Students protest a bias incident in core COMPLIT class, call for diversity in the department

May 29, 2022, 10:21 p.m.

Some students have been given first name pseudonyms to improve readability. Their identities, while known by The Daily, are being withheld in this article because of fear of academic retaliation.

Students are boycotting COMPLIT 123: “The Novel and The World” following an incident which several students perceived as discriminatory towards an Asian student. Students say they see this incident as a reflection of a broader lack of diversity among faculty and teaching staff within the Comparative Literature department. 

Multiple students in the course criticized one of the instructors, Joan Ramon Resina, for dismissing student perspectives on orientalism in a course text called “The Mandarin,” written by Eça de Queirós, a 19th century Portuguese author. 

Resina and his co-instructor, lecturer Nathan Wainstein, did not respond to a request for comment on student criticism of Resina’s behavior.

“The Mandarin” follows Teodoro, an impoverished Portuguese civil servant in Lisbon. Teodoro accepts the Devil’s offer to inherit unlimited riches by killing a rich Chinese official. Later regretting his decision, Teodoro travels to China in an effort to find the family of the man he killed. The text includes descriptions of Chinese individuals and the country. While students were critical of the text’s representation of China, they came to class on Monday of Week 6 ready to engage critically with the text despite its orientalist elements, according to Emily, a student and comparative literature major who is in the class.

“Rather than fostering an open discussion, Prof. Resina created an atmosphere of hostility by repeatedly asserting that we should abstract away from the racial element of the book,” Emily said.

After a student presentation on orientalism in the novella, students said the text was revisited towards the end of the class when Resina introduced an argument that the moral issue of killing Chinese official is a universal one. 

Taylor, an Asian student in the class, attempted to speak about the racial and colonialist dynamics in the novella. She said she hoped to express that the discussion of morality applies differently to colonizers and colonized people, because of unequal power dynamics between the two groups. However, according to Taylor and other students in the class, Resina repeatedly insisted on changing the topic.

“I didn’t even get to finish my sentence before I was just abruptly interrupted by the professor,” Taylor said. “I felt very emotionally distraught, but after his two-minute speech, I still managed to raise my hand and finish my initial thought, to which he responded with dismissal,” she said.

Upon leaving the class and being asked by a classmate if she was okay, Taylor broke down in tears. Seven other students from the class gathered around her to provide comfort and express their own condemnation of Resina’s behavior as Resina and Wainstein exited the building without stopping.

According to Taylor, Resina did not make any visible effort to recognize that he made students feel uncomfortable in the class. 

“He didn’t apologize, didn’t acknowledge his mistake,” Taylor said. “For me, that’s ample ground to assume that he might continue doing similar things in the future.”

The incidents, and lack of follow-up from Resina, led a few students to boycott the next class meeting. Only four students out of 10 attended the class. Four of the students who chose not to come explicitly cited the boycott as their reason for skipping class. 

Following the boycott, students drafted a letter provided to The Daily to the Chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL), which includes the Comparative Literature department. In the letter, students described the text as “shot through a Western colonial lens” and “dehumanizing” in its depictions of Chinese people. “The Mandarin” was the only text in the course syllabus focusing on a region in Asia.

In the letter, students characterized Resina’s interruptions and responses as “rebuking [Taylor’s] point” and “clearly dismissive.” According to the letter, Taylor perceived her professor’s response to her as “an instance of racism and sexism,” especially since Resina had previously mistaken her for another Asian student in a zoom session.

Included in the letter was a description of the class meeting following the incident from a student in attendance. Based on their account, Resina expressed his right to get the class “back on the rails” and described the students’ perspectives on the text as “identity politics.”

Students also proposed three options for “improving the situation and mitigating further harm” in COMPLIT 123 in their letter. Continuing the class with Wainstein as their sole instructor was their preferred option. The other two proposed options were to allow students to withdraw from the class without penalty, or to independently study with Wainstein, the preferred instructor among students interviewed by The Daily. Eight of the 10 students in the class signed the letter.

In response to the letter, the DLCL provided students with four different options to move forward with the class. In option one, students could choose to attend class and complete assignments as before. Students could also decide to submit work without going to class. Alternatively, students could choose not to do any more work for the class and switch their grading basis to CR/NC, while still fulfilling a major requirement. The last proposed option was to withdraw — and receive a ‘W’ on their transcript — from the class by the Week 8 deadline, May 20.

Resina and Wainstein did not respond to a request for comment regarding the options presented to students.

Several students were disheartened by the fact that their preferred option — to continue attending COMPLIT 123 without interacting with Resina — was not included. 

“We as students are deprived of the opportunity of going to class if we do not want to see him again,” a student in the class named River said. “We take the class not just for the requirement, but because we want to learn.”

Some students opted to either change their grading basis to CR/NC or continue to complete work without attending class. As multiple students told The Daily, they had no desire to communicate with Resina after the incident.

“I don’t want to interact with this professor,” Mike, a student in the class, said. “This professor is a tenured professor, but I don’t believe in anything he believes in.”

Several students in the class linked this event and the DLCL’s response to larger departmental problems. For example, Emily described a fundamental mismatch between the demographic diversity of students majoring and minoring in the field, and the faculty working in the DLCL and in turn, their curriculum. 

 “As students, we want this incident to be an impetus for hiring more diverse faculty within the DLCL,” Emily said. 

DLCL Chair Cecil Alduy wrote in a statement to The Daily that “diversity and inclusiveness are at the core of the DLCL — they are our very identity and purpose, as we devote ourselves to the study, teaching and spreading of non-Anglophone cultures and literatures from the five continents.” 

Alduy cited the department’s faculty, who come from more than 16 different countries, and the language program, which offers more than 40 languages, as indicative of a commitment to diversity. 

Alduy acknowledged that the department is working towards diversifying its faculty. “We have been striving over the past years to hire yet more diverse professors; we are not yet where we would like to be on this but we continue to work on it.”

But for several students in COMPLIT 123, the DLCL is not living up to its mission. According to Taylor, for example, pursuing the institutional route to addressing the harm caused by this incident has led to a “dead end.”

“It makes me really sad that professors don’t know how to teach things that they don’t necessarily have expertise in. And it happens to be that [in] the COMPLIT department … you know, almost all the professors have exclusively their expertise in European literature and novels, with a few exceptions,” Taylor said.

In sharing the story of this incident, Taylor and other students hope to “leverage the momentum that COMPLIT 123 has fostered in response to the incident in class to help future generations of COMPLIT students.”

Kevi Johnson writes for The Daily's News section. Contact Kevi at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.Lorenzo Del Rosario ’24 is the supreme dictator of the podcasts section. When he isn’t too busy taking long naps or religiously listening to Kendrick Lamar, he also writes for humor and the equity project. Hailing from the superior northern territory of Alaska, he plans on majoring in bioengineering and minoring in chemistry. Contact him at ldelrosario 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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