Classroom norms are changing. Where’s the line, and who decides?

By Emma Pettit

Erica Cope admits it wasn’t a great lesson.

In the fall of 2020, Cope, like faculty members across the country, was teaching virtually, from her kitchen table. None of her students — all freshmen at Buffalo State College — seemed particularly engaged in the introductory writing course. Discussions were scarce. Faced with a sea of black screens, Cope, an adjunct lecturer, couldn’t tell whether her lessons were landing.

“You can’t read the room,” Cope says of virtual teaching. “There is no room.”

So she decided to spur her class into contributing. The day’s lesson was about “cancel culture.” Students had read a few articles on the topic beforehand. Cope wanted to present them with an opinion that, at first blush, they’d object to but that would actually be more nuanced than it appeared. She said, “This is me, like, speaking honestly, and you guys have to respond to me honestly with what you think, with what you feel about this. So, I am sick of talking about Black Lives Matter.”

Though clumsily articulated, Cope acknowledges, it’s an opinion that she holds. While Cope, who is white, supports Black Lives Matter in general, she thinks that conversations about the movement can be performative, and that it should focus not just on police brutality but also on education, health care, poverty, and other issues that affect Black people in America. She wanted her students to engage with that sort of critique, which she thought would be unfamiliar to them. But her choice of words was “very very” poor, she says.

“It didn’t work. It was a mistake,” Cope says. “And I recognized that.”

Many of the students in the class were Black, and some of them were pretty upset, Cope recalled. Now, everyone wanted to talk, and the class stretched beyond the normal time. Cope says she tried to make it clear where she was coming from, but over all, the lesson just flopped. She left the class period with an uneasy feeling: “Whoa. That didn’t go the way I thought it would.”

Before teaching the same course in the spring, Cope revised the lesson, she says, and it went much better.

Then, in April 2021, a 15-second clip from the lecture-gone-wrong surfaced on social media, showing Cope saying that she was “sick” of talking about Black Lives Matter. “I feel like she said that with all her might,” the student who posted the video told The Buffalo Newssaying Cope’s statement was insensitive, especially because the class was mostly made up of Black students. The student had shared the video online to coincide with a protest about racial bias against students, the News reported.

Major media outlets including the New York Post and the Daily Mail picked up the story. Online, Cope recalled, people said she was a racist, an embarrassment, that she should be fired. Buffalo State’s president issued a statement that Cope’s message “as presented is unacceptable” and said the chief diversity officer would be reviewing the incident. The magnitude of the attention overwhelmed Cope. She was scared her career would be permanently derailed. A few of her colleagues seemed appalled, though others reached out to say, “This could happen to anyone.”

It’s happened to a lot of people. Though Cope’s situation is extreme, many professors have found themselves in a similar position: One or several of their students are hurt by something they said or did while teaching. Those students then ask, or demand, that the institution take action, sometimes by inflicting punishment.

It’s clear that norms regarding if and how certain topics can be broached in the classroom have shifted. Frequently, these incidents involve not challenges to students’ ideas but remarks they say denigrate their identity. Especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, many colleges have promoted the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion and have publicly promised students that their campuses will be “safe” places to attend. But professors want a productive learning environment, which for many means challenging their students and at times presenting them with material that could make them uncomfortable. Students’ ideas about what is appropriate, what is offensive, and what is discriminatory can differ from their instructors’, and from one another’s. That gap leads to complaints and sometimes ultimatums.

When a professor does something in the classroom to which students object, what should happen next? Who should decide?

Debates over what’s suitable to bring up in the classroom, and how much latitude professors should be given to instruct how they wish, are nothing new. “We might be in a moment of slightly more accelerated social change,” says Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies at Portland State University who writes regularly about academic-freedom issues, but there “has always been discussion around what’s appropriate pedagogy.

That accelerated social change stems in part from higher ed’s shifting student demographics. Over the last two decades, the share of undergraduates who identify as a race other than white has increased to about 45 percent from 30 percent. That rate of racial diversification has not been matched among the faculty. “Many of us in academia have come to learn by quote-unquote common sense what might be, like, good to say that stirs up critical thinking but doesn’t offend people,” says Hendry Ton, associate vice chancellor for health equity, diversity, and inclusion at UC Davis Health. But “we’ve learned that on a fairly homogeneous group of people … the traditional group of students that we’ve seen highly represented in our universities,” he says. As the student body changes, there’s a need to “update our sensibilities.”

That’s because words “have emotional impact” and can lead to both psychological and physical problems, says Ton, who is also a psychiatrist. If you’re a student from an underrepresented group sitting in a lecture who hears something hurtful, “you might be thinking: ‘Wait. Did the professor just say what I thought they said? How could they? Probably not. I’m reading this wrong. Am I being too sensitive? Should I say something?’” All of that “cognitive load” makes it harder for the student to participate in the classroom conversation, Ton says. In other words, the professor has not created a productive learning environment.

Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, emphasized at a recent Chronicle event the importance of considering climate before introducing sensitive materials in the classroom. For example, to “openly use racial slurs in a moment in which the majority of my students have watched someone die on their smartphone?” Students have seen the election of “essentially, a white nationalist,” she said. “Maybe it’s time to take a different tone and take the temperature of the room before you introduce certain ideas — not because it’s not important to teach those ideas, but we’re always teaching in a context.”

In her experience, she said, good teachers “do not have these moments in the classroom — because they’ve thought about what they’re doing.”

Of course, some scholars strongly disagree. They argue that today’s students are eager to pounce upon an instructor who does something they don’t like, and they see academe’s administrative class as lacking the spine to defend those instructors.

Randall L. Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School who was in conversation with Chatelain, said during the event that faculty members are not being disciplined for doing a bad job of teaching. Rather, they’re being disciplined, in part, because university leaders are buckling to those “who are making the most noise.” A core principle of university life should be that ideas, “even the most reprehensible — ought to be subject to discussion,” he said. What concerns Kennedy, he said, is that at more and more institutions, students will say, “There are certain words that cannot be said.”

“I wrote a book” — he’s the author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word — and if a teacher were to name that book, “that teacher would be disciplined” in some places. “That, it seems to me, is, you know, a bad thing,” he said.

Chatelain replied that many faculty members “do not have the talent, the gravitas, the sensitivity, and the thoughtfulness to teach your book.” She’s seen people “who are out of their depth” in trying to “sensitively and thoughtfully engage the difficult history of that word.”

And colleges may bear some responsibility for students’ expectations that their sensibilities be respected. They tend to emphasize what fun and exciting places they can be, and, as of late, what a safe and inclusive place they can be, says Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University who is chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance, a newly formed organization devoted to protecting academic freedom. The idea that college will be “like a family and like a home” generates certain expectations. And those expectations are “in quite a bit of tension” with how many academics envision a scholarly environment, Whittington says. Many faculty members think that part of what it means to be a diverse and inclusive institution is to have a lot of people who disagree with each other and who will express those disagreements.

Complicating matters further is that in recent years universities have ramped up their reporting mechanisms regarding bias, discrimination, and harassment, and students are increasingly entering the university already aware of those sorts of concerns, says Whittington. Obviously, “some of that’s important and necessary.” But those mechanisms also create “a whole new toolkit,” Whittington says, that people use to report and investigate behavior that doesn’t rise to harassment or discrimination.

What sort of behavior by a professor should trigger intervention? At what point does a professor’s conduct warrant immediate removal from the classroom?

Sometimes the answer is obvious. After complaints came in regarding Andre Duclos, then an adjunct professor in the economics department at Bowling Green State University, it became clear that he’d crossed a line, says Peter G. VanderHart, the department chair. An April 2021 investigation found that Duclos had made insulting and unprofessional comments to students. One complaint was that he had recently engaged the only Black female student in class in a conversation about Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl who was fatally shot by the police in Columbus, Ohio, and said to that student: “She’s not really a child, hon. She’s bigger than you.” He also offered the student 20 bonus points if she could write 100 words about the positive things Black Lives Matter had done.

In response to a student’s assignment in the fall of 2020 about how minorities are affected economically by stereotypes, the investigative report stated that Duclos had commented, in part: “To be honest, racism is not a problem, the media has simply told you that to keep your hate brewing. … Mexico is the main illegal alien country, but most drugs and criminals come from the south. The wall is changing that.”

Students reported other troubling comments, and two students said they had stopped attending Duclos’s class because of his conduct.

While VanderHart says he does worry that in general it’s too easy for students to squelch faculty speech, in this case, Duclos had clearly created an environment that was inhospitable to learning. “He’s paid to do a job” and his conduct was “impinging on that job,” VanderHart says. “So, it was the right thing to do, to remove him.” VanderHart oversaw the final exam and also assigned final grades. The department had not planned to employ Duclos the subsequent summer and fall, and VanderHart said he would not seek him out in the future.

Duclos told The Chronicle that he doesn’t “promote hate” in the classroom. “That’s why … even though I might be a Trumper, I don’t put up with MAGA. I don’t put up with BLM. I don’t put up with any of that hate stuff because it throws off the aura of the classroom.” He argues that the Black female student “brought the hate in” and says that he was “beginning to wonder if that young lady was maybe a little racist on the backward side. Yes, Black people can be racist.”

He acknowledges he “made a few mistakes on this.” But “they wouldn’t keep me there for a year and a half if I was picking fights with all the Black students in the college.”ADVERTISEMENT

In other cases, it’s less clear that the learning environment has been irreparably ruptured. In November 2019, Catherine West Lowry, a senior lecturer of accounting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found herself in hot water. Lowry typically offered extra credit to students in her introductory accounting lecture who put together short videos about course concepts. During one class period, she showed a clip that former students had created based on a scene from Downfall, a German-language drama that depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler.

The film is often parodied by adding English subtitles that are unrelated to the film’s German dialogue. In the students’ version, the subtitles refer to accounting concepts and Lowry’s class. Hitler yells at one of his advisers: “Don’t you dare finish that sentence or I’ll send you to a chamber. And it won’t be the chamber of commerce.”

Around that time, on campus, there’d been reports of swastikas drawn in chalk on the walls of the fine-arts center. One of Lowry’s students complained about the video to a rabbi on campus, who then informed Lowry’s dean, The Chronicle previously reported. At that point, “the administration did what administrations do, which is sort of go into defensive mode and ask the lawyers, you know, how to avoid any liability on the university’s part,” says Eve Weinbaum, co-president of the faculty and librarian union. Lowry was removed from the classroom for the semester. Some students were upset at Lowry’s ouster and protested by walking out. (A university spokesperson said at the time in a statement that the decision to remove Lowry was made after the business school concluded that “objectively offensive material had been presented to students.”)

Weinbaum says she’s sympathetic to the individual student’s response to being shown the clip. But she wishes the incident had been used as a “teachable moment.” Those concerns could’ve been talked about in the classroom. “We’re a university. We’re supposed to be educating people about these things,” she says.

And Weinbaum worries that it’s non-tenure-track faculty members who more often face repercussions when these sorts of complaints arise. Tenured faculty members have more social capital, she says. They know the dean and the department chairs. Complaints don’t have the same impact on their career. But “when you don’t have that job security, and you don’t have tenure to protect your academic freedom, those are the people who are being penalized.” (Lowry did not respond to an interview request.)

No matter how they end, the investigations themselves can be nerve-racking.

Laurie Sheck, a writer and part-time faculty member at the New School, says she felt powerless during an inquiry into her use of a racial slur in a graduate course in the spring of 2019. Sheck, who is white, was quoting the writer James Baldwin, in reference to the 2016 documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. The film’s title substitutes “negro” for the N-word, which Baldwin had used when he made a similar statement in a television appearance(The clip is included in the documentary.)Sheck says she wanted to talk about what it meant to sanitize his language.

Illustration of shocked students reacting to a professor’s language in the classroon

According to Sheck, a white student immediately objected to her use of the word, which the student had been taught white people should never say. Sheck replied that that’s one school of thought but that there are others. The semester moved along, she said, until the student brought up Sheck’s utterance again during her end-of-semester presentation. In June, Sheck was called into a meeting with the dean of students, the assistant dean of part-time faculty, and the director of labor relations in the office of the general counsel. The meeting was being called “regarding student complaints made under the University’s discrimination policy about your conduct,” Sheck was told via email, which did not specify the conduct.

Sheck says she surmised what the complaints were about and came prepared. But had she not known what the charges were, and had she been unable to defend herself, that’s “a terrible way to treat somebody,” she says. She also got in touch with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that often aids faculty members in these situations. FIRE sent a letter to the New School on her behalf, writing that the complaint “concerns faculty expression plainly protected by basic precepts of academic freedom.”

She was cleared that August. “We have determined that you did not violate the university’s policy on discrimination,” reads a letter from the director of labor relations. “… Open and robust discussion of often difficult issues and academic freedom have always been central to our mission as a university, as is our commitment to provide an educational environment that is effective in educating our students.”

Though Sheck’s experience was difficult and isolating, in one sense, she also felt a lot of support — from FIRE, from a few colleagues, from her friends and family, and from strangers who’d read about her case online. (It was covered widely.) Sheck says she won’t use that word again in the classroom. What she could have done better, she says, is see that initial class discussion about the use of the word as something to revisit. “There is room for self-doubt on all sides. … What I would have liked was a little more on the side of the student,” she says.

Of course, it’s possible to view Sheck’s case as an example of the process working as it should. Her case was held aloft by pundits as “a totemic example of Wokeness Gone Mad,” the journalist Michael Hobbes wrote in his Substack newsletter. But ultimately she was not punished. “The term ‘investigation’ conjures up comparisons to Orwell and Kafka, but in this case it appears administrators interviewed Sheck and the student, reviewed their policies and moved on,” Hobbes wrote. This “is the story of a system working as intended, not breaking down.”

Still, it’s also worth considering that these inquiries and actions taken by administrators can have ramifications beyond the people involved. At the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, for example, professors reported feeling “betrayed” and “scared” after a scholar was removed from the classroom in response to complaints. The scholar, Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication, had used the Chinese word nèige (那个), which literally means “that” but is also used as a filler word. It’s often pronounced “nay-ga” and can sound like the N-word. Several students complained, and Patton’s dean removed him from the course.

In an anonymous survey, professors in the school expressed their upset with the dean’s decision and described how it would affect their teaching in the future, The Chronicle previously reported. “I plan to be aware and on the lookout for situations that might be misinterpreted,” one wrote, “but am concerned that if I start looking over my shoulder and second guessing myself that I might be more inclined to actually make a mistake.”

Arecent mistake that sparked national attention was that of Bright Sheng, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Early this fall, Sheng showed undergraduate students a 1965 film version of Othello in which Laurence Olivier appears in blackface. A student in Sheng’s class told The Michigan Daily that the professor hadn’t given warning or offered context before showing the film.

Shortly after the class ended, Sheng apologized to his students, writing that the portrayal was “racially insensitive and outdated” and that he shouldn’t have shown it. He apologized again, but that apology was criticized by some students, and by then calls for his removal had intensified. Sheng’s dean told students that the professor would no longer be teaching the course, a decision that he said was made in “concurrence” with Sheng.ADVERTISEMENT

Sheng’s case exemplifies what can be so tricky about these incidents: The professor who made the error is open to discussing it with students. Sheng, a world-renowned composer and pianist, had wanted to talk about what happened during the next class period. But students see an imbalance between them and the instructor that cannot be corrected. One of Sheng’s students wrote an essay on Medium about the saga and said that the department chair had suggested he and his classmates discuss the matter directly with Sheng. But that conversation “could never take place,” the student, Sammy Sussman, wrote. “He’s had tenure since before my classmates and I learned to read. There was no way we could voice our feelings about this incident without fearing for the professional repercussions.”

Many observers disagreed with Sheng’s removal, including those who thought he had erred in not introducing the film with appropriate context. Such a mistake, they thought, should not lead to his ejection from the course. It wasn’t fair to him, they argued.

In general, being suspended from a class ought to be reserved for situations in which the allegations are fairly serious, says Whittington, the Princeton professor. He says he’s struck by how quick institutions are to remove an instructor, even when the allegations, taken at face value, don’t warrant that action. “There’s no real question about the safety of students, for example.” Yet the university disrupts the class. As a result, the instructor is often publicly labeled as “problematic, in some fashion.”

But it’s worth considering whether it was possible after the incident for Sheng to teach that particular group of students effectively. “Those first couple of class sessions are so critical to establishing a baseline for the class,” says Ruth, the Portland State professor. By that point, the baseline “had obviously been blown out of the water. For everyone’s sake, at that point, it was better that the students have another instructor.” That doesn’t mean Sheng can’t teach the class again in the future, Ruth noted.

The university said in a statement that placing a different instructor in the class had “allowed students to best continue their studies while working through the complexities of these circumstances,” and that the university took that approach “after discussions with Professor Sheng, as well as hearing from students and faculty in the Composition Department.” When asked by The Chronicle to discuss his removal, Sheng responded by email that he’d like to, but now was not the right time.

Back in the spring, Crystal J. Rodriguez, Buffalo State’s chief diversity officer, was asked to review the Erica Cope incident. She spent a month “contemplating one of higher education’s enduring and often elusive imperatives — to create an inclusive, empathetic, and safe environment for our students, faculty, and staff while fostering dialogue and debate on difficult topics, all the while supporting the foundational tenets of freedom of speech and academic expression,” she wrote in Buffalo State’s campus newsletter.

She watched the full video of the class. Ultimately, she concluded that while Cope had made a remark “that many, including myself, would perceive as culturally insensitive,” the statement was “taken out of a larger context that was intended to generate thought and debate around an unpopular opinion.” Rodriguez noted that as Cope’s course was taking place on September 23, 2020, news was breaking that no police officers would be charged for killing Breonna Taylor six months earlier in a botched drug raid. Students in the classroom may have been contending with “very raw emotions.” In this context, “it is understandable that the comment made was interpreted by our students and larger community as insensitive and hurtful regardless of the instructor’s intent,” Rodriguez wrote.

Cope says administrators “strongly encouraged” her to take an alternative assignment for the fall of 2021. Not as a punishment but as a way of learning from the experience, which she appreciated. She’d be researching how to make the college writing curriculum better attuned to students’ needs.ADVERTISEMENT

But in the spring, as her mistake made the rounds on social media, Cope was still in the virtual classroom. She could tell that some of her students, having heard about it, had lost faith in her as an instructor. Though they never broached the topic in class, she could feel their trust in her eroding through the computer screen.

At the end of the semester, her course evaluations were “drastically lower” than any before, including the semester of the controversial lecture. In November, her dean told her that while her contributions “have enhanced the college” and her efforts to “enrich Buffalo State’s academic programs are appreciated,” her appointment would not be extended.

Throughout the ordeal, there’ve been both “dark clouds” and “silver linings,” Cope says. For a time she was extremely depressed but she worked through it, enough to make some peace with what had happened. Though her Buffalo State job will end in January, she also works as a long-term substitute teacher at a middle school and runs a dance studio. She has serious doubts anyone will hire her as an adjunct ever again. Not if someone Googles her name.

It’s “kind of terrifying,” Cope says. “But, you know, I have to live with it now, and I do.” When she spoke to The Chronicle in mid-November, she was continuing her research on inclusive pedagogy for Buffalo State.

“I’m learning so, so much.”

courtesy The Chrnonicle