The S-Word

By Maria Montaperto

Our FYW program’s custom course reader, Made With Words, includes several essays about “problematic” terms. For example, Andi Zeisler’s essay called “The B-Word? You Betcha,” is (not surprisingly) about the term “Bitch,” its use, and present negative meanings despite her and others attempts at redefinition or appropriation. Gloria Naylor similarly takes up the n-word, highlighting different uses, particularly among African American groups; while Lucia Perillo’s essay focuses on the word “cripple” and related terms in past and present use.

 These and a handful of similar essays are grouped into a thematic unit on “What Words Mean.” The objective of said unit, generally, is to have students examine the power of language – of words, of these singular linguistic units which we, as language arts experts, well understand the nuanced dynamics of. And the objective of the objective? To help students become more aware of and more sensitive about the rhetorical impact that something seemingly as small as word choice can have on the local level of an individual essay, as well as within the larger socio-political contexts in which we all live. And, the objective of this objective? For me . . . it is to enhance my students’ sense of agency – greater rhetorical and social awareness is power, power within their personal, professional and civic lives, power which I hope they will learn to use judiciously and equitably. Something which I hope I, myself, succeed at more often than I fail.

 It so happened I was working on such a unit when just a few weeks prior to beginning, I caught something slip from my mouth while talking to some fellow faculty about a particularly challenging issue I was facing with a student. I don’t remember the exact sentence, the student or even the specific thorn in my side I was experiencing. I just remember catching myself . . . . and then calling myself out.

 FADE IN:

 INT. UNIVERSITY FACULTY OFFICE

 Three instructors sit talking.

                                                     INSTRUCTOR 1 [me]

(a frustrated sigh)

 This student . . . (blah blah blahone or another typical teacher complaint) . . . you know, is such . . . . .  

a . . .  slacker. Continue reading

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