I know this struggle well. Good teaching involves getting the students actively involved and asking questions and thinking about the material, and it’s hard work sometimes to wake them up. For example, my last lecture in our introductory biology course is always about bioethics, where I bring up a lot of controversial topics: eugenics, abortion, animal rights, etc., and rather than just lecturing at them to let them know what the right answers are, I expect them to express their opinions…and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In two sections this semester with the identical lecture part and the same questions, one responded well and the other sat and stared at me. Tough room. Both sections are doing equally well on the exams, so I can’t blame it on the stupid kids in the one section, because they aren’t. Maybe it was the time of day (hey, astrology works!).
Daniel Petersen at the University of Hawaii at Hilo has his own successful strategies for provoking students: blunt speech, challenging the students, vigorous, even aggressive confrontation. He also occasionally uses profanity. I tend to be a more laid-back instructor and almost never swear in the classroom, but if it would have jarred students into talking in that one section this semester, I would have enthusiastically tried it. That’s our job, to shake up brains and get them perking along. And if it makes students annoyed or want to fight with us, all the better.
Administrators at the University of Hawaii at Hilo have a different idea, apparently. They pressured Petersen to be less provocative, and in response, he’s taken the principled path and quit. Cheers for Petersen, razzes for the gutless university.
What started it all was that one student complained, and that student told on Professor Petersen to her daddy, and daddy wrote a letter to the university. Her daddy, Timothy Jahraus, really needs to grow up. Here’s what the snotty little prig wrote.
Instructors, people in an authority position, with influence and power over their students, have no right to use profanity in the classroom. It demonstrates a paucity of verbal ability and total lack of respect for the students he instructs. This instructor’s action is an abuse of the authority position he holds and a betrayal of whatever confidence the students may have had in his ability to deal fairly with them.
Our institutions of higher learning need to take the high ground intellectually and in general deportment rather than devolving to the lowest vernacular.
Would you believe that university officials actually took this pompous blowhard’s supercilious whining seriously, and told Petersen to stop all swearing in class, threatened him with suspension, and basically told to change his teaching style to be less provocative? Of course you would, because whenever administrators choose to meddle in the practice of teaching, they tend to be idiots.
I would answer Daddy Jahraus this way.
College instructors do have a right to use whatever language is effective in the classroom, and you’re making up restrictions, you lying wanker. There is a good argument that using demeaning racial epithets, for instance, would make one a less effective teacher, but that isn’t the case here: this is a philosophy professor who is getting chewed out by a sanctimonous bluenose for using the phrase, “Shit happens.”
Use of profanity well enriches one’s vocabulary; the only exhibit of a paucity of verbal ability here is demonstrated by a certain slimy jackanapes who wants to impose arbitrary restrictions on language. Go read some fackin’ Shakespeare or goddamned Twain, and as the Holy Bible in II Kings instructs, go “eat [your] own dung and drink [your] own piss.”
It is no abuse of authority for an instructor to use every day language with his students, including words that they use routinely. I have no idea what trust is being abused or what confidence is being exposed by saying “goddamn” — and Timmy doesn’t explain it, either. He’s just being a pushy and arrogant ass.
When you examine the fucking content of a course rather than fussing like a scandalize virgin over the vigor of the language, then maybe you can talk about an intellectual high ground. But deportment? What is this, grade school where the kiddies are supposed to get evaluated on their manners? Or a place where adults are expected to engage the world of ideas and express themselves fully?
Fuck off, you presumptuous puritan. It seems your daughter wasn’t even registered for the class.
It does not surprise me that there are thin-skinned whiners like little Timmy Jahraus in the world. I am, however, appalled that the university administration is pandering to them, and that an instructor like Petersen seems to be getting no support from his fellow faculty (OK, often that is unsurprising—adjuncts frequently get treated like worms by the tenured and tenure-track faculty. But it isn’t right.)