During a break in class tonight, a student used the word "retarded." He used it as a joke--"To say this word correctly, you have to say it like you're retarded." And I didn't call him on it.
I didn't call him on it!
My heart froze, and then I started class back up as though nothing had happened.
Why didn't I call him on it? I think it's because I haven't had the chance to practice. I have a million strategies for this! I just haven't used them in the context of the word "retarded."
When students in class say "That's so gay," or "Stop being such a pussy," or they refer to someone as a slut, I have strategies. As soon as the word exits the student's mouth, I frame it as an opportunity to do a little analysis and examination. A couple of years ago a student in my Intro to Women's and Gender Studies class made reference to something as "so gay," and I excitedly said, "Oh! Great! Let's take a minute and talk about this word!"
The student immediately blushed, looked ashamed, and said, "I know! I know! I shouldn't have said that!", but I said, "No, you used a word that loads of people in our culture use all the time. This is a really good opportunity for us to talk about why that's troubling." It was a useful, quick conversation, and then we moved on.
There are several things that are important for this to work well:
- My eagerness is crucial. If I really do frame this as an important moment for conversation and analysis, then we can all get on board with that.
- It also has to be a conversation about a term that's circulating in our culture, not a conversation that's in any way personalized around the student who said the word. This student was just the lucky voice of our current cultural moment. Any of us could have been that voice.
- Finally, it seems essential that the conversation happen immediately. The stakes are lower--the sense of blame and/or shame is lower--if I immediately say, "Great! Let's talk!" rather than "Let's return to an awkward moment from earlier in class." I think it's harder to achieve #2 if you come back to the point later.
I didn't do that this time. Five students from my Disability, Power, and Privilege class were sitting in the room, and they saw me not say anything. I feel like a pile of shit (God forbid we have a blog post these days that doesn't have some mention of shit in it). Fortunately, I think the shit-pile feeling is functional, because it'll keep me from doing this again.
Perhaps it'll also help me to figure out a way to return to this topic in my class. I emailed the student as soon as class was over, but I want the rest of the class to get to have this conversation, too.