Coonin’ in Academe: Shuckin & Jivin to Carve Out Space

Let me start by saying I in no way believe we exist in a post-racial society. I’ve been a part of race my whole life. From the streets of NE Washington DC, to the red clay roads of North Carolina, to the Ivy covered buildings of my undergraduate institution, and now in the halls of a private liberal arts college charging over 50k a year.  I see race. I live it. And most of all I feel it, even though I rarely hear it. In fact, the silence surrounding issues of race is frightening to me. I would much rather know you think I’m worthless openly, than wonder what you believe secretly as you smile in my face.

I’ve been called a nigger twice in the past two years. I was called a spook in 2007 while walking in NYC wearing a sweatshirt stating the name of my Ivy League alma matter. I was told in 12th grade I wasn’t smart enough to go to a ‘good school’. During college, a light skinned African American female told me I didn’t like her because I was jealous of her fair skin and fine hair. In fact, she called me a dark skinned, nappy headed, hoe.

No, we are not in a post-racial anything. We are in the eye of the storm. I just wonder who will crumble first.


I recently began to read a new text entitled Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. It is a collection of essays written by female scholars spanning many racial, economic, and sexual demographics. I suspect I will be commenting more on this text as I read more essays, but today, I was struck by an essay entitled “Facing Down the Spooks” by Angela Mae Kupenda.

The title caught my attention because of the interaction I had with the middle aged White woman in NYC, but the essay is not about Blacks as ‘spooks’. No, it’s about the ghosts that haunt the halls of academe. To borrow Kupenda’s words, these are ‘the ghosts of Jim Crow; the goblin of slavery-like, white, presumed superiority; and ghouls of sexism, racism, and classism…’(pg. 20). Yes, these words resonated with me. And I would add another: the ghost of Zip Coon, meant to shuck and jive for students of privilege who sometimes think I am here for their entertainment.

Nah, I aint ‘bout to coon for nobody.

But in reading Presumed Incompetent, I am forced to revisit issues of selling out, giving in, or coonin’ in the hopes of connecting with students and engendering collegial buy-in. I recently had a 2.5hr conversation with a graduating sociology major about her own feelings of hesitance as an outsider into issues of poverty and marginalization. She professes to be from a wealthy, White family with whom she often has frustrating and disturbing conversations about welfare reform, immigration, and taxes. She speaks passionately about changing the system, but recognizes her own limitations as a 22 year old White, upper middle class, Christian, woman in conversations with demographics whose narratives are divergent from hers. She asked me: how do you deal with it? Do you ever feel guilty?

And in that moment I knew 2 things: 1) she views me as she views herself: an educated person who has reaped the benefits of familial privilege and power; 2) as an outsider seeking to help ‘them’.

I am passing.

I let her know that in fact, I am ‘them’. I do not come from wealth or privilege. My education was never guaranteed; I and my parents worked hard for it. Most of all, I continue to work hard for it (and pay for it). I assured her that I do not feel guilty for attending a predominately White institution (PWI) instead of an historically Black college or university (HBCU). I do not carry any burdens of owing anyone for my success except my family. I do not feel a responsibility to give back. No, no, no. What I have is the position—and its consequent power and privilege—to help others get their own.

And I don’t feel guilty about occupying that space in society. I feel proud. So proud that I wear business clothes in the classroom while my White colleagues wear jeans and sneakers. I feel comfortable in my position. So comfortable that I laugh and joke with my students and coworkers during lulls in academic work. I feel knowledgeable. So knowledgeable that I have no problem proving my ‘rightness’ in the face of their whiteness.

Yes, students and colleagues challenge me. They question the veracity of my statements, the credibility of my degrees, the presence of my dark skinned, tipped in natural hair, body in their classroom. They want to know if I’m married, have any kids, and even if I own my home. Yes, they are nosy. Like many of the authors in the text write, they want insight into the Black female world whose existence you never imagined intersecting with your own.

THEY, not I, are haunted by the ghosts of times past. They, not I, conjure visions of Mammy and Sapphire when I walk in a room. They, not I, are worried about spooks creeping up on them.

And in this keep-race-quiet society, I loudly tell them “Sophia home now. Sophia home. Things is gonna be changing ‘round here”.


Tips for Faculty Writing Letters of Recommendation


letterof rec

I mentioned this topic in A Letter to College Students (from all profs) in which I was providing some advice to students about how to ask for letters of recommendation. But given recent interactions with fellow faculty about the subject, I think some advice should also be given to faculty members who agree to write such letters.

Letters of recommendation (LoR) suck. It sucks to read them and it sucks to write them. Almost all schools, programs, and employers require 2-4 LoR for admission/acceptance/employment. And they should. LoR are often deciding factors between candidates. They offer insight into an applicant’s temperament, working style, manageability, and potential for professional growth. They are meant to be an opportunity for someone close to the candidate to explicate how and why he/she should be afforded this new experience instead of the 200 other applicants.

Toward that end, I believe recommendation writers bear a heavy burden that is not always treated with respect by the writer. My colleagues talk about having students write their own letters, copying and pasting large portions of past letters, or even finding templates online and filling in the blanks. I know people are busy and LoR are an added task to an overloaded schedule, but the fact of the matter is that LoR are an integral part of our business model. And let’s not forget that at some point, someone wrote LoR for you. They may have been the aspect of your application that tipped the scales in your favor. So now it is your turn to pay it forward.

Here are some general guidelines I’ve compiled from my experiences as an anxious applicant reading my many LoR, as someone on admissions and hiring committees, and now as a full time professor writing at least a dozen of these a year:

1)      Decide if you can write a good letter for the applicant. Consider your schedule, nature and quality of the relationship, and how well you know the applicant. If you find you can’t for the life of you think of what you would write in a LoR, perhaps you should decline. Which brings me to…

2)      It’s okay to say ‘no’. I encourage people to develop a policy for writing recommendations that includes requirements for academic performance, a timeframe, or whatever else you need to feel comfortable writing. Make sure your policy is truthful and instituted consistently. If you say you need three weeks to write, don’t decline one person because they asked 10 days before the due date, but agree to write one for another person who did the same. People talk. You don’t want to develop a bad reputation. Remember—students evaluate us too.

3)      Request as much information as possible before you begin writing. This includes a resume/CV, personal statement/essays, answers to application questions, transcripts, and of course a description of the school/program/job to which they are applying. These materials are useful complements to more personal narratives.

4)      Do research. If you agree to write the letter and they don’t send you the requested material, take 3 minutes and google the school/program/job. I am not suggesting you do all of the leg work, but information about even the location of the job could help you craft your letter. If that seems like too much work, just revisit their performance in your course and ask colleagues for their input. Some information is better than nothing.

5)      Set aside time. A good LoR, like a good paper, is well researched, requires planning, and takes revision. If you can write a letter in less than an hour, it may not be your best work. If the letter is only two paragraphs double spaced, you may not be going into enough detail. After all, don’t you expect students to be thoughtful and thorough in their writing? We should do no less.

6)      Be specific. This may be the most important piece of advice. Reading vague LoR filled with generalized claims of awesomeness may be the most annoying part of being on a search committee. Provide specific examples to support your statements. Try to paint a picture so that readers get a true sense of who the applicant is in ‘real life’.

7)      Avoid cliché descriptors and platitudes. Words like organized, team worker, creative, passionate, and dedicated are found in almost every LoR. Regardless of how accurate they may be, they come across as empty when you read the same sentence over and over. Instead, think about skills that would be useful in the potential position and see if the applicant possesses them. If not, identify what they do possess and state why that particular skill is beneficial.

8)      Organize the letter chronologically or thematically. Have an introduction that identifies the position being applied for, the nature and duration of your relationship with the applicant, and preview what you will discuss. Be sure to close with a clear statement of endorsement for acceptance/hire, and include contact information for questions. This sounds like a no brainer, but many LoR are devoid of the basics (usually a sign that it is a form letter).

9)      Be honest. Be original. Be genuine. This means not having people write their own letters. It means not writing the same letter for every person. It definitely means not ‘borrowing’ templates from the internet. Form letters are easily identified and often result in the candidate’s application being set aside. If you don’t even want to write a LoR for them, why would I want to hire them?

10)  Follow through. This person has trusted you with an important task. You accepted, so it is your responsibility to do it well and on time. One late or missing component of an application can render a package incomplete and thus not up for consideration.


That’s it. Writing LoR is not the most enjoyable or simple task, but it can certainly be one of the most rewarding. I find it an honorably humbling experience to play a role in helping someone enter the next phase of their life.

Maybe that’s why I’m a teacher.


It’s OK to Get a Job: Employment After a Liberal Arts Education

Having attended a liberal arts undergraduate institution, and now being employed at one, I have something to say: praise God we are now encouraging students to actually be employable after graduation.


I guess I should start with why liberal arts colleges do not historically encourage or promote vocationalism.

Liberal arts educations are designed to be interdisciplinary and focused on knowledge and skill development. No, no, no…not actual USABLE skills (you know, things like how to change the oil in a car or write a lesson plan or supervise a team of 4 people); they are talking about cognitive skills. Liberal arts schools love the term ‘critical thinking’ more than anything. They also claim to promote creativity, ingenuity, independence, and analytic thinking. We also want to create the next generation of ‘leaders’ so we work hard to create an environment of social responsibility and civic mindedness. Toward that end, we offer courses like “Entrepreneurship” in place of courses at traditional institutions like ‘Business Management’. We wouldn’t want to constrain our students’ thinking would we? We wouldn’t want them to learn how to manage only in a business setting. This is about creation, development, innovation—not merely management. After all, it takes loads of creativity and innovation to plan my alternative spring break trip to Guatemala to restructure their educational system (read: build schools). The people doing the actual building can manage themselves. I am here to think. To THINK gosh darn it!!! And think I shall.

Because of the emphasis on thinking, liberal arts schools have traditionally neglected to address the development of students’ practical, employable skill set. Though students at such colleges are encouraged to pursue internships during summers or between semesters, these internships are not intended to be entry points into a specific field. They are not supposed to be learning opportunities. No, these internships are meant to be exploratory so that students might ‘see what it’s like to (insert inane, totally unprofitable sector of society in which only 3% of the people have stable jobs)’. As a result, the Career Center at liberal arts schools is more like a ‘who’s who’ of corporate America and/or like a graduate school informational fair. Because really—do you want just any job? Or do you want a career? Building a career requires even more thinking skills than we have time to bestow upon you in 4 years. Or, it can sometimes only require knowing which dormmate’s father is the CEO of Lehman Brothers. After all, building networks is the second goal of a liberal arts education.

But silly me. I didn’t listen. I went to college and decided I wanted to be able to DO something upon graduation. I thought getting a Masters degree in Liberal Arts (yes, that is real) was the epitome of stupid so I wanted to be as far away from that as possible. So beginning my freshmen summer of undergrad I got REAL work experience. I spent school breaks working in the Emergency Room (where I learned how to take blood pressure, admit patients, calculate billing, and a host of other things), doing research at Northwestern University (def learned a lot of psychological experiment techniques), teaching at a gifted and talented summer camp (figure out how hard it really is to be a teacher of middle schoolers), and working in a psychiatric unit (the DMS-IV does not do mental illness justice. The real thing is amazingly difficult to treat). Each of these endeavors took me to a different city in a different state. And through them, I discovered a pattern of strengths, weaknesses, and interests. More importantly, I had the opportunity to use the knowledge I’d gained in my coursework so that I might discover what I’d actually learned.

So few of my friends from college can say the same. Most of them graduated with a plan to ‘attend graduate school’, but no real evidence or track record of skill development in a practical area. In essence, students graduating from liberal arts colleges have a lot of breadth on their resumes, but little depth.

And I see that at present with my undergraduate students. When we meet to discuss their future plans (happily, more and more of them are requesting such meetings), I do my best to steer them toward a real path in which yes, they will find personal happiness and contentment and a sense of doing good, but they will also find a paycheck and prospects for professional growth. This means you can’t just list your leadership positions in school clubs or on athletic teams.

They seem open to this idea. Maybe because they see how awful the economy is and in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, ‘this is not an economy in which to be whipped cream’. Or maybe it’s because this generation is just smarter than mine. Or perhaps there is a cultural shift happening where administrators of liberal arts schools are recognizing the need to graduate employable and competitive students.

I don’t care why. Just as long as I don’t have to write another letter of recommendation for the Peace Corps.


How Much Does it Cost to Create Change?

social changeOne prong of tenure is service. At some schools, service is required at the department level, college level, university level, and community level. Luckily, my school only requires the first two (we are not a university), and leaves the final one for faculty to do as they please.

Since my college is in the process of a lot of transition, I am of course a part of some of these discussions. Most relevant to today’s post is my participation on a steering committee for a new initiative geared toward community engagement, community based learning, and community based research. In any discussion of community engagement, the phrase ‘social justice’ will inevitably emerge. Many Liberal Arts colleges include this term in their institutional mission statement, while others opt to include it in the mission statement of the center/foundation/program for community (sometimes they say civic) engagement.

But what is social justice? When I made the decision to be confirmed in the Catholic faith, I took classes about social justice. And it was comforting to know that when people talk about social justice—be it religiously, socially, politically, academically—they are really talking about the same thing: social change. Of course different factions believe change should happen for different reasons and in different directions. But the bottom line is that everyone wants to change something about society. How do I choose what to change?

More importantly, what is my role, obligation and place in the community as a young Catholic female scholar and educator of color? How am I [supposed to be] engaging in social justice and community transformation? Does it even matter?

During committee conversations today, someone mentioned faculty ‘community service’ in passing and I thought to myself: these people have no idea what I do for my community in my personal time. And I have no idea what they do. This bothers me because community engagement (which is different from ‘service’, but that’s another post) should be inherently, communal. But it’s not. I engage with my community in multiple capacities: I am a mentor and teacher in a pathways to college program for low income high school students; I coach a step team at an area high school; I participate in a leadership training program for professionals of color; and I routinely lead workshops for teachers and parents on building effective family-school partnerships.

While I don’t think anything I do is going to engender radical change in my city, I do believe in speaking with community members, learning what is happening in others’ lives, and seeing what I can offer in terms of meeting community needs. Given my background and areas of academic interest, I choose to engage issues of educational inequity. It seems like a natural fit. And I enjoy it.

So that is why I feel some type of way when people tell me I shouldn’t be doing these things for free. They advise me to charge an honorarium when I go speak at schools and to develop a flat rate for leading workshops. They tell me to limit the time I spend mentoring high school students because ‘what are you really getting from that?’ They suggest I spend my time in more scholarly endeavors that will count toward tenure and ultimately secure my future. They tell me I am wasting my time with kids who aren’t listening and teachers who won’t change.

I see where they are coming from. Time is a precious commodity to an academic, so it is not to be wasted on frivolity or *gasp* enjoyment. No, no, no. Time is to be invested wisely in activities with the largest payout. Time—my dear naïve, foolish, junior colleague—is of the essence!

Sheesh. Ok. I get it.

But who am I to charge for knowledge? When money exchanges hands, expectations arise. People expect a quick solution to solve the unending problem of the achievement gap, but in education, there is rarely a single right answer. Teaching methods that work for one teacher may be torturous in the hands of another. I can’t tell you what to do; I can only tell you how and why doing some things may affect some people.

I feel like charging money creates a dichotomy of ‘knows’ and ‘don’t knows’, and you must give me something in order to be in the know. I am not a fan of hierarchical relationships because the nature of hierarchy is that someone feels disenfranchised, marginalized, and less, while the other party feels empowered, privileged, and let’s just say it: better. How can effective communication or learning happen when people feel talked to instead of spoken with? How can I hope to interact with my community, when I am on a pedestal out of reach? How on Earth can I effect change when I am too busy listening to my own voice to hear the input of my fellow community members?

This is why I teach where I do and how I do. I don’t believe in lectures longer than 10 minutes. I don’t believe in lecturing without debriefing through group discussion. I don’t believe in saving questions until the end (this goes directly against theories of information-processing). I guess I just don’t believe in the traditional banking model of education (where the teacher deposits information into students’ brains).

I believe in two-way communication wherein I recognize the value of others’ thoughts and experiences, and use those to help shape my own thoughts and behaviors. I believe in listening before speaking so that I may actually say something of use. I believe in participating, even if that just means observing. I believe in engagement even if it doesn’t result in change.

So for me, it is not my role, obligation, or place to create change or deliver social justice. I am a young Catholic female scholar and educator of color who shares information to help others acknowledge the biased construction of their beliefs, and in that process, face the construction of my own beliefs. That is teaching. And that is learning.

Some would even call it transformation.

No, All Black People Don’t Eat Chicken

django-stephenI’ve been debating seeing the movie Django Unchained. After talking to some fellow female of color academics, I’d decided I would see it because a) someone likened it to a cultural artifact (a la Do the Right Thing), and b) a senior faculty member told me I had a professional obligation to see it. While neither of those reasons was persuasive to me, they had piqued my curiosity. This movie has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes and has received immense criticism from historians and people of color. I am not surprised at the dichotomous response. Movies with cast members of color that garner award nominations often do so at the expense of marginalized populations for the affirmation of the majority’s (White) and/or privileged cultural beliefs (see: Monsters Ball’s depiction of black women—the jezebel—in interracial relationships; see Training Day for its depiction of an angry black man; see The Help for its humorous depiction of the Mammy).

Having not seen the movie, you are probably wondering how I can be enraged. Well my outrage is not because of the movie; it is because of the outcome of the movie. Like this:  Slave Action Figures

When you misrepresent historical atrocities, making it comical or romantic, you downgrade, simplify, and devalue the experiences of those involve. As a result, what should be a heart wrenching, guilt provoking exploration of the past becomes an upbeat opportunity to feel that you were correct in thinking that slaves had the opportunity to better themselves but they just didn’t take it (or most black women ARE very sexual and like to do it doggy style; or most black men are angry and deliver their best performances when given a role that suits their natural disposition; or that servants are grateful for their employment opportunities, no matter how little they are paid or respected).

So now you are wondering why I am talking about this on an education blog. It seems irrelevant to what my blog is about, but it’s not. See, as a teacher, I have to deal with students coming into the classroom with values and beliefs derivative of what they’ve seen represented in the media. They believe that black women are the largest population on welfare, when in fact, single white women are the population who most receive government assistance.  They believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy and uneducated, when in fact, people living just above the poverty line work more hours a week than do most members of the middle and upper class (the upper middle class containing lawyers, medical doctors, etc  work the most hours). They believe that kids don’t do well in school because their parents don’t care enough to send them to good schools, when in fact, my students have no idea what makes a ‘good school’ good or what is indicative of parental ‘care’. In short, they believe their experiences are the ‘right’ experiences and they look for information to verify that. They believe that what they think is ‘right’, and they are angry when I present them with objective data displaying that what they think is wrong.

So movies like Monsters Ball, Training Day, and The Help have effects extending beyond the movie theater. They walk right into my classroom hiding within my ‘well-informed’ students whose good intentions follow the path to hell repaved by the media.

Thanks, Quentin. You’ve done a stellar job romanticizing an era of history whose effects, I will have to explain to my students, still exist.