The Miseducation of a Negro Male Assistant Professor

By Emmett Lee Gill, Jr., PhD, MSW

 When I thought about pursuing my terminal degree I really dedicated little thought to all the components of a J-O-B in academia.  I pondered the research I would have to do, but the teaching and service components were truly afterthoughts.  I assumed these elements would naturally come with the territory  – you know they would be integrated into my game plan.  In particular, I thought the teaching would be less challenging because I know my research methods and behavioral theory, I wanted students to learn, and I would avoid grade inflation.  I was a miseducated Negro male assistant professor.  I characterize myself as miseducated during my first two years because teaching in higher education has assumed a business model, and it has been adventurous to navigate to say the least. The consumer (i.e., the student) must be satisfied with their grade. Intellectual stimulation, new competencies, and the rigors of writing and creative thinking are of little value.  Yet, I knew this because not long ago I sat on the other side of the speaking lantern. 

My miseducation emanates from my miscalculation of the intersection between consumer satisfaction and the professors’ race.  As I approach my third year review and I reflect on my years at a research one institution, I have wondered privately and publicly whether I would have experienced some of the issues I have if I were a White sports scholar activist.  During my short sojourn I have had more students than I care to mention… threaten to challenge grades, speak to colleagues about my/our classes, actually challenge their grades, tell mistruths about our verbal interactions, or flat out curse me out. One student stared me down and then slammed the door so hard that my 6’1”, 180 lbs. frame starting shaking so bad I had to call a 30-minute break.  When I shared this with my incredibly supportive Dean he asked if it was racism and I said no because it was coming from blacks and whites. Sexism? Racism? Ageism? I am not sure, but like Duke Lacrosse something is going on. It’s enough to make you think twice whether to maintain your values and not give grades or make it easy on everyone.   

Students who trash me on often write that I am arrogant and to a certain degree it is true.  Arrogance (i.e., confidence and consistency) is a trait I’ve had to learn.  I am in a small minority in a competitive profession that requires precise writing, frequent oratories, quick responses to questions when there are very few “right” answers, and the self-motivation to succeed with very little supervision. I am an introvert so if I do not wake up each morning with a little confidence I would be eaten alive – in class, faculty/committee meetings, presentations, and parenting (lol).  Arrogant a little, but how self-absorbed is a Negro male assistant professor who… delays his papers so students can finish assignments from other classes, wears jeans and caps to class, teaches theory using television programming, provides work for students in need, and holds some classes over meals… be? There are also those who give me good ratings on www.ratemyprofessor.comand I appreciate it when my “kids” show me love. Muchas gracias!

When I entered the NBA of education I truly believed that I was prepared to quickly become an all-star. I cannot say I never thought about race, but my first two years teaching in the league have not been injury free. My miseducation has caused me to suffer some sprains, bruises, and maybe a concussion or two.  Thankfully I have many supportive colleagues and satisfied consumers on my team.  Moreover, I love this game… and with the grace of God and a little more schooling… I can help other miseducated Negro male assistant professors.

Emmett Gill is an assistant professor at Rutgers, The State University, School of Social Work. 

6 responses to “The Miseducation of a Negro Male Assistant Professor

  1. No Sympathy for "Mr. Arrogant!"

    I have no sympathy for Mr. Arrogant. As an African American faculty member who began this sojourn at the age of 27, and in a virtually all-white environment, I think he is “full of it.” No one has to become arrogant to survive in Academia. A little humility and some critical introspection is what Mr. Arrogant needs.

  2. No Sympathy for “Mr. Arrogant!”

    I have no sympathy! As an African Americal male faculty member who began this sojourn at the age of 27, and in a virtually all-white environment, I can attest to the fact that students will respond to faculty members in the manner in which the faculty member responds to them. I have been in the profession for more than 25 years, and at a wide variety of universities. I have never received the kinds of responses Mr. Arrogant has received. Moreover, in my 14 years of serving as Dean, my experience tells me that Mr. Arrogant is more of a problem than the students.

    Mr. Arrogant needs to adopt a big does of humility and engage in some deep introspection about his shortcomings.

    I would also suggest that Mr. Arrogant keep his “advice” to himself. Please do not help other miseducated African American male Assistant Professors.

  3. Been there, done that – got the T-shirt and the souvenier mug. I have been a Black male professor “in the league” for about 15 years now and remember the challenges of those first three or four semesters. I don’t know what the first few days of class are like for you, but allow me to share what one of my mentors told me. On the first few days of class you need to be the meanest, nastiest, SOB on earth. Go on the offensive. I’m not saying be nasty. I’m saying be very firm and clear that you will not tolerate any foolishness. The same attitude should be reflected on your syllabus. Offer very little to no flexibility on deadlines or disruptive behavior. In fact, you should have a clearly stated behavior code in your syllabus with potential penalties for each infraction. You should back your rules with references to the faculty and/or student handbook. The first student who breaks the rules should be dealt with swiftly, severely, and certainly. His/her hide should be hung on the wall as an example for anyone else who dares challenge your authority. And lose the “caps and jeans” attire. That does not work for young Black professors. The young white guys can pull that off and seem hip and cool. We dress that way and risk losing at least the appearance of authority. I’m not saying you have to wear a three-piece suit every day. Just a jacket and tie will do until you have established control. Anyone who has taught in higher education for a few years will tell you that the first couple of years are the most difficult. I assume at this point, you have not written down a “teaching philosophy.” If not, do so, and share it with your students. If you find the time, attend some teaching workshops led by k-12 teachers, people who really know a thing or two about classroom management and organization – something most of us do not learn in graduate school. Yeah, been there, done that, then made the move to an HBCU where I have none of the problems I had in the classroom at TWIs. No, HBCUs are not the promised land, and no, we should not all be at HBCUs. We need people on all fronts of the struggle, even Duke and Rutgers. You’re on the rough side of the mountain right now, brother. Once you get to where I am sitting, it won’t seem as bad.

  4. First of all I doubt, that he is arrogant. This is definitely a racist term just “articulate” has become when applied to athletes. It is rarely applied to white males such John Mclaughlin, Jim Rome, or Bob Costas but is applied to Bryant Gumble and the above mentioned professor. Whenever an African-American male is intelligent and doesn’t hide it or is not overly humble, then he’s called “arrogant”
    He does make the mistake in thinking just because behavior comes from other African-Americans, that it’s not racist. The question to ask is would they treat a white professor the same way? Often we are our own enemy in this arena.
    The key thing is that he’s learning from whatever experiences he’s having in the class room and that should make him a better professor.
    Oh and don’t put so much faith in what student’s say one way or the other on sites like Pick-a-prof or Rate my Prof.

  5. I’m going to have to agree with the first too posts. Mr. Padgett sounds a little harsh. He probably needs to ponder on the golden rule. Students should be treated with respect and dignity. In a position of power, true respect must be earned, and it will come with time if you do things right. Just be a nice person, try and be fair, and don’t take students personally if they act out agianst you.

    Students are often under a lot of pressure. It is a difficult time in life for many young people, and they need encouragement. If they get a bad grade after putting in a tremendous amount of work, their first reaction is usually that they were cheated. Whether it is true or not, it needs to be handled with kindess. They need to be reassured that they can succeed in your class, and you may need to be a little more generous in your grading at times.

    You are not just teaching subjects and giving grades. You are also building people. A man I greatly admire, Gordon B. Hinckley, once counseled “Let love be the lodestar of your life” and “let mercy temper all your judgements.” I strive to live by that.

    If you feel a student treats you differently because of your race, that is their problem, not yours. It sounds like you have handled that well. It may not be easy, but it pays off to “always be the bigger man” by not getting petty when egos clash. I try and scrub myself free of egotism on a regular basis. It’s hard work and it takes constant vigilance.

  6. I would start with dress. If there are dress codes for night clubs that dictate who gains admission and you are dressing like those folks left out of the club, then you might do well to change up the dress. I typically wear a tie the first few weeks until we begin to become a bit more personal later in the semester. I refer to each student by their lasts names because it is more formal. And I act “crazy” on the first day of class. Those folks that can’t deal with it move on. Once you have control, you can be more flexible.

    Also there is a saying that “everyone has a cross to bare.” Well keep in mind that yours is race and youth. For others it is age and gender. etc. So focus on balancing authority and control given the fact that people will come in questioning your credentials.

    And the games get easy as you become a vet. You’ll know when to pull up for the short jumpshot off the glass instead of trying to drive in there hard and dunk it. Don’t forget, you gotta make your free throws too. haha

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