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Situation and Repertoire: Civility, Incivility, Cursing and Politeness in an Urban High School


by Stephen B. Plank, Edward L. McDill, James M. McPartland & Will J. Jordan — 2001

A certain level of civility in schools is essential to successful teaching and learning. Studies of the formal organization and informal social systems of schools, however, depict currents of hostility and confrontation between students and teachers. In order to motivate a discussion of the balance struck between civility and incivility, we present data on cursing and politeness in one urban, public high school. Survey responses from 225 seniors suggest that (a) students are more often polite than rude toward teachers, but students also curse a lot; (b) students are more polite toward teachers than among themselves, and are much more likely to curse among fellow students than in the presence of teachers; (c) students describe themselves as capable of being either polite or crude; and (d) cursing at teachers depends upon the people and situation involved. We stress that students have both politeness and cursing in their repertoires. Further, not all cursing is intended or interpreted as being malicious or threatening. Careful attention must be paid to the circumstances that trigger different student reactions and the nuances of students’ use of language. We suggest ways in which research and theories of student resistance, cultural capital, and institutionally sanctioned discourses could be further refined. Specifically, researchers should measure and model students’ locations along continua of resistance, cultural penetration, and vocabulary. Also, the causes and consequences of being situated at one point or another should be conceptualized more fully.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 3, 2001, p. 504-524
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10760, Date Accessed: 7/25/2017 8:36:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Stephen Plank
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    Stephen B. Plank is associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools and adjunct assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of Finding One’s Place (Teachers College Press, 2000).
  • Edward McDill
    Johns Hopkins University
    Edward L. McDill is professor of sociology and principal research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University. He has been studying school organizational issues for more than 35 years.
  • James McPartland
    Johns Hopkins University
    James M. McPartland is director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools and professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He directs development and evaluation of the Talent Development High School, a whole-school reform model.
  • Will Jordan
    Johns Hopkins University
    Will J. Jordan is associate director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools and assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His work includes development and evaluation of the Talent Development High School, a whole-school reform model.
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