Difficult conversations: Smith College professor gives talk on addressing the N-word in the classroom


Staff Writer
Published: 4/24/2019 5:24:48 PM

SPRINGFIELD — When Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor was a first-year professor at Smith College, a student in her Civil War history class — quoting the movie “Blazing Saddles” — used the N-word and a racial slur for Chinese people.

Pryor, whose father was black and mother was Jewish, was taken aback. The next day, she asked her class not to use the N-word in class.

“I censored it that semester, and it was a missed opportunity on my part,” Pryor said in a speech Wednesday at Springfield Technical Community College. After the experience, she realized that nobody had ever taught her how to teach the history of racism — while simultaneously dealing with it in real time.

That challenge is one that teachers across the country face, whether teaching older texts like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or more contemporary ones featuring the N-word. There was the white professor at Princeton University, for example, who last year canceled a class on hate speech after students felt uncomfortable with his use of the N-word in class. The year before, a white lecturer at Smith stepped down from teaching a poetry class after similarly using the racial slur, both in quoting a poem and in the discussion that followed.

Pryor, in her next semester, began to have conversations with her students about the word, its use and the students’ feelings about it.

“People had incredibly complicated relationships” with the N-word, Pryor said. But she found her students hadn’t been having conversations about the word in junior or high school.

For Pryor, the topic is an academic focus but also one with practical considerations. As a historian focused on 19th-century U.S. history and race, Pryor said that the N-word often appears in the historical record from that time period. You can’t teach 19th-century history without encountering that word in the classroom, she said. So how do you address it in class?

Pryor also has a “familial connection to the N-word,” she said: Her father was the late Richard Pryor, the legendary comedian who was one of the first to use the word liberally in his material.

As for her own presentation on Wednesday, Pryor chose to use the term “N-word” rather than using the full word, and she asked the students present to do the same. She said she wasn’t refraining from using the word out of a desire to censor, but rather because her experience is that, when the word enters a classroom, it changes the dynamic in a negative way. 

“I don’t believe we can really dig in if we actually say the word,” Pryor said. “I want to be able to have these difficult conversations.”

The question is a pedagogical one, Pryor said. Referencing the teachers at Smith and Princeton who canceled their classes after using the N-word and facing backlash for it, Pryor said those situations quickly escalated, making students uncomfortable. 

“That’s bringing crisis into the conversation,” she said. “These are stories about teaching and about how we engage each other in the classroom.” 

That’s not to say that such conversations aren’t still difficult when handled differently. Pryor said her own students are often scared about discussing the word in class. Her black students worry that she won’t protect them from white students using the N-word, and some students are scared about saying something they’ll regret, she said.

“The N-word is a time traveler,” Pryor said. It “violently collapses the past and the present.”

In addition to her academic research, Pryor has given workshops on the subject to teachers looking to share material that includes the word without making students of color feel unwelcome or attacked.

On Wednesday, Pryor passed out note cards and began the discussion about the N-word with the students gathered for the lecture, asking them to respond to the prompt: “Why is talking about the N-word hard or not?”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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