The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The Academic Freedom Alliance has released a public letter to the University of Rochester objecting to the treatment of an English professor there. Professor David Bleich has long taught classes dealing with sensitive subjects in race and gender. Those courses include readings that make use of offensive language. As is often the case, the details of the assigned texts need to be discussed in class and the texts need to be read aloud and quoted accurately in order to facilitate that careful analysis. Such conversations can sometimes be difficult but they are at the heart of what it takes to do college-level work in literary criticism and analysis.
This semester, Professor Bleich is teaching a class on Gender and Anger. He read aloud from a short story that had been assigned to the class. The portion of the text he read included the n-word. Students objected, and there was a vigorous conversation about the use of the word. In a subsequent class, Professor Bleich read to the students a section of Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy's Chronicle of Higher Education article on the use of the n-word in classroom settings.
The university responded by suspending him from teaching his class and putting in place various restrictive conditions that must be satisfied before he would be allowed to resume teaching. The university is taking the position that it is never appropriate for a professor to say the n-word aloud in a college class.
This issue has become a common one at universities across the country. Some professors have been insufficiently thoughtful about the language they use in classes, and these controversies have sometimes led to a desirable reconsideration of how instructors approach their teaching. But these controversies have also stifled the ability of professors to engage in the kinds of conversations that should be taking place in college classrooms. It is not appropriate for professors to hurl slurs at their students, but it is academically essential that professors be able to discuss slurs and how they are used. Universities ought to be able to understand the difference between the use of a word and the mention of a word.
The Bleich case highlights the dangers here. A dean from a completely different discipline has made a unilateral decision about how English professors should conduct their literature classes. The same sweeping edicts from above would have implications for a host of other classes where offensive language might need to be discussed frankly and clearly in disciplines ranging from anthropology to history to philosophy to linguistics.
The University of Rochester is going down a path that violates its own clearly stated contractual commitments to academic freedom, and in the process it is doing a disservice to both its students and its professors.
From our letter to the University of Rochester:
As the AAUP has elaborated on the implications of this freedom to teach, it has repeatedly emphasized that classroom discussions of the type at issue here are well within the bounds of the principles of academic freedom to which Rochester has contractually committed itself and that are generally accepted within the profession. The AAUP's 1994 report on freedom of expression firmly concluded that it would be a breach of professional ethics and outside the bounds of academic freedom for a professor to ridicule or harass a student in the classroom, but that such "verbal assaults" had to be sharply distinguished from the expression of hateful ideas, including the words that are used to express those ideas. Offensive speech must sometimes be used in the classroom, and it is subversive of the protection of freedom of classroom teaching to depart from established legal standards of harassment to proscribe frank classroom discussions of the ideas, words and behaviors that might be used to harass.
Unsurprisingly, Professor Kennedy was unamused by the suggestion that it is inappropriate for a college professor to read aloud from Kennedy's own work. As he told the AFA:
"It is profoundly disturbing to see an instructor investigated and disciplined for grappling in class with a term that has had and continues to have a hugely consequential place in American culture. The demand to make this term – 'nigger' – literally unmentionable is a demand that ought not be honored. Compelled silence or bowdlerization is antithetical to the academic, intellectual, and artistic freedom essential to higher education."
The University of Rochester should immediately reverse course and reaffirm its commitment to being an institution of higher education and a university that respects the intellectual abilities of its students and the academic freedom of its professors.