Monday, March 19, 2012

Professor Motherbleeper

The setting for this blog posting is a neighboring university where, in my retirement from medical practice, I am auditing classes.  Names, places and scenes have occasionally been fictionalized.  This piece is dedicated to my classmates who have unwittingly provided most of the material for this essay.  They treat me well though more than a few seem to think I just might be a senior undercover agent for the drug and alcohol bureau.
My professor was droning on about a political figure prominent during the Civil War, and I felt myself slipping into what promised to be a satisfying nap.  But as the shades were just about to be closed down around me, I bolted up in my seat hearing my teacher say, "and he was a motherbleeper."  I quickly scanned the lecture hall and discovered, to my amazement, that his word selection seemed to have gone unnoticed by everyone but me.
I attended college in the early 1960s where we freely used the expression everywhere on campus with the exception of the library and the classroom.  The faculty never deployed the word in the classroom, or we imagined, anywhere else.  If they did, especially in front of students, they almost certainly would have been censured, or worse, by the Dean, because motherbleeper did not mix well with veritas and similarly high-minded words commonly carved into the facade of university libraries across the country.
Upon reflection, I felt that the professor had conveyed, with clarity, just what kind of guy this politician was.  The meaning of the expression was unambiguous, a linguistic victory.  While a teacher and practitioner of bleeping words might be asked to tone it down by their Dean (who would snitch other than someone like me?), my lecturer's word choice is arguably covered by principles of academic freedom and even freedom of expression as guaranteed in the first amendment.
But if racy language has gained a seat in the classroom, then it should be called upon judiciously, a light garnish rather than the main course.  
One might intuit whether or not a word is obscene by its purpose.  If it is meant to injure or diminish someone then it is probably obscene and should remain locked up. Motherbleeper did not injure the long dead politiican, but did paint him as a rather unsavory character.  Mission accomplished.
Altogether, the motherbleeper episode reminded me of just how much the college experience has changed since my graduation in 1965.  Salty language is just one element.
For one thing, students seem to talk to each other as little as possible so as not to interfere with text messaging and other social media chores, such as making sure that everyone of your nearly fifteen hundred facebook friends (of whom they personally know, say, two hundred) hear about the new shoe polish you discovered that decreases scuffing by at least twenty percent.
Walk into the typical university building and you will likely find lines of students, waiting for their next classes to begin, silent, with necks flexed, eyes locked on tiny screens, thumbs galloping, gathering information on movies, celebrity news and shopping tips.  During lectures some students continue text messaging with their smartphones strategically placed below the table, again with the neck in a tell-tale flexed (bent forward) position, feigning headaches, exhaustion or perhaps a spiritual awakening. 
It is this flexion of the neck which worries most as, who knows, it might just lead to a permanent flexion in adulthood, opening the possibility that  today's college students will lose the capacity to see far, even when standing on the shoulder of giants.
While conversation is increasingly rare so is visual contact.  Mired in  tiny smartphone screens, students seem not to see one another.  While this  ironically provides relief for many women who resent  being objectified by up and down staring, it is curious that young men seem uninterested in looking at, or innocently flirting with, young women.  Why is this?  Could it be that students of both sexes have such easy sexual access to each other, that the mystery and magic of sexuality becomes hobbled and looking is subverted by texting?
On another front, there is a growing sense that more and more people are developing romantic and sexual ties to their computers and social media devices, rife with pornography, well suited for people with many time constraints, who favor efficiency over intimacy, and prefer, as it were, to fly solo.
So college life has indeed changed greatly in the past half-century, as have  our cultural norms, charged and fueled by a ubiquitous technological revolution in which the internet and social media define our times. These changes make colleges more fascinating places to be in than ever.  The challenge for today's college students is to find ways to stay connected, both digitally and personally.  
Either or falls woefully short of the mark.