Personal Transformation and the Professor: Five Lessons
by Dia N. R. Sekayi - October 15, 2000
A commentary on the experiences of an African American woman professor in the context of her own mis-education and personal transformation
Reflecting on my experiences as an African American woman professor has led me to consider various theories of mis-education and cultural transformation (Woodson, 1933; Fanon, 1963; Friere, 1970; Frazier, 1973; Akbar, 1982; Asante, 1988) and the experiences of Black faculty in institutions of higher education in the United States (See Collins, 1990; Cose, 1993; Benjamin, 1997; Cook, 1997; Gregory, 1999; Smith,1999.). In so doing I have sought to make sense of my own personal transformation and the impact of this transformation on my teaching. What I have learned through the process has enabled me to progress both as a scholar and as a person. I present the five major lessons that capture my journey into academe and then relate them to earlier experiences of personal transformation that shaped my personal identity.
First, I have come to realize that knowing everything in my field is impossible and undesirable. I can't know everything, nor should I want to. If the professional purpose of a scholar is the pursuit of new knowledge or at least new ways of thinking about existing knowledge, what will be my professional purpose once that pursuit has ended?
Second, I have come to consider myself as a learner in all situations, including the classroom where I am the professor. For me, the joy is in the constant growth. If I know everything there is to know professionally, where then is the joy of learning? As you read this, new work is being done in the field of education. Seeking out that new knowledge is a large part of the pleasure I get from conducting research. A class of 30 graduate students is potentially a class of 30 resources, each with knowledge and experience to share. Being open to that possibility is very valuable and seeing myself as a learner has facilitated that openness.
Third, I have come to realize that my place in the process of personal transformation impacts how I perceive myself and how others perceive me professionally; especially my students. Realizing that I could not control students' perceptions of me was a central stage in my professional growth. Once I came to this realization, challenging students became a learning experience rather than a source of stress.
Fourth, I have come to understand that in the final analysis, even if I have done my best, I will not be accepted or even respected by all students and that unanimous acceptance and/or respect is neither possible nor desirable. Although this seems obvious, it is important to acknowledge that I will never have 100% acceptance. The critical piece is that this is in fact not desirable. How would I maintain my motivation to continue to develop professionally if I receive a unanimous seal of approval? Student resistance makes me think. I thrive on it rather than ignore it or retreat from it. It keeps me on my toes.
Fifth, I have come to know that at some point in my personal transformation I may make critical professional discoveries that will make my life in academe easier to manage. Personal and professional development need not be mutually exclusive. There are twists and turns in both personal and professional transformation; neither path is straight. It seems only logical that there may be several points at which the two processes intersect.
Part of my personal mis-education was the instruction that my professional and personal lives should be completely separate. Although some separation is necessary, I don't believe that complete separation is either possible or desirable. If things learned in one realm can be applied to the other, why not do it? I put a great deal of effort into my personal-spiritual-cultural growth, and the person I am becoming is the same person who stands before a class on campus. Allowing myself to be myself has made my work that much more manageable.
Much of being myself regards being an African American woman. The idea of knowing oneself and the importance one's Blackness plays in that self knowledge is supported by Na'im Akbar (1982). He writes that to know oneself in relation to one's Blackness is to have a true education as opposed to a mis-education.
I have had several twists and turns in my own personal transformation that allowed me to overcome my own mis-education. One of the earliest came in my freshman year in college. This experience became very helpful ten years later as I finished the Ph.D. and moved into a faculty position.
I was living away from home for the first time. The year was 1985. I came from a high school that prepared me in an exemplary way academically. My socio-cultural preparation was nearly non-existent or at best, incompatible with college life. In a Black Student Union meeting, or more accurately, in many Black Student Union meetings, I experienced the first of many unmerciful critiques of my character. True enough, I was not particularly culturally aware. At that point, I hadn't yet read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) (another transformative experience), a book that many of my colleagues read as early as grade eight. I was underexposed, mis-educated, and misled. Realizing this led to feelings of inadequacy. But those feelings led me to question all that I had been taught. Although that was a very early stage in my personal transformation, I have used that lesson in developing my current teaching philosophy that is rooted in continuous critique of the literature and of my personal experiences.
Near the end of that first year of college, I have a very vivid memory of the final BSU meeting of the year. Though there were only 98 students of African descent on the campus of approximately 5000 students, our organization had one of the largest budgets on campus. We were an active, effective, and efficient group and our collective voice was strong; so much so that another Black student union from a college with similar statistics wanted to visit our campus to see how we operated. The membership was presented with a choice; sponsor a bus trip for the student union from the other college or take a trip the local amusement park. I could hardly believe my ears when the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the amusement park outing. I felt that although I had been tormented regularly throughout the year; I had grown culturally and had this body to thank. They had pushed me hard, and it had paid off. I expressed my disappointment that they would put our amusement over the needs of a sister group from another campus. But that disappointment was far overshadowed by my realization at that moment that I had grown; plain and simple.
At that time, being a student was my profession. My professional experiences had affected my personal development. I had begun to discover a world of ideas to which I had been oblivious. But that was okay because the traumatic yet wondrous nature of this discovery process led to a personal transformation that would continue to have a positive impact on me 15 years later in my role as intellectual leader in a college classroom. Reflecting on that experience even now brings a sense of euphoria, a sense of relief that there will always be new things to learn, even when we think we've read all the literature.
This college experience reflects an intersection of my five lessons. It reflects issues about humility and knowledge, the joy of being a learner in varied settings, the importance of being aware of one's own personal transformation and the fact that that transformation impacts aspects of one's professional life.
My personal transformation has made all the difference in my adaptation to life in academe. The five lessons I have discussed here represent my own critical reflections on my life experiences and indicate how my personal and professional identities aren't nearly as separate as I'd been told they should be. The intersection of these identities is allowing me to use both positive and negative experiences productively, particularly in my role as teacher. The intersection of these identities provides comfort and makes my adaptation less stressful.
I began with an assumption that my experiences in the university classroom would be irreversibly negative. I am coming to the conclusion that being myself in the classroom is the best remedy for the psychological discomfort that can come with forcing one's multiple identities to remain severed. This realization has come about as a result of my own internal growth and transformation.
Akbar, N. (1982). From Miseducation to Education. Jersey City, NJ: New Mind Productions.
Asante, M. (1988). Afrocentricity. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Benjamin, L. ed. (1997). Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Collins, P.H. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, Inc.
Cose, E. (1993). The Rage of a Privileged Class. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Cook, D. (1997). The art of survival in White academia: Black women faculty finding where they belong. In M. Fine, L. Weis, L. Powell and L.Wong (eds.) Off White: Readings on race, power, and society. (pp. 100-109). New York: Routledge.
Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Frazier, E.F. (1973). The failure of the Negro intellectual. In Joyce Ladner (ed.), The Death of a White Sociology, (pp. 52-56). New York: Random House.
Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
Gregory, S.T. (1999). Black Women in the Academy: The Secrets to Success and Achievement. New York: University Press of America, Inc.
Smith, R. (1999). Walking on eggshells: The experience of a Black woman professor. ADE Bulletin, 122, 68-72.
Woodson: C.G. (1933). The Miseducation of the Negro. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
X., Malcolm with the assistance of Alex Haley. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. NewYork: Grove Press.