Is anything inappropriate to wear to class anymore?
A trio of students walked past my wide open door, and I noticed that one student’s shirt said “suck dick” on it. So I stepped out into the hall and rather jovially asked him, “Hey, can I see what your shirt says?”
Here’s what it said:
You can’t suck my dick while talking, so shut the fuck up.
I read it out loud to him. Then I thanked the guy for showing it to me. Without any further comment, I disappeared into my office.
I’m not for censorship. I think people should speak or wear what they please, and I dress about as badly as any professor on campus. Sometimes I’ll be in a torn-up shirt, and I’ll occasionally teach wearing a dashiki. I sometimes swear during my lectures, especially in Film class. Still, this didn’t sit well with me.
I’m going to guess most of his instructors just ignored the shirt. Why attract further attention? I had to wonder how I’d handle it if he came to my class wearing that thing.
In the past, I’ve responded to students’ t-shirts by assigning research projects. A guy who came into my class wearing a hammer and sickle—my elders were Lithuanian WWII refugees who fled Soviet occupation—got to do a project about the Gulag (he had never heard of it). Another guy sporting a Che t-shirt got to read Ay, Cuba, A Socio-Erotic Journey. But how do you turn this kind of frat boy belligerence into a learning experience?
“Here, watch all 44 episodes of Keeping Up Appearances, then write a paper on how etiquette and protocol can be contrived as passive aggression.”
One friend of mine, a woman from Portland, offered this:
I would suggest that the guy’s lesson should not be so much about etiquette as about misogyny and violence vs women. Any woman would read that shirt and know it’s directed towards her while a man would not…
Now, perhaps I’m an unusual man, because I did feel the shirt was telling the world, me included, that it was meant for his pleasure. Many of our students feel this way, if they don’t express the sentiment with such vulgarity; so many of them feel others are useful only when they serve, entertain or pleasure them. But I’ll agree that a good portion of women would probably feel like my friend from Portland, their gender singled out.
So, given this, what’s the humanitarian professor’s role? Indeed, shouldn’t someone in the college, a random professor—me, for example—tell him it’s inappropriate to wear that shirt to campus?
For the record, when I was 16, I had a t-shirt that said Shut Up, Bitch. I bought it in Venice Beach, California following a nasty bit of heart wringing over a girl, and I wore it to a few beach parties and a summer camp. One of my dearest friends in the world, a woman who knows me through-and-through, two years my elder, took me aside and said, “I don’t think that shirt’s like you. It’s just taking the hurt you feel and hurting others with it.” I never wore it again after that conversation.
So, perhaps it’s best to leave these kinds of things to the peers to sort through. As far as I know, no colleague did anything about the student’s shirt; if someone did, the faculty gossip grapevine never caught wind. I know many of my colleagues are desensitized to a lot of vulgarity, as our student population is heavily influenced by street culture.
Still, as this week wore on, I found myself imagining the moment when this guy came into my class and sat down. I simply couldn’t see myself letting him off the hook; it would be unfair to pick out the communism fetishists and to let this guy go free. After all, if you’re wearing slogans on your shirt, you’re asking for dialogue, right?
And so, the good student should bring his complaint to the Dean if he finds this assignment unfair:
Watch the first three seasons of Downtown Abbey, paying particular attention to the character of Violet Crawley. In season 3, episode three, Crawley rather famously says, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” Using her character as an example, compose an essay that either supports or critiques her preference for wit over vulgarity. Be sure to consider her character’s development or, if you will, degradation as the seasons wear on. Be certain, also, to define wit and vulgarity very carefully, and to consider the impact of Crawley’s character on her family members and associates. If she’s right, is she a hypocrite? If she’s wrong, can we consider ourselves civil?
A slightly different, more spontaneous version of this post originally appeared on Liquid Ink.
Photo by David, Bergen, Emmit and Elliot.
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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