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.
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!
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