Faculty told not to use “R-word”

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October 18, 2011

1:03 AM

At the suggestion of a Student Assembly initiative, faculty and staff received an email from the College administration Thursday reminding them to be more conscientious of their language — specifically to avoid using the word “retard.”

Dean of Undergraduate Studies Kelly Joyce sent the email as part of an initiative by the SA Undersecretary for Disability Services, Sophie Cohen ’14, that is based on a national campaign to lower the negative use of “the R-word” called “Spread the Word to End the Word.”

“We thought one of the best ways to get the word out was to go through faculty, because they are shepherds of the classroom, so to speak,” Joyce said.

Cohen and SA Secretary for Health and Safety Ryan Buckland ’13 said that a few members of their committee had observed professors and students using the word “retard” in class – not necessarily in a pejorative manner, but in a way indicating unawareness that it was inappropriate. They did not know how many such incidents had occurred, nor did they think there was a campus-wide trend.

“As undersecretary of disability services, one of my duties is to make sure that students with disabilities feel that they are in a positive learning environment, so I met with Dean Joyce to ask her to remind professors that the ‘R-word’ is inappropriate to use in class,” Cohen said. “The word ‘retard’ is hurtful to millions of people. When the word ‘retard’ is used, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities as less valued members of humanity.”

The email, which had a subject line of “Thoughtfulness in Language,” read:

“Dear Colleagues,
As part of our ongoing effort to create a collegial learning environment, please remember to consider the terms used in lectures and class discussion. For example, the word retarded has returned in slang usage to mean dumb or stupid, but this is not an appropriate way to use the word in class. It reinforces stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities, suggesting that they are less valued members of society.
“Thank you for your continued efforts to create a positive and creative learning environment for William and Mary students. Your thoughtfulness and commitment to undergraduate education makes William and Mary the unique liberal arts campus that it is.”

“It wasn’t telling anyone what to do. It was just engaging the community the way we do at William and Mary to have broader discussions,” Joyce said.

Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc (formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens), expressed support for the initiative.

“I commend students and leaders at the College of William and Mary for their efforts to eliminate the use of the r-word. The language we use in society is a reflection of our values, and these actions on campus demonstrate to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that your community respects them,” Berns said in a statement.

Cheryl Dickter, a professor of psychology who specializes in stereotyping and prejudice, said that research has shown that even when non-inclusive language is used without any ill will, it can still have negative consequences.

“Prejudicial comments that go unchallenged can lead to the perpetuation of social norms that prejudicial speech is okay,” Dickter said. “Recent research in my lab here at William and Mary examines the confrontation of prejudicial comments and shows that standing up and challenging prejudicial comments can have beneficial effects for everyone – the individual who made the prejudicial remark, the confronter, and bystanders who listen to the confrontation.”

Faculty members were in strong widespread agreement that everyone should be conscientious of their language.

“I do think it is absolutely critical for faculty and students in the classroom to strictly avoid the pejorative use of words like ‘retarded’ or ‘gay.’ Using those kinds of words in this way is ugly and mean,” one longtime professor said.

But after decades of teaching at the College, the faculty member, who did not wish to be named, had seen very few instances of such language in academic settings and saw the email message as unnecessary – as well as an affront to the professionalism of College faculty.

“My negative reaction to the email message from the dean was because a member of the College administration apparently thinks she needs to instruct over 500 highly accomplished and professional faculty members at the College that we should behave with decency in class. Wow, thanks for the guidance!” this professor said. “Unless I am totally out to lunch on this, there is no brewing epidemic of mean spirited classroom references at the College, so in my view at least, the proper way to handle such matters when they do occur is via one-on-one conversations and warnings, ideally conducted in private where they are most likely to be effective.”

Joyce acknowledged that the message could have contained more context, but had decided during a Dean’s Advisory Council meeting that an email, rather than broaching the topic during department or program meetings, was the best form of communicating the issue as a “preventative strategy.”

“Everyone will have different views on how issues should be addressed and that is fair,” Joyce said.

Cohen said that while she did not think there had been an increase in the use of the word “retard” on campus, she thought that the campus community should be cognizant of the negative effects of using the word in a disparaging manner and reflect upon how words are used.

“My intention is not to alienate or criticize any professors. It is just to remind them to be conscientious about their word choice,” Cohen said.

The campaign will be fully launched in the spring, Cohen said. There are currently tentative plans to host speakers, air a public service announcement featuring “Glee” stars Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter in the Sadler Center, distribute T-shirts, and display a large banner in front of the Sadler Center for students to sign pledging not to use the word “retard” in a derogatory manner and to promote inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

“This will take a lot more planning and is tentative to change, but I really want to make this happen,” Cohen said.

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