Cursing in the Classroom: Professor Ousted for Swearing

Cursing in the Classroom: Professor Ousted for Swearing
In a Hawaii community college philosophy course, a professor used profanity to get students' attention and inspire independent thought, but the efforts may have backfired.

Philosophy courses are designed to make students think, challenge their beliefs and help them arrive at theories and dogmas that will support them throughout life. One professor in Hawaii uses a rather colorful means of jumpstarting the process in his philosophy courses at Hawaii Community College. He throws a few expletives into his first few lectures to get students to sit up and take notice – and think for themselves. However, his out-of-the-box teaching style may have lost him his job.

About the Professor

According to a report at Inside Higher Ed, Daniel Petersen has been teaching philosophy courses at Hawaii Community College and the University of Hawaii at Hilo for 21 years. He begins his classes with the phrase, "Shit happens," to introduce the idea of free will and determinism. Petersen says his approach grabs the student's attention in the first few moments of the class and tunes them into the subject matter so they engage more readily.

"I do what I do to wake students up," Petersen told the Star-Advertiser. "It makes them stand up and take notice. I know many of them are very religious. It makes them sit up and think a bit. But I've never sworn at a student." Petersen emphasizes that he has never directed his profanity directly at a student but has used a smattering of four-letter words in the context of his lectures for this precise purpose.

This video offers some ethical standards in the classroom.

The Complaint

Petersen's approach apparently offended at least one student last year. This student shared her concerns with her father, Timothy Jahraus, who wrote a letter of complaint to the school. In the letter, Jahraus told the college that her daughter dropped the course due to the teacher's lecture style. He added that the college should have concerns of its own about this professor.

"Instructors, people in an authority position, with influence and power over their students, have no right to use profanity in the classroom. It demonstrates a paucity of verbal ability and a total lack of respect for the students he instructs," Jahraus wrote in his letter.

The Response

The community college responded to the letter by asking Petersen to stop swearing in class. They provided the professor with a copy of the complaint letter, which he promptly posted on the classroom website for the rest of the class to see. According to Petersen, the original posting was done at the request of students, and the college has since removed it from the website.

Petersen also refused to change his teaching style, including eliminating profanity from his lectures. A series of debates between the professor and the college ensued, resulting in Petersen resigning his post with the complaint that he could no longer effectively teach with the college's ultimatums on him. Because Petersen resigned before the end of the semester, there is now a question over whether papers that have been turned in to him will be released so students can receive their final grades in the course.

Petersen has promised to finish grading the papers and said that he will either turn the papers over to the students directly or to his lawyer for distribution back to the college. Students fear that the dispute between Petersen and Hawaii Community College will result in them receiving "incompletes" in the class, but the college assures the students that they are doing everything possible to prevent this from happening.

This video from Harvard University covers the basics of teaching at the college level.

Petersen's Support

Not all the students at Hawaii Community College disagree with Petersen's teaching style. In an op-ed in the campus newspaper Ke Kalaheo, students said the college "should not have ducked, turned tail, and run – they should have stood their ground and supported veteran lecturer Dan Petersen." The piece says that Petersen should be reinstated and that the "rainy season is going to continue all the way through May" without Petersen at the front of his classroom.

Petersen also argues that he has done nothing wrong and that the college's action against him violated his academic freedom. He asserts that his teaching style the day the letter of complaint was written against him was the same style he had used throughout his college teaching career.

"How could it have been right for 21 years and then wrong?" Petersen asks Inside Higher Ed. He reemphasized the fact that he never swears at students and that there is an intentional purpose for adding words to his lectures. He also said that he plans to sue the college for violating his free speech rights and told the Star-Sentinel the university system is "trying to squash me and silence me. I believe in my heart I have done nothing wrong and that they have violated my civil rights."

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