Princeton University professor Lawrence Rosen, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology, found himself as the latest professor in the national spotlight when The Princetonian reported that several students walked out of his class after Rosen repeatedly used the n-word as part of an opening session exploring the nature of social taboo.

As Inside Higher Ed reported, Rosen’s is the most recent in a series of incidents around the word being used in the context of collegiate teaching and speaking, with widely divergent administrative responses. Fortunately for Rosen, he has been firmly supported publicly both by the University and by his departmental chair, Carolyn Rouse, who published a supporting letter in The Princetonian outlining her views on the importance of challenging pedagogy and Rosen’s work.

As Rouse adroitly points out, the response of the students can be seen as an index or “diagnostic” of the effect of the national climate on the sensibilities of students in the classroom, noting:

“Rosen has used the same example year after year. This is the first year he got the response he did from the students”, suggesting the “level of overt anti-black racism in the country today” was at least in large part responsible for the change in student response. 

Rouse hits on a profound difficulty facing professors in the classroom today: a rapidly changing affective terrain in the student body that is creating new challenges to long-cherished pedagogical tactics.

Rosen is an experienced teacher and was undeniably self-aware in the approach he was taking to introducing divisive material that also included pornography, anti-Semitism, and anti-nationalism. In The Princetonian, he tips his hand without regret in describing his use of the n-word as “supposed to deliver a gut-punch”.

Yet, how students respond to “gut-punches” is not a constant. We should be wary of chalking this up as just another instance of this generation of students being overly sensitive, given that the class held the prior year responded differently, and Rosen’s full knowledge of the violent power of his particular rhetorical choice. The student’s objections were not unthinking or knee-jerk in the least; one noted to The Princetonian a distinction in the way they perceived Rosen as handling the introduction of pornographic material with his introduction of racial tropes.  Rosen was engaged in a process of deliberately and systematically crossing lines and baiting response, a process that was integral to his approach to the material, and perhaps necessary to approaching issues of the affective power of taboo at all.  Rouse’s intuition seems right: this is better understood as an instance of the inherent fragility not of the students, but of the bubble around the pedagogical space, a moment in which a volatile national political climate spilled over the walls of the academy into the classroom.

While the position of professor has never been purely sacrosanct, and perhaps should not be, incidents like the students walking out of Rosen’s classroom put on display an unfolding reckoning in the American academy, spurred but not caused by the overheated national political climate.  That reckoning is not just over the expressive rights of the pedagogue and the student – using the language of “rights” here can portray as black-and-white-issues a set of dynamics and responsibilities which are profoundly fluid – but how it is that teachers handle the unique demands of navigating the emotional response patterns of students to their material.

Strong student objections to their teachers’ approach are at least as old as Thrasymachus’ famous temper-tantrum at Socrates, and experienced professors like Rosen know that there is an inherent risk when walking the fine line of comfort and discomfort that every challenging classroom generates.

If Princeton, and particularly Rouse, are to be lauded, it is for the delicacy with which they simultaneously express firm support for the professor, and care for the students: while Rouse will not hear of any disparagement towards the veteran progressive Rosen, she simultaneously expresses an understanding towards students “not trusting the process”.  Neither the boiling-hot national political climate nor the trigger-sensitive responsiveness of students to the potentially objectionable are going away overnight, much less the social media-accelerated architecture of the public’s attentiveness.

In resolutely defending Rosen while acknowledging student concerns, Princeton has shown a model for responding to potential crises in a way that both protects the professoriate and moves the conversation around potentially unstable speech situations forward, rather than devolving into finger-pointing and posturizing.

Update: Rosen has “reluctantly” canceled his course Anthropology 212: Cultural Freedoms, Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.