A St. John’s University professor was fired for reading a line from Mark Twain’s anti-slavery novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in her “Literature of Satire” class that included an N-word.
Hannah Berliner Fischthal, a 20-year adjunct teacher at a Catholic university in Queens, said the N-word once during a remote class on Feb. 10—after explaining the meaning of the word and expressing her hope that it would not offend anyone, reports the NewYorkPost.
“Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect,” Fischthal stated. “His use of the ‘N-word’ is used only in dialogues as it could have actually been spoken in the south before the civil war, when the story takes place.”
Despite her efforts to contextualize the quote before reading it, at least one student appeared to have walked out of the room after she said the word.
“It was unnecessary and very painful to hear,” the student wrote in an email to her.
In a reply email, Fischthal apologized to the student and organized a private online conversation about the incident, which she dubbed “Insensitive Language.”
“I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text,” Fischthal wrote. “Please do share your thoughts.”
Two students defended Fischthal, while four others objected to her use of the word in class, sparking a debate that lasted until the next class.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the college’s president, requesting Fischthal be reinstated.
“Quoting [Mark Twain’s] work in a class on satire falls squarely within the protection afforded by academic freedom, which gives faculty members the breathing room to determine whether—and how—to discuss material students might find offensive,” the letter read.
Pudd’nhead Wilson is about a light-skinned slave who switches her baby for her master’s baby to provide her son with a life of luxury he would not otherwise have. The book is a satirical look at racism and slavery and the controversy between nature and nurture.
“It satirizes the entire evil institution of slavery,” Fischthal told the New York Post. “The point of this novel was that there is no inherent difference between Blacks and Whites. Clothes and education are what distinguishes people. Both the boys in the story look exactly the same, even though one is by law a slave, and the other one is a privileged white boy.”
Fischthal said she was unaware of how racial politics had erupted at universities around the country but that the case of another SJU adjunct teacher, Richard Taylor, had “horrified” her. Taylor was fired earlier this year after students said he was racist for posing questions about slavery during a class.
“I never thought that would happen to me,” said Fischthal, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “I’m one of the last people who should be accused of racism. I know where it leads and I know where it ends. In every class I teach the evils of stereotyping.”
Fischthal’s apologies and attempts to resolve the issue, however, were ultimately ineffective.
She was summoned to a meeting with HR on March 3 to discuss her use of the N-word in class, the ensuing discussion, and a remark she reportedly made about the hair of a Black student. Fischthal said she just commented on a student’s head being wrapped up during class and that it had nothing to do with her hair.
She said she was also chastised for bringing up her family’s Holocaust history in class.
She was suspended on March 5, pending an inquiry into whether she had violated the university’s anti-bias policy. She was fired on April 29.
However, a spokesperson for the school refuted the claim that Fischthal was fired because of the quote.
“If your assertion is that she was fired for reading aloud from a Mark Twain novel, that is incorrect,” St. John’s spokesman Brian Browne told the New York Post.
Fischthal concluded that she would miss her students and teaching.
“I just know I’ll miss my students and classes,” Fischthal said. “I love teaching.”