In spaces of higher education, language is one of the most fundamental tools in enriching the academic experience — but this tool comes with responsibility. Recent uses of the N-word by three Emory professors have demonstrated the complexities surrounding the use of this word on college campuses. Emory Law School Professor Paul Zwier II is under investigation for saying the N-word, and two more professors have recently been reported for using the term in their classrooms, reigniting conversation on campus about racially-charged language.
At universities nationwide, there is ambiguity about how to address slurs. Some schools choose to fire professors for their language choices while others simply reprimand them. Because Emory does not have a specific policy regarding racially-charged language in the classroom, the University should define and disseminate information about the appropriate use of such language within academic contexts.
By “academic contexts,” we mean written or spoken interactions among faculty and students that are meant to provoke thoughtful, nuanced discussion of relevant academic subjects. Professors should be able to provide compelling academic reasons for their use of the word, and such reasons could include the illustration of personal experiences or historical examples. We do not defend the targeted use of the word to refer to individuals or groups because such usage constitutes harassment.
Professors must be judicious in their use of derogatory language by considering student sensitivity, history and their own identity. If a professor anticipates using the N-word in class for academic reasons, the professor should warn students beforehand, as Emory Law School Adjunct Professor Robert Saunooke did.
In the case of Zwier, the University was correct to suspend the professor; he did not have a compelling academic reason to use the term. Administrators had even reprimanded him for an irresponsible earlier use of the N-word in class, and he once again carelessly used the term during his office hours. This demonstrates poor judgment on the part of Zwier, and the distinction between Saunooke and Zwier should be acknowledged.
At their best, University classrooms can foster intellectual discourse around contentious issues. While mature academic settings require that subjects be approached with honesty and accuracy, students and professors should never feel harassed in a learning environment. That said, uncomfortable topics, words and images should not be avoided for the sake of maintaining comfort.
To prevent careless usage of slurs, Emory should implement University-wide sensitivity training. Emory should ensure that this training includes all tenured and non-tenured faculty and staff members of the University.
Emory should continue to investigate uses of the N-word so that professors use the term appropriately. There are times when racially-charged language can be relevant to academic discussions, but there are also instances where such words have no place. Academic freedom protects the use of uncomfortable words and topics relevant to the learning experience. Emory must uphold these principles and continue to remind students and professors of the weight these words carry.
The Editorial Board is composed of Zach Ball, Jacob Busch, Andrew Kliewer, Boris Niyonzima, Shreya Pabbaraju and Kimia Tabatabaei.