Transgression in the Classroom

Jonathan Bellman

Yes, the silly title is intentional.

I can’t resist joining the discussion about transgression in class, real and imagined, and students’ reactions. There are several different operative possibilities:

Gratuitous profanity in the classroom, F-words and so on, used to be a professorial attempt either to shock students or be hip. And, I suppose, go fishing among the female students, who I guess were presumed to like swearing. (I saw it work enough for others, that I always wondered…well, never mind.) This was more common when I was young, early-to-mid 1970s, when people were thinking that youth equaled–umm–hippies and counterculture and swearing and stuff. F- and S-words seemed more transgressive then. Ridiculous, but there it is.

I’ve also seen it used simply as an attention-grabbing device, when the class was starting to fade, and I had to admire that usage. The late and lamented Paul Wienpahl, my History of Philosophy professor at UCSB, could jerk a class out of its stupor with the odd, “‘But wait a minute,’ Aristotle might say, ‘why are you being so f—in’ insistent on this matter of Forms?’” We’d all lurch bolt upright, and the lecture would continue without a hitch, and no facial acknowledgment that anything odd had taken place.

We need to guard against a certain glibness, though, about what might be called Received Standard Transgression and lemming-like “challenges” to societal mores. Just because some of us are not shocked by swearing, or even do it too much ourselves (this is me, I’m ashamed to admit), does not mean that only puritan squares aren’t hip enough for it, or that it shouldn’t be shocking, or that such transgression is the proper province of the University. For some people—and this was demonstrated to me recently in a market—bad language is real violence, a profoundly disgusting, unacceptable behavior. This may not be because they were raised by the most narrowminded of Bible-Belt hypocrites (or fill in your favorite stereotype here); it may be because they were raised by violent sacks of rage who used language like that—on them. In such cases, the unecessary use of profanity becomes something akin to a person in authority waving a Confederate flag at an African-American or wearing a Nazi armband in front of a Jew. Only the lowest sort of smug jerk would claim to be doing an educational service in transgressing such social mores.

I’ve offended people other ways—I made the mistake of referring to “Saul of Tarsus, a.k.a. good-time Charlie” at one point. No, that didn’t go over well with a student or two. Nor did muttering “Jesus Christ” one time when an underachieving class arrived for a review session with no questions prepared, though they were told to bring some. I learned; one of the reasons I always teach in a tie is that, in the words of one of the grad students, “Oh, for you it’s like a leash!” The more nicely I’m dressed, the more likely it is that I will remember that I can’t walk around swearing and insulting people in the self-indulgent manner of my past.

One walks a thin line, though, with curricular materials themselves—one reason I can really sense the difficulties when one is teaching in Phil’s area.

One of the things I used to do in the music history sequence was to teach the Doctrine of Ethos on the first couple of days, with the protestations of Plato and (later) certain churchmen about the dangers of inappropriate music in terms of encouraging dangerous behavior. From here we could go to censorship, questionable language in Rock music, wherever—thus demonstrating for the newbies that the most ancient questions are still relevant, still being fought over, and how much though they need to put into what they’re doing, not only how but why. I would often bring in The Crystals’ He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss), until (I may have told this story before) one year I noticed the conversation got a bit well-behaved and earnest and dutiful. The TA later asked gently if I’d actually heard any Rap lyrics, which made the Goffin/King tune seem tame.

To go one step further, year after year I’d bring a tape of the five-star obscurity Michael Perlitch’s Pete the Bondage Freak. This was a mean, dark, keyboard-driven song that dealt with child abduction and—er—violence. Truly creepy. Year after year, I’d find myself somehow not quite having enough time to play it, which I think was probably a good idea; one complaint, particularly in this part of the world, and I might well have lost my job. No point in pushing the free-speech issue to the point of destroying my own career, thanks; first grub, then…everything else. Perhaps I overreact; the one time I used it, to an adult evening class at Stanford, one youngish woman suggested that it might have been “kind of a goof; ‘I’m Pete, Pete, the bondage freak, I hide in the bushes down by the creek’…y’know, it’s like a joke.” Now, that’s certainly a kind of citified ironic distance; maybe even true. The song never disturbed me, for example; I really liked it when I was in high school, and still do, but I like the sound; it’s all traditional keyboards: piano, harpsichord, organ. The lyrics are weird, but who listened?

Here’s the danger, though: that’s me, southern California upbringing, non-dysfunctional family of teachers, irony was one of the major food groups, and my friends were pretty much the same. Of course I didn’t find it disturbing. I’m sure it wouldn’t fly in other places—let’s say the south, Kansas (note to Kansans: get “creationism” out of the schools and then we can talk about unfair stereotypes), etc. To bring it into class would simply be too much of a risk, and besides—do I know what every student in my classes has suffered? What if, God forbid, someone actually knew whereof the song was about? Am I going to lecture that student about getting out of his or her comfort zone and meeting challenges? Or smile ironically and look away—I am from California and am by definition so much cooler than you are—because the student clearly doesn’t get what I’m trying to do, and I’m intellectually so much farther ahead?

Remember, a town in Colorado recently went crazy when a young grade-school teacher played and educational film about Faust, in connection with opera education. It’s sinful, it’s damnation, how could I look at my daughter when she came home with questions…the usual. (I thought: isn’t this a great opportunity to talk to your daughter about something that matters, you idiot?) And that teacher was a singer, both opera and (get this) gospel. I don’t know where she is now, but I’ll wager not the same district.

I guess I have no major message or punchline here—which might mean Phil will start mockingly counting words again!—other than to say that, particularly for new or recently transplanted profs, get the cultural lay of the land before you start going long in your classes. Acceptable culture in these fifty states differs more, I think, than many people from the coasts, from good universities etc. can even begin to imagine. Don’t let your fire put you in hot water, so to speak; learn something about the local culture and expectations before you start confronting and challenging.

P.S. On Phil’s last blog: I’d never seen the “Player-Hater’s Ball” before, and it had me on the floor. Playing the Dozens in the best old tradition of cutting with one-liners. Howlingly funny!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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One Response to Transgression in the Classroom

  1. You raise some good points here–especially that what might fly in one classroom would tank completely in another. I used to adjunct at a very conservative college (not far from you, in fact), and I would never, ever have referred to goliards as “partying clergy drop-outs who wrote poetry about makin’ whoopee,” as I did in a class last week. (The students loved it, and more importantly, they might actually remember something — anything! — about early secular musicians.) Of course, that’s pretty tame, even here in the Bible Belt–but at my last two conservative religious universities I wouldn’t have dared mention it at all.
    But an f-bomb? I wouldn’t risk it–at ANY university–yet. My male colleagues let colorful language fly all the time, but until I get tenure, I’m very carefully censoring my speech. I’m pretty sure that female profs here are expected to be more “ladylike,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
    As Meridith Wilson wrote, you gotta know the territory.

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