July 07, 2003


I just stumbled upon the story of John Bonnell, an English composition professor whose off-color vocabulary and unorthodox teaching methods have continually landed him in hot water with his college. I'm not going to attempt to summarize the case, but Erin O'Connor has covered it extensively in her blog, and it makes for fascinating reading.

It's impossible to know whether or which of the allegations of bizarre classroom behavior are accurate, or excusable as strange but justified pedagogical technique, or even as mere eccentricity. As O'Connor says, it boils down to "he said, she said." And the college does not appear to have conducted anything like a serious inquiry into the Swearing Professor's competence or effectiveness as a teacher of English composition, which seems to be the main legitimate issue here. The other legitimate issue is that it is reasonable for an employer to expect appropriate behavior from employees; but that angle is only cursorily touched on in the stuff I've read about the case. Rather, the real complaint centers on the alleged harm suffered by students subjected to hearing vulgarity in the classroom.

Maybe the guy is so off his rocker or is such a nasty man that he can't teach properly; maybe not. Maybe his behavior and vocabulary is bad enough to damage the academic reputation of the college. I don't hold with this "hostile environment" malarkey, though. There may be the odd student whose whole world comes crashing down every time she hears the professor utter a naughty word, but they have to be pretty rare, and the professor is hardly to blame for them. The Swearing Professor's malign rhetoric, it is claimed, has such power as to cause "adverse reactions" like recurring nightmares for some of his more delicate victims. His potty mouth reportedly threw one student into such a state that "she bit her hand hard enough to draw blood." Sounds like the student may have had a few other problems than logophobia. (In another strange twist, the teacher isn't actually accused of causing the hand injury, or even of sparking such self-mutilation-inducing trauma, but rather of telling this story as an anecdote to one of his classes-- which he doesn't deny. No one seems to think it relevant to raise the issue of whether it really happened. Read all about it: it's pretty weird stuff.)

My suggestion, as a start: read this letter to the accused from Provost Rose B. Bellanca; then read Bonnell's response. Then ask yourself who seems the better equipped to decide what constitutes appropriate and effective means of instructing students in English composition.

As a rule, I try to keep my own language "clean" in most of my writing and everyday life, for aesthetic reasons; but that doesn't mean I want to destroy everyone with a different aesthetic. Even if possible, it would be way too time-consuming. Plus, a lot of these Swearing People can be pretty interesting and fun. I've known a fair few of them in my day (a Swearing Plumber, a Swearing Gym Teacher, a Swearing Lawyer, a Swearing Hillbilly, a Swearing Guitar Tech, several Swearing Girlfriends, a Swearing Landscape Architect, a Swearing Librarian, a Swearing Hot Dog Stand Guy, even a Swearing Priest.) In fact, despite being "verbally raped" practically every day of my life, I've managed to avoid the recurring nightmares and the urge to injure myself. Maybe I'm just unusually resilient. Oh, I'm tough, all right. Like seasoned leather and hardened steel.

Everyone has a "swearing professor" type in their past, an eccentric, off-beat or politically incorrect teacher, who, they will assure you, was the best teacher they ever had. (Of course, your Swearing Professor probably also had a Humorless Administrator yapping at his heels, a Dean Higgins type - that's a special part of the Swearing Professor's legend.)

Mine was Alan Renoir, who taught Old and Middle English literature at UC Berkeley. Swearing wasn't his schtick, but much class time was devoted to enthralling, not quite "germane", stories about his life, his war experiences, his denunciations of modernity, his politically incorrect jokes, his interest in classic cars, his crazy theories about this and that, all a bit tongue-in-cheek you thought, but sometimes you wondered. Somehow, by the end, you had read and understood (and enjoyed) Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon. It's weird. I don't know how it happened. (One example I'll never forget was when he broke off in the middle of reciting a stressed alliterative line in his booming, French/Germanic/American/English-accented Reciting Voice, and introduced an anecdote about his experiences in the Pacific in WWII by saying "you know, I once killed a guy who..." Kind of woke you up. Another: "Dante, as everybody knows, was a rather boring wop..." Another favorite: the little speeches about how he would "dearly, dearly, oh gods, dearly love to be a sex object! Isn't that right?" Plus a lot of other witty, bizarre, charming, unforgettable and often extremely politically incorrect digressions. Nobody ever skipped or slept through his classes. And this is Beowulf, remember.) I don't know how he got away with all the political incorrectness in such a thought-police environment, but he did, probably because he was so loved, and such a splendid teacher and human. And yes: he was the best teacher I ever had. Of course he was.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 7, 2003 03:57 PM | TrackBack

Frank, I remember your telling me about Alan Renoir years ago, but I remember the "you know, I once killed a guy who . . ." line as "you know, one time I was killing this guy who . . ." I may be remembering your story incorrectly, but something about my version is even funnier and more perverse than yours.

Posted by: Aaron at July 7, 2003 04:49 PM

He told that particular story more than once, as I remember, probably in slightly different forms. Your version sounds more "French." The point, if I recall correctly, was to illustrate a particular passage of Beowulf which describes a look in the eyes of a warrior who realizes he is about to die. I could find the specific reference if I could dig out my old copy of the edition he used, as I'm sure I made a note of it. It escapes me now, I'm afraid.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at July 7, 2003 05:27 PM

I know this is a tangent, but I looked at Erin's "blog" (Iím new to this site and pretty confused still as to what a blog even is), and she mentioned "The Language Police". I'm reading that book right now too. The examples of textbook censorship in that book are insane. I laugh at them, but i really shouldn't.
So far, my favorite examples are attempts to eradicate any mention of Mt. Rushmore from the classroom. The reason is it may offend descendants of South Dakota Native Americans who don't approve of defacing (or facing?) nature. Also removing any mention of mice or rats from testing, so the kids won't get scared and not be able to perform. Even Mickey Mouse and Mighty Mouse!

Posted by: Michael Lee at July 7, 2003 06:33 PM

I don't think the "textbook police" stuff is really as bad as many examples make it seem. I have 4 kids in elementary school, and I have never seen anything as silly as what I hear in the news. Of course, I live in Arizona, and we are usually behind the times, so maybe it hasn't hit here yet. Even if they do show all the doctors in textbooks as being female, so what? Kids see in real life that many doctors are male.

Posted by: kristine at July 8, 2003 08:01 AM

Hehe...your prof sounds like a real Geat. Zing!

But seriously, I just feel sorry for Rose whatsit who has to deal with all this shit.

I once had a TA ding me for using 'facially' instead of "prima facie"...as though latinate pretentiousness were a requirement of good usage...this dude's prose reminds of that...god help the students who learn to write from him.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 8, 2003 04:49 PM

I agree. God help the students who learn to write sentences like this:

"Perhaps you will also think better of freighting other terms with subjective onus"

I think what we have here is someone disappearing up his subjective anus.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller at July 9, 2003 04:53 PM

It truly is inspiring to see a man in the likeness of Socrates. No, not in the wisdom that he possesses, but in the conviction. Socrates was held by such a conviction for what he believed in that he was willing to die for it. Perhaps Mr. Bonnell is not willing to literally die for his convictions; however, he "will not go quietly into that good night". Furthermore, in response to the administration, I as a more mature, non-traditional student, (oh yeah, and a woman, a mother in fact!) do not need to be "protected" from Mr. Bonnell and his language. Thank you John, for not treating me as a child as the administration is attempting to!

Posted by: a.c.bryant at September 9, 2003 10:30 PM


Posted by: a fly on the wall at April 8, 2004 03:56 PM
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