The new school year has started, and I have compiled for myself a list of things not to do while teaching.
My list comes from actual and fictional events.
First, do not refer to students who never come to class as spooks. This was a mistake made by Professor Silk in the novel The Human Stain. Silk did not know that the two missing students were black. Spook is a derogatory term for blacks, as well as a term for ghosts. The result: Silk was attacked as racist and ruined.
Second, do not call on a student in class by saying something like: “What do you think, Mr Chinaman?” A law professor at George Washington University recently did that, and it caused an uproar. The professor later apologised, saying that he is not a native English speaker and did not know the term “Chinaman” was offensive. Result: Unknown at present.
Third, do not tell students that they are a bunch of disease vectors and that their efforts in the class don’t matter because grades are predetermined. A professor at Ferris State University said that in recorded introductory remarks to students. He certainly gave the students a good story to tell. Result: The professor was promptly suspended.
Fourth, do not say “Heil Hitler” in class, even as a joke. A high school math teacher in Manhattan was describing an obtuse angle when, to his surprise, he found himself making a gesture like the Hitler salute. Did he just go on with class? No. He went for a laugh and spoke the words “Heil Hitler.” No one laughed, and he ended up fired after decades of working at the school.
This real incident may have been the inspiration for an event in the fictional Netflix series The Chair, which is about a university department chairperson. A professor makes the Nazi salute in class while talking about something unrelated to supporting Nazism. A storm erupts on campus, with students accusing the professor of being a Nazi. Student complaints lead to a university trial of the professor. Ultimate result: Unclear at the end of Season 1.
Are there lessons in these stories that extend beyond teaching? Sure.
Here is my main conclusion: Be careful with what you say and do at work or you may get cancelled; humour and dramatic actions can be risky.