Tag Archives: Harlem Renaissance

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).

 

Remembering a Legend: John Hope Franklin

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman-current-sittingIn 1997, while I was doing my dissertation research, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview historian John Hope Franklin. As a doctoral student, I was nervous about the interview and lacked confidence in my knowledge of American history. Here I was about to interview one of the nation’s great historians. Within minutes, my nervousness went away as Dr. Franklin was incredibly kind and made me feel instantly at ease. He had a quick wit and used self-deprecating humor in a great way.

I remember feeling anxious because I was young and also, frankly, because I was White. I wondered what he would think about my doing research related to African American history. At the time I was writing my dissertation on Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the former president of Fisk University and Harlem Renaissance architect. Dr. Franklin was completely supportive, explaining how society had changed so much in his lifetime, how this change had been made by people of various racial backgrounds working together, how all of our histories were intertwined, and how he was grateful that young people were more accepting of differences.

What I remember most about the interview was that despite his broad knowledge, accomplishments and daunting intelligence, he had a sweet disposition. It reminded me of something my mother once told me, “You get more with sugar than you do with vinegar.” I was asking him questions that forced him to recall his actions in the 1950s. As he was 82, he had a bit of difficulty remembering everything. When I asked him to recall his actions in a controversial Fisk University board meeting, he said, “if you said I did that sweetie, I did it – I’m an old mad who knows he led an interesting life but can’t recall it all.” This interaction has stuck with me for years.

I hope all of the Diverse readers will take a few minutes to read the work of Dr. Franklin. He spent years uncovering the agency, actions and contributions African Americans and bringing them to the forefront of American history. Bravo!