Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Professor Andrea Davis Receives University-wide Teaching Award at York University

By Neil Armstrong

Prof. Davis is flanked by
Chancellor Greg Sorbara, left, and Mamdouh Shoukri, President and
Vice-Chancellor. Photo credit: York Univetsity

“I take my teaching very seriously. I tell my students that teaching for me, I understand it in very simple terms. My teaching is my activism, so that it’s not just about coming into a classroom and sharing knowledge,” says Andrea Davis, Chair of the Department of Humanities, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University in Toronto.

She says if she were wealthy and didn’t live in a capitalist society, she would teach for free. “I love it that much, I wouldn't need to be paid.”

Professor Davis is the 2017 recipient of the President's University-Wide Teaching Award in the senior full-time category, which was presented to her at the spring convocation on June 20.

She is pleased that it was students from her first year course who nominated her for the award that recognizes the accomplishments of York's instructors.

 “The awards demonstrate the value York University attaches to teaching and recognizes those who, through innovation and commitment, have significantly enhanced the quality of learning by York students,” notes the university’s website.

The recipients are selected by the Senate Committee on Awards and will have their names engraved on the President's University-Wide Teaching Award plaques in Vari Hall.

Davis says being the recipient is rewarding but “what gets missing a lot is the ways in which racialized faculty -- and female racialized faculty, because there is another layer that they face -- take on significantly more responsibilities in teaching and mentoring and supporting students that other faculty don’t have to do.” 

In 2012, she was the recipient of the Ian Greene Award for teaching excellence.
She said many of her colleagues are great teachers but they can go into a classroom and engage knowledge and knowledge production and that is all that they do.

“I believe that I certainly do that and I do it very well, but I also have come to understand my place and location in the classroom as more than that just that. It’s really being involved in the making of confident, articulate, citizens.”

She gets about 200 students each year and 80% of them are racialized, many are black, and many are black women.

“Many of them are coming into a classroom where it’s the first time they’ve had a black female professor, or maybe, any black teacher at all. And so I have to help them to grow intellectually, academically, equip them to do well in the university. But I’m also playing another role of modeling for them a future that they are imagining and projecting through me.”

She feels that the president’s award validated what racialized and black faculty do in the university which goes beyond just imparting knowledge.

“My students often say that the course is about real life; that they feel as if they’re being equipped to live, and to be, and to walk in the world in a way that they weren’t equipped to do before.”

Speaking of her contribution to innovation, the former interim director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) says she has tried very self-consciously strategically to respond to what she believes are curricular needs within her department.

Doing this in the department of humanities and her own research and teaching on black culture in Canada and in the wider Americas has led, for example, “to the creation of new courses that address these issues within largely a black diasporic context that takes into account the experiences of people of Caribbean descent, African descent, and so on in the Canadian context.”

She created a number of courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Last year, she worked very hard with the support of colleagues in her department to create a new certificate program in Black Canadian Studies, which is going through the process of approval now. The expectation is that it will be launched in the fall-winter of 2018.

This is a unique certificate program in that it examines questions of black people’s experiences from a humanities perspective and not social science.

“A lot of existing courses at York that seem to address these questions are really courses about race and racism, which are really to me, questions about how other people perceive and relate to black people, and kind of re-educated them.”

Davis says this certificate makes an intervention into that position by insisting that the study of black people, their histories and cultures, is valuable within and of itself.”

It will focus entirely on black people’s cultural production, literature, film, music; black people’s voices, cultural expressions, and histories.

She said it's a pretty narrow but focused curriculum, the idea is to keep students together as a community so they’re likely to be in classes together at the same time and to build wraparound support programs.

The certificate will be working with the Jean Augustine Chair in Education and the Harriet Tubman Institute.

The Jean Augustine Chair in Education has committed to provide graduate students with workshops to help support their writing.

The Harriet Tubman Institute will help them to organize and host undergraduate student conferences where students can share their work, and opportunities to go out to community groups and share the work they’re doing in the university.

They are also developing a practicum course that would place certificate students in the offices of local government to see how those offices function.

The hope is that this will expand eventually to the graduate level and possibly that these students from the certificate program will go into the graduate programs in black studies, and come back eventually into the university as faculty.

“So that the diversity at the undergraduate level extends all the way up and then begins to produce a critical mass of new faculty in the university.”

Davis said there is not a single Black Studies program in all of Canada.

She said there are two – this one that will launch next year, Queen’s University is working on a minor and Dalhousie University is working on a minor but she doesn't know when they’ll launch.

Although Dalhousie has the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, she says there isn’t an actual program in Black Studies yet.

“I think York still remains, it’s still believed it is the most diverse university in Canada, and I think it’s important that it takes leadership in this area,” says Davis.

Davis holds a BA (first class honours) from the University of the West Indies, and a MA and PhD from York University.

She was a Top 30 nominee in TVOntario’s competition for Best Lecturer in 2007.

“It is my responsibility not so much to tell students what to think but to help them develop critical thought, to help them have an opinion about themselves and the world and be able to defend that opinion, the ability to write well, the confidence to articulate well, and then to use that knowledge to help walk in the world with clarity -- their own clarity, whatever that means for them.”

Davis finished her PhD in 2002 and got hired at the University of Ohio in their African American Studies Program.

She had packed up her stuff and was ready to leave, her son was eight then, but Rinaldo Walcott, who was at York in the position she now occupies in humanities, took up an offer at the University of Toronto.

The job went on the market; she applied and ended up with two positions.

“I decided to stay at York for a number of reasons. One, because I felt like I really understood the politics of place and here, and my positionality in relationship to them, and that I could do some good work here. And I was conflicted about whether or not I really wanted to live and work in the United States, and so in the end I decided to stay in Canada.”

She was a teaching assistant and then got a contractual limited appointment, which is a full-time position but not tenured track, before she finished her doctoral studies. 

Davis is a tenured associate professor and is hoping to go forward for full professor in a couple of years.

Professor Davis receives her award from Chancellor Greg Sorbara with Mamdouh Shoukri, President and Vice-Chancellor looking on.  Photo credit: York University

In Jamaica, she attended Wolmer’s Girls School where she did languages which seemed to only have two main outcomes – “to get married and become a real cultured wife or go on to the UN but that for me was a route for the upper middle class students; poor girls don’t have access to those kinds of jobs. Then the other option was possibly to teach.”

Davis didn’t see herself immediately as a professor but thought she would go into high school teaching.

“I think that’s where I would have been if I had stayed in Jamaica but when I went to the University of the West Indies I did really well as I had at Wolmer’s. I was a very good student.”

One of her professors, David Williams, in the department of literature wanted to know what she was going to do with her life after she got first class honours for her BA.

“I couldn’t articulate it very well and he was quite horrified so he just showed up one day with these application forms for the Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship and said to me, ‘I’ve already sent in my letter of recommendation’ so he forced my hand and I had to apply, and I got it.”

The scholarship took her to York University and the “rest kind of dictated itself.”

Williams, and Claudette Williams in Spanish were her mentors at the UWI, Mona Campus.

Davis’ research focuses on the literary productions of black women in the Americas. 

She is particularly interested in the intersections of the literatures of the Caribbean, the United States and Canada and her work encourages an intertextual cross-cultural dialogue about black women's experiences in diaspora.

Davis co-edited with Carl James the anthology, “Jamaica in the Canadian Experience: A Multiculturalizing Presence,” that charts the political, economic, historical and cultural connections between Canada and Jamaica.

She is also working on a comparative study that theorizes the complex ways in which gender, place and voice intersect in black women's discursive practices.

[An edited version of this story is in the North American Weekly Gleaner, June 29-July 5, 2017 issue.]

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