Letter to the editor: More than 277 signatures from across the country sign a letter to Acting President Marisa Kelly
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Editor’s Note: This email was forwarded to The Suffolk Journal with a list of signatories. The Journal has not yet had communication with Acting President Marisa Kelly regarding the email that they sent to her email Saturday night.
Dear President Kelly:
We, the undersigned, would like to respond to an incident at your institution that has come to our attention. If you are not aware of this incident, we would like to bring it to your attention (and please forgive the intrusion if you have been made aware).
We felt compelled to write to you directly after reading a heartbreaking post on Facebook yesterday afternoon. The post involved a blog post by a Suffolk student named Tiffany Martinez entitled “Academia, Love Me Back,” who reports that she recently received a paper back from a professor in one of her classes in which a literature review she wrote was greeted with derision and mistrust.
Ms. Martinez, who is a McNair Fellow and a regular member of the Dean’s List, was singled out in her class by the professor, who handed back her paper and declared, “this is not your language.” On the top of the first page, the professor had written, “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” And on a page where Ms. Martinez used the word, “Hence” to begin a sentence, the professor scrawled in the margin, “This is not your word,” with the word “not” underscored twice. In effect, the professor was telling this young woman, who happens to be a Latina, first-generation student, that they did not believe she had written her paper simply because they could not believe that a student like her—that is, a first-generation, woman of color–could use a transitory word correctly in a sentence.
Ms. Martinez did not use the professor’s name in her blog post, so s/he can avoid being ridiculed and publicly shamed for what we would deem to be an egregious instance of unprofessionalism. Students look to us for affirmation, not just students like Ms. Martinez, but students of all backgrounds. Some arrive at schools like Suffolk well-prepared for the rigors of academic life, others arrive less-prepared, but demonstrate their willingness to do whatever is necessary to bring their skills to an acceptable level to achieve academic success. While no professor wants to conclude that students have submitted work that includes information that is not their own, we firmly believe that in instances like what Ms. Martinez describes, public shaming is unwarranted and unnecessary. In point of fact, there are a number of software programs aimed at spotting plagiarism in student writing that the professor might have utilized instead of jumping to conclusions. But beyond that, we believe that a faculty member who has concerns about a student’s work should take it up with the student privately and work to determine what an appropriate course of action might be in the event that there is questionable information in an essay (which most certainly should involve giving the student an opportunity to correct their mistake).
We suspect that Suffolk has mechanisms to deal with student misconduct. But we wonder what sort of mechanisms exist in situations where a faculty member engages in misconduct. In your recent blog post, which talks about diversity at Suffolk, you sounded a note of urgency regarding the importance of creating an atmosphere conducive to equity and inclusion. We cannot imagine that the act of publicly shaming a student suspected of plagiarism (mind, without any concrete proof, beyond the racist assumptions that attach to said student’s person) is in any way consistent with your claim. This is most unfortunate, because with a single comment on an essay, this faculty member has brought efforts at creating an inclusive and equitable environment to a grinding halt. You may not agree. You may feel that this is not a matter that merits your involvement. But as the large number of signatories on this letter is meant to attest, it is clear that the hurt Ms. Martinez expresses so poignantly in her blog post has moved a large number of readers who wish to voice their concern.
As you point out in your blog, we are beset on all sides by news of yet another instance of excessive force that leads to the death of an unarmed citizen. You rightly suggest that a firm commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is one of the best ways to combat the despair that greets us when we hear tragic news of another life taken senselessly. Please know that we have great respect for your institution. Several of us have friends who teach at Suffolk, who speak with enthusiasm about the intellectual curiosity and commitment to excellence they see in Suffolk students. Indeed, one of us recruited one of your alumni to the doctoral program in Africana Studies, where she is thriving. You should also know that, though it is unlikely that you have met the large preponderance of signees of this letter, we nonetheless believe that the actions of one faculty member in no wise reflects on your sincerity and integrity. But this is a moment where it is abundantly clear that a single instance of thoughtless bigotry has tremendous resonance at a time when we have seen an exponential increase in the number of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, anti-first-gen/low income sentiments expressed on college campuses.
The actual point of this email is to express our support for Ms. Martinez and to all students of similar caliber. What we would tell her, had we the opportunity, is that the bigotry of one faculty member in no way diminishes her accomplishments or her prospects. We likewise believe that her determination has been strengthened and that this incident has only increased the likelihood that she will become a member of the professorate. In closing, we wish to express our unwavering support for your efforts to make Suffolk a reflection of the best ideals of our national project and we wish you the very best in your efforts.
Herman Beavers, Ph.D., Professor of English and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania