I appreciate the fact that we live in an age where finally – finally – we have grown more sensitive on issues like race, gender, sexual orientation and privilege. (I wish I could add class to that list, but so far I can’t.) I’m sincere about this. The language we use can do more harm (or good) than I think 99% of us imagine, and we are a better society for our growing awareness of how important words can be.
We can also take this sensitivity too far. It can become a weapon for cudgeling intellectual discussion (if you’ve been watching the news lately you know which elite northeastern campus I’m referring to) and, as we’re seeing in a story this morning, a smoke machine that completely obscures any attempt at basic communication.
An instructor at the University of Kansas is in hot water for … doing something. Maybe.
Kansas Professor on Leave After Using Racial Slur in Class
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Nov 21, 2015, 2:27 PM ET
A white University of Kansas professor is on paid leave after using a racial slur during a class discussion about race.
The school told Andrea Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies, on Friday that five people had filed a discrimination complaint against her, she told the Lawrence Journal-World ( http://bit.ly/1SbhBhY ). She requested a leave of absence, and the university says she will have to stay off campus during the administrative leave until the investigation is complete.
Students began complaining about Quenette after she used the racial slur during a Nov. 12 class for graduate students who teach undergraduate classes. The class met the day after a contentious university-wide forum on race and discrimination moderated by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.
Here’s the problem: I have no idea what happened. None. You don’t either, no matter how many times you read the story.
- I don’t know what was said.
- I don’t know what race was slandered. Blacks? Jews? Latinos? Arabs? There’s aq reference to the recent events at the University of Missouri, so I’m expected to assume blacks, I guess. (But if I’m guessing, you’re not a very good reporter, are you?)
- I don’t know the context of the conversation…
- …which means I don’t know if it was actually a slur or if it was instead an informed use of an offensive term in a non-offensive way.
This context makes all the difference in the world. If you have read enough of my writing here, you know that I have used all sorts of offensive words, up to and including the toxic “n-word.” But you also know that I have not done so in a biased fashion, but rather to a) call attention to the power of the words, and b) to mock those among us who use them in derisive fashion.
Let me give you an example. Compare these sentences.
1: Those people are [racial slurs].
2: Only an ignorant asshole would call those people [racial slurs].
See the difference? In both cases I employed the term [racial slur]. But sentence 1 is racist and sentence 2 is condemning racism. Which are kind of opposite things.
Now, I have no idea what we’re dealing with in Kansas/Quenette case. The story doesn’t tell me. The story doesn’t come close to telling me. The story acts as if providing me with the information I need to understand what happened (hereafter referred to “performing journalism”) would threaten the fabric of Western society. I can’t be trusted with the facts. I – and you – can’t handle the truth.
We’re expected to assume that the students are bright enough to know when to be offended, I guess. But is that true? I spent a lot of years in academia, as a student, as an instructor, and as a tenure-track professor, and I am unwilling to make that assumption. This line later in the story is intended, I think, to suggest that Quenette is likely guilty:
Schumacher said she believes Quenette “actively violated policies” during the discussion, hurt students’ feelings — including the one black student, who left “devastated” — and has a previous history of being unsympathetic to students.
Okay, that sounds bad. But first off, all I know about Schumacher is that she’s a first-year doc student and that she’s part of the group complaining. Is that credible? Well, maybe. But I have known a lot of first-year doc students. Many of them … let’s just say I wouldn’t take their word that it was raining without sticking my head out the window to check for myself.
Second, that “unsympathetic to students” could be anything. It could mean that students had legitimate complaints about hostile, incompetent behavior and she told them to fuck themselves. Or it could mean that students skipped half their classes, didn’t hand in assignments and she didn’t give them the A they thought they deserved regardless.
True story. I once had a student who ditched two-thirds of the classes in a semester. She was obviously drunk and/or high for about half the ones she did show up for. She didn’t hand in assignments worth maybe a third of the final grade and might as well have not turned in the rest, they were so bad. When she got the grade she earned (wait, check that – she got D, which is better than the F she rightly deserved, so I was actually being generous) the next day daddy was in the dean’s office complaining about me. Literally, the next day.
I’m guessing she’d characterize me as “unsympathetic,” and probably a lot worse.
Which of these cases best describes Quenette? I have no clue. She could be the worst instructor at the school, fully deserving of a righteous public firing. Or she could be a fantastic instructor and the problem is that we have a cadre of overly sensitive, entitled little brats who aren’t capable of understanding the nuances of language surrounding race.
By now it’s hopefully clear that this post isn’t about Quenette, her students, the University of Kansas or the doc program in question. It’s about the appalling state of contemporary “journalism,” and more specifically about the Associated Press. Once upon a time the AP was a benchmark for solid reporting, but obviously they have allowed their standards to slip a little, to the detriment of the public it’s so poorly serving.
As a result, I have this story before me that does not provide me with the full story or even the basic, component facts I need to figure it out on my own.
Here’s what I know. Something happened at the University of Kansas. Some people are upset.
Is that good enough for you?