Andrea Quenette controversy: what happened at the U of Kansas and why won't the AP tell us?

Associated PressWhen “political correctness” and bad journalism collide…

I appreciate the fact that we live in an age where finally – finally – we have grown more sensitive on issues like race, gender, sexual orientation and privilege. (I wish I could add class to that list, but so far I can’t.) I’m sincere about this. The language we use can do more harm (or good) than I think 99% of us imagine, and we are a better society for our growing awareness of how important words can be.

But.

We can also take this sensitivity too far. It can become a weapon for cudgeling intellectual discussion (if you’ve been watching the news lately you know which elite northeastern campus I’m referring to) and, as we’re seeing in a story this morning, a smoke machine that completely obscures any attempt at basic communication.

An instructor at the University of Kansas is in hot water for … doing something. Maybe.

Kansas Professor on Leave After Using Racial Slur in Class
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Nov 21, 2015, 2:27 PM ET

A white University of Kansas professor is on paid leave after using a racial slur during a class discussion about race.

The school told Andrea Quenette, an assistant professor of communication studies, on Friday that five people had filed a discrimination complaint against her, she told the Lawrence Journal-World ( http://bit.ly/1SbhBhY ). She requested a leave of absence, and the university says she will have to stay off campus during the administrative leave until the investigation is complete.

Students began complaining about Quenette after she used the racial slur during a Nov. 12 class for graduate students who teach undergraduate classes. The class met the day after a contentious university-wide forum on race and discrimination moderated by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

Here’s the problem: I have no idea what happened. None. You don’t either, no matter how many times you read the story.

  • I don’t know what was said.
  • I don’t know what race was slandered. Blacks? Jews? Latinos? Arabs? There’s aq reference to the recent events at the University of Missouri, so I’m expected to assume blacks, I guess. (But if I’m guessing, you’re not a very good reporter, are you?)
  • I don’t know the context of the conversation…
  • …which means I don’t know if it was actually a slur or if it was instead an informed use of an offensive term in a non-offensive way.

This context makes all the difference in the world. If you have read enough of my writing here, you know that I have used all sorts of offensive words, up to and including the toxic “n-word.” But you also know that I have not done so in a biased fashion, but rather to a) call attention to the power of the words, and b) to mock those among us who use them in derisive fashion.

Let me give you an example. Compare these sentences.

1: Those people are [racial slurs].

2: Only an ignorant asshole would call those people [racial slurs].

See the difference? In both cases I employed the term [racial slur]. But sentence 1 is racist and sentence 2 is condemning racism. Which are kind of opposite things.

Now, I have no idea what we’re dealing with in Kansas/Quenette case. The story doesn’t tell me. The story doesn’t come close to telling me. The story acts as if providing me with the information I need to understand what happened (hereafter referred to “performing journalism”) would threaten the fabric of Western society. I can’t be trusted with the facts. I – and you – can’t handle the truth.

We’re expected to assume that the students are bright enough to know when to be offended, I guess. But is that true? I spent a lot of years in academia, as a student, as an instructor, and as a tenure-track professor, and I am unwilling to make that assumption. This line later in the story is intended, I think, to suggest that Quenette is likely guilty:

Schumacher said she believes Quenette “actively violated policies” during the discussion, hurt students’ feelings — including the one black student, who left “devastated” — and has a previous history of being unsympathetic to students.

Okay, that sounds bad. But first off, all I know about Schumacher is that she’s a first-year doc student and that she’s part of the group complaining. Is that credible? Well, maybe. But I have known a lot of first-year doc students. Many of them … let’s just say I wouldn’t take their word that it was raining without sticking my head out the window to check for myself.

Second, that “unsympathetic to students” could be anything. It could mean that students had legitimate complaints about hostile, incompetent behavior and she told them to fuck themselves. Or it could mean that students skipped half their classes, didn’t hand in assignments and she didn’t give them the A they thought they deserved regardless.

True story. I once had a student who ditched two-thirds of the classes in a semester. She was obviously drunk and/or high for about half the ones she did show up for. She didn’t hand in assignments worth maybe a third of the final grade and might as well have not turned in the rest, they were so bad. When she got the grade she earned (wait, check that – she got D, which is better than the F she rightly deserved, so I was actually being generous) the next day daddy was in the dean’s office complaining about me. Literally, the next day.

I’m guessing she’d characterize me as “unsympathetic,” and probably a lot worse.

Which of these cases best describes Quenette? I have no clue. She could be the worst instructor at the school, fully deserving of a righteous public firing. Or she could be a fantastic instructor and the problem is that we have a cadre of overly sensitive, entitled little brats who aren’t capable of understanding the nuances of language surrounding race.

By now it’s hopefully clear that this post isn’t about Quenette, her students, the University of Kansas or the doc program in question. It’s about the appalling state of contemporary “journalism,” and more specifically about the Associated Press. Once upon a time the AP was a benchmark for solid reporting, but obviously they have allowed their standards to slip a little, to the detriment of the public it’s so poorly serving.

As a result, I have this story before me that does not provide me with the full story or even the basic, component facts I need to figure it out on my own.

Here’s what I know. Something happened at the University of Kansas. Some people are upset.

Is that good enough for you?

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28 thoughts on “Andrea Quenette controversy: what happened at the U of Kansas and why won't the AP tell us?”

    1. The message: a call for a national conversation on race is an order to keep the lips tightly sealed. To maintain employment, say absolutely nothing. It is conceivable, although not yet established, that merely asking questions will yield the need for job search.

  1. In my opinion: deliberately obfuscating context spawns articles like this where people are concerned about academic censorship, even when no evidence is provided that that is what happened. This way, both sides of the topic are left to fill in the gaps, which are often filled with whatever drama fits their perspective, making for a mpre sensational (and profitable) story on the whole than if you simply imparted which it was and riled only one of the parties.

  2. If you are really that concerned, it seems like you would have read the letter from the students, which has been linked extensively from articles about the event (for example, the one you’ve linked to above), has all the details about what was said, and has been posted for 5 days. For someone so concerned about quality journalism, I would have thought you’d do the most basic review of primary documents before posting.

    View story at Medium.com

    1. I did read the student statement. Maybe if you’d read what I wrote instead of commenting on something that was clearly not the point of my article you’d be less exercised about something that isn’t the point.

      1. If you read the student statement, then your four bullet points elucidating how you have no idea what happened seem a little disingenuous. It’s exceedingly easy to find out what happened. Instead, you spend half the article making a big deal out of every article not re-hashing the conversation and the other half building a case for how students are unreliable crybabies these days. Implying, of course, that this is exactly what happened in this case, which is quite a remarkable thing for you to have figured out without actually reading their complaint. Just because you write “it’s hopefully clear that this article isn’t about…” doesn’t mean that wasn’t what the article was about..

      2. This is really quite simple, and the remarkable thing is how much trouble you’re having understanding it. I was not writing about the actual event, I was writing about the journalism. I may write about the event itself later – I have some thoughts on the subject. But the thing that struck me was the failure of the journalism.

        There are three members of the staff here who have taught university journalism at some point and I’m one of them. It’s a subject S&R cares about and it’s something we have written about a great deal over the past eight years.

        As I say, this isn’t complicated. Now, if you have a comment about the article that I WROTE I’d love to hear it. Comments that go out of their way to miss the point are of no value.

      3. Why should the reader have to do their own research? I guess anyone can be a journalist now days. One can write a worthless article but provide a link to the facts.

  3. I think I have a pretty good idea what happened, and it amounts to students taking her words out of context in a way that changes their meaning. Here’s what she claims to have said:

    “As a white woman I just never have seen the racism,” Quenette told her class, according to the open letter calling for her resignation. “It’s not like I see ‘n—-r spray painted on walls.”

    She went on to explain:

    “I tried to preface everything I said with, ‘I don’t experience racial discrimination so it’s hard for me to understand the challenges that other people face, because I don’t often see those,’”

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/white-kansas-professor-leave-n-word-class-article-1.2442657

    So what we have here is a situation where she was answering a question on this topic and trying to explain that it’s difficult for those who haven’t experienced racial discrimination to understand what it’s like for those who have.

    But with that specific quote, what people actually took away was that she was DENYING these hate crimes happen. “It’s not like I see ‘n—-r spray painted on walls.”

    That seems highly unlikely given the context of the discussion. I find her explanation believable. And I think we’ve seen people take things out of context enough to know misunderstandings like this happen.

  4. What the hell did she say and in what context? Did I miss the racial slur? I wasted 4 minutes re-reading the article and I still don’t know what the word was. Oh, I know, she called herself a “cracker”, or was it “honkey”, or “whitey”. All acceptable in our “new” society.

  5. Thank you thank you. My friends and I read that article and was appalled at the clear lack of journalistic integrity and clearly lazy disjointed writing. As a person who could be categorized as a minority, I am deeply offended and yes I am using the word offended, by this sudden surge of over sensitivity to every perceived injury, slight or harmful word. As you have said, the article presents very little facts to go on and makes the resounding leap to a conclusion that presents not one iota of fact to help justify it. It also makes it appear that everyone who has a differing opinion from the masses is now enemy number one or even if you have a supporting argument you are a horrible person. The AP should take a look at its journalistic mirror and take a hard look at what it’s putting out.
    I pray we will get back to a point where common sense and the ability to use reasoned thought to come to a clear consensus is in play. I know, I’m dreaming.

  6. I completely agree regarding the terrible quality of the reporting surrounding this event. Every article should include a copy off or link to the publicly available open letter written by the students.

    This is an interesting case. In this particular instance, if we evaluate the statement in which the professor used the racial slur in an isolated vacuum, then the most rational assessment of the situation is that the students have seriously overreacted.

    However, if you read the formal complaint in its entirety, it becomes clear that this is not simply about the professor’s use of a racial slur. The claimants’ aggrievement stems from the professor’s nonchalance and dismissive tone, combined with the totality of her message during the discussion and previous indecorous comments directed at other students and faculty. In the eyes of these students, the professor’s attitude regarding social issues, her lack of empathy and her cavalier disregard of their concerns, coupled with this current and prior examples of crude, unsavory behavior disqualifies her from instructing not only this graduate level communications class, but any class at the University of Kansas.

    This is the discussion that the media needs to cover. Instead, the entire discourse revolves around the slur. The slur is not what got her in trouble. It was her comments and actions following the slur that sealed her fate.

    1. I agree. If I write about the student statement I’ll be parsing that issue. As I see it right now, some of what they complain about is probably entitled whining, but there are other issues that are more than valid. So as with many kerfuffles, maybe not black or white….

    2. This whole thing is a real-life replay of an old twilight zone episode “Everything is Hopeless”.

      A synopisis from IMDB:
      This episode is about an entire community that has been taken over by a child brat who is totally self centered and sociopathic… Any effort to educate him would result in being “sent to the cornfield.” This is a state of limbo. When your adversary has no conscience, he cannot be approached in a rational way. This story is about fear. Not only are the people under constant threat, the world the boy is creating is one that is becoming bleak and vacuous. We never know if he has the power to bring things back, but it appears not. We know at some point he will be all that is left. Everyone has a breaking point. Billy Mumy is a great choice for the child monster. The other characters sweat and frown. In their efforts to survive they have the constant mantra “That was a good thing you did. A real good thing.”

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734580/reviews

      I wouldn’t take that letter at face value – it’s almost gleeful in it’s desire to remind everyone that public university employees leave their free speech rights at the door.

  7. Very good point Mr. Smith. The AP reporter still has his job though. When the Red Guards take over, the smart thing to do is to keep your head down. Poor Prof Quenette actually believed the nonsense about ‘dialogue’ which is the new word for ‘shut your mouth’ 🙂

  8. I am on the inside of this story. The N word incident was the latest in a series of insensitive, unprofessional, vindictive, useless, mean behaviors displayed by Quenette. Her students were emboldened to take action in the current context of heightened racial awareness on campuses these last few weeks. The faculty and administration are appalled by over a dozen horrible decisions made by Quenette in her role of teaching young teachers to teach. Her stupidity and thoughtlessness in the publicly known controversy are representative of her complete incompetence. She will never teach another student at the University of Kansas and should not be allowed to elsewhere. I am remaining anonymous here to protect myself from complications but in reality my legal liability is nil because every one of these statements is true and verifiable. A good journalist could discover that by going to the many who were affected.

    1. What you say may be accurate. Sadly, we can afford little credibility to anonymous sources here.

      That said, I’m sure we all agree that a good journalist could verify a great deal. The AP didn’t assign a good journalist to this story, which is my whole point.

      1. Since accountability and credibility are at the heart of both this AP news story and Sam’s analysis of the AP’s performance, Mr. or Ms. Scoop’s choice to remain anonymous really does this discussion no good at all.

  9. Obviously, this should have been two posts since both questions are interesting:

    1. What purpose does journalism serve if it redacts all the content in order not to offend?
    2. Did Quenette do something wrong?

    I am less fussed about question 1 than the rest of you are. My coauthor on one of my books, who wrote for the NYT, was a journalist. He became a journalist because in high school he flunked the aptitude test for everything else. That’s just one anecdote, but the truth is I know a lot of journalists, and in the main, they’re not that smart or thoughtful or persistent. So the fact that there is a bad journalist out there is about as interesting to me as the sunrise.

    I am however fascinated by question 2. Somewhere I remember a story about someone who got in trouble for using the word “niggardly.” I am a fan of political correctness and don’t believe than any racial or sexist or ethnic epithet is useful, nor do I believe that any attribution of the traits of a general population to an individual is ever acceptable, even when self-inflicted and meant lightly. However, I’m not a fan of morons.

    I actually find Scoop’s letter useful, because at least it makes sense. In my life in the corporate world, I often saw people fired for misdemeanors because no one could prove felonies, a la Al Capone and tax evasion. I’ve seen a union plumber who hit a supervisor in the head with a wrench fired for stealing toilet paper and an executive who set up a ring to steal and resell laptops fired for filing a false expense report. So if this was a frame-up, at least it makes sense.

    And Dan, as someone who writes under a nom de plume, I’m sticking up for my faceless brother/sister here. 🙂

    1. Obviously, this should have been two posts since both questions are interesting:

      Perhaps it should have been but I had other things to do. Might still come back to it.

      …I know a lot of journalists, and in the main, they’re not that smart or thoughtful or persistent. So the fact that there is a bad journalist out there is about as interesting to me as the sunrise.

      I think we all know bad journalists, same as we know bad practitioners in all fields. So in no way am I suggesting that this is somehow unique. Still, we’re dealing with the AP. You’d think the average standard there would be higher, right? Also, the things I’m complaining about here aren’t a question of you have to be an elite. I’m talking about things that your average J school grad ought to know. This story wouldn’t get better than a C in an undergrad J class at a decent school.

      I am however fascinated by question 2. Somewhere I remember a story about someone who got in trouble for using the word “niggardly.” I am a fan of political correctness and don’t believe than any racial or sexist or ethnic epithet is useful, nor do I believe that any attribution of the traits of a general population to an individual is ever acceptable, even when self-inflicted and meant lightly. However, I’m not a fan of morons.

      I actually find Scoop’s letter useful, because at least it makes sense. In my life in the corporate world, I often saw people fired for misdemeanors because no one could prove felonies, a la Al Capone and tax evasion. I’ve seen a union plumber who hit a supervisor in the head with a wrench fired for stealing toilet paper and an executive who set up a ring to steal and resell laptops fired for filing a false expense report. So if this was a frame-up, at least it makes sense.

      Scoop might well be right on all counts. The issue is that in a case like this we’re talking to a clear advocate on one side. We’re still trying to understand the facts, though, so the slant from someone who is perhaps carrying around a vested interest is of limited value. Once I know the facts I may agree completely with him/her, but right now I need the damned facts.

      Also, the really grating part, is that Scoop isn’t remaining anonymous out of need. He/she makes clear that it’s all documented, no liability, etc. We have two or three people here writing anonymously for good reason – you’re one, Wuf is another. But Scoop is anonymous out of convenience and nothing more.

      In other words, not only do I have a credibility problem with the comment, I have questions about the moral courage of the commenter.

    2. I know a lot of journalists who could, in oral or written form, slice you into thin strips of beef jerky for saying that “in the main,” journalists are “not that smart or thoughtful or persistent.” I teach my freshman journalism students to avoid such sweeping generalizations.

  10. I want to add that the student, Amy L. Schumacher, who wrote the open letter has a long history that does not in any way fit the normal profile of a social justice advocate; she is a well-oiled and mature woman who has worked in Washington DC on behalf of birther Republican Jean Schmidt, she has expressed a great love of Republican Mike Huckabee, she has previously attempted to try her hand at journalism herself although she found her way through social media and other public relations outlets, and she founded a group for the purpose of students standing against abortion, none of which express the kinds of “progressive values” that she claims have harmed her in some unarticulated way. She also is seeking to become a PR strategist for political campaigns, or something to that effect, based on her copious online statements, some of which are only available via cache. It is my suspicion that she has done this to advance her own particular PR agenda given that she tried to open a consulting and PR firm not long ago which failed. She appears to have exploited this situation and the naiveté of some of those in her class, a naiveté which she does not share, for purposes which are unknown. However, her positioning this as a news-worthy story is odd considering her very apparent history. It’s worth a story in and of itself and is not hard to research online. Offline, even more so. It is difficult to say what Ms. Schumacher wants, specifically, but she is a Christian conservative with some skin in the game towards advancing her already-flailing PR career asking for a liberal professor to be fired and using social media for the purposes of defaming her.

  11. I read the article then did a search for “what did andrea quennette say”. Your post came up first! I still don’t know what she said, but I agree with you 100%.

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