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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Behind Closed Doors: Linguistic Reclamation

Warning: This post includes some highly offensive words.

If you walked into any of my classes over the past week, you would have been confronted by these words on the markerboard:

Yes, faces (mostly mine) were red in my class, and both students and I struggled to speak some of these words aloud. But eventually, the most offensive of these (the “n-word” and the “c-word”) are uttered, tentatively, as if we are waiting for some powerful hand of retribution to reach out with a bar of soap and apply it to our mouths or whack us across our faces. But no hand strikes us, no soap is applied, and no one tells us to stop (of course, we have shut the door to the classroom) and the air as well as the marker board fills with all of these words – and students grapple with meaning, context, connation, and the political, individual, communal power which lies hidden in the wavering strokes of pen that place these words on a page, and in the soft though sometimes stern lips that speak these words, letting them loose to float or fly or crash into our sensibilities.

Although we've done some reading, examining the words nigger and bitch, students are still uncomfortable with this brainstorm activity. And so am I.
Although I've taught this unit before, I've never quite taught it this way - throwing words on the board. But my students are strangely reassured by my discomfort; it eases their own.

Before we began our brainstorm of words, I had shut the classroom door. I don’t need these words floating out of context into the hallway. We talk about how we can say these words because we are not using them against any one; rather we are delving into these words as intellectual inquiry. I stress this point over and over again.

We have a purpose. Students will pick one of these words, used oppressively by an out-group (a dominant culture) to manipulate and control an in-group (a target group), and argue whether or not the word should be reclaimed by the in-group. The question is: Should this word be reclaimed?

It’s not so simple. Linguistic reclamation is a political act and not every one in a particular in-group agrees over such reclamation. And even when they do, they don’t always agree on the goal of that reclamation.

We walk through a difficult, scholarly journal article entitled, A Queer Revolution: Reconceptulaizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation. At first, students look like deers, caught in the headlights. The article, a hard read, explores three different perspectives of linguistic reclamation, and discusses the goals of reclamation. The abstract alone contains words and phrases my students are unsure of: pejorative epithet, appropriation, binary debate of support and opposition, inseparable and separable pejoration.

But they are game. They rise to this challenge and we sort through strategies to help them negotiate this scholarly article. Although the writer speaks in terms of theory and in essence, political action, she provides specific examples of how words shift in meaning through reclamation, the pros and cons of each perspective, and a solid discussion of the goals of reclamation. Students are fascinated – and, once we’ve worked through the reading strategies, walked through and gained an understanding of the text structure, and later, discussed the concepts presented in the article, they are pumped that they have dissected a read they thought was far above them.

Later, when I read their free-writes assessing the week’s work, I see one student writes, “I’m excited about this new essay assignment – this is really interesting stuff. Why didn’t we do this first? I never thought of those words being political. But it’s also really weird. I’m glad the door’s shut all week.”

We'll keep the door shut for a bit longer.


Blogger infinitesimal said...


i gots the chills from this in a warm way.

lookin forward to those questions.
will answer asap
will you send them to me?

your pressie should arrive priority tomorrow

October 30, 2006 10:19 PM  
Blogger disguised said...

The door is shut, but yet it's opening. As Sommers and Saltz say in "Novice as Expert, that the students are in the threshhold of entering the academic community. By shutting the door, you are allowing entrance. I admire you, Bird, for your bravery and for your ability to guide students through and to a greater understanding.

October 30, 2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger lettuce said...

this was so interesting. Good for you, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

I've been thinking about words recently. Discussing Mary Daly with students - reclaiming witch and hag etc. And also because my daughter told me to fuck off last week!!! They are just words, after all. But of course, they are not just words at all.

Yes, we do the changing clocks malarkey - I didn't know you in the USA did! The justification here is lighter mornings, supposedly less traffic accidents. But Scotland don't change clocks and I think the evidence is dubious at the very least. I'm usually glad of the change this end of the year - not so much losing the hour in February/march.

October 30, 2006 11:53 PM  
Blogger Blue said...

I enjoyed the article, its very thought provoking. Thank you.

October 31, 2006 12:28 AM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

I had to deal with Hemingway's use of the "N" word this week in my Am Lit Honors class. I think that giving them a context of the time in which it was written was essential. Good that they see how fucked up American morals/values were in the 1920's when it came to civil rights.

October 31, 2006 4:33 AM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Aw, Birdy, Birdy, aw, chile'...doan go here. Youse Humpty Dumpty, huh? Remember in the Lewis Carroll Classic?
Humpty said:
"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

See, honey, language is fer speakin' the truth. Ain't suppose ter use it fer trickin' folks.

There are a lot of Humpty Dumptys runnin' loose outa theah... turning words topsy turvey and thus the moral order upside down. They re-name some vice and call it "freedom" and they use "reproductive services" when they mean infanticide. Why darlin' jes' a few months back one of them big barns of a bookstore shelved a book on suicide under "Self-Improvement."

Reclamation huh? Too Orwellian fer Aunty.

So-called "Reclamation" is a politicial act of violence, Birdy. Looky, ain't ruffled mah feathers on this, but close. You ain't using words ter bring clairty, but to obfuscate.

So I could jes' try it this-a-way: teach them kiddies how "choice" was once a realiable word, but now it means a cover thrown over a really sad decision that we doan wanna say out loud.

or...uh, lets see... "mercy" used to be a good word too, since it meant real care, not a platitude mumbled afore I killed off an inconvenient relative.

Now Lettuce, honey, doan even think on Mary Daly--positiively certifiable. A diseased mind, no kiddin'...as in filled with dis- ease, she could never git settled in her mind, roamin' and roamin' all over Boston until utter rage consumes her. Flee.

Sorry Bird, Beauty, but fer shure I'se not on board wif' this titlatin' style of pedagogy. Ain't about hand slappin...though a good dose of tabasco fer ya tongue ain't a bad idea...but the main thang is sweet pet, words count and to steal or twist or bend they meaning is lil' else than deliberate falsehood.

October 31, 2006 2:59 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Still squirmin' Bird...mayhap youse had one dose too much of Alinsky?

October 31, 2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

Yes indeed, words count, words matter. But meaning is not fixed and words change. We change them through usage.

The essay assignment for these students is to determine if words that have been used negatively, oppressively against a targeted group should be reclaimed - used by that targeted group and toward what end? neutralization? value reversal? or revolution?

I don't tell students what to think, merely ask them to think and support their thinking. The unit also makes students more aware of how language is used and manipulated.

And let's look at some of those words -

mercy. if i were terry schiavo, i'd be rejoicing in heaven that finally, someone had mercy on me and let me go.

and choice - still means choice. i firmly believe that women should make their own reproductive decisions, in consultation with their doctors. that is not infanticide.

let's look at liberal. the christian conservative right has taken that word and turned it into a negative. i am proud to be a liberal. some would have us believe that to be a liberal is to be a traitor. what poppcock is that.

AB, you've done your own bit of reclamation and appropriation already.

ThursdayNext: you might want your students to look at A Question of Language, by Gloria Naylor, which looks at the use of "nigger" by an African-American family in the late 50s, early 60s. Used by the family, it is not always a racist term. She discusses as well internalized racism in her piece - it's pretty interesting.

October 31, 2006 4:30 PM  
Blogger Peaches said...

I found your whiteboard very confronting. Then upon reading your article I was soo impressed. I think to defuse but not to consent to such language is vital to the growth of tolerance, understanding and empowerment.
I love the way you write...I wonder now how I would 'go' in your classroom..my instinctual thing would have been to walk out...but that has been a learned response by all the bigots I have encountered so I could 'take a stand' but not make a fuss.

This is meaty stuff and thank you!!

October 31, 2006 9:17 PM  
Blogger Mrs. B said...

I am so excited that you are doing this type of thing, yet I am so depressed that I can not. Later, when I have a few years under my belt (so that they will be less likely to send me packing), and when I am not teaching at such a strange school, I will be stealing this lesson. Thank you so much for your inspiration.

November 01, 2006 8:28 AM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Bird Beuaty....I hear's ya' on Schiavo...but is that the limit if yore exploration of a very serious matter?

Take a look at this Sports Illustrated story:

November 01, 2006 12:01 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

My purpose in this post is not to discuss the extraordinarily complicated issues revolving around euthansia and the rights of those who are disabled, though i have touched upon that issue once before in more detail - i don't intend to do so now.

but having said that, i 'll note that the video is an emotional response, and an edited one - an intentional one - photos and motion maniulated to create an emotional response - though a response to what and for what purpose i am not sure. but i don't see the video as furthering a full discussion of issues surruounding the terry schiavo case.

and as i said, that's not what this post is truly about. this post was about sharing what my students are looking into: the reclamation by a targeted group of a word that has been used against them by the dominant culture in an derogatory and oppressive manner, what that reclamation might mean, and a judgement on whether or not there should be a reclamation.

November 01, 2006 2:41 PM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

boyed i think it is the way far left that bastardized the meaning of liberal. just as the far right bastardized conservative. some words i wont use because no matter my intention the recepient may have another frame of reference. some cuss words we can all agree are some common they are empty, but others are so loaded the use of them defines the user in a negative light.

i agree with aunty that so much has happened in recent history with regard to euphenisms for dark action. i think it is a good idea to examine language and its power with your students.

i recall a calvin and hobbes cartoon where calving calls susie a stupid butt head. and in the next frame she says "sticks and stone can break my bones but words will never hurt me" and in the final frame she drops a tear.


November 01, 2006 3:31 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

i agree about the concept of euphemisms - though i think we might both disagree and agree about what a dark action is...i think "collateral damage" "smart bomb" - are euphemisms used to hide what we're really doing, to dilute the force of what we're doing, to prevent us from really seeing what's going on. but sometimes the use of an euphemism is just courtesy or politeness. "she's passed wind" as opposed to "she farted." hahaha!

amen to the liberal and conservative. both words have been spun into extraordinary poles. am i right dog in thinking that you have a streak of conservatism in you? but it's not the negative brand of conservatism that so many libs rail against today. i can deal with your conservatism, as i think you can deal with my liberalism. neither of us are the "spun" versions.

i am powerfully attracted to the idea that some words, which cannot be stripped of their negativity, SHOULD be reclaimed by the target group - the negativity is then exploited and used to confront the oppressing group - to challenge their thinking and assumptions. but i see that as a difficult and dangerous path. it's an in-your-face political action - and part of me loves that - but such an action has the potentiial to do as much harm as good. i am not sure if the good outweighs the harm.

i am working on an essay of my own, as my students work on theirs. i think they are digging this unit so much because i am so into it - i don't have the answers and want to explore - i want to figure out what i think about this relamation stuff. i'm hoping students will help me sort it through. it's a collaboration - and that's what i like the most about teaching.

November 01, 2006 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 01, 2006 7:25 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

Bird, I always knew you had class. There is no pun in that statement.

It takes great courage to confront the demons of the world. I will look at the reclamation article very shortly.

I had a sociology professor tell me one time that in many spheres there are no extremes in a line. There is only a circular continuum. Ultra-liberals, and ultrs-conservatives need only turn around and face themselves in the mirror.

Keep up your good works. btw, it would be interesting to know the demographics of your class.

I always love it when students suddenly wake up to their potential and the knowledge that they already have.

It is all choice and consequence. Confronting the demons to expose them for the charlatans they are is always good work in my book

Flap on bird.

November 02, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Bird, now sugar, the disabled is DEFINNATELY a targeted group--why does ya' object iffin' they do a bit of yore style reclamation?

Shur the "edited" SI video is emotional--dang it all, Bird, being disabled is emotionally wrenching. Cain't thaink youse akshully in favor of an unemotional clinical untilitarian tube pullin' "mercy-killin'".

Youse doan intend to make this discussion--ok, I gits that--trouble is, that is precisely what "reclamation" is about--restoring a truth to the twisted interpretations of the words--this disabled topic is jes' one example of yore principle. Is "reclamation" only fer the privileged class?

November 02, 2006 1:43 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

linguisitic reclamation serves a variety of purposes and goals, and in general, by definition, is not done by the "privileged class." by defintion, linguistic reclamation is a political, societal, and personal action that an oppressed group undertakes.

you're talking about something different AB - you're not talking about linguistic reclamation - you're talking about whether or not we should provide or allow for euthansia in our society.

November 02, 2006 4:41 PM  
Blogger infinitesimal said...

Is Retard on there?

Retard and Fag are insults that are not really alluding to mental disability or homosexuality anymore.

I think they belong on your board...

I think Fucktard is a great insult.

Tell them, the VBitch says:

"GodBlessit" instead of the alternative. It comes out just as effectively.

Just stopped by to say hello...

November 02, 2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger boneman said...

Had not considered the "recamation" as being any sort of priority.
Am familiar with how Lenny Bruce got into a trifle jam with the court system on his use of what were considered unusable words....the point he quite enjoyed making was that none in the actual court would use the words on record, but that off record, he was called out for the use of them.

Ah, what can I add to this, eh?
If you want serious attention brought to a point in a painting, hen contrast is called for.
All the contrast in the world given to accentuate a point.
I suppose one could do the same thing in literature.
If I wanted to bring all the attention to one sentence, it would be quite easy to say that the cunt made me fuckin' do it! She gave me no choice!
"NO CHOICE!" he screamed. His breath coming quicker now that the adrenilin was flowing, "Damn it! She had the evidence, and if I HADN'T done it...."
And he fell into his chair as if all life had lefdt him. He held his head in his hands and sobbed, his back heaving from the greif flowing from him, now.
"I just couldn't fucking help it..." and with that, he arose slowly from thechair, sniffed back the snot in his sinuses, straightened his tie a bit, and walked out without even closing the door.
We never heard from him again.

November 03, 2006 3:48 PM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

grrrr! did you fly away to thailand or something? where you is?


November 06, 2006 2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...






November 08, 2006 11:50 AM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

boyed? congratulations on the sea change. i look forward to the utopian society. ranging on......


November 08, 2006 5:04 PM  
Blogger savagefredd said...

Goddamn, I love this unit.
This might be the most clever, intellectually stimulating, challenging (in so many ways) unit I've seen. LOVE IT.
Though why the redness--the hot flashes of shame. Fucking A--Language

November 20, 2006 6:45 PM  
Blogger savagefredd said...

Goddamn, I love this unit.
This might be the most clever, intellectually stimulating, challenging (in so many ways) unit I've seen. LOVE IT.
Though why the redness--the hot flashes of shame. Fucking A--Language

November 20, 2006 6:45 PM  
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