By Dr. Terri Jett
As a graduate student, I was introduced to a text by one of my professors that helped me to consider the lens of which I might view my life and my work as an academic. That text, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Life of the Black Intellectual by bell hooks and Cornel West (1991), detailed how African Americans who make a deliberate choice to become a part of academic institutions, and thus lead a life of intellectual engagement, are often not fully accepted by the academy and are also seen as somewhat disconnected from their own people, the Black community. bell hooks states, “I have said in other writing that the difficulty many academics have when called to speak and write from an inclusive standpoint—one where ideas are looked at from a multidimensional perspective that begins with an analysis rooted in an understanding of race, gender, and class is due to the gap created by a lack of information. Since so many scholars and academics have been trained to think and study along narrow disciplinary lines, the knowledge they produce rarely addresses the complexity of our experience or our capacity to know” (p. 65).
Walking that fine line on a personal level becomes intensified for the African American intellectual who makes a choice, as I did, to join the faculty at a predominantly White institution. I remember sitting in a meeting of department chairs some years into my career where a colleague made the remark that Black women were hard to recruit. But the fact of the matter is that how we decide where we would like to live and work is no different than anyone else. I wanted to be at an academic institution that truly valued innovative and creative teaching, maintained small class sizes, and offered opportunities to teach, not just in a department, but also as part of a core curriculum that all students, regardless of their major, would have to complete. This spoke to my interdisciplinary background because I have a degree in Ethnic Studies. I also liked that the Department of Political Science faculty members were very much engaged in work in the community, demonstrating for our students firsthand the relevance and significance of what we teach in practice. They, our students, would see in us that our actions are informed by our knowledge. This resonated well with my view of myself as an African American intellectual, expected to move beyond the so-called “ivory tower” and to remain firmly grounded in the life of addressing injustices that face my own people.
This insurgent intellectual life, as defined by hooks and West, helps me create an inclusive classroom space at a predominantly White institution, because, as an African American woman, I have to work hard to maintain a sense of authority in that space, while simultaneously allowing for disparate voices to enter, including those that challenge my very own dignity. I do this by not hiding behind the illusive cloud of objectivity that is sometimes advocated particularly in political science courses. I reveal my work in the community as it substantiates what I teach, I bring guest speakers into my classes that I actually know very well because of our shared efforts to address social justice issues, and I create a space for students to reveal their visions of themselves as change agents in our society. Their political writing becomes much more informative and developed as they learn to interject their true voice and values, and so I serve as a model day in and day out for a space that includes both their voices and mine. For most of my students, I am the first African American woman teacher that they have ever experienced, and so I am working against some stereotypes that they have been fed which have very little to do with who I am at my core. So we take our time at the beginning of the semester truly getting to know one another, where we come from, and what we believe, and then I take the lead and guide the students through the curriculum I have chosen for my course that will prepare them to be in honest dialogue with anyone and everyone with whom they have limited familiarity, but who they need to learn to live and work with well into the future.
Dr. Terri Jett is an associate professor of political science and special assistant to the provost for diversity and inclusivity at Butler University.
hooks, b., & West, C. (1991). Breaking bread: Insurgent life of the black intellectual. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.