You'd think that students who sign up for a class on "Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography" might have understood what they were getting themselves into.
But no, several students in Lawrence Rosen's Princeton anthropology class walked out last week, and made formal complaints, after Rosen provided examples of supposedly offensive speech. Among other things, the instructor asked which was worse: a white man punching a black man in the face, or a white man using the N-word. Rosen, who is Jewish, used the actual slur several times.
According to The Daily Princetonian:
Students began to argue with Rosen, demanding he apologize. Holliday and Salter both said that the students argued with Rosen for the duration of lecture, because he would not give an apology.
According to Salter, Rosen allegedly said in the class, "I don't think I need to apologize; I did not oppress anyone."...
Jeremijenko-Conley and Salter said that they filed a complaint with Justine Levine, director of studies for Rockefeller College.
Levine said in an email that she will work with the students to resolve the issue, according to Jeremijenko-Conley and Salter.
Kevin Ramos '21 said he plans to drop the class in light of the incident.
"The professor saw how uncomfortable the students were with his language," said Ramos. "If he doesn't respect the students' opinion, then it's not worth learning from him."
Christine Berchini, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, told Inside Higher Ed that using the N-word in class is never acceptable, even for a clearly educational purpose. Rosen should have known better, she said:
"I would expect more from someone who studies anthropology, given how deeply such studies rely on context to understand the development of cultures and societies. The context within which this word was created to enslave, oppress and disenfranchise people of color should suggest that one must think carefully about how they are encouraging students to think about language invented strictly for the purposes of subjugation."
Quoting the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Berchini said that "when you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you." That includes language, she added.
So far, Rosen enjoys the support of his institution. A Princeton spokesperson has said that "robust debate" is central to the mission of the university, even if it involves uncomfortable speech. An adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, Eric Triffin, wasn't so lucky; the administration suspended him last week after he said the N-word while singing the lyrics to a song. The Black Student Union accused Triffin of fostering a racially hostile educational environment; Triffin identifies as "neither white nor black, just human," and often asks students to sing and dance to songs at the beginning of class.
Triffin's use of the N-word wasn't in service of any educational purpose, though it seems to be a harmless and isolated incident. Rosen, on the other hand, used the word on purpose, in order to stimulate a difficult conversation. Students are angry with him for hurting their feelings, but learning can't always be comfortable—particularly when the point of the class is to discuss what gives unsayable words their power. If some students wants to drop the class, so be it. But what did they expect?