SDSU Reassigns Philosophy Professor for Mentioning Racial Epithets in Courses on Racism, Critical Thinking


The administration of San Diego State University has stripped J. Angelo Corlett, professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, of his critical thinking course and his course on race and racism this semester, following lessons in those courses in which he provided examples of racial epithets.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports:

Corlett told The San Diego Union-Tribune he used an informational slide in both classes that listed 10 to 12 epithets that have been used against Black, Hispanic, Latino, Asian and White people.

“You have to mention the words in order to explain why they are racist and should not be used,” said Corlett, a 63-year-old Latino. “Some students are confused about what counts as racism. And some are more concerned about being offended than learning about the logic and science of language.”

On March 1, an unidentified Black student, who was not registered in Corlett’s critical thinking course, stopped by and repeatedly challenged Corlett’s mention of epithets, particularly one regarded as the most offensive slur against Black people. Corlett said he responded to the visitor, in part, by verbally mentioning epithets to illustrate the nature of the lesson. He claims that he did not encourage his students to do the same.

Later that day, Corlett was notified by the university that he would not be teaching the two courses for the rest of the spring semester. He is still teaching a course on political philosophy…

Corlett says that he has used this teaching technique at SDSU for about 20 years and notes that he has written widely on the subject, including publishing the book “Race, Racism & Reparations.”

“I am not a racist. I neither mention nor use racial epithets beyond the classroom,” Corlett said.

Luke Wood, SDSU’s vice president for student affairs and campus diversity, told the newspaper:

We have had a number of students who have come forward and who’ve complained about their experience in Professor Corlett’s classes… This has happened this semester but has also been a routine experience. … We took that into account… This is really a case of a faculty member who is being reassigned… This is not about free expression or academic freedom, but about teaching assignments… This was about actions, not about freedom of expression.

Since professors’ academic freedom extends to their teaching, it is unclear why Wood would think that the university’s removing of Corlett from his classes based on a lesson he taught is not about academic freedom.

The Tribune did not report which administrator at SDSU was responsible for the decision to violate Professor Corlett’s academic freedom. Perhaps further reporting will reveal whether it was Dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, Monica Casper, Provost Salvador Hector Ochoa, or the university’s President, Adela de la Torre.

Corlett, whose research includes work on philosophy of race and racism, along with writings on a range of topics in moral and political philosophy and epistemology, has not been told by the university what he will be asked to do in lieu of teaching the two courses.

UPDATE: The Academic Freedom Alliance has sent a letter to San Diego State University concerning its administration’s decision to remove Professor Corlett from his courses. An excerpt:

There is no question that the removal of Professor Corlett from the classroom is a form of university sanction. It is also quite obvious that removal or “reassignment” of Professor Corlett in specific response to controversial but instructionally germane material that Professor Corlett introduced into his classroom is not just relevant to his academic freedom but a grievous violation of his academic freedom.

UPDATE (3/11/21): Professor Corlett has written an open letter explaining the teaching that supposedly precipitated the administration’s violation of his academic freedom (via Leiter Reports).

 

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Edward
6 months ago

“Some students are confused about what counts as racism. And some are more concerned about being offended than learning about the logic and science of language.”

“Some students are confused about what counts as racism…”
This seems reasonable to me; it reads as a statement that a student with a serious academic curiosity could answer in the affirmative.

“…And some are more concerned about being offended than learning about the logic and science of language.”
This comment states something negative about some students; it has a quality of seeming uncharitable, especially given the nature of a professor’s work which is to foster growth in his students, his unfinished academics.

While it may be true that some students have a negative predisposition about them regarding racism and racial epithets, given the contagion of racism in our society and its virulence, as well as our social teaching that racism and the use of racial epithets are wrong and ought to be called-out, such a disposition is hardly unexpected or unforeseen. I think these factors argue that it ought to be taken in stride, as are other student foibles. I acknowledge that it may be difficult to encounter the same negative behavior semester after semester, but racism is a hot button issue in our society and it isn’t the young students’ fault that it has been thrust upon them. I think they do their best to navigate it as an unwelcome stressor, and it is the professor’s job to help them, even when it is a difficult task.

Given these things, and given that youth and arrogance are part of the maturity process as well as the part of the academic deal between professors and students, in such circumstances patience can reveal itself as the virtue it is said to be. Maybe the good professor -and I suspect he is a very good professor- can develop a strategy to remind himself daily about the racial discord the students are embroiled in, and our many admonishments to them to confront racism head-on.Report

Tarik Gim
Tarik Gim
Reply to  Edward
6 months ago

I generally support taking things generously and recognize that college students are in a confusing cultural atmosphere. But I don’t know of any other “student foibles” that result in immediately being prohibited from teaching a course. That is a serious action on the part of the administrators. Because of all this the professor is undergoing a publicly humiliating event, as if he performed some heinous action (which he didn’t). I do think a discussion is warranted, but the punishment nowhere near fits the crime. Taking such events lightly and remarking that “oh kids will be kids”, given what occurred, is not the proper response.Report

Last edited 6 months ago by Tarik Gim
Edward
Reply to  Tarik Gim
6 months ago

I agree generally with your post. We don’t know what happened in any meetings that may -or may not- have been held prior to the administration making this decision, so we are operating in the dark to some extent. I assume, and I hope, there was a reasonable and coherent process. If so, I’d like to hear more about Professor Corlett’s position than the snippet posted. If not, then this is a serious breach on the part of the administration in my view as well. Unfortunately, sparse though the reporting is, it’s what we have to go on at the moment.

Beyond this though, I disagree with your “oh kids will be kids” straw man; it’s a deeply impoverished misrepresentatation of what I wrote.Report

WRE
WRE
Reply to  Edward
6 months ago

I don’t see the comment as uncharitable given a student who was not enrolled in his class interrupted the course to pick a fight with the instructor over pedagogy.Report

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
Reply to  Edward
6 months ago

This has happened in the UK too. Andrew Grahan Dixon an art historian gave an address at the Oxford Union and joked about Hitler, even putting on a funny imitation voice and was censured for it. In a war truth is the first victim and a sense of humour second because prejudice works on fear

  1. Freedom of speech is composed of an active and a passive part – saying what you want to say and listening to what others want to say.
  2. Suppression is prejudice in action.
  3. All censorship is murder of the mind, which carried to its ultimate conclusion, leads to a stupid, fearful and ignorant society: Nazi book burning.
  4. Taking offence is identifying with a statement as being true, instead of laughing it off as meaningless (harmless).
  5. The more you concentrate upon something, the more real (and persistent) you make it.
  6. Those who forget the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them (George Santyanna, the philosopher, not the besieger of The Alamo): Holocaust deniers.
  7. Political correctness taken to the ultimate is to say nothing (stay silent rather than risk causing offence)).
  8. The paranoid suppress what they fear they will hear about themselves and will interpret what they hear through the filter of their persecution complex: Beauty is in the eye, ugliness is in the eye.
  9. To attack others is to fear them.
  10. To truly be free is to be an individual, not a follower of crowds (the mob).
  11. This isn’t about reality but pretence (lies, not truth – cowardice not courage).

Report

Athos Rache
Athos Rache
Reply to  Tony Sandy
6 months ago

Thank you

People from some countries are developing difficulties to justify freedom of speech.
They will talk about this and that but will most likely not adress the central idea that is freedom of speech.
Thank you again for filling the gap.Report

Brent Tharp
Brent Tharp
Reply to  Edward
6 months ago

You’re part of the problem. College courses are not about not being offended. They are about learning to think critically and expanding one’s horizons. I’ve learned more in classes that offended me than in those that made me comfortable.Report

SCM
SCM
6 months ago

This is nuts.
(a) There are very few people, if any, who have worked more consistently over the years to bring race and racism into philosophical focus than Corlett (whether you agree with his views or not).
(b) Luke Wood is very confused about how freedom of expression works if he thinks that it does not include actions, as if we don’t act when we say things.
(c) The use/mention distinction isn’t all there is to say about the utterance of epithets, but it’s still very important and a whole bunch of people aren’t getting it *at all*.
(d) Should I do more research and teaching on race and racism? I already can easily teach on various aspects of racism without even mentioning racial epithets, as Corlett has done. But what I can’t do is teach on racism with much confidence that something innocuous I said or did will not be used as a trigger for some bullshit outrage theatre.
(e) There’s a curious convergence of right wing and faux woke thinking: the real racism is the mention of racism! After ten years of BLM bringing racist police violence into focus, etc., we should be doing much better to resist the prissification of anti-racism.Report

Ruth
Reply to  SCM
6 months ago

You had me at “This is nuts.”Report

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
Reply to  SCM
6 months ago

You either construct reality or destroy it and this is attempted censorship, rather than expression. This kind of thing is happening in the Ukraine at this very momentReport

Graduate Student
6 months ago

This is depressing. These are the kinds of philosophy courses where the department and university most need to support their faculty.

Having taught in several philosophy of race-type courses, I have never experienced one that wasn’t characterized by fear on the part of the instructor. The fear is always that students will be offended by something innocuous like an assigned reading or a statement in lecture they misunderstood, and complain to the university or Internet. I know instructors avoid teaching important material relevant to contemporary debates for fear of this. It’s especially bad for junior faculty or grad students who are teaching – I know many, including myself, who have avoided putting material on their syllabus when there is the option to teach something “safer.” I’m not even talking about stuff discussing epithets or anything, just, say, a paper discussing definitions of racism.

A few years ago students at my institution published an open letter complaining that we shouldn’t teach philosophy of race because, quote “racism isn’t a moral issue” (they seemed to think that since it’s badness isn’t up for debate there is nothing to philosophize over). Instead, they complained that the philosophy of race course wasn’t just a history course about racism – which, of course, exist in the history department. Now, the majority of students are intelligent, thoughtful, and curious. But there are always a few that think they know everything there is to know about racism from Twitter, and it only takes one thread on Reddit to tank your career if you don’t have tenure. This case shows even those higher up the ladder aren’t entirely safe either.

These courses are timely, important, and speak to the university’s task of educating ethical citizens but they’re increasingly difficult to teach.Report

Paul
6 months ago

““You have to mention the words in order to explain why they are racist and should not be used,” said Corlett, a 63-year-old Latino. “Some students are confused about what counts as racism. And some are more concerned about being offended than learning about the logic and science of language.””

I am aghast Corlett was suspended and so quickly. This is a violation of academic freedom.

But as for his rationale for teaching it, if having a conversation with about pedagogy, I’d ask: who are the “some” students who benefit from mentioning the words and need them explained? Mainly white students? Substantively, I am pretty sure the Black student knew what the N-word meant and didn’t need to have this explained to them. This student was not in the class to be sure, but there are presumably other Black students who take the class.Report

Carol Howard
Reply to  Paul
6 months ago

As an African American, it is amazing to me, that individuals who do not share the experiences we are expected to endure; due to others definition of racism makes me sick! Academic freedom should not be confused with plain racism, because it is not. It is racism and is never acceptable, anywhere or in any form. Students know racism and will not continue to give a 63 year old Latino, Black, White or Asian a pass and treat them as if they are Stupid! I Love this New Voice in America!!Report

Edward Cantu
Reply to  Carol Howard
6 months ago

Well, as a Latino-American, I can’t stand this “new voice in America,” one that insists on excessively controlling the terms of important conversations. Discussions about race and racism need to be open and inclusive rather than narrowly tailored to the sensitivities of the aggressively frail.Report

Carol Howard
Reply to  Edward Cantu
6 months ago

Well, if you want to have an open discussion about racism, an open discussion can be held without racist slurs directed at a certain community. There are also racist slurs directed at your community. Would you feel so open if the slurs were directed at Latino-Americans, or would you fall into the narrowly tailored sensitivities of the aggressively frail? You are quick to make narrow minded conclusions and that is an “old voice in America.”Report

Timothy McGivern
Timothy McGivern
Reply to  Carol Howard
6 months ago

Wait– what? Do you seriously think Prof. Corlett didn’t include in his lecture racial epithets directed at the Latino community? And do you seriously think Edward Cantu isn’t aware that in fact Corlett DID include anti-Latino epithets? Please. It’s fairly evident from the article.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any course dedicated to teaching the history of racism in America is necessarily going to include material that is potentially triggering. If a university student isn’t mature enough and can’t handle that without running to report it to administrators like a kindergartener tattling on a classmate to the teacher, then he/she shouldn’t be enrolling in such a course to begin with.Report

Carol Howard
Reply to  Timothy McGivern
6 months ago

As an educator and an intelligent human being, I feel that racial epithets directed at any community; is ignorant and is an insult to any claim of instruction on racism in America. Just because racist terms were developed by bigoted, ignorant, individuals is not a justification for the racism to continue in any institution of learning. Only an ignorant, bigoted person would feel a need to justify this; even when it is offensive to the students. Maturity is the ability to discuss difficult subject matter; without resorting to racism to explain racism. To use the term like tattling is an indication of an individuals level of maturity. The course should not have been offered to begin with.Report

Jamie
Jamie
Reply to  Paul
6 months ago

Corlett didn’t say that there were any students, white or black, who didn’t know what the N-word meant, or that he had to explain to them what it meant.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Paul
6 months ago

Many of my students are ignorant of the history of the N word. For instance, many don’t even know that it was ever applied to Indians.Report

Academic career temporarily revived
6 months ago

I wish to highlight this paper written by Corlett. I’m not saying that I agree with everything in the paper, but this paper points towards an important problem: incompetent people hold the position of university administrators and censor speech without appealing to reasonable standards. (Whether there can be reasonable standards aptly applied is another issue, and saying that it’s possible to appropriately regulate speech on campus is no defence for existing censorship.)

Corlett, J. A. (2018). Offensiphobia. The Journal of Ethics, 22(2), 113-146.

“Implicitly insisting without adequate argumentative support that people have a right to not be offended results in a disastrous higher educational context wherein administrators, perhaps some well-meaning, are driven by a problematic ideology which disrespects the longstanding right to academic freedom and its values” (p. 114)..Report

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy

What is offense? It is a decision to react in a certain way, that puts you in the position of victim (one who believes in the reality of a certain stance). As a dynamic it means retreating from the world (taking something personally). It is not only associational thinking, but negative thinking. Positive thinking in the form of disbelief / humour, saves you from this fear. Belief traps you and leads you into a defensive stance, where disbelief frees you to move on, in time and spaceReport