"American Tongues" revisited

Bethany K. Dumas dumasb at UTKUX.UTCC.UTK.EDU
Thu Sep 11 01:17:49 UTC 2003

As some of you may recall, I routinely show the original, uncut 56-minute
version of "American Tongues" in most of my university classes. I have
never shown (or even seen) the shorter, expurgated versions.

There has been discussion here from time to time suggesting that it is
inappropriate to show the full version because of its inclusion of
offensive uses of the n-word and the f-word. I have continued to show that
version - partly because I consider that my job is to teach about what
people actually think and say, not what they should think and say.

But, I have considered the other point of view, and this semester I
decided to try something new. I showed the film in an undergraduate
linguistics class last week. As usual, I warned the whole class about
various offensive scenes, including those depicting <hillbillies>. But I
also talked privately with the African-American students in the class
ahead of time and told then that I wanted to do something I had not done
before, that I wanted to ask their permission to show the film in class.
Their reaction was very interesting. They could hardly believe that a
professor was actually asking students for permission to do something.
They all gave me permission and told me that they very much wanted to see
the film. I showed the film and distributed the unofficial handout that
Dennis Preston I put together some years ago.

That was last week. Then on Tuesday of this week, students began their
brief oral reports telling us who they are as users of language. Two AA
students gave reports. I noticed that one of them used the label
European-American several times as a synonym for <white person> or
<whitey>. Clearly, she paid attention to both the video and the handout.

My assessment at this point is that it was quite beneficial to show the
video, to warn the students, and to talk privately with the AA students.
All the reports were full, lively, candid. I think the showing of AT
under these circumstances really freed up some students to talk about
attitudes and embarrassing moments, etc.

If you are not familiar with the uncut version, I recommend that you see
it. It is not appropriate for all audiences, but I think it can be very
effective as a teaching device in many university classrooms.

We also showed the film to all new TAs in the English Dep't this year -
and we will have a follow-up session on dialect diversity in the
classroom. New TAs do not teach courses independently their first year, so
we will have that session before they go into classrooms alone.


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