A Disturbing Session with the Dean of Arts and Sciences
One day, I was unexpectedly summoned into the office of the newly appointed Dean of Arts and Sciences at the New Bern, NC, branch of Craven Community College. The Dean was livid.
He had gotten a complaint from a Black student who had been appalled to see the N-word repeatedly found in an assigned short story: A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner. The Dean was very disappointed in my lack of sensitivity. How had I allowed this racially biased short story to be discussed in class? In the future, I should never include in any syllabus a work that offends a minority student. And if I didn’t follow his directive, he reminded me that he had the power to fire me.
I have always fought against censorship, and that was what the Dean vehemently proposed. I was stunned and outraged at this blow to academic freedom. I tried to defend the use of the literature selection written by the most celebrated Southern writer of the twentieth century; but the Dean was adamant.
I was to immediately inform all of my English instructors to follow the party line or their jobs too would be jeopardized.
After a lot of soul searching, I came up with a compromise that pleased me, my staff, and the Dean.
To All English Instructors
Sensitivity to the needs of our minority students is one of the principal elements in our newly adopted code of professionalism.
Accordingly, when an instructor chooses to assign and discuss any literary work containing racial, religious, ethnic, gender, or sexual preference slurs, that instructor is obligated to state to the class (in advance) the extent of the derogatory, potentially offensive material. Then he or she should explain the historical context and the author’s artistic purpose so that all students will have a broader perspective from which to evaluate that part of the text.
If a student, after reading the assignment in question, is unnerved by the language and/or the content, and voices his objection to the instructor, the student will be exempted from class discussion of that work and any testing based on that particular piece of literature. Instead, he or she will be given another selection appropriate to the design of the syllabus.
This policy is no way infringes upon the academic freedom of any English instructor. What I am advocating is our increased awareness of the concerns of minority students.