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Williams College built its reputation on the liberal arts. Now students at the college are calling for a boycott of the English department, saying the program has long had a racist underbelly. Their comments echo those made by some past and present professors of color.
“We, the undersigned students of Williams College, pledge to an indefinite boycott of all English classes that do not take seriously the matter of race -- that is, those classes which do not include more than a token discussion of race and more than a token number of writers of color,” reads a boycott pledge that is a part of a detailed pro-boycott website. The names and identities of those taking the pledge are not yet public.
“We are undergoing this boycott to create the pressure necessary to force the department, and the administration, to take these issues seriously and to redress past and current harm with urgency," reads the pledge.
The boycott website alleges that "literatures of peoples of color effectively have second-class status in the department, as evidenced by the staffing record -- a revolving door of failed searches, pretenure departures, and tenure denials." Tenure appears to be a "dividing line," it says, with 31 professors having taught ethnic literatures in English. Of those, 12 came from outside the department, 13 were visitors, and four did not reach tenure (two were denied, according to data compiled by student protesters). Only one has tenure, from the 1980s.
A spokesperson for Williams said, “There's no boycott -- it's just a call for a boycott. In fact, there's robust enrollment in English, and quite a few courses are overenrolled.”
Demanding a New Chair
The pledge includes a series of demands, including the removal of Kathryn Kent as chair. In her place, students want to see a woman of color hired from outside the college; there is currently no senior minority woman in the department to take over for her. Among other criticisms, the students say that Kent, who is white, has failed to take previous calls to action about race seriously.
Kent drew negative attention on campus and off last year for allegedly shouting and swearing at Dorothy Wang, professor of American studies, in front of several students. In an interview, Wang said that the incident happened. The trigger was a question about whether the department would be discussing the departure of another black female professor. But Wang suspected her own defection from the department factored into Kent's response. Wang previously had an appointment in English but disaffiliated over what she called “its tokenization of and lack of respect for minority literature and those teaching it."
Via email, Kent said Wednesday that “The more diverse cultural and literary traditions represented in our curriculum, the more inclusive, intellectually rich and valuable the academic experience for all students.”
Kent, who declined to comment on the argument with Wang added, “A really important question to ask is: Whose job is it to teach those diverse literatures? As an educator, I believe it’s everyone’s job.” At the same time, she said, “across the humanities, it’s absolutely necessary to seek faculty with expertise in the scholarship of underrepresented groups, and we in the English department are committed to that effort.”
Several white professors of English are also alleged to have used the N-word while talking about literature -- a controversial practice that many scholars reject. In one case where Wang says she was present, a white professor used it in front of a potential hire during a faculty search for a professor of African American literature. That same professor, John Kleiner, was accused of using the N-word in his creative nonfiction class again last week.
Kleiner declined an interview request but shared an op-ed he prepared for the campus newspaper, The Williams Record. In the piece, Kleiner explains that he was discussing a 1953 essay by the black writer James Baldwin, called “Stranger in the Village,” that includes the German word “neger.” The point is that it’s not as harsh as the American slur, but it does force Baldwin to relive being called it. (Those teaching Baldwin have been at the center of several N-word controversies elsewhere of late.)
“The terrible force of language is the subject of the essay,” Kleiner wrote. “Can the essay be taught without reading aloud the specific language that brings the essay into being? Can students learn from Baldwin to take risks in their writing, to risk facing up to dangerous subjects, without hearing Baldwin’s language read aloud?” Yes, he continued, “I think that is possible. But only in a diminished form.”
As for the faculty search comment, Kleiner said in a brief email Tuesday, "I read a passage aloud in order to ask a question about its language. This was a passage that the speaker supplied us with."
Even so, Wang said that the problems facing the department are “much more a curricular and cultural issue, rather than a question of individual people being racist or not.” She added, “This is a long-standing issue. It’s not just one incident.”
Indeed, a number of other professors working in the department have, over time, brought their own, similar concerns to the fore.
Kimberly S. Love, an assistant professor of English, abruptly went on leave last year, telling her students via email that her “decision is rooted in a refusal to continue business as usual while many of us (students, staff, community members, faculty) suffer from the college’s violent practices.” Love elaborated on some of her concerns in a Feminist Wire essay she co-wrote with a colleague in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, saying, “We are not safe because we are Black radical thinkers and professors who refuse to wait for the right time to point out the anti-Black, transphobic, xenophobic, and the list goes on … wrongs of this time.”
Roberto Tejada, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor in English and creative writing at the University of Houston, was a faculty fellow at Williams in 2013-14. He co-wrote an open letter to Williams president Maud S. Mandel earlier this year with John Keene, chair of African American and African studies and professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, later signed by many other scholars. Referencing the incident between Kent and Wang, the letter says, “We worry that Professor Kent’s behavior is not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern of hostility and defensiveness toward individuals who try to initiate conversations about the difficulty -- and in some cases, impossibility -- of remaining and thriving as a faculty member of color at Williams.”
The boycott website also includes open letters from students and alumni sent to the department in recent years. One from 2015 says that the department has failed to embrace critical theory and literature by and about members of historically marginalized groups in any substantive or genuine way. “Deploying the language of these frameworks to scandalize, titillate, or placate students is disrespectful to the vocabulary of struggles against oppression,” the letter says. “In truth your terms of engagement require us never to contest your racist or misogynist teaching practices. When we do object, you often suppress those critiques by suggesting they are necessarily subjective and not critically rigorous, that we are guilty of poor scholarship.” It continues, “You think we are ‘getting offended’ by the material and not the method. At best, you tell us you are sorry and then do the same thing, again and again.”
These kinds of concerns still exist. Student testimonies on the boycott site include, “Multiple white professors in the department have used racial epithets as provocations toward discussion” and “Discussion was monopolized by students who seemed to share the professor’s point of view, who had taken classes with him before, and who looked like him (white and male).” Other accounts allege that professors made inappropriate sexual comments and treated first-generation college students, many of whom are students of color, poorly.
“I personally experienced and witnessed on many occasions my peers being shamed or humiliated for not being familiar with what professors considered to be basic knowledge,” reads one comment. “All the students I saw subjected to this were first gen students, almost all of whom are POC. There was little empathy or even comprehension that many of us lacked the sort of education that middle class (usually white) peers received and thus we were treated as stupid or lazy in our ignorance, a treatment which serves the greater experience of alienation, otherness, and unworthiness many first gen and POC students face.”
Additional Student Demands
Student protesters also demand an immediate search for four new tenure-track hires: one each in African American, Latinx, Native American and Asian American literatures. As there are “no tenured faculty in English who were hired into an ethnic literature position,” the pledge reads, the college’s “coverage of ethnic literary studies is currently in a weak and tenuous position.”
The last demand is an external investigation of the English department to “uncover its problematic history and provide recommendations for structural changes.”
Many colleges and universities have faced student unrest related to race, the faculty and the curriculum in recent years. Dartmouth College, for example, has been accused of systematically denying tenure to minorities. Even so, Williams’s case stands out because of the boycott, because the criticism has lasted years and because it is so concentrated on one program.
Wang said that department has thus far been able to avoid facing its problems with race head-on. But it might not be able to do that this time, she said.
Vince Schleitwiler, an Asian American former assistant professor of English at Williams who left in 2015 and is now an acting assistant professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington at Seattle, she he admires students and others "seeking to make Williams a more hospitable place for people of color. As a scholar of ethnic studies, I know that campus activism can be messy and uncomfortable, but that whatever progress the academy has made on these issues has always depended on it.”