Monday, January 10, 2011

Huck Finn, Post Two: Beyond Bowdlerization

I know, I know. A few days ago with great fanfare (ha!) I launched a series of posts about teacher, I mean teaching quality, and that series is, indeed, simmering on the stove. However, before the moment passed, I wanted to do a post or two on the whole Huck Finn firestorm. For those of you who aren't familiar, a professor of English from Auburn University recently decided to publish a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the K-12 classroom that would substitute all the "nigger" words with "slave."

My first reaction was to say "that is sooo ridiculous." Granted, I hadn't read anything about it or spent any time thinking about it, nor do I know much about Huck Finn or Mark Twain; I didn't think I needed to. Once I started reading more, though, I realized that just saying "that's ridiculous" was simplistic of me, that it's a complex topic.

Colorlines had a thoughtful post about it, supported by some good links. (Um, math) teacher and blogger Jose Vilson has some interesting things to say on the topic, i.e., so this is what we're going to do to counter racism?!?! I also recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog on the topic here (by guest blogger Jamelle Bouie) and here.

I also read The New York Times "Room for Debate" segment on the issue. At "Room for Debate" only a few people are selected to give their insights, and unlike Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog, it doesn't take me as long to slog through the hundreds of comments normally posted in response to a post. I did have a hard time, though, being lectured by some of the NYT commentators on the literary travesty of not keeping the word "nigger" in the text while they themselves employed the "n-word" version of the word. They and other commentators can hardly urge classroom teachers and students to dig deep and find their comfort zone with the word "nigger" as it is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when they hardly seem able to refer to it themselves.

There is, honestly, also something that rubs me the wrong way about firestorms such as these. I had a somewhat similar response during the Louis Gates Jr. arrest incident (see ironically, The New York Times, "Room for Debate" on this for perspectives that convinced me of the incident's complexity). It's not that I'm a proponent of teaching Huck Finn devoid of the word "nigger" or that I think what happened with Gates wasn't outrageous, or that we shouldn't have public conversations about such events. Rather, it seems like they provide the impetus for well meaning and "enlightened" citizens, writers, pundits, and literature enthusiasts (yes, in essence, me) to scream, that's ridiculous!, denounce racism, racial profiling, white washing, and censorship, and announce their unwavering support for teachable moments and acceptance of our white supremacist, slave-holding past. All of this clamor is (sincerely) well and good, but even better would be to expand the conversation, to take a step beyond the default setting of outrage, to roll up our sleeves and get into the muck of the causes of the disease--righteously condemning its symptoms is a no-brainer, and it's not enough. As Ta-Nehisi Coates characteristically said regarding the NAACP's response to the secessionist brouhaha in South Carolina, "At some point, there has to be something more than 'You're wrong.'"

So while I agree with the sentiments expressed by Bouie, TNC, and the diverse array of viewpoints at "Room for Debate," besides the few teachers who spoke up in the TNC comments' section, I wanted to hear from more K-12 English teachers and K-12 students on the topic, especially from those who are actually teaching and receiving the work. With that in mind, I asked my father-in-law, Joe Riener, who has spent four to six classes per year for nearly fifteen years on Huck Finn while teaching high school English at Wilson Senior High School in DCPS, to write a guest blog post here. (Also, after I wrote this, I came across this forum for student input in The New York Times.)

Joe's take is similar to some of the English professors' at "Room for Debate." I value his opinion because I liked and learned from what he has to say, but also because he is actually doing the work of teaching high school students Huck Finn. That being said, I still think it's important to think beyond ideals and theories, and to seriously consider the practicalities of teaching either version of Huck Finn, and all of the depth, analysis, discussion, and learning that should go along with it. This is particularly true in the context of the currently popular education reformers and Obama administration's emphasis on tenure reform and accountability.

I'm all in favor of removing teachers who are refusing to do their jobs, but tenure is meant to help protect teachers from unfounded dismissal, based, for example, on curricular choices, politics, race, or ethnicity. The teaching of Huck Finn has long been problematic, causing its censorship in schools. Tenure could protect a teacher from consequences to her career when she, for example, takes on the worthwhile project of teaching Huck Finn in all its complexities. Furthermore, I'm afraid this attack on the idea of this version of Huck Finn is missing the big picture. In the face of ceaseless, out-of-proportion emphasis on accountability via standardized tests and the inevitable math and reading skills drills that accompany them, the entire study of liberal arts including literature, art, music, history, science and humanities is being corroded. Bye bye, in depth and interdisciplinary coverage and discussion of Huck Finn. Bye bye, rich and meaningful curriculum. Hello, knowing who wrote the book, in what year, what it's main idea is, and how to identify those correct answers on the multiple choice standardized test. Hello, anti-intellectualism.

So, yes, by all means, let's preserve and teach Huck Finn as is, but let's consider the pressures that cause educators to request the "white washed" version in the first place. And let's confront the possibility that soon the likes of Huck Finn and its historical and cultural context won't be taught at all, especially not by Joe Riener, who refused to put on an "IMPACT" lesson. His feedback on thousands of student essays was not deemed relevant to his evaluation. His time and energy spent on mentoring the student newspaper, the drama players, and his nuanced teaching of Huck Finn, other texts, and of the writing process to a diverse group of students landed him towards the bottom of IMPACT's scale, and for this he received a letter that stated,
"You have been rated 'ineffective' under IMPACT. As a result, your position as a Teacher, English with the DCPS is terminated." 
He has become one of the hundreds of teachers Michelle Rhee brags about firing.

You want teachers like Joe Riener who will take hold of teachable moments and teach a rich and challenging curriculum? Then stop blaming them for our society's failures and start supporting them. You want Huck Finn in schools? Then as you fight to keep a crucial word from being purged from its text, fight against the purging of those teachers who are experienced, skilled, and bold enough to teach it. Now.

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