I was kind of proud of the advice I gave an instructor, let’s call him Rutledge, today. The advice, he said, pulled him out of a shallow rut (where he shouldn’t have been on his birthday), A student, let’s call him Ted, in his class insists on using profanity with every comment, and every comment feels like a challenge to Rutledge’s credibility. Rutledge was at wits end with this student. He insisted that there was no need for his profanity and wanted to create a mini-lesson about improper use of profanity in a formal academics setting. I agreed there was a great learning opportunity here that must be seized.

I asked Rutledge what the real issue was. He said that he was offended with the pointless profanity trying to support the student’s weak argument. Okay, I thought, you were offended. There are 35 other students in the class, let’s find out how they feel and make this known to Ted. Next time he challenges you with profanity laced banter just stop. Pause. Pick up a set of index cards and hand one to each student in the classroom. Write the question on the board, “Does Ted’s use of profanity make you feel uncomfortable, yes or no?” Ask your students to write a simple yes or no on the card without a name. Make it clear it’s anonymous. Walk around and collect the cards. Count the total and if the majority of students wrote yes, then tell Ted that his profanity (NOT HIM PERSONALLY) is making 22 of 35 students in the classroom uncomfortable. Please make the same comment without the use of profanity.

If you have a larger classroom hand out cards to a representative sample of the class, I’m not a researcher so I trust you can figure out what that might be.

Now, if the vast minority had said no, then declare that you are in the minority who feel uncomfortable with the profanity and that he may continue but understand that he is making 12 of the 35 students uncomfortable. Rutledge could expand on this teaching moment by explaining that pitfalls of using profanity in academics, but that’s optional.

It is everyone’s classroom and making everyone feel safe to hear and be heard is paramount to learning. Pointing out that words can quickly undermine a safe and trusting learning environment. Involve the students and give them a voice whenever possible. Perhaps add this to a learning contract, “No unwarranted use of profanity – articulate your ideas with appropriate vocabulary for a professional environment”

Rutledge will let me know how it goes. Now he wants Ted to cuss up a storm so he can try this out. I hope it goes well. The other 35 students will certainly appreciate it, not sure how Ted will feel.

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