Long-time readers may remember my Dangerous Words assignment, in which students and I read together Randall Kennedy's Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troubling Word in conjunction with our reading of Huckleberry Finn, and then students choose their own derogatory slur of a social category and investigate it, ultimately making an argument about what its usage should be in modern society.
I'm doing the assignment again this year, having taken last year off from it because the students and I never really developed the trust necessary to tackle such a challenging and potentially explosive project. This really is an assignment that requires a measure of goodwill from most participants, and there were enough kids last year who withheld that goodwill that I just didn't think it was worth the risk. But this year the balance has shifted back, and while I have a few slackers, I don't have anyone who seems to want to undermine the course. So we're going for it!
We had a very good discussion of Randall Kennedy's book; I have finally hit the sweet spot with it; the first year I taught chapter 1 and it worked well, so the second year I taught the whole book (really only three chapters), and it was too much; this year I taught chapters 1 and 3, and it was perfect.
The students have now chosen their words and spent a couple of days in the library doing research with me there to help; they will of course have hours more to do. Here's the breakdown of words for this year:
bitch -- 4 students (this word is always the big winner)
retard -- 3
faggot -- 3
whore -- 2
slut -- 2
cunt -- 2 (first time anyone has chosen this word for this project!)
chink -- 2
raghead/towelhead - 1
Shylock - 1
oreo -- 1
midget -- 1
Mormon -- 1
bastard -- 1
Jewish American Princess (J.A.P.) -- 1
nerd - 1 (not very dangerous, but an interesting etymology, as I learned the first year when a student researched it)
dumb blonde -- 1 (I'm skeptical that this is going to go well, not least because the student is a total slacker)
prude -- 1 (I expressed doubt that this term referred to a social category, but the student insisted that it did and is perhaps going to make a gender argument, so I let her go ahead with it, although I have reservations)
The leading contendors are the same as they have been the two other times I've done this assignment, so no surprises there. The smartest kid in the class (indeed, one of the smartest students I have ever taught) chose "slut," which disappointed me, but undoubtedly she'll do fabulous things with it and perhaps reinvigorate me with regards to these leading contendors.
But in the rest of the list there are some interesting surprises. One of the other smartest kids in the class chose "Shylock," and I told her that she'd have to go to the extra step of reading Merchant of Venice on her own ... and she did so last weekend! Obviously I told her I'd be happy to talk about the play, but wow, I'm so pleased to have a student who thinks, "Sure, why not read a Shakespeare play this weekend?" Fortunately, the two students who chose "cunt" are very smart and really hard workers, so I'll be interested to see what they come up with. Unfortunately the kid who chose "Mormon" is a total slacker, but I'm hoping that this research subject will have enough personal meaning for her that she'll actually be willing to burn a few calories on it. Oh, and one of my other smartest students, who is doing the word "chink," came up to me yesterday in the library to ask if I "would mind" if she used a Thomas Nast political cartoon in her analysis; um, no -- please go for it!
What I'm noticing more than ever this year (maybe just because it's been a couple of years since I did the assignment) is that many students want to limit the investigation, to shut things down and close off possibilities just as things are getting interesting. I had a frustrating (probably to both of us) conversation with one student yesterday who is working on "retarded"; she had found that people sometimes use the word to mean "drunk" (as in the Black Eyed Peas song), but she didn't want to write about that because she thought it would just confuse things and that it really was a usage that was mostly conversational and couldn't she just stick with the three definitions that were in the OED? She and I have been struggling all year, because she wants formulas and for everything to be always neat and tidy, whereas I want her to embrace the mess and let her mind roam free and make interesting connections. So this essay may be the place where she finally breaks through and lets subjects get big and interesting, or it will be yet another essay in which she gets a B- for writing something technically correct but boring and straightjacketed.
The student who is working on "bastard" is brighter and somewhat more imaginative but still always very concerned with "getting it right," and she found it in no way interesting that the word has apparently been used (at least in the past if not now) by biologists to refer to hybrid species; she wanted to leave out that information as completely irrelevant, and when I said, "Oh my gosh, are you kidding? It's so interesting! What does it tell us about the implications of 'bastard'?," she looked at me skeptically; I think it was one of those moments where students think, "Why do English teachers read so much into meaningless details?"
The other student I'm concerned about at this early stage is the one who's doing "Jewish American Princess." I've now had two conversations with her about the project, and she seems to be completely shutting down intellectually. She seems unable to wrap her head around the fact that there are multiple arguments that can be made about any word, despite our repeated discussions about this very fact with Kennedy. She also told me that her grandmother, who escaped Europe just ahead of the threat of the Holocaust, was horrified that she would be researching this term, and I asked if she thought it would be possible to do an interview with her grandmother about an older generation's experience with the word (which is a kind of research that I encourage students to do). She looked at me oddly and said, "Why would I interview her when she's going to disagree with my argument? What would be the point?" Sigh. So we talked again about casting the net widely in research, about interacting with all sorts of ideas and letting those ideas enrich one's paper, and about the way in which Kennedy had included all kinds of people's opinions and then discussed why he agreed with them or not. But she still didn't seem to get it. I finally asked her if the topic felt too personal to her and whether this was why she was trying to shut things down; is it because she thinks she herself falls into the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess? or whether she's been protected from anti-Semitism and it feels too vulnerable to look into the ugly face of prejudice? She allowed as how this might be the case and that she'd do some self-reflection as she worked on this paper. (Of course, I also found out from her advisor that she's competing for a slot in the Junior Olympics this weekend, so she's under a lot of stress, and maybe that's why she just wants the rest of her life and her academic projects to be clear and simple at the moment!)
I hadn't quite decided whether to share with the students the "dyke" essay that I wrote as a model the first year; students found it really helpful as a model the first year, but the second year they didn't seem to find it so. But I think this year's group might. And, having written above about the particular problems some students are having, I think that it might be useful for them to read the essay and then talk with me about it, so that I can tell them how much I didn't know about the word before I started doing research, how I found various sources, etc. And it's an 8-page model, as opposed to Kennedy's entire book, so I think that will help show them just how much information and thought they really can squeeze into an essay; some of them seem inclined to give the etymology and a couple of examples, and they need to see the level of research and thinking I'm expecting them to aim for. Plus, one of the things that's helpful in my essay (which I didn't intend; it just worked out this way) is seeing how to handle unclear or confusing information, in this case the etymology of "dyke." Okay, I think I just convinced myself! But I'm going to give it to them to read next weekend, after their initial bibliography is due to me; I want to see what they can come up with first, and then we'll use my model essay to talk about building on their initial efforts. (Another reason I think I've been reluctant to share it is that a history colleague asked to read it in the second year, and after he'd done so he commented to me that I'd "sucked all of the oxygen out of that word," which I wasn't sure how to respond to; I think he means that I'd included a lot of information, but of course his language choice seemed pretty negative, and it was totally one of those moments where I felt shame at being an over-achiever. But this particular colleague clearly feels threatened by me intellectually and always has, and, as a friend of mine likes to say, "When you're beautiful, people gonna hate." Plus, there is an additional bonus to the essay, in that I officially come out to students, which is not a big deal at FGS and hardly a surprise to anyone but still feels like a positive thing to do. So to hell with that colleague; I'm going to go for it.)
The change that I'm going to make this year is to give students an opportunity to share their work after they've finished their papers. This was a suggestion that my first group of students made a few years ago after the first run of this project; they really wanted to hear about what other people had come up with. I haven't quite figured out how I want to do that -- what I'd most love is to just have a couple of days of free-flowing conversation after they turn in their papers, especially because they're turning them in just a couple of days before spring break, but I'm worried that this could fall flat. Hmm, I need to think about that part of the project some more.
Anyway, some of you probably remember when I was first cooking up this assignment three years ago, and I thought you'd be interested to hear about its latest iteration!