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.
INT. UNIVERSITY FACULTY OFFICE
Three instructors sit talking.
INSTRUCTOR 1 [me]
(a frustrated sigh)
This student . . . (blah blah blah – one 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.
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.
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.
He’s got a drug problem but doesn’t know it yet.
She’s a dance major.
He’s having a bad semester.
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 . . .
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.