In the fall, we introduced our readers to the four new professors hired to the English department this school year. Professors Laila Amine, Ainehi Edoro, Yanie Fecu, and Kristina Huang joined the department after a year-long search that attracted close to 200 applicants. For readers less familiar with the hiring process for literary studies professors, this cluster hire was truly remarkable—it brought UW English into the national spotlight for its commitment to changing the culture of humanities in higher education. Rather than hiring based on time period, the department wanted a cohort of professors who all taught and researched material under the theme of Global Black Literatures. As a result, English at UW has been invigorated by the addition of work on material stretching from the 18th to the 21st centuries and covering artists across the black Atlantic world. Hiring four professors in one department in a single year is also quite extraordinary. In part, UW English has its generous alumni to thank who have helped and are helping to raise $150,000 over five years to support these new faculty positions.
The new professors are already teaching a variety of classes to UW’s undergraduates. To give just a sampling, their course titles include: “The University and the Good Life,” “Female Futures,” “The Interracial Romance,” and “Empire of the Senses.” And with exciting new classes comes exciting but also challenging new material. Professors Edoro and Fecu note the importance of difficulty for students who are beginning to work with content they are less familiar with or entirely new to. Professor Edoro recognizes that she likes to assign challenging texts to her students. She recalls struggling with a text by Wole Soyinka back in her teens, and says “I realized it was possible to read a text in English and not understand it.” But she valued this struggle and wants to guide her students through similar experiences with course readings. She says when a text becomes a beast you have to fight with to read, it comes to life in a weird way. She wants texts to come alive for her students, and she offers strategies and techniques for overcoming textual beasts. Professor Fecu reflects on potential difficulty for students through questions of comfort and discomfort. She does not want to make her students become more comfortable with certain kinds of material but rather help them become okay with discomfort. “Life is hard,” she says. “There are many difficult moments you will experience.” In her courses, she prioritizes resilience.
Professors Amine and Huang shed even more light on their classroom communities. Professor Amine notes that her students would love for her to lecture and initially struggled to bring their own voices into class. On the one hand, their engagement during lectures signaled that they really wanted to learn the course material. But Professor Amine wanted to combat their hesitation to speak up—she wanted to hear what concerns they brought to and took from the assigned readings. In her classes, she gives students time to develop their ideas in writing so that they are better able to let their voices ring out in discussion. Professor Huang notes that class discussion is about intellectual vulnerability. She puts it: “Discomfort is being open to the responsibility of participating in the classroom.” She understands the classroom as a small world that she and the students are building, and she encourages vulnerability and the discomfort that accompanies it in order to grow that classroom-world.
But why Global Black Literatures in Wisconsin of all places you might be asking. The new professors say that this is exactly where this kind of work needs to be happening. It is a problem to imagine a world where these literatures are primarily studied only in giant coastal cities or near the Caribbean archives. Additionally, the professors want to make sure Wisconsin students are not isolated from encounters with Global Black Literatures, and, with Professors Amine, Edoro, Fecu, and Huang here, those students will have those encounters.