Who is Hannah Fischthal? St John's professor fired for quoting N-word while reading from Mark Twain novel

'It was unnecessary and very painful to hear,' one student wrote in the email.


                            Who is Hannah Fischthal? St John's professor fired for quoting N-word while reading from Mark Twain novel
Hannah Berliner Fischthal was fired from St John's University (Linkedin/St John's University)

New York City's St John’s University has fired a senior professor for reading a passage containing the N-word from Mark Twain’s anti-slavery novel 'Pudd’nhead Wilson' in her 'Literature of Satire' class.

Hannah Berliner Fischthal, a supplement professor at the Catholic college in Queens for 20 years, used the N-word once during a remote class on February 10, 2021, after she first explained to students the context of the word and said she hoped it would not offend anyone. “Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect,” Fischthal said. “His use of the ‘N-word’ is used only in dialogues as it could have actually been spoken in the south before the civil war when the story takes place.”

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On February 11, 2021, one day after the class, she received an email from one of her students, who said she had to “abruptly” leave the call because of Fischthal’s use of an “inappropriate slur”. “It was unnecessary and very painful to hear,” the student wrote in the email. After the first complaint came to light, six other students also responded, including the initial complainant. Two defended Fischthal while the rest said the N-word should not have been used. Fischthal also invited the students to discuss the controversy during the next class but she said the N-word was not used by anyone during that discussion.

Later Fischthal apologized to the student in an email and also set up a private discussion online about the issue that she titled “Insensitive Language”. “I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text,” Fischthal wrote. “Please do share your thoughts.”

The novel that sparked the controversy, 'Pudd’nhead Wilson', was published in 1894. It is one of Twain’s lesser-known novels and focuses on the absurdity and tragedy of racism and slavery. The plot revolves around a light-skinned slave named Roxy who decides to switch her light-skinned baby boy with her master’s baby boy shortly after birth in order to save her child from being “sold down the river” and to ensure him a life of wealth and White privilege.

Fischthal stated that she was not aware of how racial politics have exploded at universities around the country but said she was “horrified” by the case of another SJU adjunct instructor, Richard Taylor. Taylor was fired in 2020 when students complained that he was racist because of questions he posed during a lesson involving slavery.

On March 3, 2021, Fischthal was called into a meeting with HR about her use of the N-word in class, the subsequent discussion of it and a comment she allegedly made about a Black student’s hair. Fischthal said she only made a remark about a student’s head being wrapped up during class and it had nothing to do with her hair. On March 5 she was suspended pending an investigation she had violated the university’s policy against bias. On April 29 she was fired.

Attorneys for FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) sent the Rev Brian J Shanley, SJU president, a letter late Friday, May 14 calling on him to reinstate Fischthal. “Quoting (Mark Twain’s) work in a class on satire falls squarely within the protection afforded by academic freedom, which gives faculty members the breathing room to determine whether — and how — to discuss material students might find offensive,” the FIRE letter read.

According to her Linkedin bio, Fischthal has completed her Masters in Education from University of Columbia and her PhD in English from New York University. She has also been working as a Yiddish translator with Craft Translation, Eriksen Translations Inc.