Thursday, March 09, 2006

Working Blue

As I sometimes tell my students -- as I did today after sputtering a few choice words about the American war in Vietnam -- "we're all adults at a public, secular, liberal arts university. When we encounter bullshit, we're obliged to name it."

Or maybe not:
When the semester started, Stephen E. Williams was teaching history at the Lancaster branch of Harrisburg Area Community College. But early in the semester, he stopped showing up, and his students received calls confirming the reason why: He had used the word “fuck” in class.

Officially, administrators at the college will not say why Williams was suspended or why the institution recently reached an agreement under which the tenure-track (but non-tenured) professor ceased to be an employee. But students in his classes started getting calls from officials soon after he left, asking if they had heard him swear in class. . . .

Patrick M. Early, executive director of public relations at the college, said he couldn’t comment on Williams, except to say that he was no longer an employee and that there had been a “mutual resolution of the situation.” Early also said that Williams had the opportunity for a hearing involving peers, but opted for a settlement. (Williams did not respond to a message, and told local reporters he had been advised by his lawyer not to comment.)

This all seems a bit excessive. I don't swear nearly as much in class as I do on this blog, but every now and then I'll "go blue" in a fit of exasperation (e.g., "Richard Nixon was out of his fucking mind when he ordered the invasion of Cambodia"); or while fleshing out certain brash or tasteless historical acronyms (e.g., FTA="Fuck the Army" or LSMFT="Lets Shoot a Motherfucker Tonight," a popular slogan within the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1960s); or in a moment of irony (e.g., "Lyndon Johnson had a filthy fucking mouth"); or while setting up audiovisual equipment (e.g., "Someone once said that watching me fumble with a data projector was like watching a cartoon character who fucks things up a lot.")

This latter remark still holds the record for the earliest appearance of the word "fuck" in one of my courses -- it was the first thing that came out of my mouth on the first day of my US survey in September 2004, literally 30 seconds after I entered the room and began untangling about a half dozen assorted cords and wires. Abiding by some sort of internal MPAA-type ratings system, I ordinarily don't drop the f-bomb in my lower-division surveys, though I will occasionally deploy terms of art like "shitty" (e.g., "indentured servants led shitty lives in colonial Virginia"), "prick" (e.g., "Robert Welch seemed to think Joe McCarthy was somewhat of prick"), and "dumbass" (e.g., "I equate flying the confederate flag with being a dumbass.") And while I carry no water for anyone with strong religious beliefs, I acknowledge the historical significance of religion and devote a lot of time in my classes to its social and political dimensions over the past few centuries. For that reason -- and because we have a lot of students (mostly Christian) who haven't yet been demoralized by the random, cavernous void that comprises human existence -- I avoid statements that will be interpreted as overly blasphemous (e.g., "Jesus Christ on a popsicle stick, World War I was a depraved waste of life"), or insulting to anyone's strange metaphysical beliefs (e.g., "[insert religious denomination here] are fucking crazy.") I also would not invoke words and phrases that refer to genitalia or sexual functions in any sexist, graphic, or non-metaphorical way unless I happened to be quoting Lyndon Johnson (e.g., "I never trust a man until I have his pecker in my pocket") or Richard Nixon (e.g., "[It's] time to get down to nut-cutting") or commenting more speculatively on the bizarre castration anxiety that seemed to afflict American presidents during the Vietnam War.

I should probably save this post and include it in next year's tenure file.