New School exonerates professor investigated for using the “n-word” while teaching James Baldwin

As I reported last week, New School literature professor Laurie Sheck got investigated by her school after using the “n-word” in a discussion about James Baldwin. In particular, she was discussing why, although Baldwin said the phrase “I am not your nigger” on the Dick Cavett show, a 2016 documentary about his life changed the phrase to “I Am Not Your Negro” (the original phrase, though, is flashed on the screen at the end of the documentary). Sheck read the phrases, and then asked her graduate students to discuss what the change of wording might signify.

Indeed, other scholars like Talia Marshall and Max Gordon (discussed in the FIRE letter mentioned below) had already written about this wording change, using both “nigger” and “Negro”, and raising the issue of why one n-word became another.

This discussion was absolutely relevant to the reading at hand, and yet two students (at least one of them white) objected to Sheck’s use of the “n-word”, one saying that white people were never supposed to use the word under any circumstances. As my previous post reported, the students reported Sheck to her university for “racial discrimination”, and she was forced to meet with university investigators.

While the word in question can indeed be used as a racist slur, it wasn’t in Sheck’s case. This was an instance of an appropriate use of a loaded word in the cause of discussion—an issue of academic freedom.  There was not the slightest evidence that any discrimination was in play. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), wrote a long and meticulously documented letter to the President of the New School, urging them to drop their ridiculous investigation (I’d urge you to read it if you have time.) Besides violating academic freedom, FIRE claimed, the New School was violating its own principles, which say that:

The New School, since its beginnings, has endeavored to be an educational community in which public as well as scholarly issues are openly discussed and debated, regardless of how controversial or unpopular the views expressed.

But, mirabile dictu, the New School finally exonerated Sheck, though she should never have gone through this trial in the first place.  FIRE reports the outcome in its post below (click on screenshot):

Here’s the New School’s letter to Sheck from the school’s Director of Labor Relations (pdf here):So we have a favorable outcome, though I am a bit worried about what Director Best means when he wrote, “We have forwarded out determination to the Provost’s Office, along with recommendations on how to most effectively address the issues raised. The Provost’s Office will be in touch with you shortly to follow up on this.”

Does this mean that Sheck is going to receive further paternalistic advice about how she should avoid using the word and offending students? I hope not. For the ability of students to start a disciplinary proceeding—based on the appropriate use of a word in an appropriate classroom discussion—will have a chilling effect on professors who want and need to discuss controversial issues, especially issues about race, gender, and ethnicity. Remember, no professor wants to lose their job, so it’s better to play it safe and cater to the Speech Police.

 

18 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I’m hoping the follow up is to discuss how to structure the procedure for making complaints to be better. I’ve seen people dragged through the mud by jerks simply because the policy allowed it. In the end, the complainer has absolutely no stress while the exonerated person is a nervous wreck. If there was a high likelihood of something like that happening to me at work, I’d look for employment elsewhere. Life is too short to work at places with the wrong values.

    • Posted August 19, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      There should be a penalty for making an unfounded allegation. Also, someone, say an ombudsperson, should have the power to summarily dismiss ridiculous allegations like this one.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 19, 2019 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I’d like to see a complaint go through a group or two before the individual is dragged through a full on investigation.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 7:40 am | Permalink

        “There should be a penalty for making an unfounded allegation.”

        Entirely agreed. How about expulsion?

        Like, who would want to teach such a person ever afterwards?

        cr

      • BJ
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Unfortunately, I (and I’m sure you) can see the answers from the complainers for why this shouldn’t be the case:

        (1) It will discourage the students who have been mentally battered and abused by their professors from coming forward.

        (2) Saying they lied in their complaint is denying their “lived experience.”

        (3) No white person can be on the panel because they can’t understand. Or no cis person if the student is trans, or no Jewish person if the student is Muslim, etc.

        And on and on 😛

  2. phar84
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Administration should make students prove/explain their allegations before moving on to the professors.

    New School’s own principle could have served as a broad trigger warning to incoming students.

  3. DrBrydon
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine how scary and frustrating it would be to be “investigated” over something like this. I keep trying to think of ways the process could be simplified and truncated, but I keep coming back to the idea that the professor should not have had to justify herself at all.

  4. Dragon
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    The best outcome of ‘along with recommendations on how to most effectively address the issues raised’ would be to educate students.
    Every new class orientation could begin with something like ‘you may have heard rules of thumb such as the n-word cannot be spoken by a white person in any circumstance. This rule of thumb has exceptions. The word can be used when quoting a literary source which is not denigrating a black person(s). Open honest education and academic freedom sometimes requires this.’

    Of course, they would then be debating what ‘denigrating’ means in this context and whether imagined microaggressions count. Sigh.

    • eric
      Posted August 19, 2019 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      In a similar vein, IMO a ‘most effectively address’ action would be to update the description of the course in the course catalog to say “this class discusses – and in the process, uses – racist and inflammatory speech.” Caveat Emptor.

  5. Posted August 19, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    A welcome vindication, though I do wonder about the follow up as well.

    • Posted August 19, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      The good news, Professor Sheck, is that you’ve been completely exonerated of discrimination. However, to ensure such misunderstandings do not happen again, you’ll be required to undergo sensitivity training.

      • BJ
        Posted August 20, 2019 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        “The good news, Professor Sheck, is that you have been completely exonerated in this case. However, there will be another investigation to see if you are racist and/or if your actions are discriminatory; this was merely a preliminary investigation. There will also be a further investigation into what punishment should be given to you, since the student’s lived experience of offense cannot be dismissed. But, you have otherwise been exonerated, so congratulations!”

  6. Jonathan Steinberg
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    The comments following the story are kind and thoughtful and frankly make a lot of sense. I on the other hand am bewildered by the actions of the two students and assuming I can’t curse in this thread would like to know what the #$%&@ they were thinking. I didn’t know that The New School (my son is a grad student there) had 6 year olds as students. I would like to see those particular students on the receiving end of whatever counseling is to take place.

    • Posted August 20, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I was reminded on IHE that this is also a *graduate level class*. Sheesh.

      Mind you I had one unfortunate situation in graduate school where the faculty involved were, IMO, intellectually abusive – and a fellow student confided in me that she agreed and I think in retrospect that I should have been more complaint-oriented. I told one faculty member not involved in the course, but was warned about how (a) he agreed that the people in question were as I said and (b) that a complaint would be very hard, unfortunately.

      (In my case I just redoubled my efforts to be scrupulously critical.)

  7. Steve Pollard
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Is Prof Sheck really going to be faced with ‘further paternalistic advice’ about how she should use the ‘n-word’ in future?

    Blow that for a game of soldiers. The people who should be getting a bit of advice -detailed, specific and, if necessary paternalistic – are the two brainless students who raised these absurd complaints in the first place.

    • Rita Prangle
      Posted August 19, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      YES!

  8. rickflick
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    All righty then…

  9. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    “Does this mean that Sheck is going to receive further paternalistic advice about how she should avoid using the word and offending students?”

    Is paternalistic the right gendered ‘istic’?

    I think, given the focus on safety and feelings, among other things might indicate a more maternalistic approach.


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