A native of Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Karen Keaton Jackson began her academic career at Hampton University in Virginia, earning a Bachelor of Science in English Secondary Education with summa cum laude distinction. She went on to receive her Master’s and PhD in English Composition from Wayne State University in 2004. While pursuing her PhD, she was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses on multicultural literacy. Since arriving to North Carolina Central University in 2004 as an assistant professor, she has become the Director of the Writing Studio, coordinates the campus-wide Writing Intensive Program, has served on the executive boards of the International Writing Center Association and the Southeastern Writing Center Association, and currently serves on the executive board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. In May 2015, she received a University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. She maintains an active research agenda on the interrelated notions of literacy, race, and identity in the writing classroom, and more recently she has focused on composition instruction and writing centers at HBCUs and on how writing center tutorials can impact student success.
When I was a doctoral student, each year I would peruse my Cs convention book in advance (yes, this is when they always mailed them to your house in advance) and excitedly look through the panel options for engaging topics. Specifically, I would look for colleagues from HBCUs. As a proud graduate of an HBCU, Hampton University, I searched for faculty who could speak to the context that helped to shape me.
Year after year, sadly I was disappointed, for there would only be a handful of HBCU panelists, and maybe two handfuls of HBCU attendees. As a PhD student, I always wondered why. I could not comprehend why those who teach thousands of African-American students each year would not be at the forefront, or at the very least, actively engaged in this conversation, particularly when many of the sessions were focusing on issues related to race, AAVE, or multiple literacies. In various SIGs and caucuses, I would overhear some PWI colleagues making statements such as, “They’re too traditional at HBCUs,” or “They don’t know anything about new research.” I never spoke of my concerns out loud back then, but internally I was conflicted.
On the one hand, I knew from my experiences at a graduate PWI that the variety of course offerings definitely were much more limited at my HBCU (as compared to offerings at the PWI). While our first-year composition courses at Hampton University (with a student population of about 6,000) did vary a bit from professor to professor, there weren’t nearly as many sections and variations as at Wayne State University (where I was a graduate teaching assistant), an institution with about 40,000 students.
On the other hand, though, I did not like that my HBCU professors (not yet colleagues) were seen as less than or incapable of participating in such conversations. There are multiple reasons why, historically, HBCUs have been less visible at national conferences, including our focus on excellence in teaching over research and less available funding.
In 2018, however, many things have changed. Even though many of us are at HBCUs where teaching is still privileged over research, the demand for us to complete research to obtain tenure, promotion, and post-tenure accolades is rapidly increasing. The expectation that we present at regional and national conferences is not an option, but an obligation (despite limited travel budgets . . . but that’s another conversation for another day!)
What the 2014 HBCU symposium provided was a platform for us to be heard and to dialogue with those who have shared or similar experiences (see A Spark Ignited: What’s Going On with Composition and the HBCU). For me personally, it reminded me that my story was the story of many. It gave me the motivation to reinvigorate my efforts to have HBCU experiences included in more mainstream discourse. Since that time, my current HBCU (North Carolina Central University) was asked to host the 2016 North Carolina English Teachers Association conference. I was asked to be a facilitator at the 2016 IWCA (International Writing Center Association) Summer Institute; I was asked to serve on the editorial advisory board for College English; and I was elected to serve on the executive board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. I do not list these things as some sort of “brag list,” because that is not it, not at all. Rather, I include these accomplishments to say that I am certain my activity surged in recent years because I gained energy, strength, and perhaps a sense of authority from my colleagues at sister HBCUs. Other HBCU colleagues have felt that energy, too, for we are being seen and heard even more at mainstream professional conferences.
There are many more HBCU leaders who already exist; in many cases, we just have not had the honor of hearing their voices. So, it is my hope, that at the upcoming symposium at Howard University, someone else will leave there feeling revved up, charged up, emboldened and ready to continue the conversation. (See Wading into Waters: Ruminations on Composition and Rhetoric at the Modern HBCU). There’s still lots of work to be done. Let’s get it!