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Is it okay for professors to swear at students?

Source: Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Earlier this month, a video of a professor cursing a student during a class discussion about sexual harassment was shared online. In the 35-second video, Howard Finklestein of Brookdale Community College, New Jersey is seen asking the student, “Did you really take the time to think about how that might impact [inaudible]?”

When the student, one Christopher Lyle, asked whether the professor would like a real-life example, Finklestein replied, while pounding his hand on the table:

“No, I’m asking you. F*** your life.”

Lyle, who identifies as politically conservative, said he had insisted during the Sociology 105, Intercultural Communication class that both men and women can be sexually harassed. He claims his conservative viewpoints have been previously been consistently dismissed and disrespected by Finklestein.

“I am being discriminated against at my school because of my beliefs,” 23-year-old Lyle said to NJ. “It’s a shame.”

The college has since described Finklestein’s conduct as “uncivil” and apologised to Lyle. It is still investigating the incident.

Conservatives are viewing the incident as another example of the lack of tolerance for viewpoints contrary to the liberal bias in US universities. The “liberal left” is supposedly “indoctrinating” American students and endangering their right to free speech. Data, however, shows that more than half (56 percent) of 18- to 34-year-olds support the right of the racist to give a speech, versus 60 percent of the overall population. College graduates were also found to be most likely to want to allow racist and anti-American speech.

Another debate triggered by the video is around the issue of professors or lecturers swearing in class. Can the use of swear words be employed by professors to drive home a point? Or are they just so unsavoury that they should never be uttered by a professor regardless of context?

Speaking to Inside Higher EdJohn K Wilson, an academic freedom expert said good professors sometimes “say provocative things, or even pound a table, as a teaching technique to get the attention of students” for example.

Wilson, an editor for Academe Blog, added that saying “fuck” in the classroom “is not unprofessional or deserving of punishment”. Contradicting students directly is “not inherently unprofessional” either.

“If the full context of Finkelstein’s comments in this class reveal that he behaved badly — and taught the class badly — then he deserves criticism for it. But we should not be so quick to jump to conclusions from 34 seconds of video taken out of context.”

Similarly, Susan Carlson, associate provost at Iowa State University said in 2004 that swearing might be appropriate in some instances.

“There are situations where you might be using some kind of profanity to make a point,” Carlson said. Others tout its use to make the professor look more human as well as to make students feel more relaxed and able to “find their own voice” in class.

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