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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Pedagogy and the N-Word

Is there a pedagogical purpose for using the N-word out loud in class? Not for me.

August 25, 2022

When I read the op-ed by Claremont McKenna professor Christopher Nadon in The Wall Street Journal discussing what he believes are sanctions he’s received for using the full utterance of the N-word in a class when illustrating a point about censorship and Huck Finn, I thought two things.

First, I thought that if Nadon’s self-account was accurate, he did not merit sanction. I accept the use/mention distinction on slurs like the N-word as meaningful. While there may be some professors out there who get a little psychic zing when they can contrive a way to use the word while being protected by the use/mention shield, my hope is they are extremely limited in number, it would be very difficult to discern someone’s motive for use and hopefully those who are doing it to experience that little zing will reveal themselves as problematic in other ways.

Second, I realized that I’d never heard a convincing pedagogical rationale for using the full utterance of the N-word in class. I said this in a tweet, and several days later, after reading a variety of interesting perspectives, and gaining considerable additional context on what’s going on at Claremont McKenna from Colleen Flaherty’s reporting, I have the same opinion: I have never heard a convincing pedagogical rationale for using the full utterance of the N-word in class.

To be clear, I’m not talking about assigning texts that use the word. I’ve assigned those texts, numerous short stories and selections from the autobiography of the comedian Dick Gregory, which uses the full form of the N-word in the title. I have also had students (both Black and white) essentially self-assign texts using the N-word when they’ve chosen songs using the word as part of a rhetorical analysis exercise on song lyrics.

When I assign these texts, I explain why I’ve made the choice, and the context in which the word is used in the text. We may even spend time in class talking more fully about these things. I also do not use the full utterance of the N-word in class if I read or reproduce a passage that contains it. I also ask students not to use the full utterance.

The reason I don’t is because doing so is inevitably disruptive to the classroom discussion, where rather than focusing on the specifics of the discussion, we have a room full of students sitting there thinking, “Dang, Professor just used the N-word.”

In my view, the classroom is a community, and my chief responsibility as part of that community is to create an atmosphere most conducive to student learning. Dropping what scholar Randall Kennedy—author of N-word: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word[1]—calls the “atomic bomb” of slurs into the middle of a classroom produces a flash of light and heat that (at least temporarily) obscures anything else.

It doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario where you are in a class with a single Black student, and the full utterance is used by a professor or fellow students, and a sea of white heads snaps around to see how that Black student has reacted. I am simply not interested in engendering that kind of experience for a student who—copious evidence already shows—may feel as though the institution is not welcoming of their presence. It is very easy to not say the word, even when dealing with a text that uses it.

I don’t think this makes me squeamish or unwilling to exercise the full range of my academic freedom—if I was ever tenured, that is, which I was not—so much as respectful of my audience and mindful of my responsibilities to the students in the class in front of me. There was never any confusion about what word we were talking about or the import of the full use of the word in the context of what we had read. Students got it, I promise.

I have not used the full utterance of the N-word in a class, but I have been known to be a bit loose with profanity in public presentations, including class. I’ve never extended beyond an occasional F-bomb, and I would argue that my uses are rhetorical and purposeful, rather than random and casual, but nonetheless, these were straight-up uses, not mentions.

Most students haven’t seemed to mind, but most is not all.

I recall one student, many years ago, who had been homeschooled for religious reasons prior to matriculating to the large state university where I was teaching. They[2] were an excellent student, incredibly well-read, a confident and even elegant writer, and a valued contributor to class discussions.

This student also took significant offense every time I used profanity in class. I would not have known, except the student came to my office hours to tell me so.

I found this incredibly brave. Here is someone in their first semester as a college student, at a place that must be very foreign after being homeschooled, who nonetheless has the confidence to discuss this issue directly with their professor.

On the one hand, part of me felt like I should say something like, “Look, kid, I’m doing you a favor. It’s a tough world out there, and the sooner you can stop flinching when someone uses one of Carlin’s seven dirty words, the better.”

The larger part of me felt bad. This was a student sitting in front me, self-advocating for the conditions they felt were most conducive to their learning. While I could perhaps argue that my style of rhetoric that included some profanity helped increase my engagement with other students, I had no evidence to support that belief.

I told the student that I would do my best to cut the shit. (Joking!) No, I told the student that I’d try to be more mindful, and I was, and have been ever since.

Had the student instead gone above my head to an administrator, I would probably have been some combination of scared, resentful and chagrined, so in my case the student trusting that I would give them a fair listen, a belief that I hope was rooted in my pedagogical focus on the classroom as community, was a good thing.

Randall Kennedy argues for the full utterance in the class under the use/mention distinction. He is coming from the perspective as a Black man who grew up in Columbia, S.C., and who was subjected to the direct use of the slur against him. For him, it is important to distinguish the mere presence of the word from the use of the word to cause harm.

He believes that validating the “hurt” of those who object to the full utterance of the N-word when it is merely mentioned creates a cycle where those feelings of hurt are used to potentially silence other expression based on the perceived (or real) offense of the person.

Kennedy says, “I am convinced that in a substantial number of instances these fights are not really over hurt feelings. They are struggles over status and power” (emphasis mine).

Indeed. Kennedy’s defense is principled, but it is based on principles of ideology and philosophy, not pedagogy, at least not pedagogy in terms of the framework of the classroom as a community, with the learning of the students in the immediate community as paramount. Kennedy is trying to teach the world a lesson, and while his word does reach awfully far because of his status, when one is in class, they are interacting with the world.

Kennedy is also arguing that faculty have the power, the right and the responsibility to determine what is best for the students. He explicitly defends the full use of the N-word for law students because they are going to encounter it in their professional lives. He believes that lawyers who get “distracted or depressed”[3] when hearing the full use of the word are lacking the “self-mastery” to be good lawyers, and it is imperative that law schools prepare them this way.

I find this attitude both paternalistic and narrow. I would argue that the student who came to me about my use of profanity was very much demonstrating self-mastery. I would say the same thing about students objecting to professors saying the N-word in class, even under the use/mention distinction.

Now, this does not mean administrators are obligated to act on these complaints, but Kennedy seems to suggest that objecting is a consequence of a learned fragility and should be dismissed out of hand, or indeed, never be made in the first place, a claim for which there is no compelling evidence. Kennedy’s stance is explicitly ideological.

When contacted by the dean of faculty about a conversation (explicitly saying that “this is not a disciplinary matter”) about his use of the word, Nadon replied:

“I do think that when a student asks me a direct question that I am able to answer, good ‘pedagogy’ requires that I tell him the truth. Do you disagree? Similarly, when a student makes a false statement, I think my job requires me to confront that student with facts that contradict him. Do you think I am wrong to do so? I also hold the view that before criticizing or praising an author, one should first attempt to understand that author as he understood himself, something that requires reading and discussing exactly what he wrote. Do you think I am mistaken in this approach?”

As reported by Flaherty, according to a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, questioning the events at Claremont McKenna, a student claimed that Nadon said, (using the full utterance of the N-word), “Do you know why they don’t teach Huckleberry Finn in schools anymore? Because it says n* on every other page.”

I agree with Nadon that good pedagogy requires telling students the truth. I also think he should be protected from administrative sanction under the use/mention distinction and the principles of academic freedom.

But I am not convinced that the full utterance of the N-word in this particular case is particularly necessary in order to convey the substantive truth Nadon was aiming for. What was truly gained from that choice?

Reading Flaherty’s reporting, it is also clear that trust and collaboration has broken down along multiple lines, students and professor, as well as professor and administration. I don’t think we know enough to adjudicate the specifics, but I agree with Greg Scholtz, the director of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the AAUP, as quoted by Flaherty, who said that being asked by an administrator to “discuss the pedagogy underlying one’s classroom use of the N-word is not an oral reprimand, though I suppose it might lead to one.”

I mean, the proof that the full utterance of the N-word may lead to distractions from the focus on learning is evidenced by this very incident. Yes, Nadon has the right to do this, but is it truly the best choice in terms of pedagogy, or are we now in the realm of trying to prove a larger point about who has status and who has power?

Insisting that you have a right to use the full form of the N-word in class under the use/mention distinction, and then acting on that right primarily to prove the existence of this right strikes me as similar to when people wear their long guns to the grocery store.

Sure, it’s legal and defensible, but the primary outcome is to make the rest of the community feel less secure.

There are for sure times where some form of discomfiture is productive for both the community, and even the individuals being discomforted, but I have yet to find a case where that involves saying the N-word out loud in class in its full form.


[1] Kennedy’s book spells out the full word in the title, the same as Dick Gregory’s autobiography.

[2] Note to readers, as a rule (with occasional exceptions) I use nongendered pronouns to refer to students I’ve worked with in a maximum effort to protect their anonymity.

[3] Interesting, dare I say, lawyerly choice of words here by Kennedy, painting the hypothetical student as weak, rather than using, for example, “angry” or even stronger, “pissed off.”

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