Image credit: Protagonist 1 by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Graphite and Acrylic on Canvas.
For more than twenty years, since the day I first became a professor, I have not prepared a single lecture or learning experience without considering how my students and other faculty members might perceive it—and me—in racial terms.
Over time, of course, I have cultivated more skill, experience, and confidence in my pedagogy. There are vast differences between how I experienced these challenges at the beginning of my teaching career and how I experience them now. Despite this, I am still thoughtful about how my teaching—the content of my courses, the way I dress, my style of speaking and mannerisms—might be interpreted to make conclusions about me as an individual Black professor, and about Black faculty members more broadly.
I am also a scholar of Black studies. This fact alone has multiple implications for my teaching and for how I am perceived, particularly in our current social climate. As a matter of course, my research and teaching examine systems of racism and histories of colonialism. So, race is not merely a classroom dynamic; it is also the subject of study. This serves to heighten the racial dynamics that shape my experience as a professor.
Yet those racial dynamics have also helped me understand that formal, classroom teaching is only one piece of the puzzle: the other is mentorship.
Mentorship, in which I reassure students that we inhabit the same reality when it comes to racism, is an especially personal and rewarding aspect of my professional life. I approach mentorship through emphasizing to every student that they have unique potential and absolutely belong in the academic world, regardless of the ways they might experience exclusion from it. As a Black professor, I am especially mindful that the so-called imposter syndrome—feeling out of place and questioning one’s own skills, knowledge, or merit—is a particular threat to Black students.
This approach to mentorship is, without doubt, fundamentally shaped by the positive experiences of generous guidance I enjoyed when I was both a graduate and an undergraduate. Both Black and white mentors encouraged me, believed in my potential, and supported my work long before I figured out the secrets of academic success. I was always an earnest student who studied assiduously and rarely missed a class meeting, but I repeatedly arrived at different points in my education without the benefit of elite experiences that other students and colleagues took for granted.
For example, when I began my freshman year of college as a chemistry major, the African American chemist Ralph Turner served as my advisor. I explained that I wanted to begin my course sequence with organic chemistry instead of taking the introductory chemistry sequence that would essentially repeat the content of my high school chemistry courses. This was despite the fact I had never completed any Advanced Placement courses (the small high school from which I graduated did not offer them).
Turner agreed to give me the opportunity, signaling his faith in my intellect, and also encouraging me to follow my intellectual instincts. Organic chemistry was three-dimensional and exposed me to new concepts and ideas that quickly deepened my knowledge of the subject while piquing my interest in further study.
My most impactful college mentor was Ron Liburd, a humanities scholar from St. Kitts who introduced me to the historical understanding of identity and analysis of social power through the study of religion. When Ron recognized that his course was challenging my flawed assumptions about the world, he offered empathy, encouragement, and patience to nurture my intellectual growth. He invited the students most keenly interested in the course to join him for hours-long conversations about scholarship, ideas, and advanced intellectual studies.
Under Liburd’s tutelage, I learned to write research papers, and he introduced me to methodology as a scholarly praxis. When I applied to graduate school, he worked closely with me to ensure that my personal essay effectively communicated my interests and preparation in a manner that was legible to an admissions committee. Without Liburd’s guidance, it is doubtful that I would have gained admission to graduate school.
Because of a foundation built by these caring mentors, since my first days as a professor, I too have relished the sheer joy and fulfillment derived from introducing students to new concepts, nurturing their intellectual enthusiasm, and learning from their insights and questions. I have repeatedly witnessed the almost magical moments when students connect the dots and experience a deep shift that advances their understanding of the world. I have witnessed this with students of various backgrounds—white, Latinx, Black, Asian, Indigenous.
Overall, my experience in the classroom has been marked by mutual respect and enthusiasm. My courses are typically electives and not required for most students. As a result, virtually everyone arrives in my classroom with genuine interest in race. They tend to engage actively, approaching assignments and discussions with seriousness and respect.
But that isn’t always true. Students interested in topics such as national security and technology differ significantly from those interested in the study of race and sexuality. I have even encountered students who resent being required to learn about structural systems of inequality such as racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, and who respond with an air of spite. One white student chose to write their term paper about a nineteenth-century white supremacist and attempted to defend that historical figure’s anti-Black ideology.
More frequently, since my classes are usually more diverse than the university-wide student body, I can observe how structural challenges create an unequal educational experience for underrepresented students. Queer and trans students, international students, BIPOC students, female students majoring in STEM disciplines, those who are the first in the families to attend college—these are some examples of young people who arrive on our college campuses facing myriad systemic pressures that make college success significantly more difficult.
This was painfully clear to me many years ago when one student in my class—an African American woman majoring in both humanities and science—shared with me the barriers she faced as an undergraduate STEM student. Many of her science classes were graded on a curve, so being objectively “good” at studying and comprehending lessons was not sufficient to earn her a good grade and advancement in the major.
But there was a second factor. White students had formed their own sororities and fraternities to which they admitted only other whites. These organizations created and disseminated test banks for science and math exams exclusively to their membership. Students recorded the exam questions from memory so that others in the fraternity or sorority could prepare for subsequent versions of the tests.
Leveraging crowdsourcing to generate a data base of test questions for many STEM courses, this was a gray area when it came to cheating, one that was difficult, if not impossible, to prevent or prosecute. But here was the problem: only the white students, members of organizations that systematically excluded BIPOC students from membership, had access to the test question banks. Able to see the tests questions beforehand and memorize the answers, white students easily scored highest on exams and set the grading curve, reinforcing the false perception that students of color are less able in the sciences.
This is where mentoring matters. As a faculty member, I felt powerless to resolve such an unfair situation, but I could affirm this student’s reality. I could listen and provide moral support to encourage her ambitions and aspirations. The student was not, after all, asking me to solve her problems. Rather, she needed understanding and space to discuss and process the challenges she faced.
As importantly, perhaps, I derive a sense of fulfillment from equipping my students with greater skill and knowledge to navigate a world shaped by race. Learning about the structures of inequality that have shaped our global society over centuries empowers them to make sense of the complicated realities they face every day. As I teach students to analyze and respond critically to these social realities, I am repeatedly reminded that the humanities and the study of social power can enable positive change.
Sylvester A. Johnson is Assistant Vice Provost for the Humanities and Director of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech.