Staff Editorial: Sensitive material in the classroom

In recent years, people have grown increasingly interested in holding others accountable for their words. Celebrities have been torn down for use of sensitive, offensive and triggering words, such as the N-word. While most of us have had the chance to witness media backlash from afar, this discussion is beginning to extend into the context of educational institutions. Many texts that appear in our classrooms contain sensitive language. The Lawrentian’s Editorial Board wishes to examine the practice of speaking sensitive words in academia with these guiding questions: What is the role of explicit language in the classroom? Who gets to use controversial words, and for what purpose? When is it OK to use offensive words, and when is it not OK?

While it would be easiest to say we should never use sensitive language, it is worth exploring the complexity of the issue. We asked a few professors what they think. Associate Professor of English Karen Hoffmann says, “In courses that I teach, such as African American Writers, some of the works include the ‘n-word’ spelled out as the full word. When my students and I read passages aloud (a common practice in courses that focus on textual analysis), we say ‘n-word’ or we skip over the word rather than read the full word aloud. This word has a long, painful history connected to brutality toward black individuals and communities, especially when used by white people. The reason for not saying the full word aloud in class is to avoid contributing further to the pain that this word inflicts. (In class, we use the same kind of approach when we read texts with other words that are used as slurs against members of a given identity group.)”

Following Hoffmann’s reasoning, many students believe that speaking offensive words aloud is inappropriate even in the context of reading a historical or literary text. So what happens in history or English classes when the N-word is used in a text being read aloud by the class? A majority of the editorial board believes that sensitive words should be censored or omitted in a class reading. Several students have shared stories of classmates leaving the room because a word a professor or student said made them feel unwelcome or unsafe. It is important that classroom dialogue never crosses that line. However, there may be some value in discomfort.

David McGlynn, Associate Professor of English, says, “In my own classes, I try to acknowledge that such words, even in the context of a literary text, are fraught and problematic and discomforting (to say the least). I moreover understand that repeating them, even in the process of quoting a text, may make some students uncomfortable.

However, the problems of race, gender, and identity more generally are themselves complicated, uncomfortable, and freighted with history. Grappling with problematic language is one of the ways we, as readers and thinkers, can begin to grapple with the larger problems of identity, and to interrogate why a particular word — like the ‘n word’ — stands out from other words, why it makes us so uncomfortable, what it feels like when it’s used, and what the authors who use them may have been intending to say.”

But Hoffman says that while “some people argue that the author included the word for a reason and that in order for the passage to convey the complete impact of what the author intended, the word should be read aloud; however, I would respond to this argument by noting that without saying the full word aloud, we still register what the author is conveying since we see the word on the page.”

Some feel that censoring or omitting sensitive language is the right move for now; it is a temporary measure until we can come to some kind of greater shared understanding of how to use it. Paul Cohen, Patricia Hamar Boldt Professor of Liberal Studies and Professor of History, also weighed in. “This is a difficult issue on which I’ve been called out myself in a class in which I quoted (clearly villainous) film characters who employ some of these words. In a perfect world, one in which there was greater trust between students and faculty and in which we could separate our perfectly reasonable sensitivities from the academic project at hand, I would advocate free speech on these matters. But alas we don’t yet live in that world (…) For that reason, I’ve resigned myself to avoiding terms that might “trigger” some students—because such triggering, at least at present, shuts minds down instead of opening them up. Perhaps this moment will pass, but until it does, I will practice self-censorship.”

Considering the diversity of opinions on how to handle this issue, it seems that students and professors should work together to build a better system on a course-by-course basis. We recommend discussions in class at the beginning of the term in which everyone agrees on a plan for how sensitive language will be treated when it appears. If people are uncomfortable discussing this in front of the class, the class could instead agree to use anonymous polls online. In this system, everyone has the chance to express their opinions and the opportunity to help classmates understand how language affects them.

Professor McGlynn advised students to think about the past and future of our vocabulary. “As much as we, as contemporary Americans, like to believe we’re enlightened about our culture and history, our children and grandchildren will surely find our views morally problematic in some way. By wrangling with historical texts and their uses of problematic language, we can remind ourselves to remain intellectually humble and to question our own preconceived ideas about our time and places in the world.”