Monday, January 12, 2009

The Fruits of My Labor May Not be In Vain (Yet)

I just taught my first day for the spring 2009 semester, and have quite engaged and fascinating students. They're already asking questions about "code-switching" and even know what the term means! Well, when I walked into the classroom an African American female student nearly cheered and fell out of her chair with excitment and I hadn't even opened my mouth yet. After class she explained that this was the first time she'd had a black teacher and was really excited about the course and content (Ebonics, I assume). Go figure, considering that there ain't many of us in the academy, let alone, the humanities (rhet/comp).

This makes me feel like the fruits of my labor may not be in vain after all. And I feel this lady's excitement: I didn't have my first African American teacher until my senior year in college at the University of Michigan (probably because I was creative writing and literature major?), and had to take courses in the social sciences just to get one. And since then, I've only had 2 African American teachers in grad school, one being Dr. G (aka Geneva Smitherman). Considering that I study Ebonics, go figure again.

Sometimes it takes moments like this to reflect more critically on the work that we as academics are responsible for doing, the power we hold (professionally, authoritatively, affectively, etc.), and the ways in which we represent both our home communities and the academy at large. What exactly does it mean to be a Black professor/instructor and not just a writing teacher? What does it mean to be a Black professor teaching about African American cultural and communicative practices? Whose responsibility is it to introduce students to Other cultural practices? Is it mine alone as an African American women, or can someone else teach/include such practices too? Whose authority does it become? Mine alone? Someone else's?

Upon reflecting both critically and intellectually on the implications surround Black teachers, I must also reflect soberly and pragmatically. Doing so makes things seem even more and more bleak; however, I have to be realistic. The academy knows that there are few and fewer (bl)academics represented, despite superficial calls for, and statements on diversity. And of the (bl)academics in the academy, even fewer are represented in the humanities (don't have hard stats, but nonetheless find this so, considering the fact that most of my (bl)academic friends come from other disciplines). Consider the Computers of Writing Conference (a smaller conferences associated with rhetoric and composition) I attended in May 2007 (held in Detroit of all places!). Of the hundreds of computer geeks represented, there were 3 AAs present, I being one of them!

As I continue to represent the small number of Blacks in rhet/comp/English Studies (although some would argue that the Black Caucus is actually one of the largest special interest groups in the National Council for Teachers of English), I have to believe that my work as a (bl)academic will be of value at least to my students.

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