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Instructors mull dropping NYU feminist scholar from syllabi for alleged groping of male student

And her defenders’ work, too

One of the debates within #MeToo is how to handle the teaching of material by scholars who have been accused of sexual misconduct at any level, whether the alleged conduct is relatively new or decades old.

New York University’s fallen feminist scholar, Avital Ronell, is the latest whose work may be quietly shelved by instructors who have previously included it in their syllabi. Also the chopping block: work by her initial supporters.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the “blowback” to Ronell in college classrooms, including how students and fellow scholars are responding to professors who initially defended Ronell against sexual-harassment allegations by her former grad student, Nimrod Reitman.

“Ronell’s scholarship, status, and network of academic supporters have extended the impact of misconduct allegations against her to circles far beyond NYU,” the Chronicle says:

After reading news articles and essays about the Ronell allegations, Zachary Furste’s mind went to the three-person class on 20th-century media-technology experiments that he taught last spring at the University of Southern California. In the course, students read from Ronell’s The Telephone Book, among other works.

Last year he thought Ronell was a perfect fit for his syllabus, given her stature and the relevance of the text. Assigning the book seemed “inevitable,” he said. But if he were to teach the course in the future, he said, “I haven’t really settled whether I will keep it.” He wondered if including her work, even with relevant context, would help students or confuse them.

The initial letter by fellow feminists defending Ronell, an internationally renowned philosopher, before Reitman’s full allegations were made public is also blowing back on its signatories.

Mount Allison University sociologist Ardath Whynacht started a Twitter campaign to convince instructors to remove Ronell’s supporters – some of whom have since recanted – from their syllabi unless they also teach “the context” of the Ronell case, according to the Chronicle.

MORE: Feminist scholars denounce Title IX probe of Ronell

This refers to the University of California-Berkeley’s Judith Butler, lead signatory on the letter defending Ronell, high-profile queer theorist and president-elect of the Modern Language Association:

Whynacht herself plans to include a discussion of Butler in a course this fall about youth culture. With that talk, she said, she plans to discuss the letter, power dynamics, and differences between theory and community work.

“These are scholars who talk a lot about power, violence, and vulnerability — their academic credentials should be called into question,” she said. “The ethical approach would be encouraging students to explore how it’s possible that our … experts on power, violence, and gender seem to miss what’s plainly obvious to a lot of folks.”

One Cornell doctoral student, Peter Shipman, went so far as to drop a class with Cathy Caruth, another initial Ronell supporter, even after she told his class she would meet with “any concerned student.”

He was still offended by Caruth’s refusal to explain her defense of Ronell to The Cornell Daily Sun. Caruth said last month that explaining her signature on the letter was “too complex to be handled adequately through an interview for an article.” (Two other Cornell professors signed the letter as well.)

Meanwhile, Caruth’s English Department declined to tell the Chronicle if it sent “explicit guidance” on adviser-advisee relationships to the graduate program because of the three Cornell professors’ public support for Ronell.

Read the article.

MORE: Reitman sues Ronell, NYU for sexual harassment

MOREProfessor ordered to keep queer theorist Butler on his syllabus

MORE: MLA rebukes Butler for identifying herself as president-elect in letter

IMAGE: Deutsches Haus/YouTube

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.