In a twist worthy of Mark Twain himself, a St. John’s University professor has been fired for reading a passage containing the N-word from Twain’s anti-slavery novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in her “Literature of Satire” class.
Hannah Berliner Fischthal, an adjunct instructor at the Catholic college in Queens for 20 years, uttered the N-word once during a remote class Feb. 10 — after she first explained to students the context of the word and said she hoped it would not offend anyone.
“Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect,” Fischthal said. “His use of the ‘N-word’ is used only in dialogues as it could have actually been spoken in the south before the civil war, when the story takes place.”
The day after the class, however, she got an email from a student who said she had to “abruptly” leave the call because of Fischthal’s use of an “inappropriate slur.”
“It was unnecessary and very painful to hear,” the student wrote in the email seen by The Post.
Fischthal apologized to the student in an email and set up a private discussion online about the issue that she titled “Insensitive Language.”
“I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text,” Fischthal wrote. “Please do share your thoughts.”
Six students responded, including the initial complainant. Two defended Fischthal and the rest said the N-word should not have been used. Fischthal also invited students to discuss the controversy during the next class but she said the N-word was not used by anyone during that discussion.
“Pudd’nhead Wilson,” published in 1894, is one of Twain’s lesser-known novels. It focuses on the absurdity and tragedy of racism and slavery. The plot turns on a light-skinned slave named Roxy who decides to switch her light-skinned baby boy with her master’s baby boy shortly after birth in order to save her child from being “sold down the river” and to ensure him a life of wealth and white privilege.
Roxy’s biological son, however, grows up to be a spoiled monster while the master’s biological son grows up as a humble man of character. The story turns into a murder mystery at the end when Roxy’s biological son commits a vicious crime and his real identity is revealed.
“It satirizes the entire evil institution of slavery,” Fischthal told the Post. “The point of this novel was that there is no inherent difference between Blacks and Whites. Clothes and education are what distinguishes people. Both the boys in the story look exactly the same, even though one is by law a slave, and the other one is a privileged White boy.”
Fischthal said she was unaware of how racial politics have exploded at universities around the country but said she was “horrified” by the case of another SJU adjunct instructor, Richard Taylor. Taylor was fired earlier this year when students complained that he was racist because of questions he posed during a lesson involving slavery.
“I never thought that would happen to me,” said Fischthal, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “I’m one of the last people who should be accused of racism. I know where it leads and I know where it ends. In every class I teach the evils of stereotyping.”
But Fischthal’s apologies and her efforts to address the issue ultimately did not help.
On March 3 she was called into a meeting with HR about her use of the N-word in class, the subsequent discussion of it and a comment she allegedly made about a Black student’s hair. Fischthal said she only made a remark about a student’s head being wrapped up during class and it had nothing to do with her hair.
She said she was also criticized for mentioning her family’s experience in the Holocaust during class.
On March 5 she was suspended pending an investigation she had violated the university’s policy against bias. On April 29 she was fired.
Fischthal said she always received good performance reviews from both her bosses and students.
Attorneys for FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) sent the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, SJU president, a letter late Friday calling on him to reinstate Fischthal.
“Quoting (Mark Twain’s) work in a class on satire falls squarely within the protection afforded by academic freedom, which gives faculty members the breathing room to determine whether — and how — to discuss material students might find offensive,” the FIRE letter read.
When contacted by The Post, Brian Browne, a spokesman for St. John’s, said that “if your assertion is that she was fired for reading aloud from a Mark Twain novel, that is incorrect.” He refused to elaborate, saying the university does not comment on personnel matters.
“I just know I’ll miss my students and classes,” Fischthal said. “I love teaching.”