Students call for boycott of English department

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Professor of English John Kleiner’s use of the N-word in a class precipitates petition, website, broader conversations

After a white professor used the N-word in an English class, a student-led movement has called for a reckoning in the English department. (Ethan Dinçer/The Williams Record.)

A group of students last Wednesday called for a boycott of all English courses “that do not engage substantially with race,” according to a website publicizing the boycott. The boycott petition refers to an incident in which a white professor, whom the Record has identified as Professor of English John Kleiner, said the N-word in and out of quotation in a class last week; it also draws attention to what the authors, who did not identify themselves, see as the English department’s broader underrepresentation of ethnic literature. The boycott organizers, who spoke with the Record on condition of anonymity, are a group of approximately 10 current students at the College, some of whom have had experience in the English department. The organizers said that Kleiner’s use of the N-word in class motivated them to publish the website, but that they were also compelled by what they see as a longer history of “violence committed by the English department.”

The original petition said the boycott will not end until the College searches for a senior-level woman of color from outside of the College to chair the English department, immediately runs searches for tenure-track faculty members specializing in African American, Latinx, Native American and Asian American literature, and conducts an external investigation of English. The petition revised the demand for a chair, calling instead for the hiring of a senior faculty member specializing in ethnic literature.

The petition calls out what its creators see as a “racist culture” in the department. It highlights the low number of tenured faculty who specialize in “ethnic literature” and historical incidents in the department that the petitioners allege as evidence of racial bias. These include the sudden semester-long departures of Assistant Professor of English Kimberly Love and Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Kai Green ’07 in spring 2019 due to what Love described as the College’s “violent practices”; a confrontation in Hollander Hall in April 2019 between Chair and Professor of English Katie Kent ’88 and Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang; and the use of the N-word by an English professor, whom the Record identified as Kleiner, in a discussion of a passage during a candidate’s job talk in 2016. 

Kent acknowledged the petition to the Record and said the department remains committed to better reflecting and including underrepresented groups in the field.

The petition also makes various allegations about the department’s treatment of several previous faculty members who taught ethnic literature, not all of which the Record was able to confirm after reaching out to 34 current and former students and faculty members. Fifteen did not respond, and six declined comment.

The usage of the N-word in the department

Students in Kleiner’s class expressed mixed reactions to his use of the N-word when discussing James Baldwin’s “Stranger in a Village” last week, but a majority came to his defense. Of the 14 students in his class, eight responded to a Record survey and confirmed that he used the N-word in both quotation and discussion. Six of the students, who were granted anonymity due to fear of academic reprisal, expressed support or indifference for Kleiner’s use of the word. 

“I didn’t feel offended,” one student said. “The professor didn’t sound racist; actually, he was trying to explain what the word meant in the context of the reading.” 

Another student added, “If professors feel the need to avoid using words and filtering everything, we are not going to be [in] an honest, professional environment.”

A third student, however, said, “Honestly, I was shocked, but kept my reaction internal … There were few uneasy looks but people didn’t know what to say or do. I am so glad someone notified an authority figure and I am upset with myself that I didn’t take action after the incident.”

The usage of the N-word by non-Black professors in an academic context at other institutions has sometimes resulted in disciplinary action, as in recent cases at Augsburg University and the New School. Kent did not respond to a specific request regarding whether the English department has a policy relating to the use of the N-word in the classroom. 

Seulghee Lee ’07, an assistant professor of English at the University of South Carolina specializing in African American literature, said that he finds it unnecessary to use the N-word in teaching. “The fact that this practice continues in the Williams English department is emblematic of the lack of cultural competence shot through that space,” said Lee, who was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in English at the College from 2014-16. 

Kleiner defended his decision to use the N-word when discussing James Baldwin’s “Stranger in a Village.” “The terrible force of language is the subject of the essay,” he said. “Can the essay be taught without reading aloud the specific language that brings the essay into being? … Yes, I think that is possible. But only in a diminished form.”

The petition characterizes the nature of this recent incident as non-isolated, citing a 2016 public job talk. Sonya Posmentier, a candidate in the 2016 search for a tenure-track faculty member specializing in African American literature, gave a talk on Zora Neale Hurston that referenced the use of an N-word in a song lyric. Posmentier, who did not say the N-word aloud, suggested the speaker of the lyric was white. In a Q&A, Kleiner read aloud the quotation, including the N-word, and proceeded to ask why Posmentier believed the speaker of the lyric to be white, repeating the N-word in paraphrase multiple times, according to Posmentier.

Posmentier said she would have been open to a question about why she didn’t say the word but felt the questioning by Kleiner to be an implicit challenge.

Posmentier, now an associate professor of English at NYU, said that within the field of African American literature, “it’s basically established practice” to avoid saying the N-word. Posmentier added that award-winning African American literature scholar Koritha Mitchell, who is Black, has argued extensively against using the N-word in classrooms. Mitchell views the practice as unnecessarily reenacting anti-Black discursive violence. 

In an email to the Record, Kleiner acknowledged his use of the N-word during the talk. “My reading of the passage  – though not the question itself – led to several meetings with Denise Buell, dean of faculty, and Leticia Smith-Evans Haynes, vice president for institutional diversity,” Kleiner said. “As I explained to them, I came to see my reading of the quotation as written as a mistake in the context of a job search. But, as I also explained to them at that time, I thought it was important, in the context of the classroom, to continue to read texts as they are written, however disturbing.” 

No one in the room at the time raised an issue with the questioning, Posmentier said, and she described then-Chair of English John Limon as “apologetic and concerned” in a meeting the next day. In addition, Posmentier said that a few faculty members reached out to her to apologize. 

Posmentier rejected the job offer for “mostly unrelated reasons,” she said, although she felt that the incident was significant. “Usually when these kinds of things happen, it’s not just about the one person. There’s a culture in a department that permits it,” she said.

“Obviously something like that would be a major cause for concern for a candidate otherwise likely to accept the job,” she added. 

The search failed after another candidate turned down a tenure-track job offer in 2016. According to Kent, the search was repeated in 2017 and resulted in the hiring of Love and Assistant Professor of English Ianna Hawkins Owen. 

Reactions to the petition

In an email to the Record, President Maud S. Mandel expressed appreciation for steps the English department has already taken which she believes address many of the issues mentioned in the boycott. “Even as that work is going on, Williams already offers a number of courses that focus on or incorporate diverse literatures and points of view,” she said. 

Kent acknowledged the importance of having diverse faculty teach diverse subjects within the English department. “In higher education across the humanities, it is absolutely necessary to seek faculty with expertise in the scholarship of underrepresented groups, and we in the English Department are committed to that effort.” she said. 

Kent also emphasized the range of professors in the department with experience in “scholarship of underrepresented groups.” She cited Owen, Love, Associate Professor of English Anjuli Raza Kolb (who currently teaches at the University of Toronto), Associate Professor of English Bernie Rhie and Franny Choi, a Bolin Fellow in English who will teach next spring. 

Kent empathized with the goals of the protest but expressed discontent with the tactics used. “The way to create change and transformation is not a boycott, it is through engagement and growth,” she said. “Decolonizing an English department takes sustained efforts over a long period of time, efforts we are seriously engaged in.”

For several former professors at the College, however, activism surrounding the boycott offers an opportunity for this very engagement. “Needless to say, I stand with Williams students and the spirit of a boycott,” Lee said. “As an alum, as a former faculty member, as an English professor, and as a scholar in Black studies, I can attest to the long overdue need for serious curricular and cultural reform in that department.”

A history of petitions against the department

The boycott petition also prints in full three previous open letters addressing the department. Two of the open letters were sent to Mandel in summer 2019 referencing the May 2019 incident between Kent and Wang, the first by John Keene, chair and professor of English and African American and African studies at Rutgers, and Roberto Tejada, professor of English at the University of Houston.

Tejada, who was a Clark-Oakley Fellow at the College in 2013-14, said he felt that he had been warmly received at the College. Upon hearing of recent incidents at the College, Tejada contacted Keene, and they wrote a letter intended to respectfully invite conversation about equity at the College, Tejada recalled. 

The second letter was written by a group of alumni, which characterized the incident between Kent and Wang as emblematic of what the authors see as patterns of racism and misogyny within the English department. It included an appendix listing anonymous student testimonies of experiences of bias within the English department. Mandel has not responded publicly to either of these letters.

The third open letter referenced in the petition, which was addressed to the English department in 2015 and was written by Tony Wei Ling ’16, Diana Chen ’16 and an anonymous third student, criticized what the authors saw as the department’s marginal treatment of race and gender evidenced by a series of insensitive statements allegedly made by professors. 

The boycott petition alleges that senior white faculty are aware of the insufficient curriculum offered by the department; it states, for instance, that then-Chair of English John Limon called the department “effectively a department of white literature” in 2015. The Record was not able to verify independently that Limon made this statement, but Limon told a reporter, “What I could only have meant by this quotation attributed to me is that the English Department at Williams, like all English departments, has historically taught work almost entirely by white people. Like every member of my department, I have taken it as an urgent task to redirect that history, which is why the 2015 quotation is outdated.” 

The petition also references the history of other departments, though not entirely accurately; specifically, it claims that the art department was subject to an external review “as a result of claims of racism within the department.” The art department’s co-chairs, Liz McGowan and Amy Podmore, told the Record that the department’s most recent external reviews were in 1999 and 2015. They said the 2015 review “was not prompted by the racial incident in question, which occurred 10 years prior, but by the fact that the department had not been reviewed in 15 years,” stating that standard practice is for College departments to undergo an external review alongside a self-study approximately every 10 years.

Experiences of faculty of color in the department

The petition also critiques the extent to which faculty of color are fully welcomed on campus and in the broader Williamstown community, including writings by Love, Green and Professor of Chinese Li Yu on their experiences in the area.

Former Visiting Professor of English Ji-Young Um, who left the College in 2014 and is now an assistant professor of English and Culture Studies at Seattle Pacific University, described a culture she found unwelcoming. Um said that she experienced professors verbally conflating her work with that of Wang, which she found significant given that the two had different areas of study. “That our areas of expertise differed quite significantly did not seem to matter – only that we were both Asian American women,” she said. “So I found this pronouncement to be, frankly, quite racist, and willfully ignorant.”

Ultimately, Um’s decision to leave the College was influenced both by her receipt of another job offer and by the College’s denial of tenure for her partner, former professor Vince Schleitwiler, who is Japanese-American. Um alleges this denial of tenure was evidence of racial bias. “If you understand the conditions of his tenure case as part of the long history of institutional racism in the English department, then certainly it is very much racism endemic to the department that led to both of our departures,” she said. 

Other faculty of color in the department did recount positive experiences, such as Tess Chakkalakal, an associate professor of Africana studies and English at Bowdoin, who worked in a tenure-track position in English at the College from 2000-2007. “I had great students, and I had a very supportive English department that supported my work,” she said, adding that she left “on very good terms.”

Lee added that there had been more of a critical mass of African American literature scholars at the College prior to 2015, when Schleitwiler left. “I would say that the arrivals of Professors [Erica R.] Edwards, [Stéphane] Robolin and [Dorothy] Wang in 2006-2007 was a high point for Williams,” he said. “Alongside the highly anticipated addition of Joy James, there seemed then to be a groundswell of institutional enthusiasm for radical PoC thought.” Edwards and Robolin were both hired into tenure-track lines in Africana studies but left in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

Tejada, who had a largely positive experience as a fellow in the art department, said he’d like to see English make a commitment to equity similar to the one made by art. “Those of us who comment both as the letter writers and as representatives of the various fields are simply just looking at the broader conversation that’s taking place across the country and hoping that Williams also takes part in that conversation,” Tejada said.