My first day teaching this semester, a student came up to me. Because I’m a writer and love to build pictures, I’ll describe him (not that it tremendously matters): thin guy wearing skinny jeans and brushed over blonde Emo hair, tight t-shirt and oversized plaid sweatshirt-jacket.
“How do you feel about language,” my student asked.
“Language? You mean Spanish or French or something?” I knew, of course, what he meant, but since at least half the class was “International” and I had three students from Canada, I hoped for something different.
“Swearing,” he said.
“I don’t mind it, personally,” I told him. “Words are just words–we give them meaning. But some of your classmates might be offended.”
This is the second student in three years I’ve had ask my permission to swear in an entry-level composition course. The other one, my first spring teaching, didn’t so much as ask as declare himself “a prick” on the first day of class, during introductions–he swore during the second class.
But I felt I needed to address this with my class in some way. The next time we met in our classroom (as opposed to our computer lab), my students had just read “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King and “Bread and Bombs” by M. Rickert, out of the anthology Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. I asked students to look for words that indicated violence, ruin, or destruction in the first few pages of “The End of the Whole Mess.”
During discussion, one student brought up the idea that “idiot” is violent language–but that he found it funny. Perfect place to start. “Why,” I asked, “might we find this of word funny?”
My students threw out some possibilities: we’re desensitized to it; we see it used in stand-up comedy; friends sometimes say it to each other; it’s unexpected in something you read for class.
I moderated without saying much. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, students will try to write down everything I say as though I’m the total authority on a given topic. Sometimes, it’s better to just remain silent. When the conversation dwindled, I asked for their reactions to the two stories–what they liked or didn’t like, and why (providing concrete examples is a key component of success in this class). Several students were talking about “Bread and Bombs” when they started to talk about what “those people” believe–“those people” referring to Muslims.
Excellent, I thought dryly. Another opportunity to talk about violent language.
“Think about what you just said,” I prompted a student. “How you categorized the people you’re talking about.” (violent, with a different set of moral codes)
The student paused. He’d served a military stint and was using the GI bill to pay for college.
“You said ‘Those people,'” I said. I turned to the class. “We’re all guilty of doing this, of othering. We refer to people who don’t belong to our group, whatever group it is, in othering language. ‘Those people’ is one example. What else can you come up with?”
“Them,” a student answered.
“They,” another student said.
They came up with five more terms or euphemisms (one said “racial slurs,” generically. The other terms they mentioned: everyone else, you all, it, others) and when silence ensued, I asked them to think about whether the parents’ fears in “Bread and Bombs” is justified–again, trying to steer the conversation away from anyone directly attacking my student who indicated a belief that “those people” were violent. Some students believed the parents in the story were right to be paranoid–others disagreed.
Perhaps by steering the conversation, rather than allowing a full debate, I’m preventing students from engaging fully in the type of dialogue that they’d engage in on their own–but for the first few classes of the semester, I’m okay with that. I need to establish a learning environment where my students feel safe expressing their ideas and where they can learn how to have these types of discussions without becoming venomous.
Some students are resistant. Some aren’t reading at all. About half the class isn’t participating in discussions unless forced (“I’d like to hear what everyone has to say about this.”). But the students who engage can’t wait to talk and that’s about half the class. The stories out of Wastelands seem to be provocative enough and the poems we recently read by Patricia Smith got students talking about 1) how we write about disaster and 2) the right of an author to write about something s/he didn’t experience.
I’m not sure how the rest of the semester will progress. I hope to engage more of my students in the readings and discussions, but many are convinced that they’re just bad at English classes or that they hate English. I want them to see this less as a traditional English class and more as an opportunity to think critically. I’m not sure I’ll win any more over (but I’ll try!), but even if I just get one or two students to better understand what’s happening when we see or hear about violence/ruin/disaster, then I’ll feel like I’ve made an impact.