Race, Free Speech, and the Purge of Campus BlasphemersRoundup
tags: racism, free speech, Campus Culture
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.
A few years ago, while writing a book about college teaching, I asked several colleagues to list the qualities of a good teacher. Many people replied that the best instructors were “reflexive”: they constantly examined their own practices and encouraged students to do the same. Tell that to Hannah Berliner Fischthal, the adjunct professor at St. John’s University in New York who was fired last month after using the N-word in a Zoom class about Mark Twain. She tried to be reflexive about it, explaining her decision to the students and leading conversations about it afterward.
But reflexivity only works if we protect the freedom to engage in it. And that freedom has disappeared, at least when it comes to questions of race.
There’s no other way to interpret the dismissal of Fischthal, who joined a long list of professors across the country who have been dismissed or disciplined for using the N-word in classroom contexts. At the University of Southern California, one professor was even placed on leave last year for repeatedly saying a Chinese filler word that sounded like the N-word.
Fischthal, meanwhile, said the N-word once—that’s right, a single time—in a class discussion of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, where the word appears repeatedly. As Fischthal told her class, Twain was one of the first writers to reproduce the way Americans really spoke—slurs and all. He sought to satirize racism, she added, not to reinforce it. (Fischtal’s course was called “The Literature of Satire,” after all.) And she hoped her remarks about the N-word would not offend anyone.
No such luck. The following day, she received an email from a student who said she had to leave the Zoom class after Fischthal said the word. “It was unnecessary and very painful to hear,” the student wrote.
Fischthal told the student she was sorry, then sent a message to the class inviting online comments. “I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text,” she wrote. “Please do share your thoughts.”
Of the six students who responded, including the original complainant, two defended Fischthal and the rest said she should not have used the N-word. She also led a second discussion of the issue at the next class meeting over Zoom.
My strong guess is that students learned a huge amount from these exchanges. Surely, there are solid arguments for avoiding the N-word, regardless of circumstances. But there are also reasonable defenses for employing the term in class, as Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy—a leading Black legal scholar—has asserted. It’s complicated.
The firing of Hannah Fischthal sends the opposite message: It’s simple. There is nothing to discuss here; instead, there is one right answer. And woe to anyone who gets on the wrong side of it.
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