My juniors are finishing up Huckleberry Finn, which is the Big Book of our American lit course and which is always a challenging experience, what with its 213 uses of what we circumspectly call the N-word. FGS is predominantly white (albeit with a significant international student body), so I am usually teaching this novel to classes that have only one black student, which means that I'm always in vigilance mode to keep a surreptitious eye on how she's doing while also making sure that she's not singled out. It's fairly exhausting for me, and probably for the students as well.
I always address the issue of Twain's language in the novel, but this year I decided to tackle it even more head on. About halfway through the novel, we took a week's break from it to read chapter 1 of Randall Kennedy's Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. We had great conversations about it, although it took the students some work to recognize that Kennedy's argument is NOT, as they immediately suppose, that no one ever should use the word "nigger," nor is it that the word is appropriate within the African American community but that white people should never use it; he argues rather that the word's appropriateness or lack thereof is entirely contextual -- who is speaking, to whom, for what purpose. I also photocopied for the students the couple of pages from later in the book in which Kennedy argues forcefully that Twain's use of the word in Huckleberry Finn is clearly for anti-racist purposes. The students were very interested in the historical anecdotes about people who were trying to eradicate, to reclaim, and to eviscerate the word, as well as those using the word in racist ways. Kennedy also includes lists of other offensive slurs, most of which were unknown to the kids. I've got pretty sheltered students, and I think it was an eye-opening read for them.
So, once we had three days' worth of conversation about Kennedy's chapter, I gave them their next essay assignment, a research project: They each chose a "dangerous word" that is used to describe a group of people based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or other category. They could choose a word describing a group that they belonged to or not, their choice. They now have to do the same kind of research that Kennedy does (albeit on a smaller scale): looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and in dictionaries of slang, investigating usage history, reading about the history of the group to find more specific information about the origins and historical uses of the word, finding controversies about the word in popular media, interviewing people to find out about understandings of the word among people in different categories (generational, racial, etc.). They ultimately have to make an argument, a la Kennedy, about what they think the appropriate use of the words should be: Is this a word that is no longer really offensive? Or at least under some circumstances is it a fine word, and if so, what are those circumstances? Is it so offensive that it should never, ever be used? Can it be reclaimed by the community in question? etc.
This assignment requires them to build up their research skills and to think about hard but interesting questions of the social and linguistic elements of language. I fully anticipate that some of their papers will be pretty bad, but I well remember from my undergrad days that every time I pushed my thinking to a new level, the resulting paper was disastrous; as students think in new ways, their writing tends to regress, and none of them has ever been asked to do anything quite like this. (I haven't quite decided how to take that into account in grading: maybe most of the grade is about their research and thinking, with the actual writing in the essay taking a distinct backseat for grading purposes?)
I have to say that I'm really proud of this assignment and have been excited about it since I started crafting it over winter break. I should also add that I got my department chair's and my head of school's permission before launching both the reading and the research assignments! It's possible that there will be an unhappy parent or two out there, and I wanted to make sure everyone was on board. Both of them gave me the go-ahead; we're all trusting in the maturity of FGS juniors to take this assignment seriously.
Also, when I gave the assignment, I stressed to students that they needed to think very carefully about the word they chose, since they'd have to live with it for the next 7 weeks or so (including 2 weeks of spring break in which they're probably not working on it, but it's still lurking there in the back of their minds); if a word was going to be too painful, I said, maybe they wanted to choose a different word that wouldn't make them anxious. This advice perhaps contributed to the relative innocuousness of a couple of their words, but I think it was important that I protect myself and let them protect themselves.
So, here's the list and the numbers of students who chose each:
bitch (5) -- no surprise that this is the big favorite
retard (4) -- very timely
Guido (2) -- apparently I now have to watch an episode of Jersey Shore to be up on this word
Chink/Ching Chong (2) -- I didn't know the phrase "Ching Chong"; I'm already learning stuff!
Oriental (1) -- so interesting, but I'm afraid the student working on this won't pull it off well
fob/F.O.B./fresh off the boat (1)
banana (1) -- the Asian version of "oreo"
prick (1) -- this student seems reluctant to think about penises, so I'm afraid she'll run into difficulties!
twat (1) -- a British student is doing this, and the national differences could be interesting, but I'm afraid she'll do a pretty bad job of it
nerd (1) -- I'm not convinced this qualifies as "dangerous," but perhaps I'll be proven wrong
ditz (1) -- ditto on the not dangerous, although there are interesting gender associations
hon (1) -- as in, short for "honey"; this I don't really get as a dangerous word, but my students swear that their generation uses it in demeaning ways, that's it's a word associated with condescension; we shall see
So after spring break I've got an interesting month or so while students work on these! I anticipate no end of frustrations as the students face new challenges, but I hope that, for some of them at least, those challenges are also exciting, that it's maybe opening up the world of inquiry in some new ways.
Moreover, I think I'm going to do one of those pedagogically sound things that I never actually do, which is to write a paper alongside my students. Normally I find such enterprises good in theory but not the best use of my time, particularly since I've already thought about the issues and texts that I'm asking them to write about, but in this case I've never actually done exactly the kind of inquiry I'm assigning them, and I also think that they might benefit from a model of sorts. (Kennedy's work is also a model, but of course he wrote an entire book! Maybe a 5-7-page paper would be a good model for them.) So I think I'll tackle the word "dyke," since none of the students chose it.
Isn't this interesting and exciting?!