Trans-itioning: Moving across Academic Spaces

 

I was privileged to be among the chosen to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature, directed by Lovalerie King at Penn State University. As I reflect on the experience, it is hard to articulate what actually took place in that space.  Sure, I can tell you it was a three week, intensive study of the field with a group of 24 scholars and 3 resident faculty (Trudier Harris, Maryemma Graham, and Dana Williams).  There was a great deal of intellectual discourse and exchange of ideas that took place.  The group collaborated over research interests, pedagogical approaches to certain texts, and professional development opportunities.  Those are the objectives one would expect to have met during the course of a summer institute of this sort.

What I am having more difficulty explaining is what took place outside of the intensive learning.  I came to the institute expecting to learn more than I taught; listening more than I spoke. I envisioned being able to share insights in my own area of research and expertise but figured that would be in the background. As one who is taking a non-conventional route to tenure, I imagined myself still a novice in the field.  I was sure my reserved, quiet demeanor would be the default position I would assume—as it always has been.

                      NEH Group Photo

I, however, have been trans-formed by this experience. I was not the mute girl sitting around the table copiously taking notes. I was unusually vocal and at times vehemently so.  I learned, but I was also in a position to teach something to my peers—not a position I am familiar with outside of publication where I am just a name in print with which the reader can argue.  I received validation and encouragement on my scholarship when both T. Harris and Dana Williams spoke about my forthcoming monograph with something of scholarly praise.  I contributed as much to the dialogue as I took away from it. They shy, quiet Kameelah was out the door.  I didn’t recognize myself!

It dawned on me that to continue to call myself a novice is to discredit all the hard work I have put into studying and becoming an expert in my field. As a newly minted PhD, all I could think about was how much inexperience I had. I felt perpetually wet behind the ears and allotted that when (and if!) I saw my monograph in print, then and only then would I be able to stand among the grown folk. I suppose in the six years since my defense, I have wallowed in that position—not allowing myself to see myself as the professional I have become.

With my book being released at the end of the year and following the phenomenal experience of the NEH Summer Institute, I have no choice except to claim that I am indeed an expert and that I have something to contribute to the field. It is both a humbling and gratifying feeling. I am thoroughly appreciative to my fellow summer scholars and the visiting faculty who created the safe space in which I found myself in metamorphosis.

I come away with a stronger sense of my professional self and a new network of colleagues with whom I have shared much more than intellectual energy. I count many of them among my friends with whom I can share/learn about the trials and errors of the academic life. I only hope that I encouraged someone else’s transformation in the course of those three weeks. As part of the academic community, we all have insecurities that must be hammered out.  I’m still working on mine, but I’ve had a helluva jump start!

Teaching English Majors vs. Black Studies Majors: A Reflection on Pedagogy

 

I recently completed my first semester in an African American Studies Department where 1 of the 16 seminar participants was an English major. This was a completely new landscape and as I prepared the course I gave little thought to adapting my teaching approach to accommodate students who did not have a literary background.  I took for granted that the “interdisciplinary” student would be trained and prepared to read and discuss a text with some level of critical engagement.  They were, after all, junior and senior level undergraduates. I assumed students would complete the reading material and come to class prepared to discuss the topic, which for this term was “Women and Voodoo”.

I was quite mistaken and the result was a very slow moving and pedagogically frustrating sixteen-week term. 

I think back on the many brown bag lunch seminars offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning on “the class from hell,” which I shrugged-off as unnecessary and uninteresting. My pedagogical ego was inflated and my tenure-clock sounded loudly in the background. Now, I am humbled by realization that I came face to face with that monster—and  am not sure I did my best to survive. I am also unsure if the monster was really a result of teaching outside of my primary discipline or if this generation of students is less inclined to active learning. 

The students enjoyed the content and learned more about African-based spiritual systems than what they entered with. I suppose to some degree I should be happy about that. My disappointment comes at the resounding fact that they could have learned so much more had they actually read and dealt with the material in a more critical way.  I take some responsibility for that and as a committed pedagogue I must take steps to remedy it. Am I being ridiculous to think that pushing too much reading could have stunted the growth of the class?

As I prepare for my fall course “Voodoo and Visual Culture,” I am more cognizant of the difference in learning styles and interdisciplinary leanings of the students I will be teaching.  I’ve adapted my syllabus and teaching approach to accommodate an audience of students who are less familiar with the idea of close readings, the function of literary devices, and using paratextual evidence to critically engage a work of fiction.

My intention is not to “dumb-down” the course, but rather to find a healthy balance between teaching students the foundations of literary studies and critical analysis and requiring them to apply that lesson to a number of texts. I will supplement much of the print material with visual texts—film, art, and a graphic novel.  In cutting the amount of required reading—three novels rather than my staple seven books—I anticipate that more students will complete the reading and we can spend more time actually discussing and dissecting what we have seen and read.

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, or perhaps I will recover from the angst I feel over not doing my best to adapt to the interdisciplinary classroom.  Will students respond to visual texts and bring the critical “funk” to the class or am I rearranging my pedagogy to pacify intellectually lazy students? I hope to find the answer to those question and resolve never to grant the monster access to my classes again.