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On Campus

An Open Letter from the Students of Intro to Lit

Radix Admin

By Sonia Mohammadzadah ‘18

I love Mount Holyoke and am incredibly proud to be a student of this institution. It is because of this love and pride that I not only recognize the college's imperfections, but actively work to produce a better experience for all. I want to take this less-than-ideal classroom experience and use it to invoke necessary change. This situation is part of a larger discussion regarding the negative consequences of tenure and the insufficient action taken by administration to address student concerns.

Eugene Hill is a brilliant man. I learned more about the English language, writing prose, and how to form a well-supported literary argument than I thought plausible in the 8 weeks as a student in his Introduction to the Study of Literature course. I produced some of my most perceptive pieces of writing, and provided insightful contributions as a participant in class lectures and discussions.

However, I don’t like being made to feel incompetent.

I believe that all professors are entitled to their respective teaching styles. They retain the right to run the classroom as they see fit, as long as it does not compromise the wellbeing of their students or inhibit learning.

Maybe I went into the class biased. I had heard a few horror stories from upperclass students, and tried to heed their warnings: “Don’t take his class unless you’re prepared to deal with a lot of shit. He’s a genius and you’ll learn a lot, but he’s an awful man.”

Multiple faculty members discouraged me from taking his classes, and instead advised me to register for his section of Intro to Lit as a backup. But the course is the first requirement for the English major, and I didn’t make it off the waitlist for the other section I registered for.

Students filed into the room on the first day of class. Nervous smiles were exchanged as we waited for our professor to arrive. Professor Hill barely walked through the open door before yelling a list of demands: “You--close the door! You--turn on the lights! You--pull down the blinds! You--write this on the chalkboard!”

Not once did he say please. He asked for no student’s name before pointing and telling her what to do. After all who were enlisted had completed their tasks and everyone was seated, a student, clearly out of breath, opened the door and stepped in. I glanced down at my watch. It was 25 seconds past 10 o’clock. As expected, he went off about his lack of tolerance for tardiness and told her, “The next time you’re planning on being late and interrupting my class, I would rather you didn’t show up at all.”

After only 30 minutes with Professor Hill, at least four students (of a less than 20 total) chose to drop the class. As she packed up her things and prepared to exit the room, I heard one student say, “Man, I was contemplating an English major, but this isn’t worth it.” Another loudly told her friend, “I am paying for this. I get to choose what kind of bullshit I put up with, and this isn’t it.”  

A few more students dwindled out of the class over the next few days. It was a tactic. Weed out the weak. The students who choose to stay are the ones who are serious about their learning. Or too scared to leave. Or too lazy to switch into another course. Or needed to stay, like me. Whatever the case, the 10 of us left were in it for the long haul.

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Professor Hill is intimidating and unapproachable. His teaching style is heavily grounded in “shock factor” and causing discomfort as a means of ‘growth.’ Intro to Lit is a discussion-based class. However, if a student raised her hand to respond to a question posed by Hill, she could maybe spit out half of what she prepared before Hill would cut her off with an abasing “No.” Sometimes it would come out as a sigh of frustration; other times it was more of a yell. Regardless, a lecture on why said student was incorrect followed by the ‘right’ answer would continue the discussion.

Because students knew they were likely to be interrupted, and felt their ideas were going to be seen as wrong, fewer and fewer volunteered to share their thoughts. I’ve found that the most valuable contributions come from internal thought and a willingness to share, not as a result of being forced to speak. When no one offered to answer a question, Hill would call on whomever he liked, and usually resulted in a semi-coherent, unprepared answer, only further encouraging his criticism. And so the cycle continued.

Besides the overtly hostile classroom environment, one of the first things to unsettle me was the patronizing manner in which Professor Hill addressed our international students. On the first official day of class, he asked them, in condescendingly slow English, whether or not they could understand him. Other times, after a particularly lengthy or complex discussion, he would choose an international student, seemingly at random, and yell something along the lines of, “-----! Did you get that? I know what we just discussed might be especially difficult for you to grasp.” One day after class, an international student whispered to me as we walked down the staircase, “Am I wrong to be offended by the way he spoke to me today?” I responded, “No, you should be.”

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We had just read Anton Chekhov's short story, “The Lady with the Dog.” Originally written and published in Russian over 100 years ago, and later translated into English, there were many subtleties within the writing that didn’t translate well and could be easily overlooked by the average reader. Professor Hill often adopted the persona of a character or characters, and read passages aloud in an effort to emphasize certain statements.

The story follows the passionate affair between an older, married successful businessman and a young, attractive, upper-class wife “approximately our age.” On the first day analyzing the Chekhov story, we were asked to focus on one specific paragraph within the story. The paragraph was a sex scene. However, no one, upon a first reading discovered this. Our indicator was that the entire paragraph was a run-on sentence in which Gurov, the male character, recalls the memories of his past lovers.  

Upon mentioning the existence of a short, hour-long film adaptation of the story, Professor Hill proceeded to ask how we individually would choose to portray the pornographic scene. What would and wouldn’t we see--just the lovers’ faces or their entire bodies? Would they orgasm? Would we also see flashback scenes depicting past lovers? Would there be music playing as the scene took place?

The questions were relevant, but the detail in which Hill asked us to describe the scene seemed absurd, considering we barely recognized the passage as a sex scene. After hearing our concise answers (that essentially avoided the question), he reread the paragraph in his own interpretive translation, utilizing phrases like, “as their sweaty bodies pressed against one another…,” and “upon reaching ejaculation, Gurov…” Again, I was taken aback by his use of explicit language, given that it was not at all used in the text.

There were quite a few other short stories with apparent sexual themes, which we heavily discussed. I quickly lost track of the countless times my fellow classmates and I were accused of being naïve, uneducated girls who were “too sensitive” when it came to discussing “mature content.” Hill was either blind or blatantly ignorant to the truth: we were not made uncomfortable by the subject matter; we were discomforted by his aggressive approach and antagonistic treatment of the recurrent sexual themes and racial tensions in our readings. He simply brushed off the verbal, even physical distress he often witnessed with statements like, “You need to grow up” and “We’re all adults here.”

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“The term ‘Papist’ was used as a derogatory slur against Catholics in the 1800s.”

That was all he needed to say. Instead, he chose to continue the lecture with a racial slam ‘pop quiz’ to further emphasize his point to international students, whom he believed didn’t quite understand.

His eyes targeted our two Chinese international students, whom he often collectively addressed as simply, “Chinese.”

“If I were to racially insult a Chinese man, I would call him a ‘chink.’”

“Does anyone know the slur for Italians? (No answer) It’s Diego.”

He turned to me. “What would you call a Puerto Rican?”

My irritation was building. “A Puerto Rican.”

“No, you’d call him a ‘spick’.”

He proceeded to inquire and answer his own question about Irish-Americans.

“What are you all, 18-19 years old? And none of you knew all of these terms?”

Another student: “I mean I know them, I just don’t use them.”

Me: “No, no I didn’t. Why are you doing this?”

His eyes then found the only African-American student in the room.

“Danielle, what’s the slur for African Americans?”

“Negro. That’s as far as I’ll go.”

“No, the word that nobody wants to say. The word that everyone’s afraid of.”

“I’m not gonna say it, we get your point, just drop it--”

“‘Nigger!’ I would say, ‘Nigger!’”

By directing his attention and question towards Danielle, Professor Hill acknowledged that if anyone in the room had the 'right' to say that word, it was her and not him. Yet, when she refused to comply with his demands, he proceeded to scream the slur to her face.

Noting the shock and discomfort among the class, he ordered us to reread the passage. About 30 seconds in, he attempted to defend the interaction that had just taken place. As I seethed with anger and another student sat in silent tears, he said, “These terms are important to know. You should know when your race is being insulted. You should know when to be offended.”

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I have a few objectives in writing this article. Initially, I wanted to share our grievances on a more public platform. My classmates and I are beyond the point of frustration; we feel as though our concerns have been dismissed and our voices diminished. I hope that by telling our story to you--fellow students, professors, friends, and families--I prove that this was not a one-incident case. Professor Hill was not simply having a bad day, and we are not overreacting to the situation.

I am angered and disappointed by the college’s address of the situation and the minimal action taken to resolve the issue. While there have been individual faculty members who have sympathized with our concerns and have put forth extreme efforts to address said concerns, we’ve received limited communication by and on the actions of administration under the pretext of breaching legality.

It is hard to believe that every emotional conversation with academic advisors, neutral parties, legal investigators, and administrative representatives has culminated to a brief, insincere apology letter. As students who felt that our right to safe, respectful learning environment had been violated, we filed an official report with the Dean of Students. We put our faith in the system because we were asked to, and because we wanted to believe that standard procedure would be enough. For an institution with a zero tolerance policy for bigotry, administration was relatively dismissive when it came to a formal report of discrimination and harassment in the classroom.

Professor Hill has been a faculty member at Mount Holyoke College for over 40 years. However, his reputation, among both staff and students, as a tyrannical, discriminatory professor cannot simply be attributed to age, gender, or race (or the combination of all three). At its core, his inexcusable conduct towards students lies in his unwillingness to accept the evolving values of both Mount Holyoke College and society.

With such behavior, Professor Hill not only poorly reflects on the English department, but misrepresents the values and performance of faculty members and the college as a whole. Mount Holyoke is praised and sought out by students for its renowned staff and its acceptance of diversity. The classes a student takes within the first year of school can make or break the experience. As a professor of both first-year seminars and introductory English courses, Hill has the ability to either encourage a student’s love for learning or deprecate them. The few favorites he may nurture into the major do not make up for the many students he rejects and sends off feeling alienated and inadequate.

 

***All quotes used in this article are recalled to the best of my memory.***

***To quell circulating rumors, students who were in this class are NOT, in any way, being financially compensated.***