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In my lecture, I am thinking of using a famous quote by Winston S. Churchill:

A good speech should be like a woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.

I like this quote because it clearly expresses the idea that while you should go over the important details in your speech, your speech should not be overly detailed.

However, I don't know if some of the students may feel uncomfortable if I use this quote in class.

Question: Should I play safe and avoid using this quote in class, in case some students are offended?

What I decided to do

Although the Churchill quote is quite memorable, I agree with the answer which says:

Whether you actually believe that or not, telling that joke gives students the impression that you do. That perception makes the classroom environment more unpleasant for a female student and less conducive to learning.

I will find another way to express my idea without the quote.

In response to comments

Several commenters have pointed out that:

My general advice is if you need to ask someone else if it is appropriate, you already know you will get into trouble.

That is good advice. I had a "gut feeling" that it was not a good idea to use this quote; partly I asked this question because I wanted to understand why it was not a good idea.

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    There are better quotes that make the same point, e.g. 'I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time.' – henning Dec 16 '17 at 12:51
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    @henning I don't think your quote expresses the same idea as Churchill's quote. – I Like to Code Dec 16 '17 at 12:54
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    My general advice is if you need to ask someone else if it is appropriate, you already know you will get into trouble. – Distic Dec 16 '17 at 15:10
  • It depends a lot on the country, the culture, and how you present that quote. I believe in France it could be acceptable, if given with enough historical context and oral precautions. – Basile Starynkevitch Dec 16 '17 at 15:23
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    It depends on country culture and so on. Teaching about Churchill will make it almost natural. In chemistry we and here we won't care. At least 20 years ago and where I am it was so. Now we have to write she/he.... – Alchimista Dec 17 '17 at 14:39
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Avoid, but not for that reason.

Sometimes it is a teacher's duty to do things that may offend members of their class. A biology teacher who avoids the subject of evolution for fear of offending creationists is not doing their job, and there are plenty of other examples. The problem here is not that the joke could offend; it's that it gets in the way of learning.

It treats women as eye candy rather than as thinking beings, implying that a woman's clothing should be chosen for the benefit of male onlookers rather than according to her own priorities.

Whether you actually believe that or not, telling that joke gives students the impression that you do. That perception makes the classroom environment more unpleasant for a female student and less conducive to learning.

Humour has a place in teaching. Used judiciously, it can help hold the audience's interest and keep them engaged. But for your female students, at least, this particular joke is unlikely to serve that purpose. There are plenty of other ways to say it.

  • I like this answer even better than my own. – Dawn Dec 16 '17 at 16:05
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I'm familiar with the quote and I understand that it's well-intended. But don't do it. You're asking for trouble. What passed as acceptable 70 years ago does not always fly today.

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    Perhaps the world was nicer back then ? You could walk down the street and people would smile and say "good morning etc" now all you see is people watching their smartphones... – Solar Mike Dec 16 '17 at 6:41
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    @SolarMike also xkcd.com/1601 – user25112 Dec 16 '17 at 8:24
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    @SolarMike No, I don't think so. I think it's just that objectification of women was considered more acceptable then than now. – Nicole Hamilton Dec 16 '17 at 16:55
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    @SolarMike I don't think this is about smartphones and headphones, I think it's about whether a joke objectifying women that might have been acceptable 70 years would still be considered acceptable today. An argument that courtesy is disappearing is not a good argument for repeating this quote in the context described by the OP. – Nicole Hamilton Dec 16 '17 at 17:59
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    Hi, @SolarMike. I say "hello" to all my neighbors, the bus driver, and even random people I cross on the street, and yet I would not like to be in a class/presentation and receive such kind of objectification. You are mixing things here that have nothing to do. The world was not nicer 70 years ago. For women, the world is significantly nicer now. – Anna SdTC Dec 17 '17 at 2:02
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Honestly, I don't think the woman's skirt part adds anything substantive. You can make your point perfectly well without it. "A good speech should be...long enough..." and so forth. Including the phrase makes you seem as if you do not understand the current bounds on professional discourse.

I don't feel offended, but it makes me question your judgement.

  • “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman's Odyssey What purpose does the dress serve? Although, honestly, it's remembered 70 years later, would leaving out the dress have changed that? I don't know... – jmoreno Jan 28 '18 at 1:20
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Aside from just being sexually suggestive, this quote assumes a straight male audience. That is it’s an analogy that only works if you’re “interested” in women’s legs. In this joke the woman is an object whose purpose is to visually entertain men, not a subject who maybe chose her skirt length based on the weather not based on your opinions about her legs. Find a metaphor that works for all of your students.

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Don’t do it. You only risk alienating female students, who might already feel alienated from research staff – precisely for the same reason.

Would you do it if we did a little gender-swapping exercise?

A good speech is like male genitalia; too short, and it is just uninteresting; too long, and it will hurt people.

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    You did not only swap genders though. – quid Dec 16 '17 at 16:04
  • @Azor-Ahai I don't understand your comment. I said that nabla did "not only sway genders" you say nabla swapped women's clothes to men's anatomy. Thus you confirm they did not only swap genders but also clothes for anatomy. – quid Dec 18 '17 at 17:51
  • @quid Oh, I misread your comment, i didn't see the "only," although I don't think the clothes/anatomy swap is important. – Azor Ahai Dec 18 '17 at 17:53
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    @Azor-Ahai you are free to think so, but I highly doubt that this is objectively tenable. In any case I am pretty sure that many would agree that if we'd swap genders back now in the metaphor in this answer then the result would be more inappropriate than what is in OP right now, by a considerable margin. So much so that anybody asking if it was appropriate would likely be assumed to be trolling. – quid Dec 18 '17 at 17:59
  • To be honest, I (male) would find it in my culture to be completely ok (and even funny) to bring the new quote about male genetalia. It might be a little bit steange if presented by a man, however, if he attributed the quote so someone, it would be again ok. I'm not sure if Churchill's quote would be acceptable, though. – Haudie Dec 25 '17 at 15:35
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When I worked at my college radio station, I got some good advice. I asked how do I know for sure whether a certain song I might want to play might be offensive to anyone. The answer I got is that if you feel you have to ask whether it is appropriate, then you shouldn't play it. I think that applies here. If you feel that you need to ask whether people might be offended, then maybe you should use a different quote.

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The quote would be reasonable in a few contexts - if you're teaching history, it may be used to describe the sort of person that Churchill was. In a broader context, it could be used when showing how womens role in society evolved in the 20th century. The quote itself is historical, and academic students should be mature enough not to be personally offended by history.

But that is not why you are using that quote. You're pulling the quote out of its historical context, and try to apply it today. The fact that it was said by Churchill isn't that important here, just trivia. The subject of your lecture is not history or Churchill, but (academic) writing style.

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    Exactly. The OP isn't proposing to examine this quote academically, they are suggesting endorsing it to their students "Follow Churchill's advice: ..." – Azor Ahai Dec 18 '17 at 18:14
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The intent here is to be clear and concise.

Be clear and concise in your teaching.

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I am a female student. I would not appreciate the use of this phrase in class, but if it was used in a smaller context with an established relaxed but respectful working relationship it would be fine for me. So, depends on the student!

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