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.

(eye roll. huff.)

ugh. . .there’s always one. This student . . .

 FADE OUT and fill in the blank as suits you:

. . . he submitted every essay a week or more late. Slacker.

. . . she has been absent/late X times. Slacker.

. . . he never has his book, hasn’t even bought it. Slacker.

. . . she writes two pages when I ask for four, one when I ask for five. Slacker.

 I wince (almost) every time (not enough?) I hear the word. Hear it occasionally slip from my own lips, so quick mind-to-tongue. Commonplace speech, (especially among teachers?). A trope even, synecdoche-like? Perhaps. Euphemism for what we think but do not say/believe? And, wince turns to cringe as I imagine the crushing weight of the list of close-cousin synonyms I will not here recite.  After all, I’m writing to English professors.

 I’m tired. I’ve taught all day. Have read and responded thoughtfully to piles of essays. And, if I’m part-time, I’ve fought morning traffic, fought to find a parking spot, taught at school A, then fought more traffic, fought for another parking spot, taught at school B, only to fight more traffic home. You get the idea. And MSU not remotely unique on the national landscape with 60% contingent faculty. We’re only human. (All of us – and them.) And things slip, frustrated tongues trip to say even things we don’t (entirely) believe. (Do we? Do I? Do You? And, if so, to what extent, and does it matter?)

 That young woman, who has been late or absent too many times and doesn’t ever speak about it. I don’t know her or her life. She has been in and out of treatment for the past four years for anorexia. Her parents thought the last time ‘took.’ That she was well enough to go to college. She put on some weight. Now, second semester stress has taken hold of her throat. She’s been in and out of bed all day. Too exhausted from lack of calories and binge and purge nights to do her work, afraid and alone on her own for the first time, can barely move.

 Slacker?

 That young man, with late essays, I don’t know him. He hates writing. He doesn’t care if he gets a C. It’s enough. He’s here for a business degree. His father owns small company Q, and he’s been working side by side with his father and another family member after school, every Saturday and summers since he was 12 years old. He’s happy. Content.

 Slacker?

 I don’t know him/her or his/her life. Financial aid screwed up the paperwork. Yes. No. Parents going through a wicked divorce, and mother/father to spite father/mother is holding up the tax documents necessary. College may not be an option at this point.

 Slacker?

 He’s got a drug problem but doesn’t know it yet.

She’s a dance major.

He’s having a bad semester.

It happens.

She gets As and Bs in all his other classes.

He suffers from insomnia.

She didn’t want to go to college.

It happens. It happens. (To all of us.)

 Writing…this class…your class…mine…does not always make it to the top of the list of priorities that week. That month. That semester. That year . . . that life!

 But, it’s just blowing off steam. A normal, natural thing to do/say. We don’t mean anything by it. I feel a growing ouch. Sounds more than a smidge-like what some whites might say of “light-hearted” comments about (fill in other racial group here). Or what straight people of any race might say of off-hand jokes about GLBT folk.

 This doesn’t mean I/you/we accept late work. Nor does it mean I/you/we rearrange policies to suit each new case. It does not mean I/you/we change Fs to Ds or Ds to Cs. It does not mean I/you/we have to “feel bad” for all students doing poorly because they might be x, y or z.

 It means . . . for me, just this. To remind you and ask you to remind me and each other to undo the word which is always and ever will be a misnomer.

 It begs me to remember my own failings, flaws and missteps . . . the hundred million of them, like the slip of a word from my ever unruly tongue. To forgive, not the issue. No, to remember myself and others (students and teachers) for only ever and always without end being one thing wholly, from top to bottom inside out . . one thing . . .

 Human.

 I’m not talking here about saving the world in its entirety, just the small part where we wield more significant amounts of power than I believe we comprehend. As language experts, we are the “them” that more than (almost) all others make or break words, and we do it all the time with so many similar terms, and always in the same spirit, with the same intention – that is, the perpetuation of those “small” things we say we value – dignity and respect – which we know begets dignity and respect from one mouth to another, it multiples, proliferates.

 So, to teach that to ourselves, and each other . . . a pedagogy among teachers, a pedagogy of talk-as-teaching, of offices, hallways, and mailrooms . . . designed to ever reminds us that . . .

one course, one semester, one year, even one entire degree,

does not define a life, or the person who lives it –

nor will it, ever,

no matter what we do

. . . or don’t

. . . say.

 END.

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2 thoughts on “The S-Word

  1. Maria, there is a great deal of narrative power in this essay. You raise a larger issue for me which is something we all know we need to be mindful of but sometimes lose sight: the judgments we place on our students and how that governs the way we relate to them.

    There are a number of things that might bias me toward a student. For example, I automatically judge students who arrive late to class, sometimes writing them off mentally because I feel like they aren’t taking the class seriously. I usually bring myself back together and engage with the student, but when class after class the person comes late, I become guarded. Also, cultural differences manifest in these kinds of situations as well and it is something that we must keep in mind.

    But while I am sensitive to the various circumstances of my students, I want them to know that regardless of life’s circumstances, they have to perform or they will struggle. And they have to own that struggle. Sometimes when a student appears to have trouble, I explain to him/her the kind of message her/his behavior sends. The student can then choose to course correct or not. It’s an important issue to address because in FYW we have a closer interaction with our students than they have with other professors in their various classes. I want to make the most of that kind of interaction especially as it helps them to think more critically and write more effectively. There is more to teaching writing than detailing the nuances of the writing process. You bring that to light well here!

  2. This post (and Stacie’s response) is of particular interest to me since it brings up something that I have, for a long time, tried never to do in my classes: judge students on anything other than their work.

    A couple days ago, at the start of class a student laughingly said, “You have no idea how mad I was after getting my paper last night. Dammit, Shil–why do you hate me?” The other students and I laughed and I said something like, “Well, based on the grades I sent out, I hate everybody! Just remember, it’s not personal.” And, for me, it never is. I want my students to succeed and I give them every opportunity (and the needed support) to do so, but if they don’t do what they need to, I don’t ever take it personally. They are adults (and I place a lot of emphasis, explicitly and implicitly, in class on treating them as such) and if they choose not to do what they need to do, I do not lose sleep or emotional energy wondering about why it is that they did not or considering it a sign of some sort of personal failing on their part. I have no information to make that sort of judgment and it benefits neither me nor the student to do so.

    In this regard (and a few others), I try to compartmentalize things and work with the reality that I have in front of me. A student paper to be graded is what it is on paper, whether it be from a student who has attended every class and participated regularly or it be from someone who is silent in class and often absent. Similarly, a student who is absent is simply, well, absent and penalized accordingly, with no emotional response from me. A late paper is, well, late, and penalized accordingly whether it be from someone whose first late paper it is or their third. And so on.

    From a particular perspective, it might seem a fairly robotic way of functioning, but I think it translates to a strong sense of fairness, both in theory and practice.

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