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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Swearing in class

One of the distinctive features of the dialogue in HBO’s series Deadwood was its complexity. It’s not that common to hear dependent clauses on TV, much less dependent clauses within dependent clauses. So why was the show so popular? Why were people willing to listen to characters who talk the way Jane Austen writes? The reason was another unique feature of the show’s dialogue (one that can’t be found in Jane Austen), namely the unprecedented use of profanity.  It was as if Elizabeth Bennett had been possessed by Joe Pesci.

The point is that profanity can make complex language easier to digest.  This makes it an attractive tool in the classroom. I’m convinced that if I could swear like a Deadwood’s Al Swearengen when lecturing about the Erie doctrine, my students would remember it much better come exam time.

As it is, I limit myself to language that would be acceptable on network TV, such as “No one gives a damn about service rules when choosing whether to sue in federal or state court” or “Who’n the hell knows whether a federal rule abridges, enlarges, or modifies a substantive right?” For a while I toyed with the idea of using Battlestar Galactica’s “frak,” but decided in the end that it was over the line.

But maybe I’m over the line already...?

Posted by Michael S. Green on February 25, 2009 at 12:02 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Best story ever: My first semester 1L Property professor apparently privately bet a student that he (the student) couldn't work the "F-word" into class discussion in a way that didn't seem entirely out of place and gratuitous. The student, a classmate and friend of mine and one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, found his opportunity within days, as we were discussing the rules on lost property. After some discussion of the rules, my friend raised his hand and suggested that the discussion could be boiled down to the "F.U.C.K. doctrine; that is, Finders Usually Can Keep." Brilliant.

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Feb 26, 2009 2:42:55 PM

My First Amendment students love, love, love "Fuck Day" (i.e., the day we cover Cohen v. California). I can't blame them. I thought that day was by far the most memorable from my experience as a student in a First Amendment course in law school.

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Feb 26, 2009 12:20:50 PM

Cursing in the law school classroom seems totally normal to me -- it's not like all involved don't cuss up a storm outside of it. (Maybe it's a HLS/YLS alumni difference thing... any HLS people here have fond or traumatic memories of David Rosenberg?)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 26, 2009 5:07:19 AM

I've determined through personal use that "frak" sounds idiotic anywhere outside of that TV show.

Posted by: Jason W. | Feb 25, 2009 8:34:46 PM

I would say that the kind of language you describe is totally fine and even helpful for students. I have a professor who likes to curse (rather profanely) for shock value and to look cool and it makes it difficult for me to respect him. Ie: "Lawyers man, they're so ****ing boring! That's why they never get laid!"

Posted by: 2Lchica | Feb 25, 2009 12:34:59 PM

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