Pedagogy failure

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: 

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.


Claire said...

It's a graduate class, yes? So I think use this moment of failure as the 'ah ha' we can all share and learn something from this moment. Start from the perspective that when teaching classes we sometimes fail to do what we know we should and then talk about how you deal with that -- and then use this as the moment. That way they get both that being a teacher does not make you infallible AND they get a reminder about why denigrating language is unacceptable.

Rairy said...

Please take a moment to remember you are not perfect. Its okay you missed this opportunity. You dont condone the choice of words and you are setting yourself up to be better prepared on the next occurrence. Meanwhile be kind with yourself.

Professor Wren said...

You've seen this, right?


Alison said...

Claire--great suggestion.

Rairy--thanks for the reminder re: perfectionism. That's a killer for me, consistently.

And yes, Professor Wren, I HAVE seen that! I thought of it in the very moment that I didn't speak in my class! When I do revisit this topic in class, maybe I'll show that video.

Anonymous said...

Can you say "too hard on yourself"?
Sometimes these opportunities catch us by surprise or off balance and they are missed.
On a funny note- I just read something, somewhere (senior moment) where the discussion was about how bodily waste was given a bad rap and used as insulting :)
It's all about context eh? Young people especially experiment with language so they at least have some excuse. I HATE hearing that word out of an adult mouth since it is such an immature word anyway.
I even am sensitive to the use of the words stupid/idiot due to the implication of negativity towards intellectual challenges - not in a PC way but just recognition way.

Lisa said...

I did the same thing last quarter... I froze and didn't do anything. I felt like crap 30 seconds later but it was too late to do anything about it. Chin up, now we're both better prepared if it happens again (and sadly, it will happen again).

Kenneth said...

Robin Trocki! Glee does many extraordinary things. By network TV standards especially.

krlr said...

Oh I hear you on this. I have snappy lines planned in my head but (luckily!) haven't had a chance to use them yet. Different, in that I would not be in role of educator &, in my finer moments, I suppose a "teachable moment" would be more constructive... but I'll confess I might enjoy the snarky moment more. At least once.