Knowing that I am an instructor, and a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, a good friend sent me the previous video.
My reactions varied. I was amused at some of the language choices, taking issue at the humor the juxtaposition between African-American vernacular (AAV) and high art, and then intrigued as to how we can use videos such as this one in the classroom.
This video is, at the very least, worth a chuckle. I usually find that such videos are. Furthermore, it has some merit. As a summary of The Hobbit, it leaves out a few key elements that is later discusses, such as Bilbo rescuing the dwarves from the spiders in Mirkwood, but it does a good job for a short video. The analysis at the end, while not deep, does point out two of the major themes in the book.
Of course, there is something problematic with this video. Its humor relies on a “fish out of water” juxtaposition between African-American vernacular of the video’s speaker and the academic content within the video. This is further emphasized by the man’s urban dress and bookish surroundings. The humor of the video implies that those that use this vernacular are out of place with these environments, but also that it is out of place with the thoughts the language is expressing. It perpetuates the stereotype that AAV English is somehow a lesser form of English and those that use it are incapable of such thoughts.
Of course, there is also what literary theorists would call “subversion/containment” at play in this video. In typical subversion containment, an attempt to subvert a stereotype incidentally confirms it. The movie The Help is a good example of this. While, one the surface, it is about a group of black women gaining agency and authority over their own lives, they are only able to gain agency and authority with the aid of a white woman. The title ends up asking who the “help” really is. It’s white people.
While this video seems to support this stereotype, it actually subverts its own support. The humor is still based on its “fish out of water” environment, but while it is a fish out of water, I hope viewers do not get caught up in the humor so much that they lose the fact that the person in the video is doing a quality summary and basic literary criticism on The Hobbit while using AAV English.
Part of this stereotype, and this humor, stems from the academy itself. Typically, the university has strictly enforced the language its students write in. We are familiar with the typical conventions: no 1st person, don’t use “you”, no passive voice, don’t end a sentence in a preposition… the list could go on for several pages. Some of these rules, like “avoid clichés” are useful. However, the majority are esoteric and many are unnecessary entirely.
This is where videos such as this one can be useful in the classroom. On the one hand, it demonstrates the need for such language. There needs to be a common ground through which scholars and community and understand each other. That’s frustrating, but at least it isn’t Latin anymore.
On the other hand, it also shows that academic level thinking is not constrained to academic language. This level of thinking happens in casual conversation, in blog posts, on online forums, and in coffee shops around the world. Such knowledge helps to demystify the language surrounding academic genres and empowers students to boldly put their own thoughts down on paper, rather than chaining themselves to the language and ideas of others.