February 24, 2020
Dear Appalachian State University community,
I am writing to address a regrettable incident that has profoundly affected our department and its students.
On February 15, 2020, The Appalachian published Mr. Jay Edwards’ Letter to the Editor recounting an incident in Dr. Kristina Groover’s African American Literature class when she read a passage by African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass that included the N-word. A prior lesson had included the same epithet. Before the class in question, Dr. Groover and Mr. Edwards had discussed the matter; however, it seems that there was a misunderstanding in this exchange about how classes in the future would be conducted.
We discussed this incident in our department meeting last Friday, and genuinely regret Mr. Edwards’ pain and that of any other student resulting from this or any other content in our courses. We are also concerned by how this situation has affected Dr. Groover, because she is a respected colleague with a passion for African American literature and a history of activism for social and racial justice. We recognize that neither our academic privilege nor our past actions make us impervious to the serious, painful, and complex history surrounding racist language.
Determining the best approach to teaching volatile and painful texts is a discussion we need to continue within our department, across our campus, and on college and university campuses across the country. We never want to cause any student pain, but we also never want to gloss over or try to hide the racist history of this country, and that history’s racist language. Teachers and professors nationwide struggle with resolving this dilemma, both honoring that pain and teaching the history, and the answers to the dilemma are still evolving. As a department, we want to be part of healing those wounds, and finding answers.
Diversity and inclusion are fundamental to our work. In 2017, with significant leadership of Dr. Groover, our department wrote our Diversity Statement, which speaks to our commitment to inclusive excellence. I encourage the Appalachian community to read the full text on our department homepage (https://english.appstate.edu/) and would like to highlight two key sentences:
As educators, we affirm that language and texts, films and stories help us to understand the experiences of others whose lives are different from ours. […] In line with our departmental goals, we disavow all racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, classism, ableism, and hate speech or actions that attempt to silence, threaten, and degrade others.
We commit to addressing this at a department level by having frank conversations about this topic with each other, students, other faculty, and staff. Going forward, we will reach out to members of our campus whose work focuses on inclusion and diversity and invite scholars who have published on this topic to help us become even more effective teachers and community members.
As we work through the aftermath of the situation between Dr. Groover and Mr. Edwards, I commit to help lead discussions in my department that explore how we can honor the integrity of academic freedom and the well-being of our students in the classroom.
Our department will have more to say about this as this work continues. I ask for patience so we can have the conversations necessary to address this situation as best we can. And while we’re doing so, I ask us to be generous as a community in the ways we interpret people’s motivations and actions, so we can continue to work in good faith toward a positive resolution.
Department of English