Class discussions at Wesleyan—especially in the social sciences and the humanities—can deal with sensitive issues. As a place of learning, colleges must encourage students to engage with contentious subjects or risk students unknowingly reproducing problematic behaviors or attitudes. Though people may disagree on what constitutes the scope of problematic behaviors or attitudes, avoiding potentially offensive subjects allows students to be ignorant or complacent in relation to them. But sensitive course material requires sensitive language. I’ve repeatedly heard two words that, in particular, must be considered carefully: “interesting” and “powerful.”
“Interesting” may simply mean “engaging” but too often trivializes topics. This can be a serious problem when the subject is oppression. In one of my first classes at Wesleyan, a student described redlining (the legal method of valuing Black neighborhoods far lower than white ones) as “interesting.” Racism at any level is disgusting, and people need to understand various policy implications to enable deconstruction of racist institutions. Saying these are “interesting” risks reducing these oppressive forces to any other mundane interest like chess or reading.
This language is even worse in the context of the diversity of Wesleyan’s community. For those on campus who face oppression, a peer calling that oppression “interesting” can come off as insulting. I’ve participated in a theater class in which several students used the dreaded i-word about descriptions of rape. Regardless of what they meant by saying this, their comments felt insensitive. Such casual language as “interesting” cannot be appropriately ascribed to a violent act, and it turns the people who suffered that violence, including two students in the class that are rape survivors, into objects of study.
Arts students are quick to use other meaningless words like “powerful.” In classes about non-white and queer performance, people frequently throw around “powerful” as a euphemism to describe seeing marginalized bodies on stage. Representation can be inspiring for its symbolism; people who are not white men have historically been erased from art culture. However, “powerful” is so plentiful in class discussions that the word loses all purpose.
“Powerful” is insufficient to describe art because it is too general. After watching a dance in a class about Black performance, half the class used the word to describe it. One student stopped the class and asked, “Are we calling it ‘powerful’ just because there are Black bodies in the space performing?” Most art seeks to evoke a feeling or a message in an effective manner, making a lot of art powerful. But saying so doesn’t share any insight to the class discussion. Describing something as “powerful” is less generative than exploring why art is effective or asking why particular bodies in art are compelling.
A final travesty of these words is that they mean nothing and contribute nothing. Both “powerful” and “interesting” are vague and have many synonyms that are more specific. When a student employs these words in class, everyone already knows that the material in question is engaging, rendering those comments a waste of time and limiting the time devoted to more thoughtful conversation about the piece’s specific impact or message.
What can halt the barrage of useless language in class? First, professors can require students to avoid using certain words, which some on campus already do. This class setup forces students to use different language to describe what they mean, which brings me to the second solution.
People should use more detailed or specific words. “Powerful” and “interesting” aren’t necessarily terrible words, but people often cut off their comments after employing these words. More detailed explanations in class can avoid this problem. Sometimes, however, people cut themselves off this way because they didn’t have anything to say in the first place.
Finally, professors can stop grading students on participation. There have been class discussions in which I contributed when I would have rather kept quiet. Is this the reason for the plague of meaningless words? Saying material is “powerful” fulfills the professor’s participation requirement while saying something truthful when students have nothing else to say. Doing away with participation requirements—especially in upper-level courses—allows people to stay respectfully quiet and add to the discussion when they have something to say. This can push otherwise surface-level class conversations into deeper analytical areas.
The Wesleyan community regularly engages with offensive issues. One can find this in the classroom, but also in the organized, disruptive student protests. Watching student activists interrupt college tours, it can seem like Wesleyan students don’t just preoccupy themselves with potentially sensitive topics but also take passionate stands on these issues. Critical inquiry into systems of oppression is necessary to change the world in better ways, but the language we use to describe that oppression is important too. Using meaningless words in class simply isn’t interesting.
Connor Aberle is a member of the class of 2019. Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.