Laboring in the Fields: Teaching at an HBCU

13 Mar

indexI began my higher education teaching career at a PWI ( Predominantly White Institution). I had, however, graduated from an HBCU. My HBCU education was first rate, my professors did research, they published, they insisted we become scholars and facilitated us doing so. I taught my first high school course using a book co-authored by my college history professor and my mentor, Dr. Wilhelmina Robinson. About the time of my senior year the brain drain began. PWIs came calling, offering more money and resources and luring away many of the best and brightest. HBCUS have not been the same.

My experiences at the first PWI, a small, regional college, did not seem that drastically different from my HBCU career. The classes were about the same size, there were far fewer black professors, of course, a bane that plagues all institutions of higher learning since they are, regardless of what they say, convinced that black people are dumber than white people and therefore scholarship is not their bailiwick, but other than that it did not seem that different at all.

I was also adjuncting at a small liberal arts college at the same time. I taught at my main campus on MWF and the other college on Saturdays. One day I received a frantic phone call from my alma mater, the HBCU. They had, they told me, students piling up in a discipline because they did not have anyone to teach two classes. The Multicultural Classroom and Educational Research Foundations. I had to they informed me, as my duty as an an alumna come over and teach these two classes so these poor children who needed the courses could graduate. I explained that I had two jobs and was not really sure I could do three, but they promised to schedule the classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays any time I wanted them scheduled. How could I refuse?

So, I went over and received my books and asked about the master syllabus. That request was met with some puzzlement and I eventually figured out that there was no master syllabus. Because this was in the late 1990s before the state decided to take over education and write rules and requirements that have nothing to do with teaching or teachers, this was not the catastrophe it would be now. I did, after all, have the books.  So I set to work designing my syllabi.

I was given a very nice office, no computer, but a phone, desk and bookcase and welcomed to the faculty by virtually everyone. So far so good. The first sign that something might be a wee bit different came when I was informed that the bookstore would not have our books in until about 4-6 weeks into the  semester. I was perplexed needless to say and asked why not. I was told there had been some financial difficulties paying the suppliers the year before and that they were, therefore, demanding payment before shipment. The university would not have the money to pay until the students’ financial aid arrived, so the delay was inevitable.

Being a good sport I simply said that I would teach from handouts. This was met with some hilarity by the regular faculty. They informed me that the copier and copier supplies like paper and toner were quite often unavailable. Fortunately for me and  my students I was able to get permission from one of my PWI institutions, another state school, to make my copies. After the discussion on books and supplies a steady stream of permanent faculty dropped by my office to tell me that I was not in Kansas anymore, that teaching at an HBCU meant doing without, making do, figuring out resources on your own. Almost all of them finished with a version of ” Don’t break your neck, the students aren’t used to to much and don’t expect much from the students.”

I was horrified. We were teaching teachers to teach. And the main theme of the faculty was don’t try too hard? I found the students delightful. My classes were extraordinarily large because the two required for graduation classes had not been taught for several years. None of the predictions of my colleagues, disrespect, disinterest, absenteeism, sloth, or anything else they claimed the students were prone to proved to be true. I felt so sorry for the students that they had to be exposed to such rank incompetence and disinterest. That experience was ended when I left the state to work at another PWI.

Fast forward twenty years. I retired from the other PWI and returned home. I informed the folks at my three former institutions in the Miami Valley that I was back and available to adjunct. One of the PWIs jumped on me right away and I filled in with them for a semester as an adjunct and as a full time interim director. We fell out when they had three faculty openings and hired three white people. Their student body is about 42% of color and the only people of color in the department are the two custodians. Needless to say we did not part company amicably.

The phone finally rang from the HBCU in early December. They wanted me to teach two classes in January. One a capstone course in social studies education and The Multicultural Classroom. I went over, met with the Dean, met with Chair, agreed to teach and off we were to go. i was a bit nonplussed by the fact that the semester started in a little less than a month and I had very little time to prepare. I was promised that all would be explained and outlined at a meeting in mid-December. The date for the meeting came and I had heard nothing. So I called. I was told, ” Oh, sorry, the meeting has been delayed until January 7.” I asked about a master syllabus knowing from my administrative stint at the other PWI that the Ohio Board of Education and Board of Regents and Legislature are competing to see who can enact the most draconian and ridiculous standards and that I needed to know what kind of knowledge the students needed to come out of these courses with for licensure. I was promised that the syllabi would be emailed to me.

Christmas came and went.  i heard nothing. I decided they had decided not to hire me. I do have a reputation as a bit of a perfectionist and they may have decided, i thought, that they did not want to put up with my persnickitiness. But, no. I called and was told the meeting had been postponed again to January 10th at 4:00. The semester started on January 13th. So, I popped over to campus at 3:45 hopeful and waited with several other adjuncts until 4:15 when the harried chair came in an announced she was cancelling the meeting because she had not had time to prepare our packets.

She promised us, however, that she would email them to us, along with our syllabi before the weekend was over. That was two months ago, the email never came.

I did, however, manage to shake loose a book from them and ran home to start preparing at least the beginning of a syllabus since my first class was on Monday.

This far into the semester I find, once again, the students are respectful, engaged, intelligent,funny and hard working almost without exception. There are so many barriers to their success erected by the staff and faculty that I think they are resigned to the fact that they are going to have to either find one of the rare gems on the faculty or staff or both that care and work hard and go the extra mile or that they are going to have to fend for themselves.

I have to wonder how many young people at colleges across our fair land, especially at HBCUs have a similar experience. Not only is a mind a terrible thing to waste so is the opportunity to have a regular college experience where people understand the students are the reason they are there, not something to be avoided, dismissed and ignored.

The administration was probably right in their reluctance to hire me, I do not fit.

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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in Uncategorized


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