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On Tuesday, Feb. 6, professor Lawrence Rosen used the racial slur “n****r” in an attempt to stimulate student reactions on “oppressive symbolism.” By this metric, Rosen succeeded. As The Daily Princetonian reported on Feb. 7, four students walked out of the lecture, one of whom returned to confront the professor. The rest of the class argued with Rosen for the remainder of the period, demanding an apology. Since the Feb. 7 publication, there have been four separate Letters to the Editor, defenses which take a variety of sides on the controversy. At least six outside publications have picked up the story, and there have been hundreds of comments on the various articles published in the ‘Prince.’ On Monday, Feb. 12, Rosen cancelled his class. This was without pressure from the University.

Anthropology department chair Carolyn Rouse has argued that Rosen did nothing wrong. On the other hand, De’Andre Salter, a parent of a student at the University, argues that most of Rouse’s points are “red herrings,” and offers a point-by-point rejection of Rouse. Waqas Jawaid ’10 has argued for the students who walked out, as has lecturer Timothy Haupt.

Let’s settle this. Did Rosen do something wrong, or did the students overreact? I think yes, Rosen did something wrong by using the N-word in his class. He overstepped his boundaries as a teacher, and then compounded his mistake by defending his choice to use the N-word instead of apologizing.

Where exactly, though, did Rosen go wrong?

Rosen used the N-word pedagogically in a classroom; that is, he did not intend to use the term pejoratively (or so I assume). Does this make a difference?

In many cases, there must be a frank discussion of unsavory things. Few would deny the importance of discussing the Holocaust, slavery, or other injustices. But there are limits to the pedagogical license to deal with controversial material. Rosen went wrong because he confused the importance of pedagogy with an open license to say whatever he thought was needed. Rosen went far past these limits, and did not give appropriate respect to what Haupt called the distinction between descriptive action and performative action.

Rosen could have simply noted that the N-word exists and is controversial. That would have been sufficient. Rosen could have described the anger and indignation that is ignited when people use the N-word. Rosen could have shown a snippet of someone saying the slur in a film, like “Django Unchained,” and gauged people’s reactions to it. In any of these cases, Rosen would have been required to demonstrate the purpose of discussing the N-word in an academic context, while showing a level of care and understanding about the significance of what he was undertaking.

What Rosen did do is actually break the taboo himself (merely for reaction), without proper warning, context, or sensitivity. Words are actions, and words can matter as much as actions. We should not treat the use of words — especially those as fraught as racial slurs — any less seriously than we should treat any other action. Words have normative weight and social power; the use of the N-word reinforces the dehumanizing racist history of American life. The important pedagogical conversation that can occur surrounding this history would be as valuable with saying the N-word instead of “n****r.”

So that’s where I think Rosen went wrong: He fundamentally misunderstood where the lines were in his pedagogical license. Moreover, he compounded his failure by digging in his heels when confronted. To be fair, he probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong when he walked in that day. He would have been aware of the lack of hostile reactions from the previous years classes: As Rouse described, students did not walk out when he used the term in other years. He probably also thought that he had pedagogical licence to say the N-word. Maybe this isn’t a totally unreasonable position to take, and after all, we all can, and do, make mistakes. But when Rosen was confronted by students, all appearances are that he doubled down. He ought to have apologized. He should have recognized that he had gone too far. This is emotionally charged material, and requires empathy and explanation. As Haupt has pointed out, Rosen left a teachable moment on the table. Instead of using the opportunity to teach, it seems like he tried to use his authority as a professor to eliminate dissent.

In conclusion, Rosen may have had a pedagogical license to discuss controversial material. I don’t think anyone will doubt that dealing with difficult issues is part and parcel of education, academia, and life more generally. This is hardly an issue of free speech (as it is framed by the broader media). This is the case of a failure of teaching in an area that demands a certain level of respect,understanding, and sensitivity to be taught well. Perhaps Rosen did not fail as a person, but he did fail as a teacher.

This is the inaugural article in a recurring column by Ryan Born on politics and pedagogy at Princeton and elsewhere.

Ryan Born 19 is a philosophy concentrator from Washington Township, Mich. He can be reached at rcborn@princeton.edu.

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