I’m continuing to read Dispatches from the Classroom: Graduate Students on Creative Writing Pedagogy, a terrific book I got excited about FIRST because there are precious few articles, let alone whole BOOKS on creative writing pedagogy. This book, edited by Christ Drew, Joseph Rein, and David Yost, came out last year and I find it consistently thought-provoking.

Just this week, I finished M. Thomas Gammarino’s “Invoking the Muzzle: Censorship and the Creative Writing Classroom” and found much to applaud and agree with, but a few places I found sticky.

It’s pretty obviously connected to my concerns above.

He positions himself as a libertarian sort of professor for the most part (for which I feel some kinship, cf: assigning Louis CK, above).

“Can fiction create a hostile learning environment?” he asks as he discusses one of his own experiences as a student writer, when he turned a story into a workshop about a pedophile keeping “pets” in the basement. The teacher reacted strongly, reasoning that other students would essentially have been forced to read it, that they weren’t as free to put it down as they would have been if it had been in a magazine, etc. Gammarino dropped that class, but as he points out, the problem remains.

He summarizes another incident (that he was not involved in) in which a teacher was disturbed by the violence in a student story and sought help outside the classroom–this ended with the student getting expelled and the instructor losing her job. Gammarino blames this on the institution’s overreaction and the attempt at censorship, calling it “prophylactic hysteria” (the phrasing of which I covet).

I like how he distinguishes the basic philosophical positions: “Libertarians may find themselves in the anguished position of having to defend the free speech of people whose viewpoints they find repulsive, but those who favor enacting controls on hate speech appoint themselves to the essentially undemocratic position of prescribing a morality for the masses.”

(I would say in this case it’s not the masses so much as it is the enrollment in any given course, but the point still holds.)

I also appreciate that he asked for feedback from other creative writing teachers, and there’s one response I’d like to highlight, the one from Wilton Barnhardt: “It is, of course, always a judgment call whether this kind of incident is pure aggression, a sociopathic acting out, a smart-ass way to get attention or indulge in hate-speech, or a clumsy attempt by an untrained writer to deal with difficult topics. I think we all know good and well when it’s the former, and I am prepared to sit there and listen and help and edit when it’s the latter.”

Therein lies the sticky place for me. I don’t always know good and well how to distinguish between the former and the latter. Sometimes it’s obvious, sure, but we’ve all seen studies about the higher incidence of mental illness in the field of creative writing, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find problems with mental illness in the creative writing classroom.

[Would it automatically be different, I realize I need to ask myself, seeing violent imagery from a student I knew to have mental illness issues, vs. a student who seemed emotionally stable? Hm.]

Violent imagery + mental illness doesn’t automatically add up to “will act on what is described.” Still, when a student I was working with informally began submitting pieces about stalking and harming a female teacher, I wrote him and said I wasn’t comfortable working with him. He cried censorship, and maybe he was right, but one of my absolute life goals is to trust my gut more, and my gut was telling me “RUN!”

I had the choice though–he’d been my student in the past, but wasn’t enrolled in anything at the time.

Gammarino did not give much space to discussing his original teacher’s point about student choice in terms of reading and responding, but I think it’s an important question. He was also very dismissive of another teacher he knows of who asks students to fill out a cover sheet for the pieces they’re going to workshop, describing the potential offensiveness (among other things, I assume). Gammarino says “I want to challenge the warrant behind all of this: namely, that it is part of the writing teacher’s job to protect the comfort level of his students—that is, to keep them from being offended.”

But it isn’t just “being offended” that I’m concerned about. It’s trauma. If a young woman has been raped, a rape scene will be traumatic. The more graphic, the more traumatic (I assume). And even if a young woman hasn’t been raped, do I really want to contribute to the rape culture we live in by asking a whole class to read a graphically violent rape scene?

I’m remembering a particular violent story, a series of revenge fantasies by a student who had writing skills and “issues” in approximately equal measure. It just so happened that the women victims came to more gruesome ends than the men.

I worked with this particular student all semester, and tried to get him to move beyond what I called his “shock and awe” imagery. But there were female students who were deeply uncomfortable working with him, and I don’t feel as though I helped them navigate their discomfort because I wasn’t sure how much of it was sort of an intellectual “ooh. ick.” and how much was simply an appropriate reaction of horror.

Gammarino says “Clearly teachers must do everything they can to protect their students’ safety,” but in this case he means safety in the sense of not actually being the ones killed and hacked up as described in this particular story.

Nothing bad happened in that way with this student; I wasn’t really worried that it would. My “gut,” in other words, was telling me this wasn’t going to make the news.

Gammarino adds that teachers must also “maintain a level of discussion appropriate to higher education,” and that’s where I’m getting stuck. What is appropriate here?

I absolutely agree with him when he says “…insofar as we choose to protect our students from ideas we ourselves may find odious, we also protect them from developing complex minds capable of deciding such matters for themselves.”

So my goal IS helping them navigate their discomfort and their horror. I am wondering if some kind of cover sheet would help–not simply to let students opt-out of reading something they’re alarmed at before reading it, but to also help us keep track of who is pushing what boundaries.

Gammarino describes his own pedophile-with-pets story as “a chance to stretch my imagination,” and that, ultimately, is what I find most troublesome about censorship–it boxes everything up so tightly there is precious little stretching possible.

If we grant that creative writing has to be about more than the craft of writing (the “writing” half of “creative writing”), but also has to be about creativity, then the stretching is crucial, and worth a great deal of student discomfort.

But what if the student writing the scary imagery has been doing that for years? And wants to do only that for the class? How creative is that? What about the student who wants to turn in only masturbation-paced erotica? They’re pushing other people’s boundaries, sure, but not their own.

So here’s my plan for my beginning creative writing class for Spring 2013: students are going to have access to a cover sheet for workshops. Half of it will be what they want to tell other students about the piece they’re submitting, and half of it will be like this (note–VERY ROUGH DRAFT), a way to keep track of how much experimenting people are doing. So if, for example, someone is writing in traditional meter and spouting mainstream ideas all semester, we can all note that and suggest the person push in some other directions. But by the same measure, we can suggest that someone who is consistently writing pieces that “might give your grandmother a stroke” could branch out a little.

I’m also going to Xerox Gammarino’s piece for my creative writing class before the first workshop. I anticipate a good discussion.

(This is also something I’m realizing I need to research more.)

Still haven’t decided about the “CAUTION: Profanity uttered here” warning.

3 responses to “C-word, N-word, R-word: Forward!

  1. Weird horrible gender shit that is. I always got *high* evals precisely because I swore like Dennis Miller. Hrumph.

  2. Hmmm…much angst about breeding?

  3. Excellent post, Marnie – thank you.

    I’m teaching playwriting at various high schools in Dane County and have encountered many of the same issues you broach here. I’ve also encountered many of those same responses! My conclusion – at least, today’s conclusion – is that we can never be certain of what constitutes creative writing and what constitutes the (potentially dangerous) ramblings of an unstable mind. (As Paul Simon once sang, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”) Consequently, your “gut” becomes the most reliable, if non-scientific method of discernment.

    As for the use of salty language in the classroom, I always preface any potentially offensive words by using a little “Danger, Will Robinson” approach, affording sensitive ears the opportunity to be covered. A bit of a cop-out, I agree, but my charges are younger than yours and many teachers have been fired from public schools for less.

    There’s so much more I want to respond to in your post, especially the hideous substitution policy we have adopted for certain words (the n-, the f-, the c-) which I personally find far more offensive than the words themselves. And I’d love to brainstorm on the idea of finding a suitably vile epithet for hetero white males that ranks up there (or down there) with the stuff that gets so freely leveled at “minority” groups. Personally, I revert to my native Welsh, where we have a word “twp” (pronounced “tup”) that means soft in the head. I use TWM (Typical White Male) and pronounce it “tum”. After all, nothing is more offensive to the supposedly superior person than being described as Typical!

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