Students confront racial issues in classrooms

Illustration by Amelia Madarang

As a predominantly white institution, the way Lewis & Clark has addressed race in the classroom has been called into question multiple times.

On Oct. 6, an incident occurred in ENG 205-F2 when Associate Professor of English William Pritchard showed the class the BBC version of “Othello” which features Anthony Hopkins in blackface. When a student pointed out how odd it was to see a white actor play a Black character, Pritchard was prompted to show a clip from the Laurence Olivier version of “Othello,” which includes even darker blackface. 

“I agreed that it was a problem, and it was in this context that I raised the topic of the Laurence Olivier film of ‘Othello’ from 1965,” Pritchard said via email. “That film, I said, found a wholly unsuccessful way of addressing the problem of a white actor playing Othello: by wearing heavy black makeup and adopting an exotic accent.”

After showing the clips, Pritchard facilitated a conversation debating whether such casting choices were appropriate. Several students felt uncomfortable during this conversation and thought Pritchard was providing a venue to excuse blackface. Students also brought up various films where marginalized groups were played by actors who do not share those identities. Pritchard reportedly justified all of these performances in class.

Pritchard recalls the conversation differently.

“A couple of students insisted that only a Black actor could have the real-life experience and understanding necessary to perform the role of Othello,” Pritchard said. “They argued that people from underrepresented groups should be allowed to represent themselves on stage, a position with which I entirely agree.”

Following fall break, Pritchard addressed the topic again in class on Oct. 11. Several students remained dissatisfied with the conversation. Claire Champommier ’23, one of the ENG 205-F2 students, had written a letter over break addressing the issue and decided to garner signatures from her classmates on Oct. 13. The letter was sent the following day to Dean of the College of Arts and Science Bruce Suttmeier, Associate Dean/Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies Daena Goldsmith and Associate Professor of English and Department Chair Karen Gross.

The letter contained two demands of Pritchard: that he read out a two-page minimum apology to the class and that he attend multiple racial bias training sessions for the remainder of the school year. The evening after the letter was sent, Pritchard emailed an apology to the class, which was read out loud the following day Oct. 15. 

Champommier classified the statement as a “half apology” that contained a lot of “defensive language.” She was not satisfied with the apology.

“Furthermore, we respect you as a professor and person, but when you disrespect us and our classmates, we have to respect ourselves too,” Champommier said. “We also let him know that I thought we were being very generous with our demands. Anything else that he had to say to try and make himself feel better was only going to belittle our feelings even more, so it’s best for him to just listen because this is not the time to react.”

Suttmeier has been in contact with the ENG 205-F2 students that signed the letter since it was originally sent out. He believes Pritchard has dealt with the issue fairly.

“​​Professor Pritchard has apologized and has expressed a desire to work on how to more effectively present and teach issues of race,” Suttmeier said via email. “The students, after their Friday Oct 15 class, responded to me that Professor Pritchard gave them space for them to say what they needed going forward. I am grateful to the students for taking the time and effort to come to me with their concerns, and I am grateful to Professor Pritchard for his willingness to engage with his class and collaborate on a way forward.”

Pritchard views Suttmeier’s dealings of this issue positively.

“Dean Suttmeier has been extraordinarily attentive and responsive throughout this incident,” Pritchard said. “He has taken the students’ concerns very seriously. He has worked with me to process what happened in my class and ensured that we could continue to function as a class for the remainder of the semester.”

However, Champommier was not satisfied with Pritchard’s steps towards resolutionand described the class’s conversations with the dean with frustration.

“The arc of my relationship with the dean and his correspondence with me first started with a lot of hope, and quickly turned into the realization that this was also going to be a performative situation,” Champommier said. 

Suttmeier responded to the initial letter quickly, but subsequent email communication took nine days for a response from the dean on two occasions. Champommier described feeling alone in dealing with the issue not just with Suttmeier, but also with many of her classmates, especially as a woman of color in a majority white classroom.

“I am the only one in my class who has been working on this,” Champommier said. “Again, nobody has asked me to do this … But I personally am at a point myself through experiencing other types of racism in the classroom and microaggressions like this, that I really just hit a point in my education, where I’m very tired of this, even more than tired, that I’m angry and stubborn.”

Moving forward, Pritchard plans to do peer mentoring through the college’s Teaching Excellence program, participate in a race and pedagogy reading group with the English department and participate in “any relevant workshops that are planned for next semester.” Previously, he had attended a 2019 faculty retreat on inclusive pedagogy, and another 2020 retreat on supporting historically underrepresented students, on top of the mandated training professors undergo, when initially hired in 2003.

Regarding issues in the classroom, Suttmeier recommends students take their concerns to their professor or department chairs before involving the dean’s office. However, Gross was not responsive to the ENG 205-F2 class’s concerns.

“Also to note, the chair of the English department, the extent of her involvement and support in this was forwarding our initial letter to Will,” Champommier said. “She has not said or reached out to us about anything. I almost went to her office, I tried to go to her office hours. I sat outside her office hours and I just cried.” 

Gross declined to comment.

According to Oregon law, faculty are required to complete training on Diversity & Inclusion, Title IX and Workplace Harassment within three months of hire. However, LC is looking to expand this training.

“We have not been satisfied with the quality and effectiveness of the trainings we’ve been using, and so we entered into an agreement earlier this semester with a new firm, Get Inclusive, for a complete campus training program … ” Suttmeier said. “We plan to introduce these new training modules over the course of the coming year. We expect that these trainings will do a better job of reinforcing the College’s commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive community.”

The faculty handbook and human resources policies also lists a harassment or bias-motivated conduct policy, which obligates LC community members to maintain a safe and respectful community environment. It also includes reporting procedures. This policy works in conjunction with the Freedom of Expression & Academic Inquiry policy that prioritizes “critical thinking” and free express, while emphasizing “mutual respect” and “civility.” The faculty handbook also details the academic responsibilities of professors and their teaching methods. However, no race-based pedagogical policies exist.

According to Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Associate Professor of Government Todd Lochner, the absence of these specific policies makes sense.

“We have to recognize that any discussion of race is potentially controversial, is potentially provocative,” Lochner said. “And so we have to treat discussions with sensitivity and respect, while at the same time engaging in those discussions. That doesn’t, I think, lend itself to really firm, very strict, bright line rules or policies.”

According to Suttmeier, it is rare for the dean’s office to deal with issues similar in nature to that of Pritchard’s ENG 205-F2 class. However, multiple professors have caused controversy in and out of the classroom in regards to race in recent years.

Numerous students have criticized comments made by various professors over the years. One such incident involved an Economics class in which the n-word was read out loud in full, multiple times. Matthew Feldman ’20 was a student in this class.

“(The class was) mainly about American capitalism, so there’s a lot of allusions to slavery,” Feldman said. “In those primary sources, they obviously use the n-word occasionally. (The instructor) felt that … showed the reality of the harshness of capitalism and the dehumanization of it. He felt the need to say that word out loud.”

After the issue was brought up to Suttmeier, the professor publicly apologized and said he would include a content warning on the syllabus for future relevant classes.

Suttmeier did not respond to questions about the incident.

Similarly, Lochner had read quotes aloud in class that contained the n-word in the past. About eight years ago he started to reconsider this policy.

“The student or I would just be reciting the facts of the case and the n-word would be there and you actually said the n-word,” Lochner said. “That made me a little uncomfortable, so one year I said let’s just use the euphemism onward instead.”

After doing so, a student complained to Lochner, which surprised him. The student argued that using the euphemism, rather than the epithet in full, trivialized the language. The following year, another student told Lochner that the n-word should never be used in class. Because of this, Lochner said he understands both arguments.

“I think both sides are fair,” Lochner said. “Now I pretty much have a blanket policy that I would use the euphemism right rather than the actual word. If a student, in reciting the facts of the case, used the n-word, I probably wouldn’t call them out on it. But again, I would have reminded people before the class began that these are sensitive issues and need to be responsive to basically everyone’s feelings.”

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