"Timothy McNair is a graduate student of opera at Northwestern University’s famed Bienen School of Music. McNair is at the school on a full scholarship, but the 25-year-old is standing up to his school after his professor, Donald Nally, gave him an assignment to perform a song created by a racist American poet named Walt Whitman. McNair asked his instructor if he could be assigned to perform the work of other artists but Nally denied him the opportunity and told him if he didn’t turn in all of his completed work by Friday, May 17th he’d receive a failing grade. McNair refused.
“Certainly I do not deserve to fail this class. I have a 3.7 GPA. I’m an officer on three committees of this university. So what is deserving for me? Is to be able to perform two pieces and have the third piece removed because of the insensitivity,” McNair told Chicago’s WGN news station. Although the piece McNair is instructed to perform does not contain any blatant racism, McNair believes it is still offensive that he was asked to complete the works of a devout racist. “We know (he) was historically racist. He’s called African Americans ‘baboons’ and was for oppressing voting rights,” McNair said of Whitman. "
Here is a link to the original article http://www.blackbluedog.com/2013/05/news/black-man-to-lose-scholarship-f...
Good for the student for taking a stand. The prof should certainly accommodate him.
I hope this student gets good support for his courageous stand. His other option might have been to preform the piece but in a manner that highlights the inherent racism of the author. From the introduction of the song, to the choice of clothes with appropriate messaging or even the use of face makeup could have allowed him to make the point while still hanging onto his scholarship.
His professor sounds like a racist asshole but one never knows for sure from a short media story.
Would he have performed Wagner?
The Atlantic wrote a defence of the prof (really a castigation of the student) which posits that history is made up of awful people making good works. Well duh. And many of the commenters bring up Wagner in one of two ways a) in McNair's defence: would the prof insist on a Jewish student performing Wagner (my guess: probably); and b) criticizing McNair: if he refuses to perform Whitman, he better refuse to perform any composer who holds oppressive views.
The second denies the point of this kind of tactic: to take up specifically a revered artist whose racism against African Americans is forgotten or ignored. We don't need to be universal or perfect in our protests or actions. Each action should be judged on its own merits. This one says: "this man is a racist -- were you aware of that when you insisted a black man perform his work?"
It has a simple solution: allow the student to perform a different work. Instead, the prof decided to fail the protesting student. Hmm.
Catchfire, why does the colour (in the case of Whitman) or religion (in the case of Wagner) of the student matter?
Put differently, if accommodation is the issue (as you suggest above), then shouldn't any student who finds these materials offensive be accommodated?
I'm asking, because I'm trying to work out my views on this issue. Finding poets, novelists, composers, painters from past years who are free of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc., will be a daunting task.
We could despise Bacon and the original reason for the rebellion named after him, but appreciate the incidental value of what occurred when black and white people made use of the occasion to revolt together. Even the Bible has a few verses that remain quotable. The professor in this situation does appears stubbornly attached to his own cultural legacy, to the detriment of a reasonable alternative.
Exactly my point Unionist, tho far better put than my terse statement.
Even artists who may pass on one account (a poet who was a firm supporter of civil rights for blacks lets say)might fail in another (homophobe, anti-semite, murderer, child molester, rapist whatever)t
Unionist, my feeling is that trying to look for a universal prescription from this one action is misguied (i.e "shouldn't any student who finds these materials offensive be accommodated?"). This student thinks that Whitman's racism outweighs whatever cultural value he has, at least insofar as he is comfortable performing his work. I think that's a worthy sentiment to put forward in a public setting and should be considered on its merits. From a cursory view, it looks easy enough to accommodate -- although there could be other info that would change my mind.
So accommodation isn't the chief factor here for me; rather, it's the question of whether the complaint is worthy of consideration. For me, it is.
Interesting, because for me it is the opposite. And I'm not saying the complaint isn't worthy; in a personal sense obviously he has that right, so I don't thing it being "worthy" is even relevant. But I don't think that is a matter for the university to consider. Giving the student a different piece makes good sense, and it seems to me the prof is digging in on a point that is highly disrespectful.
It would be a bit different if it was training that was an integral part of the work the student was preparing for.
As for the student's stance, I agree with Unionist. I think he is completely justified in refusing to do something he finds objectionable, but I think there is a great minefield laying ahead of him in his field of scholarship. Good luck to him in finding that balance.
Again, suggesting that a student's objection to something they find offensive can only be valid if they become perfect protestors and protest equally (whatever that means) to each and every cause of social justice is completely unreasonable. It's the call used by those in power to discredit dissent. It's why white men complain that the suffrage movement was racist, or that Nellie McLung and Tommy Douglas supported eugenics. It's an ahistorical, decontextualizing and disingenuous move.
Sure. As does anyone with a social conscience making it through an unjust world. But shouldn't the university be the best place to accommodate this kind of dissent? FTR, I'm not even saying that the student, in all cases, shouldn't fail the assignment (although in this case it seems on the surface needlessly intransigent to do so); only that his stand should be applauded. Sometimes stands mean getting arrested. It's all in the game.
Yes. I think he should be accomodated, especially if it regards something that is not necessary to pass the course, and in that sense I do think the prof bears some real blame. If it is a case of something systemic that might require the university to change its curriculum, then I think that should be considered.
As much as I admire this person's willingness to take a stand on a point of principle though, I don't think Whitman should no longer be taught (and I know you are not saying this).
So in this case, I think it just comes down to accomodation. I don't see how the university can address it professionally in any other way.
Thanks for the elaboration, CF. The more I think about it, the less possibility/need I see for drawing conclusions of a very broad general nature. The student raised a matter which is obviously of great importance to him, and unless we know some facts to the contrary (e.g., that he took the course in full prior knowledge of this particular requirement), why wouldn't the matter be discussed respectfully and alternatives considered?
ETA: Crossposted with Smith:
Yes - that's precisely why I raised the difficulty of finding "pure" figures in past history. And no, I was pretty certain CF wasn't suggesting anything of the sort either.
I must have misunderstood you then because this part I totally agree with it.
If there is any place where we should maintain the freedom to consider objectionable and transgressive ideas, it is in academia.
I should think that institution would be able to hold both principles as equally important, even in a case like this where they seem to be in opposition.
Well according to the latest update he did not show up to the class at all and thus failed it. He has also initiated a complaint with the NAACP