Brow Beat

Academia’s P.C. Brigade Has Started Policing the F-Word. That’s Taking It Too Effing Far.

Artist’s depiction of the PC brigade, when someone says a bad word.

Summer intersession has traditionally been a time for university professors to sequester themselves and focus on research, with only their highly unrealistic writing goals to keep them company. Not this year! Instead, Summer 2015 has been the Season of the Hand-Wring about the scourge of second-wave political correctness on campus.

It all began with L’affaire Kipnis, whose first shots were fired when Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis published a cri de coeur about her academic freedom to schtupp as many graduate students as she pleased. In the wake of the Kipnis non-scandal, there was a rash of overwrought testimonials, such as “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” and its answer, “I Was A Liberal Adjunct Professor. My Students Didn’t Scare Me At All.” I Was an Education Journalist, and This Subject Made Me Want to Gouge Out My Own Eyes So as to Stop Having to Read About It.

Honestly, I didn’t see what the big deal was. I’ll slap a “trigger warning” on some German poetry if that makes the students happy (TW: Contains sexual violence and dactylic hexameter!). No problem. But then, they came for my swear words, and I could be silent no more.

This month, Louisiana State University fired—outright fired—a tenured professor of education, Teresa Buchanan, ostensibly for creating a “hostile work environment” via sexual harassment. Her infraction? Allowing profanities to pass from her tenured lips, and unleashing a single ill-advised bon mot about sexual intercourse.

I have long thought decrying “political correctness” was a politically-correct way of saying I wish to be unimpeded in my racism and sexism, and it infuriates me when this isn’t the case. Now I’m not so sure. I still believe it’s okay to gently warn students about, say, graphic violence or sexual assault (TW: The play The Infanticide by Heinrich Leopold Wagner contains scenes of an infanticide). I still believe that the only place in the classroom for -isms and -phobias is under the critical lens of study.

But swear words as a terminable offense? You have got to be fucking kidding.

It would be one thing if Buchanan had woven said profanity into a slur. But she didn’t. She said “Fuck no,” something I have also done in class on numerous occasions, to only mild titters. She used the word pussy to denote cowardice, something I have also done in class, albeit in reference to Faust, who 100 percent is one. She also made an off-color joke to students, that their partners might become less supportive as the sexual intensity of their relationships waned (an offense that deserves a talking-to).

For all this, after an 11-hour hearing, a committee of Buchanan’s peers concluded that she be officially censured (which is not the same as “censored,” except in this case it is), and never use “potentially offensive language” in the classroom again. But the LSU administration found that already-Draconian punishment insufficient. Buchanan actually got fired. Please inure your sensitive dispositions to my French, but this is re-goddamned-diculous.

It might have been different if Buchanan told a student under her supervision to fuck off, or get fucked, or go fuck yourself. But she didn’t. Fuck, marquee curse that it is, does no abject harm without an object pronoun. To utter fuck before no is a victimless crime. Are you seriously telling me that the delicate, virgin ears of Louisiana State University should never have to hear the word fuck, a word they have surely already heard numerous times in their rarefied little lives?

What is going to happen when these fragile beings, who probably saw their first pornographic image on the Internet when their ages were still in the single digits, enter the workforce? What if they want to work in finance? Entertainment? Media? Sailing? Literally anything? I would love to be a proverbial fly on the wall of the Goldman Sachs HR office, as some wet-eared little pipsqueak complains about his boss’s foul language.

College students of America: You are entitled to an environment free of prejudice, where your disabilities and learning differences are respected and accommodated. You are entitled to a classroom free of abusive language and slurs. And you are entitled to your trigger warnings. But garden-variety four-letter words do not fall into any of those categories. They fall into the category of adult language, and as individuals older than 18 years, you are adults. So please, students and administrators, for everyone’s sake, stop being such—well, you know.

Update, July 2, 2015: LSU has issued the following statement:

Recent news reports about the termination of one of LSU’s professors have not been entirely factual. Teresa Buchanan was not terminated due to isolated incidents. LSU has documented evidence of a history of inappropriate behavior that included verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment of our students.

LSU has been concerned about this matter for quite some time, and after complaints from students and educational providers, we took the appropriate steps, including removing her from the classroom since December 2013. In addition to LSU’s own findings, a review by her faculty peers found that Dr. Buchanan violated policies regarding student harassment.

Dr. Buchanan created a consistently hostile and abusive environment in the classroom. Additionally, she was asked not to return to more than one elementary school in the Baton Rouge area within the last three years because of her inappropriate behavior. Based upon this consistent pattern of hostile and abusive behavior that negatively impacted LSU students, we believed it was necessary to terminate her employment. 

LSU does not normally comment on matters that involve potential litigation, but we believe it’s important to state the facts in order to correct some misperceptions regarding this issue. This case is not about the rights of tenured professors or academic freedom, as some of the press have reported. LSU had an obligation to take action on this matter. We take our responsibility to protect students from abusive behavior very seriously, and we will vigorously defend our students’ rights to a harassment-free educational environment.

As Jezebel points out, Buchanan has also responded to LSU’s statement:

LSU just issued a horrible statement saying I verbally abused, harassed, and intimidated students. Which isn’t true. LSU’s “evidence” consisted of anonymous student evaluations and statements taken out of context. Some people don’t like me. I was tough and I had very high expectations of my students and low tolerance of poor teaching. That doesn’t change the fact that i was good at my job (which did not include “be popular and sweet.”) It also doesn’t change these facts: 1) I was given no due process; no opportunity to remediate and no counseling; 2) I had 19 years of satisfactory job performance ratings; 3) LSU did not follow their own policies; 4) I was given teaching awards during that same timeframe and recommended for promotion immediately before this happened.