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Four-letter words in the classroom

The College of Humanities is hosting a public forum to discuss offensive language and taboo subjects today at the Poetry Center.


""We're going to have short talks, not do scholarly presentations,"" said Fabian Alfie, an associate professor in the French and Italian department and the forum's organizer. ""We will open up to the general community and students to talk about, ‘How do you make sense of something that's offensive, offensive deliberately so?'""

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Many works taught at the UA were highly offensive at their time of publication and preserving these works is a battle teachers have been fighting a long while, said Elizabeth Zegura, a French and Italian professor.


""I think it's an important topic that touches on an author,  (François) Rabelais, who is really one of the great men of letters in all of literature. Some people believe him to be equal to Shakespeare,"" Zegura said. ""But I have enormous difficulty teaching him, he's very difficult and obscene.""


Students also find difficulty in reading these types of works.


""I've had students despise all the four-letter words in our own society who are disgusted with Rabelais because he talked so much with the bodily functions, dirty jokes — I think it's funny,"" Zegura said. ""I'm probably the last person in the world, if you knew me, to tell a dirty joke. But he was using them with a purpose.""


The overall purpose of this forum is to start conversations with the community about these works and their use in society, Alfie said.


""I think part of it … is giving and having an exchange about issues in taboos in the academy, of censorship,"" Zegura said. ""What is legitimate to talk about or not, what can be occasionally the positive effect of language that can be offensive.""


""The idea is also to find out what is the nature of human quarrels, conflict and strife which is everywhere,"" said Albrecht Classen, a German studies professor.


While the lecture will focus on literary works from the past, it is relevant to today's world as well, Alfie said.


""You see it also in more recent works, Dadaism in the '20s in Paris, the idea was they would take photographs of urinals, so what exactly is art?"" Alfie said. ""It forces you to decide what is art. They went out of their way to be offensive. Come out with something that challenges people's perceptions of it.""


These works are important to discuss because they challenge students and can't be avoided, Zegura added.


Offensive language can serve as a means for social change, as it ""jolts people out of their complacency,"" Zegura said. ""As teachers we do not necessarily have this as our mission but I think it's important to talk about it. I do not use four-letter words. I bend over backwards to try and not offend, but some of the great works of literature offend you and hit you, and it's better to do with literature than physically.""


Many different sides of the humanities will be represented at the forum.


""We do it in an interdisciplinary approach, a colleague in French, someone in classics, Italian, ancient Greek and modern rhetoric. It brings together many different people,"" Classen said. ""It brings synergies to the front.""


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