February 17, 2019

The Perils of Teaching "Huck Finn"

“In the classroom, I’m more interested in setting the stage for a good discussion than I am in making points about academic freedom. Even if I thought, with the comedian Lenny Bruce, that using racial epithets mockingly deprived them of their power, I wouldn’t act on that belief in my classroom. And although Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which I teach often, includes more than 200 uses of the n-word, I don’t, even when reading aloud, use it myself. Like it or not, conditions are such that choosing to utter the word, even while reading aloud from a book that uses it, can derail discussion of anything other than that choice.

Removing the term from the text—which has been done—falsifies the novel. But there’s nothing important I can add to Twain by saying the n-word aloud. And I sympathize with students who find the word revolting—revolting words and images can be revolting even when they’re presented for a good reason. When to present them is a matter about which reasonable teachers disagree.

Another reason not to use the n-word, whatever the context, is that you might be suspended. That’s what happened to Phillip Adamo, an award-winning teacher and, until recently, the director of the Honors Program at Minnesota’s Augsburg University. He is now taking an involuntary vacation, in part because students have questioned his “teaching competence.”

According to Colleen Flaherty of InsideHigherEd, here’s what happened. During a class on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, one of Adamo’s students quoted a sentence that included the n-word. According to Adamo, “students were shocked.” So he led a discussion of whether, “in an ‘academic context,’ it was appropriate to use the word if the author had used it.” In framing the discussion, Adamo himself used the “n-word.” After a forty-minute conversation, the class agreed that “the word was too fraught to use going forward.””

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