My parents spent about a tenth of my father’s annual income to send me to a Jesuit prep school. In one of my first English courses, the young Jesuit who was teaching the course was trying to explain to us the difference between an image, a metaphor, and a symbol. At some point, he used the term “phallic,” and as soon as my note-taking caught up with his voice, my hand shot up. When I asked what “phallic” meant, I had no idea that he would find the question at all amusing or that most of my classmates would already know the meaning of the word and suspect that I had somehow jimmied up my score on the entrance exam.
My father worked in a sprawling munitions plant that produced artillery shells, and in the very blue-collar neighborhood in which I was growing up, I had learned many slang words for the male genitalia. But “phallus” was not one of those terms. In fact, using a word like “phallus” on the streets of my neighborhood would have almost certainly been an invitation to a swift kick in the groin.
Depending on the type of institution at which you teach, you are almost certainly going to have at least a few students, and perhaps many students, who are going to have no idea what certain, relatively basic terms mean. Worse, there is almost no way of predicting which terms such students might or might not understand. So, I won’t pretend that I have any recommendations on how to address this broader, very complex issue.
But if “phallic” is a term that you have occasion to use in a literature course or some other course in the humanities or social sciences, I have found what may be a perfect illustration of the term—an illustration that will very likely strike much more of a chord with your students than a photo of the Sears Tower or some obelisk.
This photo was taken at the rehearsals for Miley Cyrus’s upcoming Bangerz tour:
The following observation may indicate little more than how old I have become, but every time I see a photo of Miley Cyrus performing or come across one of her performances on a television show, I feel as if I have just stumbled across not child pornography, but certainly pornography featuring an under-aged girl: that is, I feel, viscerally, that I ought to be arrested.