Tag Archives: African Americans

Mentoring is Absolutely Essential for the Future of the Professoriate

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman-current-sittingYesterday as I was chatting on Facebook (yes, I do that) with a faculty member at a different institution than my own.  He’s brand new on the tenure-track at a research university.  In addition, he is African American at a traditionally White institution and as such, most likely has to contend with additional pressures.  I don’t know this man well, but had been introduced to him by a mutual friend.  As we were chatting, he expressed concern over balancing teaching and research.  I immediately switched into mentoring mode, offering advice on which journals to approach, how to limit the time spent on prepping classes, and how to carve out writing time during the academic year.  His response:  “You don’t even know me very well.  Why are you being so generous with your time?”

My immediate response was “Because someone mentored me; in fact several people mentored me.” One of these individuals was Asa Hilliard.  Asa was a larger than life figure, but never too large to spend time with young people.  I remember when I was a new, nervous faculty member with a small child in a strange city, Asa welcomed me to the department and welcomed my family.  He embraced me as a scholar and person.  This amazing intellectual would get down on the floor at eye level with my daughter and make her giggle — such humanity and care in someone who could have chosen to just go about his work or worse yet, bask in his ego.  Instead, Asa mentored and gave the best advice: stay out of office politics, rise above petty academic jealousy, and swallow your pride when necessary.  These are lessons that I think about daily and that I pass on to my own students and mentees.

All too often, once we reach a comfortable level of success in the academy, we forget about those who are coming after us into the profession.  I have been told countless stories by Ph.D. students about how they approached a faculty member and were rebuffed.  I have been told the same stories by young faculty members who approached those senior scholars they admire.  I know that people are busy, but there is always enough time to answer a quick question, to lend an ear, and to provide mentoring to future faculty members.  What is most disturbing to me about the rebuffs I mentioned is that quite often the person telling me about them is a student or faculty member of color.

My first book was a biography of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, sociologist, the architect of the Harlem Renaissance, and president of Fisk University.  While researching and writing the book, I became intensely familiar with Johnson’s approach to mentoring scholars and leaders.  Under his leadership, Fisk University became an incubator for talent, especially future faculty members. In fact, his students told me that he gave them “all the tools they needed to take on the world.”  This phrase stuck with me and I have striven to emulate Johnson’s approach.

I believe wholeheartedly that in order to have a productive, caring, empathetic, student-oriented future professoriate, we as current faculty members must invest the time in mentoring young scholars.  Of course, there are many ways to do this.  One can co-author publications, co-present at conferences, explain the book writing and grant proposal processes, share ways of simplifying class preparation, etc.  One of the ways that I take care for young scholars is by meeting with them for coffee or lunch at national conferences — providing a low stress way for them to ask for advice.  I never turn someone down who asked to meet with me (unless I run out of time!).  Why? Because I was rebuffed as a young scholar and I remember how it felt.  I was told by a senior scholar as I asked for a copy of one of her conference papers,  “I don’t have time for you.”  It stung!

I urge all scholars to think twice before ignoring a request from a young person.  In order to make sure that the academy is a healthy work environment for research and teaching, we need to provide the proper guidance and nurturing to future academics.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).


An Inspiration For Us All

By Elwood Watson


A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine about the acceptance speech that Barack Obama delivered in Denver. We both watched the speech at different locations and commented on how Obama’s was so inspiring, emotive, sincere and downright “on the money in his message!


I am a generation X Black professional and he is a Generation Y professional. We are both college professors. According to those who examine birth groups, generation X encompasses those of us who were born between 1965 to 1977. Generation Y accounts for those of who were born between 1978 to 1992. At 29 years and 41 years old respectively, we are both on the upper end of our generations.

This fact aside, we both had a very emotional conversation (a positive one) on what we had witnessed. Both of us were overjoyed at the fact that an attractive, intelligent, community-conscious Black man had secured the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States of America. Despite the fact that we both believed that we would probably see a Black person nominated for president, we thought that we would be much older when such an event would happen.  The fact that it happened while we are relatively young people was even more gratifying.

            Needless to say, such glee transformed itself across generational lines. My older siblings, all baby boomers, were elated at the prospect of a Black president. I saw a number of television programs were Black people of all ages from 15 to 92 were being  interviewed, some with tears running down their faces, many expressing their undiluted joy that something that they thought would never happen in their lifetimes. In fact, one of the most unprecedented and inspiring moments I witnessed at the Democratic Convention was when I saw Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi officially state “I declare Senator Barack Obama of Illinois the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.” Upon hearing this, several Black delegates, mostly elderly ones, but of varied ages broke into tears. So did I.

            While the fact that a Black man has received the endorsement of a major party, there are still some Black Americans ranging from talk show hosts, to professors, to maintenance workers to retired people who are concerned (not without total rationales) as to whether an Obama presidency will actually be a double edge sword for the Black community. Many of the individuals casted their ballots for Obama with the hope that his presidency would help bridge the nation’s racial divide are also concerned that his victory will prompt many White Americans (and perhaps some Blacks) to adopt a “well, we a have a Black man as president, we have obviously overcome” sort of mindset. This conversation is of real concern from barber and beauty shops to soul food restaurants and from academic conferences to houses of worship. The fear for some is that the problems of the Black poor and underclass will be relegated “to the wilderness” so to speak.   

            While it is clear that an Obama presidency will not change the problems that are facing a large segment of the Black community overnight, or a period of time for that matter, I am more optimistic about the fact that a biracial man who has risen from humble beginnings, was temporarily the product of a single mother who had to sporadically apply for food stamps, was largely raised by his White grandparents, decided to forego a lucrative law firm position, but rather immersed himself into the grunting and largely thankless, tedious, and at times stress-filled  job of a being a community organizer will certainly remind, indeed demand, that White America as well as Americans of all races be attuned to the fact that the problems of Black, White, Latino, poor and the economically disadvantaged of all races are real and will not be forsaken. Perhaps that is the optimist in me, but it is exactly the sort of optimistic spirit in many Black Americans that inspired a large number of us to cast our primary ballots for him. I have no doubt that the majority of us will do the same this coming November. Whether he wins or loses the presidency, there is no doubt that Barack Obama is a Black person who can serve as an inspiration for us all.         

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)