By David Terrell
“Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming” – Alice Walker.
The basis of this article is written through a black perspective/lens
The scholarly process took a while for me to actually latch onto it. Coming from high school, I thought I could use a similar work ethic. I was rudely awakened. I remember the no-bullshit rhetoric of Professor Patterson. From her, I learned to fear the Honor Code. I did not pay attention much during the honor code signing. But when I turned in my first paper in World Politics, I was scared shitless. Luckily, our Honor Council is making their agenda to inform students more of their purpose.
But what if I was not lucky enough to have Patterson’s guidance in my first semester? What if I had made a mistake on a paper? Would my life be over? To compound my struggles, choosing Sewanee limited my academic interests. I enjoy social thought and everything that goes along with it, but rarely, if ever, does a class truly built around sociology prevail here on the Mountain. Are social theories scary? Dangerous? Why isn’t sociology offered on campus? If I do have a future in academia, has this hindered my ability to earn a Sociology Ph.D?
I came to Sewanee with the dream of being a professor. Sadly, I have not engaged with a diverse template of what a black professor can look like. The number of black faculty here at Sewanee is low. When I was a freshman, Dr. Miles and Dr. Roberson were the only black professors here. This number has increased to six, despite the passing of Roberson. I guess you can call that “progress.” We do need more. However, this university is located atop the Cumberland Plateau. With at least an hour before a major city, access to strong black cultural ties, like churches, political networks, communities, cultures, etc, is limited.
Unofficially, black faculty become our heroes, our personal counselors, our saviors from the anti-blackness and resistance to black people, values, and objectives here on campus, our guardians who fill the void of our parents. Isn’t that a lot to ask a faculty member to sign on to? It’s not enough that they have to undergo tenure reviews or deal with their own personal lives, they become our gatekeepers. Beyond this institution, private institutions are having similar conversations.
It makes me wonder if academia is a hard place for black professors to feel at home in. Will I survive and make it as a black scholar? Will I crumble because of the pressures that I’m placed under?
In Student Affairs, I have worked in several departments: Multicultural Affairs, Residential Life, Greek life, and Conduct. Through these, I’ve been granted the opportunity to uphold standards and create communal pathways for students to enjoy themselves. As the day of graduation approaches, I am troubled by the issues that existed before me and most likely will after me.
We have made great steps towards addressing racism, classism, alcoholism, drug usage, mental illness, and erratic sexual behavior. I would cheapen myself if I were satisfied with said advancement. What about the dwindling black student population? The class of 2017 pushed the numbers of black students far higher than before, but keeping them there has been an issue.
Our traditions are infused with the principles of elitism. It doesn’t really matter if you change the names of organizations; it doesn’t matter if you fight towards inclusion; it doesn’t matter because academia to its core is elitist. It doesn’t matter until you address this elitism and dissociate yourself from it. The history of this institution, the understaffing of support departments, the stress induced by this environment could all be root causes of these issues. As I have battled with almost every one of these , there remains this feeling that none of this occurs elsewhere. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. I have to ask, though, is Sewanee too tough? Have I handled it well?
As I close this chapter of my life, I thank God for Sewanee. Without it, my life would not have the promise that it has now. I may have critiqued the ethics and behaviors of higher learning, the chance to be a part of an institution is a dream worthwhile. I might be asking for too much. Maybe that’s the relationship with academia, a give-and-take or compromise. Yet Eartha Kitt argues, “A relationship is a relationship that has to be earned! Not to compromise for…and I love relationships, I think they’re fantastically wonderful, I think they’re great, I think there’s nothing in the world more beautiful than falling in love. But falling in love for the right reason, falling in love for the right purpose.”
I have fallen in love with higher education. The possibility of helping students like me furthers my journey. Does academia love me? It may actually not love me or what I stand for or who I am, but I’m here, and ain’t no stopping me.