Digging, and the Mutable Life of Pronouns

Thursday 5 September 2013

Seamus Heaney is dead. A good friend, who knows Heaney’s poetry well, texted me with the sad news. He wrote, ‘best poet of our generation’. One of the aims of the Language and Literature course is to ‘promote in students an enjoyment of, and lifelong interest in, language and literature’. Seamus gave us much to enjoy. I write this on the day following Mr. Heaney’s funeral. The great and the good attended. Quite right.

This week, then, the Language and Literature website publishes a Written Task based around Heaney’s well-known poem ‘Digging’. It seems an appropriate way to remember Seamus Heaney and his work.

Changing direction a wee bit, I was, just the other day, listening to a news bulletin on Swedish Radio. The topic of discussion was Bradley Manning. Almost certainly, you’ll know who I mean. His recent prison sentence wasn’t the main focus of the discussion. Rather, the issue was Bradley’s sex change from man to woman, and his preference to be referred to as ‘Chelsea’, rather than ‘Bradley’, and that the female pronoun be applied accordingly. Swedish Radio, true to form, and following the guidelines of the Associated Press, did just this. And so I wondered: would all media outlets do the same? After all, as a number of lesson ideas on this website suggest, naming really matters. So, in pursuit of knowledge, and putting on hold the meal I was cooking, I began an Internet quest. The results, of course, were not surprising, but fascinating nonetheless. Students in the Language and Literature classroom could also do this kind of search and, in so doing, further their awareness of language in social context.

Since I am unlikely to return to the subject of sex changes any time soon, let me conclude on an amusing anecdote, but one with a not entirely tenuous relationship to schools: Recently, the radio show ‘This American Life’ celebrated its 500th production, and played some of its best bits to celebrate the achievement. In one vignette, a radio journalist interviews a woman who is in the midst of changing sex to a man. The man relates how, fuelled by testosterone, he has become more 'sexually attentive'. Not surprising, one may say. Concluding, the journalist asks his interlocutor if there have been other perceptible changes. ‘Yes’, says the man, ‘I have become much more interested in science’. 


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