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Using taboo words in the classroom


Carrie Menkel-Meadow, a senior law professor at UC-Irvine, got into big trouble with the administration there by pronouncing America’s favorite racial slur aloud in class for pedagogical purposes. This led the school’s dean to suspend her from teaching required classes for the indefinite future (she wasn’t scheduled to teach any such classes this academic year, although she does from time to time).

Background here, here, and here.

I’m particularly interested in a letter signed by a bunch of senior administrators at the school, that concludes:

Academic freedom may technically permit a professor to use the “N” word, but we call for our community to do better. We say we are different, but we must BE different. We should not add to the pain of our students in the name of academic freedom. We condemn without qualification the classroom utterance of terms, such as the N-word, that are loaded with histories of pain and oppression. Human decency and respect for the feelings of others require as much.

My emphasis.

It should go without saying that the use of derogatory terms by an instructor for illustrative (as opposed to consciously abusive) purposes in class is tricky territory, both pedagogically and politically.

It’s problematic — to put it mildly — for administrators to punish faculty members for such pedagogical choices without giving them notice ahead of time what is and isn’t permitted in the classroom in this regard. It’s also extremely problematic for such rules to be created unilaterally by administrators, rather than by the faculty itself.

When it comes to the term at the center of this particular controversy, it would be good for institutions to decide, openly and explicitly, what is and isn’t permitted for instructors. Can it be uttered aloud? Can it appear in uncensored form in assigned readings? Can it be uttered aloud if sufficiently euphemized? Should different rules apply to black and non-black instructors in this regard? (This seems perfectly reasonable to me by the way — I think it’s OK for Chris Rock to use it in a way that’s not OK for a white comic etc).

And, crucially, what other terms, if any, should be subject to similar regulation (the UCI administrators obviously think there ought to be other taboo classroom terms).

This is a topic regarding which beliefs and commitments are currently fluid, often for appropriate reasons, so in my view dogmatism on the subject is particularly unhelpful. But I’d like to read the thoughts of others, especially from teachers and students.

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