Tenured English professor Raymond-Jean Frontain was removed from his fall classes after using language within the classroom that students and members of the English department found inappropriate and offensive.
In Frontain’s upper division major authors course, John Donne and the History of the Book, students responded negatively to his use of language, stating it had nothing to do with the topic at hand.
“I don’t know how we got on this topic, but he proclaimed himself to be an elitist, talking about how he thinks education should be only for the fittest of the fit,” a sophomore in the class said. The student wished to remain anonymous.
The student said this conversation lasted for most of the course period on Oct. 26 and for about 20 minutes of the beginning of class on Oct. 28.
On Thursday, Oct. 28, “Dr. Frontain pulled out a dictionary and looked up the definition of elitism, and then he started to argue that he was using the old definition of elitism, not the new connotation of it. And then it kind of spiraled from there because he started giving examples of words that have changed meanings over time,” the student said.
The words included racial and homophobic slurs, along with a slur for a female’s anatomy.
Frontain stated he did nothing out of the ordinary.
“For years, I’ve discussed this in my intro to poetry classes with freshmen because we’re talking about how the sounds of words affect us emotionally and how those emotions become part of our psychology. I do not know what happened in class on Thursday. I am totally at a loss,” Frontain said.
Frontain said that he was trying to explain how English majors are part of a group of elite scholars as they discussed Donne’s verse epistles.
“So the point I was trying to make on Tuesday, Donne says in his verse epistles to Roland Woodward, ‘I am a better poet because you are such a good reader.’ And it was, I thought, the best demonstration of how a coterie works, creating an elite readership,” Frontain said.
During the discussion of what constitutes the elite, some students in the class felt as though Frontain was saying some people didn’t belong in college.
“That one should commit oneself to the study of literature makes one part of an elite. So rather than saying they didn’t belong, I was commending them for being here,” Frontain said.
Frontain also went over the history of a word that sounds similar to a present slur, telling students that, when it was used in its original form within the texts of Shakespeare and other early poets, it wasn’t used as a hateful racial slur.
“It’s something that I saw in print...for years, and I never would have made a connection with a racial slur. And that is when I realized class seemed to go in another direction, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I thought I was helping by continuing this discussion of the evolution of language,” Frontain said.
Multiple students reached out to the chair of the English department, Ty Hawkins, after the class period, informing him of their discomfort with the words used in the class discussion.
Hawkins then sent out an email to each student in the class, asking for feedback on the course.
“As chair of the English Department, I have a duty to collaborate with my faculty colleagues to ensure that all students in all English courses are invited to grow. For that growth to take place, our classrooms must be equal parts rigorous, inclusive and equitable. Students must feel at once challenged, welcomed and respected as whole people,” Hawkins said in the email.
While Frontain is still employed by the university, other professors have taken over teaching his two classes for the remainder of the semester.
Frontain has been on a phased retirement plan for the past five years and is scheduled to continue working for the university until the end of the academic year, which ends in May 2022. For his final semester, he has been assigned a research project and will be working in the archives.
Though the issue has been resolved on the surface level, both students and Frontain were left with discomfort and confusion.
“I feel like, as English scholars, we have a unique privilege of being able to analyze the use of words and the use of language. But sometimes boundaries get crossed, and it’s good to know that our faculty, especially our professors, know that boundary and know how to respect us as well,” the student said.
Though Frontain is complying with the wishes of the department regarding his removal, he doesn’t agree with their decision.
“I am at a loss why one cannot discuss, in an upper division class of English majors, the social uses of language. Why the history of a word is not tremendously important to what we do in the study of literature and ideas and culture. For students to reject this outright, that there are certain things we cannot talk about and the administration clearly agrees with that,” Frontain said.