On Tuesday, Sept. 11, English and Communications adjunct professor Debra Landis was trying to teach her students in Introduction to Professional Writing how to quote swear words and racial slurs in journalism. She addressed the “f-bomb” and “g.d,” but then she said the actual slur for the N-word. Landis resigned the following day.
Besides the fact that she said the N-word, this was a lesson in journalism that was not in the curriculum for the class to begin with. Landis had also censored herself for other curse words but chose to say the racial slur without censoring it.
Chair of English and Communications Karen Dillon heard what happened in class and sent Landis an email Wednesday morning that said, “I would like to touch base briefly about something that happened in class that concerned some students.” After sending the email, Dillon was teaching for four hours and had lunch. By the time she returned to her office, she had a voicemail from Landis that seemed panicked. She said that she didn’t know what the issue was, but she acknowledged that she had said the N-word in class, but once again she did not censor herself in the voicemail. Dillon also received an email from Landis that included the slur typed out in its entirety, and it explained the context of how she used it in class as well. Before Dillon could call her back, Landis sent another email with her resignation.
Provost Dr. John McClusky said they had plans to investigate the situation, but with her resignation the investigation was no longer needed. “There was a potential to fire her or ask for a resignation,” he admitted, but she quit before the discussion could even take place. McClusky said the word was atrocious and “had no place on campus.” Dillon said, “Context is important for understanding why she said it, but it’s not an excuse.”
After Landis had said the slur in class, senior organizational leadership major Elliot said, “Everyone was silent for the rest of the class period…it was a notable change in mood. She knew what she did.” Senior creative writing and art double major Veronica Lee was the one who reported the incident to English and communications professor Dr. Naomi Crummey, who reported it back to Dillon. She said that Landis was talking about the slur and said that people say it a lot, even though they shouldn’t. When she reported the incident to Crummey, she said, “I don’t think it came from a malicious place.” Either way, Lee was in shock and didn’t know what to do. She recalled, “all of us checked out for the rest of the class period, then went crazy after class.” Her fellow students kept asking each other in disbelief if she really said that.
After the situation was over, Dillon realized that it is actually a good teaching moment and opportunity to learn. She said, “The conversation should be happening, but it should be more formal,” in regards to the use of racial slurs. She explained that Landis should have known as a white person and as a human being not to say the actual word, that she should have self-edited it like she did with the other words she used. Elliot said the fact that the slur was the only word that she didn’t filter was the most shocking part. “Even small town white people know that these words are off the table,” he said.
Dillon used this situation to reevaluate who is teaching that particular class, because it is a requirement for so many students on campus. In future years, she wants to have a full-time professor teaching it instead of an adjunct. She clarified that there are many fantastic adjuncts, but they have varying levels of the time they want to invest and this class is just so important. Had this incident happened sooner, Dillon said they probably would have cancelled the class because it is available every semester, so students could pick it up next semester. At this point, however, too much time has passed. Dillon and English and Communications professor Dr. Mark Benedetti will be co-teaching the rest of the course. Dillon said that Landis’ resignation was probably better for the students and for the institution in the long run.