Tuesday, February 12, 2019

That word

Phillip Adamo, a professor who was leading an honors seminar at Augsburg University, is in deep trouble. The trouble involves a word that came up in class, a word that a student spoke when reading aloud a passage from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in which the word appears. Adamo asked his students to consider whether they wanted to use that word in class or replace it with a euphemism. He spoke the word himself in posing the question. And that’s how his troubles began. He has since been suspended from teaching and removed as director of his university’s honors program.

My choice in teaching, say, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, was to place that word under erasure, a notion from philosophy that I adapted for my use. I wanted the word left on the page and never spoken, with a silence taking its place. Perhaps not a courageous choice. But as I would explain, I didn’t want anyone to feel easy about the use of that word.

So unlike Adamo, I didn’t leave it up to my students. His choice was a more courageous one. That he is paying a penalty for his choice is chilling and absurd. I can only imagine what would have happened to him were he not a full professor.

Randall Kennedy, who wrote a book about the history of the word, has written a brief commentary on the Augsburg incident for The Chronicle. An excerpt, with one redaction:

This is not a case of a professor calling someone [      ]. This is a case of a professor exploring the thinking and expression of a writer who voiced the word to challenge racism. This is not a case of a professor negligently throwing about a term that’s long been deployed to terrorize, shame, and denigrate African-Americans. This is a case of a professor who, attentive to the sensibilities of his students, sought to encourage reflection about their anxieties and beliefs.

None of those distinctions require deep insight. They should be obvious. Students unable to appreciate them are students unprepared for university life.
Kennedy mentions Adamo’s invoking of the distinction between use and mention, another distinction that should be obvious.

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