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Profanity in class

I don’t swear in class. Well, I almost never swear in class. Why? There’s a fairly simple reason.

When I teach writing (and, perhaps, when I teach any subject), I ask my students to pay attention to their audience. And, whether it seems that way at Grinnell or not, there are many people who are offended by casual use of profanity. So I don’t swear in class, and I ask my students not to swear in class. It’s actually not clear to me what casual profanity buys you; if you swear enough you lose the shock value of swearing and your profane words are just some other words.

What I have found is that because I do my best not to swear in class, the few times that I do swear have additional impact. When do I swear in class? Usually when I’m very angry about something: A threat to a student, a policy change I object to, an event on campus. And my use of profanity signals to students that it’s not something I take lightly. If I swore in every class period, I’m not sure the use of these terms would have the impact I would want. The students would probably still know that the issue was important, but the rare use of profanity increases the impact.

See, I said it was simple: Profanity offends some people, and profanity, when limited, carries additional power. Two great reasons not to swear in class (or not to swear regularly in class). I realize that when swearing carries power, it also carries the power to offend. I hope that I only swear in cases in which it’s clear that I am so frustrated that profanity is necessary.

As I noted, I also ask that my students not swear in class. I hope that my regular objections to profanity remind students that they should pay attention to the language they use and the situations in which they use different kinds of language. I also believe that my objections further heighten the impact on the rare instances in which I swear in class.

That short rationale feels like a bit less than I planned for the typical essay, so I’m going to add a bit of backstory.

When I was young, I swore. My mother (and father) did not see a reason to limit the language that children use. (Ah, the joys of having a child psychologist for a mother.) I’m pretty sure that one of mom’s books has a short note about my friends and I at age 10 or so, marching through the house shouting out our litany of swear words.

And, like many people in my generation, I continued to swear. Profanity was part of my everyday language through high school and college. And then I met Michelle and her family. Michelle’s family didn’t swear. Why not? For a reason I mentioned above: swearing offends some people.
Even though Michelle’s father was a truck driver, and probably swore at work, he never swore at home. Michelle and her brother are fond of telling me about times he’d break something by accident and say Son of a … and then add gun (rather than the word you were expecting) and then, finding that Son of a gun was insufficient, would add peanut butter.

So, I did not swear around Michelle and her family. (I still try not to.) And it’s easiest not to swear in a particular situation, if one swears in no situations. So I (mostly) stopped swearing. It’s now much rarer that I swear than it used to be. I swear more at home than I do in the classroom, but I try to swear as little as possible. It doesn’t add much to conversation, and it has the potential to offend.

As I took that policy to the classroom, I found the benefits I mentioned above. It builds a respectful environment in class, and rare use generates additional impact.

Version 1.0 of 2016-04-24