Earlier this month, UT’s Gary Robbins reported on a controversy involving a San Diego State University professor, an incident that should hold important lessons for everyone about race, language and education.
J. Angelo Corlett, a 63-year-old tenured philosophy professor, was fired from teaching two courses on critical thinking and racism after he repeatedly uttered racial slurs in his classes.
Specifically, Robbins reported that Corlett showed slides listing a dozen slurs related to a variety of groups during a language-focused lecture. He then repeated those slurs out loud numerous times in what he says was an effort to explain why those slurs are racist and should not be used.
However, the students say Corlett’s use of slurs was not limited to this specific conference, nor to this specific context, with the SDSU Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity referring to it as a ” routine experience.
And even in the context where Corlett said he used the words exclusively, some students say the insults drifted into something unnecessary aggressive.
The situation escalated when a black student, who was not enrolled in the class, confronted Corlett about his use of slurs in his class.
A statement from SDSU’s Associated Student Group says students in the critical thinking class reported that Corlett used the N-word “more than 60 times.” On top of that, they say he repeatedly used the words rape and gang rape in reference to sexual violence, and was rather flippant about students’ concerns about his behavior, saying he wouldn’t be dismissed only if he raped or killed a student.
“This repeated behavior is not only disturbing to hear, but the continued use of racial epithets and derogatory references to sexual violence to the detriment of student welfare is unacceptable on our campus,” the statement read.
For his part, Corlett, who is Latino, disputes parts of the students’ accounts saying he used the slurs a dozen times, and he denies saying he couldn’t be fired. Rather, he argues that he was explaining what academic freedom is.
“You must mention the words in order to explain why they are racist and should not be used,” Corlett told UT. “Some students don’t know what counts as racism. And some are more concerned with being offended than learning logic and the science of language.
A conservative-affiliated free speech group, FIRE, came to Corlett’s defense and threatened to sue SDSU for his removal.
It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, if we focus too much on FIRE’s role in that and the role of the student who wasn’t enrolled in the class facing Corlett, so I’m going to put those things aside.
Overall, however, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from this case.
First – and I say this as someone who also spends time teaching – if a single student is confused or misunderstands the lesson of a lecture or the point that a teacher was trying to make, it may reflect something on the individual student. However, if several students are confused or raise concerns, this tends to indicate something about the way the teacher presented the material and should cause the instructor to reflect on themselves.
Because of that, I’m troubled by how dismissive Corlett seems about student concerns.
Corlett’s comment to UT about students being confused about “what counts as racism” is inappropriate at best and insulting at worst. Many students have experienced racism first hand, and if several students say they are concerned about something, I doubt it is simply a matter of hurting their sensibilities.
Hiding behind the cloak of “academic freedom”, intentional or not, is also problematic. Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the ability to use “provocative language” does not mean that you are exempt from the responsibility that comes with it, or the responsibility that comes with holding a position of authority. .
If the way you teach something becomes confusing to students or interpreted as downright aggressive, it undermines the whole purpose of why you were teaching the subject.
Other than that, however, Corlett is essentially arguing that referring to racist language is not the same as using racist language. It’s an interesting discussion, and may be true. But it also requires a thoughtful, nuanced, and responsible approach that your audience understands.
Putting the words on a slide as a reference or case study is one thing because it provides context. However, just about anyone in a college class can read, and most adults know what slurs are. It is therefore not necessary to pronounce them audibly, and even less to repeat them a dozen or dozens of times.
It is reasonable for students to interpret this behavior as something out of bounds. If you’re not black, there’s no context in which you should say the n-word. I don’t care if you sing a song, read an old book, or try to make a point related to history or the use of the word. People know the word and can read it, if need be. It is not necessary to say it.
This is also a very good rule to apply to discussing or using any type of insult. In an academic setting, just put it on a slide to put it in context, then have a discussion without explicitly using the word further. Students can follow the discussion.
Because if you go the route Corlett took, you can’t blame anyone but yourself for why the discussion turned into something that can be construed as aggressive and objectionable.