Teaching, Sensitivity, and Literature: When Objectives Clash

I read with great interest Joni's post on the controversy surrounding the "sanitized" Huckleberry Finn, partly because Mark and I had just gotten through having an hour long discussion about it over dinner, and partly because there's some interesting debate going on amongst my friends in the UH rhetoric and creative writing programs. Most of us take the stance Joni has taken, that changing the n word and the i word (Injun to Indian, really?) amounts to censorship and is at worst whitewashing history, and at best nonsensical. But there are some who see the problem as going deeper than this, deeper than the controversy around this one novel. For some of us, this misguided attempt to alter a classic really centers around another elephant in the room--the state of our U.S. education.

As a teacher, I know what it's like to walk a fine line when dealing with controversial texts, or texts that have drawn new controversies as times have changed. This semester in my American Drama class, for instance, I switched out two plays because the previous time I taught the course, the plays drew such negative reactions. I've switched them out for two different plays which accomplish the same objective and are equally controversial, but which I hope will not cause students to run in groups crying (literally) to my office and telling me about their sexual assault experiences. I'm trying to meet these students where they are and challenge them--without traumatizing them.

And yet as a writer, I squirm at what I just wrote. Because great literature often cuts. Great literature is often intended to cut. And several smart studies of Twain have shown that he most likely did intend the novel to provoke debate and controversy. And as Shelley Fisher Fishkin writes, "racism is ugly. The history and legacies of American racism are our nation’s own peculiar brand of ugly -- and the n-word embodies it." But, as Fisher Fishkin continues to say, it's not the n-word itself that's so much the problem; it's the racism that persists in America that is. And as much as we hate to admit it, that racism often extends to the very teachers who are assigning and leading discussions of the novel.

Unfortunately, there are too many teachers who aren't savvy or experienced enough to handle this novel in the classroom. I saw this first hand when I taught for Writers in the Schools. Some of the teachers would use the n-word themselves when they thought no one was looking. How can you expect a teacher like that to "get" what her students are feeling? How can you expect her to explain social context and irony and all of the other myriad issues that accompany the text? And yes, we could argue that a teacher like that shouldn't be teaching, but I think you'd be surprised at how deeply and pervasive this attitude is. And even well-meaning teachers often go overboard in talking social context, giving what Paul Butler calls "tortured explanations" for the n-word's use.

So where does that leave us? Personally, I'd like to see the novel taught, but not to as young a child as it often is. I think the novel needs to be introduced during late middle school or even high school, and to students with enough literacy to understand and grapple with concepts like irony and sarcasm. And yes, it should be left as it is, but handled with care and coupled with a good deal of historical context. In fact, the history lessons should come first, rather than getting into the novel and then bringing up the history as if it's an apology. We also need to consider the social context of our classrooms and our society now, realizing that a white teacher in an inner city with an all black class is going to have a very different experience using the text (and perhaps any text) than a white teacher in an all white Catholic private school. The race of the teacher matters. The race of the students matters. It shouldn't, but it does. We can escape our own context no more than we can escape Twain's.

And I'd also like to see parents discussing these issues with their children more, but the sad reality is that that's also an ideal. How many parents are really going to take the time to sit down and read with their children, let alone open the discussion up to an issue such as this one? How many are equipped to? Ultimately it's not the fault of the text, but of our society and our own inability to handle these issues--inside and outside of the classroom.

If you're interested in further reading, by the way, there have been some great case studies done on the history of teaching Huckleberry Finn and how different demographics have responded. And for teachers, there are some interesting books on how to work with Twain in the classroom, and specifically how to negotiate the conversation.

Satire or Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn
Black, White and Huckleberry Finn: Reimagining the American Dream
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Case Studies in Critical Controversy
Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom

Online articles:
Does One Word Change Huckleberry Finn: Room for Debate (features perspectives from a number of authors, including Francine Prose and Jane Smiley)
Huckleberry loses the N-Word (just to offer a different perspective)


Jeanna Thornton said…
Kath, your perspective is fresh and flawless. I agree with you that much of Twain should be taught to older audiences and to sensor a classic would wrong. Young professionals such as yourself are making an impact..keep it going!
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks for this, Dr. KatPat, especially the excellent resources at the bottom of the post.

I'm curious to know which plays you switched out...
I switched out M. Butterfly for The Laramie Project and How I Learned to Drive for The Vagina Monologues. Part of that's because now that the campus HAS a production of The VM, I think it's only natural to discuss the play, and part of it's because How I Learned to Drive actually upset ME and made me have flashbacks of my own sexual abuse experience, so I was on the fence in assigning it in the first place. It's such a fantastic play, but I think if people aren't at a certain place in their healing, it can be damaging. It's a tough call, and will likely lead to another post, as it deals with the writing I'm doing now. There's just a fine line between challenging people intellectually and doing something that could really scar them emotionally. Some would say the emotional scars are necessary as well, but my rule of thumb is that if enough students are upset, time to use another play that deals with the same issues, but maybe in a way that they can better handle it.

I'm taking a big chance with The Laramie Project. In some ways it's a more controversial choice, especially for the conservative UHCL community (which really couldn't handle the cross-dressing aspects and ambiguous sexual encounters of M. Butterfly) but it's also very appropo right now. I'm hoping in this case that rather than see gay people as freaks who spy on people (which is how they saw M. Butterfly, because they missed a lot of the irony), they'll identify with the horror of being bullied and picked on. But it's a very heavy play, so I'm going to follow it up with Proof, which is lighter. I'm also going to begin the class this time the first DAY by saying that the students need to skim through or at least glance at all the plays, and consider whether or not they can emotionally handle them. I'm going to encourage them to allow themselves to be stretched, and remind them that they do not have to agree with the views of the authors. But wow, American Drama is full of such DEATH and tragedy and sexual dysfunction--it's a bit hard to do the class without venturing into at least some of that.

Wish me luck. Ironically, if this class were at the prison, they'd dig it. Don't know what THAT says about our "intellectual" community!
Joy said…
Kathryn, I so have to agree with you on your perspective. I think that educators and parents have to walk a fine line and be incredibly selective when when chosing choosing controversial literature for an assignment. Personally, as a writer, I feel that altering another person's work without their consent and still giving them their full byline is as intellectually dishonest as plagarism. But having abridged and unabridged versions of literature is very commonplace...In that sense, I'm kind of torn on the issue in that I can see both sides of it. Studying classic and controversial literture HAS a place. But, for example, in the case of Huck Finn...just because something is about middle schoolers doesn't mean that the work is FOR middle schoolers--That would be like saying The Simpsons is a children's comedy (!). But at the same time, it's been my experience that a lot of school censorship is being done because of an outcry from involved (or semi-involved) parents. I think that your decision to change out which plays you use for your class is the best model for handling literature that some/many find offensive: you did not chose to alter the work because it was traumatic; you exercised the option to teach something else. Personally, I think THAT is the most appropriate way to deal with this issue. Thanks again for challenging us!

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