Too Taboo for Class?

Professor is suspended for using the N-word in class. He was discussing language in a James Baldwin essay. Given the slur's potential to throw learning off course, is it ever worth using in the classroom -- if it ever was?

February 1, 2019
 

Augsburg University in Minnesota suspended a professor for using the N-word during a class discussion about a James Baldwin book in which the word appeared -- and for sharing essays on the history of the word with students who complained to him about it.

The case concerns academic freedom watchdogs on campus and off. The professor is just one of several to recently be sanctioned -- unofficially by students or officially by administrations -- for using the N-word in class. So one might also ask if there is ever reason to use a word so loaded.

Even now, Phillip Adamo (at right), the suspended professor of history and medieval studies at Augsburg, answers yes.

“I see a distinction between use and mention,” Adamo said Thursday. “To use the word, to inflict pain or harm, is unacceptable. To mention the word, in a discussion of how the word is used, is necessary for honest discourse.”

What Happened

In an honors seminar called the Scholar Citizen, Adamo introduced Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. In Adamo’s retelling, a student in the class quoted this sentence from early in the book: “You can really only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a n-----.” (Baldwin uses the full word, as did the student in class.) Students were shocked, Adamo said, and he asked whether, in an academic context, quoting from an author’s work, "it was appropriate to use the word if the author had used it.” In so doing, he used the word, not the euphemism.

Class discussion lasted about 40 minutes, he said, and ended in consensus that the word was too fraught to use going forward.

A similar discussion happened in a section of the course later in the day, Adamo said. After class, he sent all students a short email with links to two essays that he said pertained to the day’s talk. The first, by Andre Perry, David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, says to “choose to only use the N-word judiciously, reminding ourselves of its gravity by not using it loosely.” The second essay, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, formerly of The Atlantic, appeared in The New York Times in 2013, and has what Adamo called a “provocative title” -- “In Defense of a Loaded Word." But it concludes that “N----- the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.”

Adamo said some students told him that they interpreted the email as “forcing” his opinion on them. Then, he said, several nonenrolled students attended the next class session, saying they were there to observe, as leaders within the honors program. Students in the class then asked Adamo to leave to discuss the situation. Adamo suggested there was work to do, but he eventually agreed to step outside. One of the nonenrolled students began to film him discussing the word with students. That recording, which is mostly audio, was shared online under the title, "Phil Adamo Justifying Use of N-Word." Adamo's tone throughout is deferential to students. 

After class, Adamo informed his provost what had happened. She suggested that he write a note to the students in the honors program, he said. That letter says, in part, that the classroom “is a place where any and every topic can be explored, even those topics considered to be taboo. This is how I understand academic freedom, which is a precious thing to me and other professors. It is the currency that allows us to speak truth to power.”

Yet, Adamo continued, “I also understand that this point of view is available to me because of my privileged position. I am now struggling to understand how it may be better not to explore some taboo topics, and to weigh the consequences of absolute academic freedom versus outcomes that lead to hurt, racial trauma, and loss of trust.”

Adamo wrote a separate email to the honors student leaders. Praising them for their defense of the program’s values, he also noted his concern about their “methods,” including showing up to class unannounced and filming him without permission.

Sudden Suspension

Following the October incident, Augsburg’s provost “unilaterally” removed Adamo from teaching and his duties as honors program director for the fall semester. He then went on medical leave due to stress.

Augsburg has since moved to a formal review process and extended Adamo’s suspension to the current semester. His suspension letter, dated last month, cites an unspecified "range of issues" raised by students, falling into the following categories: bias and discrimination, respect for students, teaching competence and program leadership.

Asked about previous incidents, Adamo said he taught Baldwin last year and that students at the time said the content made them uncomfortable. But he discussed the matter with them and believed any outstanding concerns had been resolved, he said.

The American Association of University Professors recommends that professors only be suspended from teaching prior to a faculty review when they pose an imminent, namely physical, threat to the campus. The group doesn’t weigh in on whether specific words are right or wrong for the classroom. But it’s reached out to Augsburg on Adamo’s behalf, writing in a letter to the university president that the suspension “appears to have been primarily based on classroom speech that was clearly protected by principles of academic freedom.”

Quoting its statement "On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes," the AAUP wrote that “rules that ban or punish speech based upon its content cannot be justified,” since an institution of higher learning “fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas -- and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant.”

By “proscribing any ideas,” AAUP says, “a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.”

Is Academic Freedom a Valid Defense of the N-Word?

Some of Adamo’s colleagues have made similar public statements in support of his academic freedom. Other faculty members disagree that academic freedom is a shield for saying a slur in a pedagogical context. Three Augsburg professors wrote in an op-ed in the student newspaper, the Echo, for example, that claiming academic freedom “in defense of language that harms students turns the very principle that makes true learning possible into a mechanism for enforcing institutional racism.”

The incident illustrates “the urgent need for many of our faculty to be more self-critical in their positions of power and racial (as well as gender and other forms of) privilege,” the professors wrote. It "underscores the very real power of words to cause damage and trauma.”

The university said in a statement that it began receiving bias reports about the incident and “inclusiveness of specific program areas at the university” in October. Augsburg immediately initiated its process for investigating such situations, it said, and that review “raised a variety of issues relating both to the particular classroom incident as well as to student experiences and concerns that go beyond that specific event.”

A resolution process followed the review, as outlined in the Faculty Handbook, the university said. It determined that an informal resolution process was not sufficient or appropriate for the “scope of complexity” of the problem.

At the same time, Augsburg’s chief academic officer charged a team of faculty, students and multicultural student services staff to review the program areas about which concerns had been raised. That review is expected to conclude in late spring. Other institutionwide climate reform efforts are under way.

“We know that the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing, and we are fully committed to it,” said President Paul C. Pribbenow. “We are grateful to the students, faculty and staff who have spoken courageously to raise campus awareness, who have engaged in actively listening to the issues being expressed, and who have called for changes that advance our equity work.” He added, “Augsburg will address this important topic like it has many other critical issues in our 150-year history: we will acknowledge and engage the topic, not shrink from it, and work together to make the university better.

Adamo’s Augsburg faculty page notes that he was named Minnesota Professor of the Year in 2015 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He says he’s also worked hard to recruit and retain students of color in the university's honors program, noting that such programs are recognized to suffer from a “whiteness problem.” 

Why Professors Keep Using the N-Word

But what about the N-word?

Robert Cowgill, professor of English at Augsburg and a member of the Minnesota AAUP’s Executive Committee, said he sees “no contradiction between supporting the students in their effort to express their discomfort and defending academic freedom.”

As a professor who often teaches novels and stories that deal with “difficult matters,” he said, “I believe academic freedom gives us the protection to teach potentially difficult texts in good faith and perhaps to make a mistake, if you will, in the presentation of those difficult texts.”

The difficulty may be in “how we discuss language, or in the text's racial representation,” he added via email, or “it may take the form of how we refer to gender or class.” The point is that "all participants' speech is protected in the legitimate classroom environment -- including, of course, the students’.”

Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America, said that especially in a political climate "where hate crimes and hateful speech have appeared more mainstream,” it’s "understandable why this classroom conversation garnered concern. Words with such loaded, heinous meanings have come to be heard as extremely offensive, no matter the context.” 

Still, he said, "intent here matters and we should not allow the profound difference between a racial slur and a quote for pedagogical purposes to be elided.”

Faculty members "can work to acquaint themselves with how this word is heard and understood, and they have a responsibility to create inclusive learning environments,” Friedman said. "But they also have an obligation to teach difficult and painful subjects, and their speech is protected by academic freedom. We should be extremely wary of creating a climate in which professors and students fear repercussions for their speech, in violation of that principle."

Jelani Cobb, a professor of journalism at Columbia University who has written about the N-word for The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer, said the short answer to the N-word in the classroom question is no.

“I’ve taught courses on hip-hop where the word is ubiquitous, and it’s always a stumbling block,” he said in a Twitter message. “By using the term, even in a quote, you’re essentially asking students, particularly black students, to take it on faith that this is not a vicarious thrill or a kind of ventriloquism that allows access to an otherwise forbidden term.”

In many instances, he said, “it will not be. In some instances it will.” Either way, the student is “almost always going to puzzle over that moment like a Rorschach test.”

So while it’s important question to debate, Cobb added, “the potential downsides of actually saying it are large enough, and the likelihood of derailing conversation high enough, that it’s not worth saying even if you have the most purely pedagogical motives.”

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