By Victoria Gill-Gomez
Dr. Alisha Knight, associate professor of English and American Studies, was announced as the recipient of the 2020 Cromwell CTL Innovation in Teaching Award at Fall Convocation.
The Cromwell Award for Innovation in Teaching is an annual fall award given to an educator for their “exceptional accomplishments in pedagogy,” according to a campus email from professor of French and Director of the Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning Dr. Katherine Maynard. This includes the use of new instructional technologies, creatively revamping traditional ones, “applying novel approaches to instruction,” and engaging new ways of student learning.
Dr. Knight was recognized by the advisory board for her “innovative, interdisciplinary approach” to her courses, Introduction to African American Literature and Culture and Black Men & Women: Images of Race and Gender in American Literature and Culture.
“In her teaching and scholarship, Dr. Knight blends inspirational and innovative thinking with foundational principles. Dr. Knight emphasizes that change and new perspectives in how we interpret a text or an image or understand the world around us are built upon the solid foundations of integrity, attention, listening to others, closely reading the evidence, and then do some more thinking and reading,” Chair and Professor of English, Director of Writing, and Director of the Sophie Kerr Endowment Dr. Sean Meehan said.
When Dr. Knight first began teaching at WC in 2004, she was hesitant to bring her personality into the classroom. After getting comfortable with the material she was teaching, she started to notice herself opening up to her students more about her beliefs and opinions regarding current events.
“You reach a point where you’re going through your material…and as I’m finding ways to keep students engaged, I’m trying to think about how to help them connect [the material to] what they see around them today,” Dr. Knight said. “So I’m finding that I have to be really honest with them about what I see going on in the world.”
This was her effort to help students better connect with classical texts read in the curriculum. It is important for her to model for her students the connections between present day culture with the past.
Dr. Meehan observed these qualities in Dr. Knight’s Introduction to African American Literature and Culture course — which he visited earlier this semester — and also in her special topics course Black Men & Women: Images of Race and Gender in American Literature and Culture, which was offered in Spring 2020.
The student projects from that course, which Dr. Knight published in a digital exhibition, demonstrate how much students were inspired by her teaching.
Dr. Meehan said that the student projects were quite impressive, thoughtful, and engaging. Dr. Knight’s impact and influence shine through in each one.
In her Introduction to African American Literature and Culture course, Dr. Knight explores the relationship between Black music — blues, jazz, and rap — and Black literature to engage students with a more nuanced textual analysis.
In her Black Men & Women seminar, she has students engage critically with stereotypical and offensive images of Black men and women as an entryway to understanding the ways that Black writers contest those images.
The students in the class then use these skills to engage in a dialogue with the general public through their analyses of how contemporary images of African Americans challenge or perpetuate racial stereotypes.
“In both cases, Dr. Knight has fulfilled her own goal — to borrow both her words and those of Earl Lewis — to challenge and empower students of all backgrounds to ‘contribute ideas, ask questions, contest assumptions, and revise points of view,’” Dr. Maynard wrote in her email.
Dr. Meehan, who has worked alongside Dr. Knight since his entry position at the College in 2008, said that she is highly respected by her colleagues across campus. She is known for her leadership as a former Faculty Moderator and the former chair of the Service and Scholarship Committee.
Dr. Maynard calls her an “outstanding campus citizen” as Dr. Knight willingly takes on demanding roles in the faculty governance system, and she can be relied upon to bring wisdom, clarity, and professionalism to any context.
This is only the second year The Cromwell Center has offered the award.
To be a recipient, the process begins over the summer with requests for nominations or self-nominations. Nominated faculty are required to submit an essay and portfolio about their work and previous courses.
Dr. Knight said that this was a good experience for her to speak on her pedagogy and what she strives to accomplish as an educator and researcher.
Her current editing work, “Hagar’s Daughter,” is in collaboration with John Gruesser, a Senior Research Scholar of Literary Studies at Sam Houston State University. The novel is by Pauline Hopkins, a once a prominent African American novelist considered to be the pioneer in her use of the romantic novel to explore social and racial themes.
“I consider myself very lucky to work with Dr. Knight, and I am thrilled to see her skills as a teacher recognized this year. I admire her work as a teacher, a scholar, and a colleague,” Dr. Maynard said.
Dr. Maynard includes that students may not know that in addition to seeking excellence in her teaching, Dr. Knight has an ambitious and innovative research agenda on the African American publishing trade.
“Putting Them on the Map” is a digital humanities project that looks at the publishing history of the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company and the Colored American Magazine — which Pauline Hopkins also wrote for.
The project shows the history of how this company helped foster a sense of community and literature in communities that were underserved or overlooked.
Dr. Knight has been interested in the history books since she was young. Whenever she purchased a book, Dr. Knight would look at the tiny print on the title page. Knowing the publication history of a text interested her, but this was not a common area of study for English majors at the time. It was not until she arrived at graduate school that she took a course through the history department about book history and read an article by Robert Darnton. There she learned about the lifecycle of a book and fell in love with a developing field of study.
“When we think about why we select texts for classes, what books are available, we don’t think about the decisions that publishers make, we don’t think about the decisions that editors make,” Dr. Knight said. “What I really like about [print culture] is that it’s looking behind the scenes, and it’s thinking about how we interact with and how we develop relationships with books in ways that aren’t typically discussed within a class.”
She has adopted this aspect into her classes like her Harlem Renaissance course where she and her students spend time during class looking at book covers and thinking about how that paratext is communicating information.
The Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning separately offers four to six grants to faculty to aid in the development of new courses.
For the College to support entrepreneurial faculty for Dr. Knight meant an opportunity to offer a course on this topic of book history and print arts to undergraduate students that would be more common at larger research institutions.
Dr. Knight sets high expectations for her students in the belief that they are capable of completing high-level, quality work. She is not harsh on them but shows them what is possible by modeling previous student work.
Unfortunately, “pursuing excellence” she said, has become challenging with both the hardships of racial injustice and the pandemic filtering of the everyday lives of student routine.
“I’m trying to help students understand that it is okay to be frustrated and even to slow down and take care of their immediate needs, but it is also important to have goals and to maintain them and to always strive for them. Because that is how you get over the hurdle; that’s how you get through the difficult moments in life,” Dr. Knight said.
Being one of the two tenured Black professors, on campus — like she mentioned at Convocation — she gets burned out in this “ebb and flow” to a life where she needs to step back because there isn’t enough faculty of color to complete the needed work.
“For me, I start by doing what I was hired to do. As a faculty member I was hired to expand the curriculum,” Dr. Knight said. “So that students could learn more about African American literature and culture.”
Once she did that, Dr. Knight created the Black Studies minor in 2005 and held the director position until 2014.
“The English Department is approaching diversity, equity, and inclusion as a foundational principle in how we think about our curriculum, programs, and students and faculty in our department,” Dr. Meehan said. “Dr. Knight’s blend of inspirational and foundational pedagogy and scholarship has helped guide the department in developing new curriculum and programs in the past few years, with more to come.”
Dr. Knight revises her syllabus each semester. She is always looking for more opportunities to experience a particular genre or author, especially having these texts in conversation with more contemporary works.
“It is our hope that the Cromwell Award not only recognizes the great work of professors like Dr. Knight but also that it inspires the rest of us to think about ways we can improve our own teaching. The Award is meant to remind us that we can always grow as teachers,” Dr. Maynard said.
More about Dr. Knight’s courses can be found on the English Department Home Page — and of course, in one of her classes.
Featured Photo caption: Pictured above, Dr. Alisha Knight, associate professor of English and American Studies, presents her “Agents Wanted” lecture in the fall of 2019. She was awarded the 2020 Cromwell CTL Innovation in Teaching Award the following year for her “innovative, interdisciplinary approach” to her courses, African American Literature and Black Men & Women: Images of Race and Gender in American Literature and Culture. Elm File Photo.