NSFW? Teaching Obscenity in the Classroom

Just a warning that a lot of today’s post is decidedly NSFW – I’ll be scattering obscenities throughout, and focusing on one particularly strong (and offensive) example.

I’m currently TAing on a module called Roman Laughter, a wide-ranging module that moves from Cicero’s in Pisonem and Catullus to Roman verse satire, fable, and epigram. The one glaring gap on the module is Roman Comedy, but the module’s focus on invective and political commentary (combined with the broad range of authors and genres) mean that the gap isn’t too noticeable really. My role is as the seminar leader, running seminars in which students are divided into two teams who debate on a particular motion (is the in Pisonem more occupied with destroying Piso or raising Cicero, is Martial more provocative than Catullus, is Juvenal 6 misogynistic, etc). Students are assigned one side of the argument on arrival to the class, so they have to prepare for both sides of the argument. On the whole it works quite well – the students debate some pretty complex issues and talk with one another more often than at me.

The area where I get the most input, though, is in a 10 minute section at the start of the class for a warm-up session where we work through some of the broader issues of the course. This week I’ve been discussing poetic personae, which might be worth another blog in the future, but in the first seminar I ran I decided to focus on the nature of obscenity.

The exercise was relatively simple: I asked my students to pair up and have a brief chat about what they wanted to get out of the module (pretty normal for my introductory seminars), and also to come up with a particularly good obscenity. I then went round the class and got them to say the offending word to me so that I could put it on the whiteboard for a discussion afterwards on what makes obscenity obscene. The aim was to defuse the power of obscene language in the classroom so that my students would feel more comfortable directly quoting the sources in class and discussing them (Catullus 16 is the most obvious example of this), while also letting me get to know each student’s interests and quirks.

Again, on the whole this worked. At least one student per class was willing to choose “cunt” as their swear word, which then let us discuss what it is about this particular word that’s particularly offensive. Marginalisation of women, societal use (some students were perfectly fine with its use), its relation to sexual organs, and the sound of the word all got a mentioned, and I made some links between ancient and modern views on not discussing female genitalia in polite conversation.

What I wasn’t necessarily planning on was non-sexual obscenity, and that became most apparent in one class where a student rather cautiously said “nigger”. The room instantly grew quieter – it became painfully clear that we were all middle class white students, for instance – and I was briefly taken aback; in all my planning I hadn’t prepared for a word that has such a strong social impact to be mentioned.

After an awkward moment or two, though, we got back into the swing of things – I acknowledged everyone’s discomfort, briefly focused on the fact that this word is particularly intended as a social slur and has a lot of cultural history and importance. Seeing that my students were still feeling a bit cautious during the section discussing what makes obscenity obscene I told the group we’d focus on the sexual obscenities instead, as the “N-bomb” belonged to a separate class of obscenity altogether and had a particularly modern slant (I don’t think the Romans really had a parallel concept).

On reflection I think the situation went well, though I probably stuttered a bit before I found a comfortable way to take the discussion. While I had intended to partly shock my students (I led with a deliberately provocative statement that “If you’re uncomfortable with words like shit, fuck, cunt, and schlong then you need to be able to deal with them in textual analysis…”) I hadn’t expected anything so personally offensive to appear. I definitely feel more equipped to deal with a similar situation if it arises again (though no other class actually used this example), and it’s made me reconsider obscenity in general.

Overall I’ve reinforced my beliefs that teaching a class requires a significant amount of flexibility – no amount of preparation will make you ready for everything, and this is particularly true of obscenities and difficult topics in the classroom. Perhaps I should have opened more cautiously, but these difficult themes need discussing – ignoring these social problems only makes them more difficult to deal with.

I think I’ll close with an observation from one of the lectures I’ve been sitting in on. The module convenor, someone whose teaching I admire greatly, began their lecture on Catullus with a similar attempt to reduce the impact of obscenity in the classroom, but from a different direction. She opened by emphasising that there would be some offensive language and topics in the class (particularly thinking about Catullus’ 16’s “I’ll fuck you in the arse and mouth”) but made sure to stress that there’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable (which can be helpful and formative) and feeling emotionally disturbed (which can prove damaging). If students felt offended in the latter camp they were told that they could leave the classroom without any repercussions. In essence, a safe space was made. Nobody left in the end (possibly partly because they still didn’t want to mark themselves out from the group, possibly because they felt safe), and the lecture went ahead. But I was still struck by the importance of what the lecturer had done – made an environment in which obscenity, and threats of oral/anal rape, could be discussed in an adult, scholarly fashion.

There are a lot of controversial conversations happening about trigger warnings and safe spaces at the moment – one student running for a Welfare position in my university’s recent Sabbatical elections stated that safe spaces were an impediment to free speech (thankfully they didn’t get elected) – but such practices are important, if difficult to implement at times. In the field of Classics in particular, where rape narratives were a formative part of foundation mythology and a harsh reality of ancient life, it can be tough to avoid offending your students in some way.

Personally I find it difficult sometimes, being so used to reading about these topics in the ancient context, to realise how offensive they actually are to a modern ear. But I think it’s enormously important  that we flag up these issues with our students. Safe spaces and trigger warnings can shut down discussion about these important topics, but it’s simply a matter of implementation. If we make students aware that they can engage as much as they are comfortable with these issues then we put the power into their hands, allow for the text to be read (not censored), and have these difficult conversations.Most of all we ensure that our students are always in a nurturing environment and left in charge of their own learning – it’s not about mollycoddling, it’s about forewarning. Turning aside from the NSFW aspects of the classical world would blinker our viewpoint and would ultimately mislead our students. So I’m thankful I got to have a conversation with my students about the word “nigger” and what made it offensive in as careful and non-offensive a manner as possible. Reminding ourselves about the crushing inequality of our own past is far less offensive than ignoring it.

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2 thoughts on “NSFW? Teaching Obscenity in the Classroom

  1. Very interesting. I teach A-level Comedy in the Ancient World, which involves a lot of potentially difficult conversations . I agree about the forewarning and have taken the good advice of using medical / scientific terminology when deconstructing the impact of sexual humour. That said, it is important to enjoy the comedy before you analyse it and kill the joke.

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    • Oh for sure! This class was intended as an introduction more than anything else. There’s nothing worse than analysing something until it’s utterly stale. There’s the old saying that jokes are like frogs – if you dissect them they die in the process.

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