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Pop Quiz: Classroom decorum!

A circle of fifths.

Image credit: Red Rooster, retouched by Just plain Bill.

I’ve always been pretty lucky with regard to student behaviour, not only because I teach at the university level but because I’ve been able to cultivate a kind of ‘stage persona’ that students generally take seriously and rarely challenge or undermine (a benefit, as my my female colleagues’ very different experiences often demonstrate, of male privilege). But while students almost never say anything disrespectful or outrageous to me personally (outside of course reviews, natch), every so often there will be a moment when even good old unflappable Professor Dan is stunned into silence.

Let me set the stage:

It’s a pretty normal Tuesday morning in my basic musicianship class, a group of one hundred non-music students who have signed up to learn the basics of notation and theory. I have recently taught them about the circle of fifths, the different key signatures, and the order in which sharps and flats are added to the staff. In reviewing this order (BEADGCF for successive flats) I ask if any students have come up with helpful mnemonic devices to remember the order. This is usually a fun little exercise, as students often come up with amusing, memorable, or just plain bizarre phrases in order to incorporate all the letters.

So one student raises his hand and says, “It’s a bit dirty, but once you hear it I guarantee you’ll never forget it.” Now, I hesitate for a moment when I hear this, but then again in my music history classes I find myself graphically explaining the sexual innuendo of madrigal texts, so why not? We’re all adults here. “Fine,” I say.

“Bitches eat a dick; gangstas cum first.”

Well. I can’t say I was expecting that. After taking a second or two to regain my bearings–and noting the shocked and nervous laughter of some of the students in the room–I reply with something along the lines of, “You know, there really is a line when it comes to what is acceptable in a classroom,” and quickly move on to the next topic. While it may have been better to unpack, if only briefly, why the phrase was more than just “dirty” and why that makes it unacceptable, I admit I was a bit too off-balance at the time to do much more than move on.

He was right though, I’ll never be able to forget it.

How would you have responded in my shoes? What shocking things have students said in your classes? Where is the balance between taking a teachable moment and getting derailed?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

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