Home / Spring Table of Contents / Figures in their field / Creating a Canon

Jennifer Jensen, a doctoral student in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, has just handed out to her class a sheaf of photocopies from a handbook on grammar and composition. The recipients are a handful of first-year students seated around a large table in a bare classroom at New Africa House. Now, with the slightly forced briskness of the neophyte instructor, Jensen turns to a green chalkboard already white with manic chalk marks, and begins to make some more. "It is very important in college," she says over her shoulder as she writes, "how you structure your writing."

Jensen and her class are among five graduate and twenty undergraduate students who embarked last fall on a pilot program called "Scholars of the Twenty-First Century." The graduates are all second-year students in the department's new Ph.D. program, and their assignment as teaching assistants is to spend a minimum of ten hours a week as academic mentors to a group of four or five freshmen. The freshmen are all students of color who entered the university with a combination of relatively good high school GPAs B-plus or better and relatively low SAT scores.

It's now pitch-black outside, and near the dinner hour, which may help explain the slightly glazed looks Jensen is getting from her class. She plunges ahead nonetheless with her slightly wearisome task. It has come as a rude awakening to Jensen and the other mentors just how much drill in the fundamentals of writing most of these freshmen need. They also needed to be walked through the process of writing a research paper, a requirement for the academic credit they receive for participation in the two-semester project. Despite their high school records, these are tasks for which high school has not sufficiently prepared many of them. While these academic deficiencies would be familiar to instructors across campus, not incidental to these students' struggles is their relative isolation as minority students on a predominantly white campus, and the fact that about a third have a native language other than English.

Jensen presses on. "The packaging of your ideas is very important," she states, pointing to the chalkboard, on which she has written some tips: Never use contractions. No one-sentence paragraphs. Use your spell check! Coherence: make sure you have a topic sentence. And one of her big bugaboos: Avoid the passive voice. "Your professors will really, really get on you about that one," she warns them.

"The boy was bitten by the dog," Jensen writes on the chalkboard, and asks who can change the sentence to make it active. There is a brief silence before Sandra Puyo, a cheerful Colombian-born student whose parents moved to the States when she was five, shakes her head, smiling. "I seriously don't know what the passive voice is," Puyo says.

Jensen seems relieved to have somebody express a willingness to be instructed. "I don't really want to be your composition instructor," she tells the class at one point. "I just want you to do well."

Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way
more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talent and character?"
W.E.B. Du Bois.

TALKING WITH A VISITOR later that day, Teju Richardson, a pre-med student born in the Virgin Islands and brought up in Worcester, says she is really appreciative of Jensen's spending time helping her with her writing, xeroxing and handing out materials, and "yelling at us about the passive voice. I'm glad she does that." Professors in most of her classes, says Richardson, "don't really know the students" and certainly aren't prepared to work with them on these basic skills.

Robert Paul Wolff, director of the graduate program in Afro-American studies, and Esther Terry, the department's chairman and the campus's associate chancellor for equal opportunity and diversity, have laid out broad and ambitious goals for this pilot project. As Wolff wrote in a prospectus for it, the Scholars program should "socialize [minority] undergraduates into the university setting, dramatically improve their retention rate, stimulate in them an interest in scholarship and research, and eventually recruit some of them into doctoral programs that prepare them for academic careers." A hybrid of research seminar, advisory system, and support group, the program aims to provide promising minority students with "the personal attention that is usually available only at a small private college."

Although a project of Afro-American studies, the program does not aim to funnel students into the department, nor was it ever meant to center on issues of race. Yet it is one strategy toward achieving the campus's goal of a racially diverse student body. When the administration announced this spring that a changed legal climate requires it to reduce the weight given to race in admissions, [see "Admissions anguish," page 5] the fortunes of this first group of promising minority students with low SATs but good high school grades became of even greater interest.

A mathematical logician and widely published authority on Kant, Wolff tends to emphasize the importance of giving these freshmen an academic push. He is insistent that academic rigor be the hallmark of everything undertaken in the fledgling doctoral program, including the mentoring project. Terry, a veteran of the first lunch-counter sit-ins in North Carolina in the 1960s, tends to emphasize the human relationships that the program seeks to foster, both as a key to academic improvement and as an antidote to what is politely referred to as the university's "retention" problem.

Twenty-eight percent of minority freshmen who entered UMass in 1997 did not return last fall, and 56 percent of those who entered in the fall of 1992 did not graduate six years later. (The percentages for non-minority students, though still troubling, were lower: 19 and 43 percent, respectively.) There is no hard data available on why students drop out of the university, or on why minority students drop out more frequently. "Lack of access to faculty" is one factor that surfaces in surveys conducted by the office of institutional research. On the basis of her own observations, Terry adds money problems, family responsibilities, poor preparation in high school, "and yes, in some instances, a feeling that the faculty and others on campus are not quite interested in whether they are here or not. The feeling of just being alone."

All genuine learning and all commitment to studies, says Terry, begins with the asking of profound and existential questions of oneself and one's world. Such questions can only be asked "if one knows it is okay to be vulnerable. Not needy, but vulnerable."

Therein lies the benefit to students of a close and trusting relationship with a wise and informed adviser. The availability of such a mentor may not solve students' family problems or money worries, Terry concedes. But it can provide someone to "look them dead in the eye" and suggest alternatives to dropping out.

Scholarship without social commitment is empty. Social
commitment without scholarship is blind.
" W.E.B. Du Bois.

IF THE Scholars project is, as Wolff writes, "the centerpiece of the department's efforts to serve its community," it is also integral to its doctoral program in a practical way: it offers gainful employment for graduate students in an eminently fundable endeavor. It has been relatively easy of late to find public and private funding support for mentoring programs, according to Wolff, an expert on the subject: he has raised more than $1 million over the years for programs to support minority students, including previously excluded black students in South Africa. The Scholars project also serves Afro-Am by providing doctoral students with practical experience in advising. Ph.D. candidates in many fields never get this, says Wolff, even though many will spend a good portion of their careers teaching.

Finally, the personal qualities and intellectual vigor that make these graduate students strong candidates for the Ph.D. also equip them to be effective models and mentors, says Wolff, their tireless champion. He raves about them both their intellectual quality and the diversity they represent.

Jensen, for example, brings to Afro-American studies the ardor of the convert. White, and born into an Iowa family of "dogmatic fundamentalist Christians," her early education was in an all-white religious school. Carolyn Powell, on the other hand, is black, a born and bred New Yorker, and had several careers already behind her when she resumed her education in the early '90s. Oklahoman Chris Lehman came to UMass for a master's in history and discovered Afro-Am as a research assistant to professors John Bracey and Ernest Allen. He's researching a dissertation on stereotypical images of African-Americans in animated films. And Andrew Rosa is the son of a Puerto Rican father who died when Andrew was still a youngster. With his British-born mother, a Pentecostal missionary, he traveled widely in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which "definitely had an impact on my consciousness."

Rita Reynolds' story is a particularly moving one: Her mother, Angelina, left to bring up four children on her own in a one-bedroom in the South Bronx, was determined that they all should get an education, and packed them off by bus and train to schools all over the city and beyond. Rita remembers being rolled to a city branch library in a shopping cart. Angelina herself got a degree in social work from Delphi University a few years before Rita finished high school.

The mentors have found that "Lifting As We Climb," the motto Wolff has adopted for his funding efforts for the doctoral program, is a strenuous undertaking when translated into already busy lives. Just how nimble one must be to lift and climb at the same time is suggested by Carolyn Powell's experience last fall. Midway through the semester a figurative bomb went off in the middle of her dissertation topic, when DNA analysis gave scientific credence to long-standing contentions that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. As a student of consensual relations between masters and slaves in the ante-bellum South, Powell found her phone ringing off the hook; she was wanted for interviews, comments, lectures. In the midst of this excitement, however, she was also wanted in the complicated lives of her students. "They are an eclectic group," she says of her mentees, and advising and counseling them is "a full-body thing."

For example, Tirtsa Porrata-Doria, who is carrying a demanding course load as a pre-veterinary student, was also struggling mightily with English. "I can hear her translating in her brain," says Powell. The daughter of a college professor and a school teacher in Puerto Rico, Tirtsa says she didn't realize until she got to college how poor her English classes had been. "It's hard here, being a bilingual student," says Tirtsa. There have been some tearful telephone calls between them, says Powell. Another of her charges found himself romantically involved with a girl attending college in another state. His parents were worried; Powell was worried: "Because it affects his work," she says. "His attention span. Because his heart is aching."

Yet another student, Jason Tirado, was still living at home in Springfield, and Powell was eager to see him move onto campus. In a past life as a high school counselor, she says, "I always would fight with the Hispanic families," about being overprotective of their children. Another issue she had with Jason: he was working twenty-five to thirty hours a week. He was able to afford a nice car as a result, but she thought the price was too high. "There's a problem in minority communities with all this working, working," she says. "It makes them old before their time. And it interferes with school."

Powell, like Jensen, has found that her students need a lot of help with the mechanics of writing. "And libraries are like foreign places to them," she comments. She has led them by the hand to the library named for the department's hero, W.E.B. Du Bois, and to make sure they really use it, she has made a rule: no more than two articles taken off the Internet. "I want them to go to the stacks, touch a book, photocopy pages," she says. "The computer is a wonderful tool, but it has made students lazy."

Not so much laziness, but an ingrained habit of passivity, is what drives Powell most crazy about her students. If she has one overriding goal for them, it is that they become active learners. There is "a wealth of information and help" available on campus, says Powell, but students are not trained to seek it out.

"They have this innate fear, because they don't know the right questions to ask," she says. "Some students are naturals, they're seekers," she adds. "But a lot are not."

They have, of course, met with much color prejudice." W.E.B.
Du Bois, speaking of black students attending mostly white colleges, in "The Negro Problem," 1903.

THE ISSUE OF RACE relations, with which most if not all of these freshmen can be presumed to be dealing and which many are exploring in their research papers, is one which several say they really hadn't thought all that much about before coming to college.

Verena Bryan, who is in Rita Reynolds' group, says she comes from a community on Long Island where "no one is a minority." She's definitely more self-conscious about "being a minority" now than she ever has been before, she says. "It's not that anyone else seems necessarily to notice," she says. "But I do."

Teju Richardson agreed. "I don't have any problem with different groups of people," she said. "Although I sometimes think different groups have a problem with me."

The isolation, if not the demographics, of UMass figure in the disappointment in the university expressed by Lashawnda Haltiwanger of Boston. By mid-fall Lashawnda was considering leaving, and at the end of the semester she did so. To Wolff's chagrin: "She was our star!" he exclaims. "She got a 4.0 her first semester, but she transferred to Westfield State where she could study occupational therapy!"

While Lashawnda says that "being a minority" was not a big deal for her she was one of only three black students at the Woodward School for Girls in Boston her reasons for leaving were more complicated than the better vocational fit offered by Westfield State. "I just don't like it here, basically," she said last fall. "I don't like Amherst, the work, living on campus. Nothing."

What about a different course schedule? Jensen suggested. "The classes aren't boring, I'm just not into it," said Lashawnda. "I feel trapped. I'm used to hopping on a train and going where I want to go."

As these stories reflect, the first semester of the Scholars project did not go altogether smoothly. Two of the original twenty freshmen dropped out of the program. A few, as would have been expected statistically, were on the verge of dropping out of school entirely, and three of them did.

The undergraduates also proved needier than anticipated, and the mentors, up to their ears in their own studies and jealous of their own time, experienced and expressed impatience when the students didn't show for meetings or do the work expected. Some of the mentors concluded that the only way to get the students to take the project seriously was to drop the more casual and collegial approach with which some of them had started, and structure their meetings more like regular classes. In October Wolff convened a confab of the mentors and mentees to talk about the program. As one result, work on the research paper, originally planned for the fall, was pushed forward to spring to allow for more work on the basics.

Yet despite bumps and disappointments, the early returns on the Scholars program appear excellent. At the end of its first semester Wolff was able to report that ten of the eighteen remaining freshmen had GPAs of 3.0 or better, six had GPAs of 2.3 or better, and only two had unsatisfactory records. (In the case of one of these, "personal problems undermined her work," and she took all incompletes.) "This seems to me to be an astonishing accomplishment for these students," says Wolff, "and it bodes very well for their future careers at UMass."

An intriguing aspect of this academic success is its apparent inverse correlation with SAT scores. "I realize that this sample is too small to yield any sort of statistically significant analysis," says Wolff, "but it's surely noteworthy that the ten students with combined SATs under 1000 had an average GPA of 3.075, while the seven with SATs over 1000 had an average GPA of 2.886." Pre-med student Aimee Julien, who had one of the lower SATs, achieved a 3.5 for fall semester and was offered a summer internship in the laboratory of Hampshire College scientist Susan Prattis.

The implication is that mentoring may be of most dramatic benefit to those students whose merit is masked by their SAT scores. What this says to Wolff is that to recruit and retain students of color, the campus should to pay less attention to SATs, more attention to high school grades and support programs on campus. "We should look at what they've managed to accomplish in high school as a measure of ability and motivation," he says. "And then admit them and work with them." In his view though his bias should be noted talented and energetic graduate students, rather than professional staff, are best suited to the task of getting freshmen who need help up to academic speed.

Many of this year's Scholars seem to have responded most enthusiastically to the chance to research an area of personal interest. Tirtsa Porrata-Doria, who hopes as a veterinarian to specialize in the care of birds, is writing her research paper on the indigenous birds of Puerto Rico. Business major Todd Hill is working on comparative biographies of three black CEOs. Nathan Matsui, history, is comparing the Hammurabi Code, Justinian's Code, and the Magna Carta. And Jason Tirado, who is "still trying to find out what I want to do with my life," chose a study of explorer Francisco Pizarro.

Despite her early innocence of the passive voice, Sandra Puyo is ebullient about college. She has a view of the Holyoke Range from her dorm room. She is getting along with her roommate "She is the exact me, only shorter." But most important, she has "always known what I wanted to do environmental science," and UMass seems to have been the right place for her to do it. "I love my classes," says Puyo.

Lifting As We Climb" the motto of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, founded in 1896, the oldest African American secular organization in existence today.

ASKED WHAT THEY LIKE best about the Scholars program, several of the freshmen cite the fact that it offers, as Teju Richardson says, "a close-knit group." At the mid-semester meeting last fall, Wolff was pleased to observe that the comments "bubbling up" from the students showed the program functioning as "a smaller community within the larger university."

The mentors shoulder most of the burden of maintaining that supportive community, and their mentees generally acknowledge the fact. "Jen is good about keeping up with me, what's new with me," says Teju Richardson. Jason Tirado is glad not only for "help learning how to set up a research paper," but for a good personal relationship with the impressive Carolyn Powell. "I get to know her as well as she gets to know me," he says.

William Baafi, whose father came to this country from Ghana to study at UConn, is one of those waxing most animated about the Scholars program. He has just come out of his weekly one-to-one meeting with Andrew Rosa, and is eager to talk about his large, if not completely focused, ambitions: to own his own business, to move to Africa, to become a leader in the struggle to "make Ghana a successful black nation." He hasn't decided on a major, but he is leaning toward some combination of African studies and psychology.

Baafi acknowledges that he was able to get decent grades in high school without exerting himself much. Rosa, for his part, has had to struggle with Baafi about his "attitude." The relationship has been more intense, more time-consuming, and more exhausting than he had counted on, says Rosa. But he figures that he, too, is learning as he goes.

Baafi says he is particularly appreciative of Rosa's "professionalism," by which he says he means that Rosa doesn't tell him what to do, but asks how he can help him. "I have my own train of thought," says Baafi. "I don't need someone putting ideas in my head." He and Rosa talk about all kinds of things, says Baafi: his courses, his writing, his life.

"I call it an umbrella in the rain," says Baafi. "College is like the rain."

The African Slave Trade
Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980
Capitalism and Slavery
American Negro Slave Revolts
Slaves No More
The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales
Blake, or the Huts of America
Black Reconstruction
Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground
Classic Slave Narratives
The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom
Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted
In Hope of Liberty: Culture,Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860
Black Jacobins
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow
Down by the Riverside
The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution
Been in the Storm So Long
Southern Slavery and the Law
Forging Freedom
The Impending Crisis
The Negro in the Civil War
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Black Majority
Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the
Age of Jim Crow
Negro Thought in America
The Music of Black Americans
Go Tell It On The Mountain
The Fire Next Time
Black Metropolis
Invisible Man
Three Negro Classics
Black Bourgeoisie
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
The Signifying Monkey
If He Hollers Let Him Go
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The Book of American Negro Poetry
Hammer and Hoe
Simple Justice
The New Negro
Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism
Coming of Age in Mississippi
Proud Shoes
I Got the Light of Freedom
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Women in the Civil Rights Movement
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells
The Mis-Education of the Negro
Native Son
Uncle Tom's Children


"YOU KNOW THE tradition of the shabbas goy?" demands Robert Paul Wolff with a grin. If you're goyim yourself you probably don't, but in the face of that grin you're probably interested. In the former Jewish shetels of Eastern Europe, explains this descendant thereof, Orthodox residents tended to be very strict about how the sabbath was kept. You couldn't carry water on Saturday, you couldn't even light candles. There grew up in response a custom of retaining the services of a little gentile boy.

"That's me!" exclaims Wolff delightedly. "In the context of Afro-American studies, I'm the shabbas goy!"

In 1992, as a professor of philosophy out of sync with his department and on the lookout for a role to match his enthusiasms to round out his career, Wolff signed on as graduate program director in Afro-American studies. Faculty there had long dreamed of founding a doctoral program, but with their own research and teaching loads to attend to, none had been able to focus on the project.

"A certain lore does build up": Afro-Am graduate director Robert Paul Wolff with doctoral students Jennifer Jensen (seated), Rita Reynolds, and Carolyn Powell.

Enter the shabbas goy, who focused with a vengeance. The program he rallied his colleagues to design "They were infinitely tactful about my ignorance" says Wolff is now completing its third year. A total of sixteen doctoral students all with full financial support, thanks to nonstop fund-raising by Wolff were enrolled during 1998-99. Nine were second and third year students, among them the mentors described in the accompanying article. Seven were reading their way through their formative first year, which involves total immersion in a sequence of fifty-six key works of African American history and literature. "A book a week, on average," says Wolff, practically rubbing his hands. "And some of these are 600-page books."

He recalls with pleasure the season of "violent arguments" that determined which books would make the list. These merry debates continue, he says, as the list changes at least a few titles every year. But its outlines are firm, and its substance has stimulated interest across the country, Wolff says: "There's no question we're creating a canon."

This canon, which Wolff himself took a summer to read through "A transforming experience," he says; "I knew beans about the subject before that" is the stuff of a rigorous first year for the department's doctoral candidates. Entering students read three books before they arrive on campus, another three during intersession. The other fifty they plow through week by week throughout the fall and spring semesters, with a paper due for each book and sharing of those papers mandatory in the twice-weekly, two-and-a-half hour sessions in which the students gather.

"And of course no such thing as a late paper, no just `not getting it done,'" says Wolff with satisfaction. The highly talented and motivated students attracted by the doctoral program thrive, he says, on the pressure of Afro-Am 701 and 702, Major Works in Afro-American Studies. "But a certain lore does build up, a certain Parris Island syndrome. You'll hear the second and third year students saying in the fall, `Oh, you think this is tough, wait 'til you get to the four-book week in spring."

A spin-off benefit of the graduate program's academic rigor, in Wolff's view, is its impact on undergraduates who come through the department. He attributes the early successes of the mentoring program for freshmen with low test scores to the high-achieving doctoral students who staff it: "It's so important for those young people to see a black man or woman to whom the academic life is natural," he says. But even more basic is the creation of a generation of scholars.

"I say to these doctoral students, be sure and hang on to your classmates' papers," says Wolff. "Because when you're professors, you're going to be able to craft several lectures out of the insights of your peers. And your students who aren't quite born yet, when you say to them, `Oh yes, so-and-so studied with me at UMass' their eyes will widen, because you and your classmates are going to be figures in the field."

Patricia Wright