Mark Twain once said that “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Professor Hannah Berliner Fischthal may have cause to question that pearl of wisdom after she was sacked by St. John’s University after reading a Twain passage using the n-word. While adjunct instructor explained to the class that the word would be used in the context of the work and hoped it would not offend anyone, she was still fired. This is not the first such controversy over academic freedom at St. John’s.
We have been discussing such controversies as more schools fired or discipline faculty despite their use of the words for academic purposes. We have seen such investigations and terminations involving professors for the use of the “n-word” in classes or tests at Georgetown, Duquesne, John Marshall, Augsberg, Chicago, DePaul, Princeton, Kansas, and other schools.
This incident involves the reading a passage containing the N-word from Twain’s anti-slavery novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in her “Literature of Satire” class. The work is a poignant satire of racism and satire. Published in 1894, the work focuses on a light-skinned slave named Roxy who has a baby boy at the same time as the master’s wife. She decides to spare her child the cruelty of slavery and the risk of being sold by switching the babies. Roxy’s son, however, grows up to be a cruel and spoiled man while the master’s biological child grows up humble and true.
Ironically, Twain wrote about how Southerners were shielded from such discussions and the realities of slavery:
In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.
Twain wrote passionately against slavery like a dormant virus in our species. In his essay The Lowest Animal (1896), he wrote:
“Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day, he is always some man’s slave for wages and does that man’s work, and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living.”
In works like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Twain found ways to return to the subject: “The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder’s moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name.”
Fishcthal explained to the class that “Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect. His use of the ‘N-word’ is used only in dialogues as it could have actually been spoken in the south before the civil war, when the story takes place.”
However, after the class, a student objected to the reference and Fishcthal reached out to apologize for any offense and arranged a private discussion online about the incident. She wrote “I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text. Please do share your thoughts.” That was not enough. While two students defended her, four objected and a complaint was filed.
Many academics view reading original texts like this one to be important to understanding the language and context of writings. That has long been protected as a matter of academic freedom, a position that I support. Faculty like Fischthal warn about the appearance of such language and recognize how offensive the term is. The action taken against Fischthal suggests that this type of decision is no longer left to the professor as a matter of academic freedom.
On March 3, Fischthal was called into a meeting about the class and was also confronted about commenting on a Black student’s hair. (Fischthal insisted that she did not comment on the hair but rather the fact that the student’s head being wrapped up during class). She said she was also criticized for discussing the experience of her family in the Holocaust.
She was then fired on April 29th.
The university however is quoted in denying that the reading itself was the reason for the termination. Brian Browne, a spokesman for St. John’s told the media that “If your assertion is that she was fired for reading aloud from a Mark Twain novel, that is incorrect.” However, it did not explain the basis for the termination. We have seen in past cases where universities confronted on such issues find collateral justifications for termination like a failure to properly respond to an inquiry or failure to take adequate steps to resolve such disputes.
The case has been taken up by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
One concern is that this is not the first such controversy for the university. Last year, the school fired adjunct history professor Richard Taylor, 46, who has also accused the school of not explaining the basis for the termination. Taylor was the subject of a complaint tied to his class (“History 1000: Emergence of a Global Society”) about the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of technology, ideas, food crops, disease, and populations between the New World and the Old World, West Africa, and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.
He taught the class for five years and in this class he showed a series of 42 PowerPoint slides that ended with a discussion of slavery and a prompt (Slide 46) asking “Do The Positives Outweigh The Negatives?” — a prompt that Taylor says that he routinely used as the end of powerpoint sections.
That led to a letter campaign calling for his termination, including one letter that objected that “It is outrageous that in 2020, our Black students are endangered by disgusting rhetoric used by a Professor, an individual who has a responsibility to adhere to the mission of our university to uphold a global community, to speak of slavery as if there was ‘good’ to come from it.”
Taylor was later and fired and, like Fischthal, objected to the lack of due and fair process from the school. He is now suing.
On the use of the n-word, schools seem to be treated this issue as a strict liability offense rather than a matter for academic freedom. The problem with such cases is that, unless the school explores the intent and context of a lesson, there is little due process afforded to professor. As Twain himself noted “All generalizations are false, including this one.”