james baldwin.jpg

Professor under investigation for quoting the poet james baldwin in class

Written by Aaron Gonzalez


Laurie Sheck a professor at The New School in New York, is currently under investigation by her University for uttering the N-Word inside her class while discussing American playwright James Baldwin’s use of the racial slur in his 1962 essay ‘The Creative Process’. Should the investigation into Sheck be pursued considering the fact this was within a teaching environment and was not used to demean anyone in her class?

The Pulitzer Prize finalist was teaching a graduate course focusing on ‘radical questioning’ in writing. The syllabus featured a number of works by African American authors that grapple with racial discrimination, including writing by Claudia Rankine and Anna Deavere Smith. When being presented with what the syllabus entails students were also presented with a quote from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “People want to be settled. Only insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

During one of her classes Sheck bought up a 2016 documentary on James Baldwin titled ‘I am not your negro.’ She told her students to ask why the title of the film had altered James Baldwins original statement which included the N-word rather than negro. Baldwin made an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 and had used the term “I am not your nigger.” A clip of this statement is included in the documentary. Professor Sheck said the word while quoting Baldwin. 

Laurie Sheck has spoken to Inside Higher Education about the ongoing matter and stated that a student, who happened to be white, objected to her use of the term as another professor at the University had told her white people should never use it. The student also noted that both she and Sheck were white and criticized the New School’s writing program as “too white.”

The Faculty Union at The New School in New York City has advised Sheck to attempt a more pacifying position when teaching, like giving trigger warnings to her students when a word that may offend someone is about to be said out loud, or to encourage students to read potentially offensive words to themselves in their head.

Laurie Sheck

Laurie Sheck

Professor Sheck was invited to a meeting in June by the Office of General Counsel. The email she received consisted of complaints made by students on her conduct as an educator who is meant to abide by the colleges discrimination policy. It also warned her to refrain from mentioning the matter to anyone or she would also be at risk of violating the school’s policy against ‘retaliation’.

Shouldn’t intent matter most when considering to place an academic under investigation for saying a bad word in an educational context? According to IHE, Sheck has not heard much since her meeting in June, but is apparently still under investigation. 

Sheck should have the freedom to use any word she chooses when educating her class, the ability to offend someone is a power each and every one of us has, even those who are the most easily offended are capable of causing offense. The context and intent of one’s speech is of utmost importance when deciding if offence is a reasonable reaction.

Sheck has recently told the Guardian the university is proceeding with the investigation despite its regulations stating that complaints of discrimination must be made within sixty days of the incident, which this complaint did not comply with.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, are asking for the School to drop the ‘misguided’ investigation, adding that the school is failing to process the complaint made against Sheck in a manner consistent with its own disciplinary procedures, leaving her in an unacceptably tenuous position that further increases the threat to her academic freedom.’

The school responded to the letter but failed to give any information regarding Professor Sheck’s case citing union involvement and confidentiality rules.

PEN America has now joined FIRE in calling for the investigation to be dropped. “Some words are so heinous that one can never expect to say them without some risk of offence,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN’s project director for campus free speech.

Laurie Sheck is not the first professor to come under fire for using words some believe to be unspeakable no matter what the context or intent. In 2018 a professor from Emory University was put under investigation for saying the N-Word while addressing first-year students about a case stemming from the 1960’s civil rights movement. Last year the N-Word was used by a professor who was teaching a class on hate speech at Princeton University that caused outrage on campus.

Last year a Pomona College professor told one of his students, who was organising songs for their theatre department’s upcoming production, to refrain from any songs that contain the N-word. ‘Nothing with nigger in it’ he stated. The student then decided to plaster posters around the entire school naming and shaming the ‘racist’ teacher who was actually trying to refrain from any racist connotations being part of their school production. Steer clear from protecting and satisfying the perpetually offended at all costs, they eat their own.

People should also have no problem recalling the embarrassment that was forced upon a young girl who was watching Kendrick Lamar live in concert last year. Kendrick bought the girl on stage, who happened to be white, to sing one of his songs alongside him but had to interrupt her as she sang the lyrics consisting of multiple uses of the N-Word. She explained, “I’m used to singing it the way you wrote it.”

If you don’t want people using the N-Word, then I would suggest not saying the N-Word at all. Instead of deeming it suitable to say for certain people of a certain skin colour in an attempt to designate the word as a term of empowerment, while simultaneously calling white people institutionally racist dominators of the western world who just so happen to be getting forced out of their careers because of your selective outrage surrounding who is allowed to say this word and who isn’t with no regards to context or intent.

University professors should not be living in fear of what they teach their students and the students should not be in fear of what they might learn.