Those of us who teach remotely controversial topics now have reasons to be more alarmed. It appears that a group of graduate students at the University of Kansas succeeded at having their professor relieved of her teaching duties for mentioning (not using) the N-word during a class discussion on race. I will explain the difference between mentioning and using later, but first here are basic details of this case:
During the seminar, the (white) professor was asked about racial issues on campus. According to the students, she responded as follows: “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism…It’s not like I see [the N-word] spray painted on walls…” As the professor explained later on, she wanted to point out that as a white woman she had a limited exposure to instances of racism on campus.
The students, who said that “this utterance caused shock and disbelief,” demand the professor’s dismissal in an open later published online. Lest the professor’s utterance was not good reason to fire her, the students also complained that she exhibited “a lack of empathy and care for students of color who are facing academic struggles” and demonstrated “her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere.”
While the case is still pending, the professor had to relinquish her teaching duties. The case’s possible implication is alarming for faculty (particularly part-time faculty) to say the least.
First, the students in Kansas claim that the “lack of awareness of racial discrimination” and her “lack of empathy” are fireable offenses. The implication of the vague term lack of awareness is undoubtedly troubling.
Second, the case suggests that it is pretty easy to suspend an instructor for simply mentioning racially charged words. If, like me, you happen to teach any historical text that mentions such words, you have to feel the pressure of censorship and the threat of being fired. I do. In one of my courses on early American culture, for example, we examine people’s religious and racial prejudices: anti-Catholic propaganda and pamphlets’ defending slavery, to name just two subjects. In my literature courses, we read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness, whose main characters have a habit of using the N-word repeatedly. What the Kansas case reminds me is that one day I (and you) might very well be fired for simply referring students to these texts. The distinction between mentioning (arguably permissible in academic discourse) and using racially charged words (strictly prohibited for good reasons) is no longer important for some of our students who appear to react to words with the Pavlovian reflex. And as you know, it only takes one student to get the ball rolling.
I encourage everyone to keep an eye on this case.