Augsburg is excluding students under guise of academic freedom

Taiwana Shambley, Contributor

Here’s why the concept of academic freedom doesn’t justify professors using the N-word in class: a slur of that magnitude can trigger a black student’s racial trauma and prevent them from being able to equally participate in class. When professors such as Phil Adamo, director of Augsburg’s Honors program, use oppressive language in class, they aren’t considering the negative impact that the language may have on students.

Given that the N-word is used to systemically dehumanize black bodies, hearing it, especially from a white voice, is enough to evoke black student’s traumatic experiences, making them feel unsafe because of their racial identity and immediate relationship with the word. Which isn’t the same as feeling uncomfortable because you’re being intellectually challenged because your professor disagrees with your ideas or anything to that effect.

Evoking this trauma in students can prevent them from being able to equally participate in class. What human has the emotional capacity to actively take notes, ask questions, participate in class discussions and all of the other stuff that being a good student entails while also reliving emotions they’ve felt when they were treated as less than human? And even if a student could do this, should they have to? Because a racially insensitive professor couldn’t watch his mouth?

Considering how the word can shut students down, an academic institution backing the usage of it is an act against academic freedom. It doesn’t allow black students to be students. You don’t need to use the actual N-word when facilitating discussion about it or things it’s used in. That’s what the phrase “N-word” is for. Saying “N-word” in substitute of the actual word itself doesn’t erase any meaning because it doesn’t physically alter the text; one can still see the word is there.

In the midst of this controversy, it’s disheartening to see faculty like Professor Robert Cowgill, chair of Augsburg’s English department, come to Adamo’s defense with his quick response in “Letter to the editor: AAUP defends academic freedom,” published in the last issue of “The Echo.” Cowgill states, “Academic freedom … includes the right to engage difficult topics. Even potentially triggering or offensive speech, if relevant to a course’s subject or reading material.” He goes on to talk about how the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) supports offensive speech being used in the classroom as if a bunch of teachers banding together somehow makes their arguments infallible. To reiterate: the presence of offense isn’t necessarily the problem of offensive speech being used in the classroom; the impact it may have on the oppressed group in question is. Again, the N-word as a systemic tool of violence against black bodies disqualifies it from academic use. Because again, advocating for a word that functions to shut students down rather than invite them in does not promote the need “to foster an atmosphere respectful and welcoming to all persons” that Cowgill and the AAUP rave about.

Clearly, there’s work to be done. So let’s talk about this work. The Adamo situation speaks to a larger problem that Augsburg has: this is not a matter of academic freedom but a matter of racial discrimination. If Augsburg, an institution that prides itself on its diverse student body, supports Adamo’s racially discriminatory teaching methods, then they are taking a clear stance on the wellbeing of their students: they don’t care about their students. To ensure that Augsburg is who we say we are, here’s what the higher ups need to do: (a) re-evaluate the Honors program, (b) require all tenured Augsburg faculty attend a series of mandatory (quality) anti-racist trainings and (c) make an honest and immediate effort to hire more faculty of color to represent the diverse student body.

Making our institutions a place for all takes time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Let’s get to work, Augsburg!

This article was originally published in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue.