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Use of N-word in University of Victoria literature class lecture sparks probe

English department to look at establishing best practices for teaching disturbing materials
The English department at the University of Victoria is rethinking its practice of quoting disturbing passages in classic literature, after the use of the N-word in a lecture led to a complaint from a student.

A racial slur was used inappropriately during a lecture at the University of Victoria last week.

On Monday, Sept. 13, a lecturer read aloud the N-word during a British Modern Fiction lecture attended by about 50 students, according to a female attendee. The student, who’s racialized, spoke with Black Press on the condition of anonymity, conscious of online harassment.

The University of Victoria corroborated the occurrence with a statement published on their Department of English website. The text was Joseph Conrad’s short story “An Outpost of Progress,” written in 1896 and read to exemplify the racist attitudes of the time which it was written, according to the student.

Following the use of the N-word 20 minutes into the lecture, “nobody said anything” the student said. When she stood up to speak against its use about five minutes later, “they were all silent, and heads forward,” she said. “Honestly, that was the part that hurt the most … I didn’t feel safe in that classroom.”

The utterance – followed by the show of a painting depicting burning vessels of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and their disembodied passengers 10 minutes later – caused the student to leave the class and immediately drop the course. Choking up, the student said more could have been done to preface the inherently traumatic material of that day’s lecture.

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“Obviously we’re in this program, we have to learn about this stuff,” she said. “I just feel like there was no sensitivity or discretion with (the subject matter) … I wasn’t expecting to come in on a Monday morning and have that all happen.”

The course professor had informed and apologized to the chair of the English department before the student had reported the incident that Friday, Sept. 17, she said. Before then, she was unaware the university was aware of the incident, she said.

The UVic statement said, “the Chair of English deeply regrets that the use of racist language occurred in one of our classes, and is taking measures to ensure that such incidents never occur again.” No mention was made of action towards the lecturer.

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The department is considering workshops that would establish best practices for teaching inherently disturbing materials, the statement read.

The student said she’ll be meeting with the dean of UVic’s humanities department this week to discuss how to better support students in the future.

“We are going to talk about how to actually put action behind these words and not just blanket statements,” the student said. “A lot of students were justifying it because it’s ‘literature,’ and it’s not an issue if it’s not directed at someone. A lot of people think that here, and that’s part of the problem.”

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