New School Drops N-Word Case

Creative writing professor cleared of discrimination in saying a slur in quoting James Baldwin in class.

August 19, 2019
 
Laurie Sheck

The New School dropped its investigation against poet and novelist Laurie Sheck. Sheck, who is white, had been the focus of an inquiry triggered by a student complaint that she'd used the N-word in her graduate-level creative writing class when quoting the late black writer James Baldwin.

Sheck admitted she used the word in class, but said previously that it was a part of a discussion on Baldwins 1962 essay "The Creative Process." Baldwin, a frequent critic of U.S. race relations, wrote in the essay about the "nature of the artist's responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own."

Broadening the conversation, Sheck asked if anyone in class had seen the acclaimed 2016 documentary about Baldwin called "I Am Not Your Negro." She then noted that Baldwin had used the actual N-word during the interview from which the documentary took its name -- saying the actual slur herself.

A white student objected, telling the class that she'd learned as an undergraduate that no white person is ever to use that word under any circumstance, Sheck previously recalled. Sheck told the student that that was "one school of thought" on the matter.

There is significant disagreement among scholars across races and disciplines as to whether there is any room for the N-word in the classroom. But Sheck described her reasoning like this: "As writers, words are all we have." And "we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose."

Months later, the comment resulted in two student complaints against Sheck. The New School informed her in June that she was being investigated. Her United Auto Workers-affiliated faculty union suggested that she consider changing her syllabus to avoid such incidents going forward.

Sheck said she didn't do anything wrong, especially given the subject matter of her class and the fact that she was teaching graduate students. She appealed to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for help. The case became public and many students, individual scholars and groups reached out to the New School on Sheck's behalf.

A Lost Opportunity?

In a formal letter to Sheck dated last week, the New School told Sheck that "after carefully considering the complaints and reviewing the evidence, we have determined that you did not violated the university's policy on discrimination." The provost's office would be in touch, the letter read.

Sheck said she met with her provost, but she did not share what happened during the meeting.

The New School said in a statement -- parts of which appear in part in Sheck's letter -- that open "and robust discussion of often difficult issues is and has always been central to our mission as a university, as is our commitment to provide a learning environment that is effective in educating our students." Those principles are "foundational to our teaching and learning, as we strive to ensure that all members of our community are able to advance their intellectual, creative and professional pursuits."

In the "context of the current political and cultural climate," the New School said, "we are bringing together faculty and students to use these principles to guide a pedagogical approach that respects academic freedom as well as an inclusive and respectful learning space."

Sheck said that she'll be back teaching at the New School when classes start later this month.

Noting that there has been "no public apology" from the institution, she said it's "unsettling that the university bypassed an important opportunity to take a clear and public stand affirming academic freedom and freedom of expression." Such a statement "would have been a very valuable and much needed first step toward diffusing the considerable murkiness around this issue in the university community, and the understandable tensions that arise when so central an issue remains largely ungrappled with and unclear," she added.

 

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