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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Hilton Obenzinger <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 17 Feb 2003 14:00:37 -0800
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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Dear Dennis,

I didn't say high school students were not capable, but that many high
school teachers are not prepared to teach the novel.  Many are, and
increasingly, particularly after the work of Jocelyn Chadwick, the teaching
of the novel is changing, and this is encouraging.  I draw this conclusion
from speaking with students at Stanford and SF State about their
experiences of the novel in high school.  Most Stanford students come
either from excellent high schools, such as Lowell, or take the advanced
courses in an otherwise typical high school, and many of them come with
excellent experiences with the book and excited to read it again and go
further.  However, even with that sample, I have come across many students
who, reading HF in high school, did not have discussions about the nature
of slavery, about the use of the word nigger, or about other social
dynamics (such as the status of Pap and Huck).  Many get warmed-over TS
Eliot, talk about the symbolism of the river, and other insights, which,
while valuable and valid, leave the explosive and exciting quality of the
book to drift on its own, and sometimes I have been told of incidents in
which Black students have been targeted or in other ways victimized.  When
I taught as visiting faculty at SF State, the reports of incidences of the
negative teaching of the book were more pronounced -- I suspect because
most SF State students do not have the experience of exceptional high
schools or classrooms that Stanford students do.  Also, while many high
school curricula have presented broader literary experiences involving
slavery and race -- such as reading Douglass along with HF -- for many
students HF is the only book they read that engage with these issues.  Of
course, my assessment is based on a limited sample, and others can add
their experiences.  Nor does this mean that there aren't problems in the
way the novel is taught in colleges.  Also, Dennis, you might describe the
ways you teach the novel, how it works in the curriculum, and your
experiences to add to the discussion.

Hilton Obenzinger
Stanford University