In this episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Lavelle Porter, author of The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual, and Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology. We talk with Lavelle about his recently published book, the experiences of Black academics, and some of the biggest challenges facing Black scholars today. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @alavelleporter.
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Music Credits: “Come Right Here” by Tendinite, licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-NC-ND license.
Mary Churchill: [00:00:00] Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts, Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam, bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Do they rock the boat? Yes, but in doing so, they rock the academy.
Rocking the Academy is sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of excellent books on higher education.
Roopika Risam: [00:00:35] On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we chat with Lavelle Porter, author of The Blackademic LIfe: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual, published by Northwestern University Press in 2019. Porter is an Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology. His writing has appeared in venues such as The New Inquiry, Poetry Foundation, and JSTOR Daily, and he is a blogger for Black Perspectives. Porter also serves on the board of directors for the CLAGS Center for LGBTQ studies.
Welcome, Lavelle, we're so excited to have you with us today to talk about your work. So Lavelle, you recently published your book, The Blackademic Life, with Northwestern University Press. Can you tell us about it?
Lavelle Porter: [00:01:29] Thanks for having me on. The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual is the full title. It's a study of a genre of fiction known as the academic novel or academic fiction, which is a genre that foregrounds students and professors and campus life. And my study analyzes academic fiction by Black writers. I explore black academic fiction as a set of texts which address the experiences of black students, professors, and administrators and institutions of higher education in a creative form.
Roopika Risam: [00:01:57] So what's your favorite Black academic novel?
Lavelle Porter: [00:02:03] Well, there's a lot of them. You know, you work on a book like this, you gain a few favorites. I was really, really fortunate to get a blurb from Samuel R. Delaney and his novel The Mad Man was kind of the book that kicked this all off. So I'd have to go with The Mad Man, but there are also some other great ones. I like most of Percival Everett's novels, and he's done a few interesting academic novels.
Roopika Risam: [00:02:26] Erasure is my favorite.
Lavelle Porter: [00:02:27] Yeah. So I wrote about Erasure. I didn't really have space to get into Glyph, but Glyph is even more of an academic novel than Erasure, I think, because it's a kind of satire of literary theory--as well as I'm Not Sidney Poitier, which kind of has a parody of Morehouse College, my alma mater, in it. I'm sort of cheating here as I said more than one. One I will mention is Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, which is just a beautiful novel, and I think completely underappreciated in many ways. And I look at that novel as a novel that's really about social science and anthropology and the ways that those disciplines construct Black people. And, you know, it's set in the postcolonial Caribbean. So it deals with all of that stuff. But it's a narrative of how social scientists have dealt with studying populations, and it allows Black characters in a situation to talk back to some of the academicians who try to study them.
Roopika Risam: [00:03:20] So what led you to write this book?
Lavelle Porter: [00:03:23] I was interested in African American literary satire. That's kind of where it started. So I did an exam list that included Ishmael Reed's Japanese By Spring and Percival Everett’s Erasure. I also really liked The Mad Man--I did another exam list on the work of Samuel R. Delaney. In an interview, he talked about The Mad Man as an academic novel, and that was kind of the first time I paid attention to that genre. And so it got me to thinking, are there other Black writers who've done this kind of work?
Mary Churchill: [00:03:52] So, I'm interested in what kind of responses you've gotten to the book, even just the title, right, and then the book?
Lavelle Porter: [00:03:59] Generally the responses have been pretty good. I think people are interested in the book. It's a book that speaks to the current moment in higher education, and I think it speaks to the current political moment.
Roopika Risam: [00:04:10] I read it the day it came out.
Lavelle Porter: [00:04:13] Thank you. Appreciate that.
Roopika Risam: [00:04:14] Because I was just waiting for it. I was really excited to read it. I also really loved your acknowledgements. So for people who haven't had the chance to read The Blackademic Life yet, Lavelle's acknowledgements really situate his work in the kind of university that he works, as well as his sense of the colleagues and the people who facilitated the book. Can you tell us something about those acknowledgements?
Lavelle Porter: [00:04:42] Yeah. I think I wanted to address my experience of writing the book because I do teach at a teaching-intensive institution, so I'm not at a research university. I sort of had to navigate around that, as many of us who publish books from those kinds of institutions have to do. I didn't want to make that invisible either. I take the advice of Kiese Laymon-- show your work, you know? So I kind of wanted to show my work a little bit and say, “This is what I had to deal with in order to write this” and also address the situation that a lot of my students have had to deal with over the last three, four years I was teaching.
Speaking of Kiese Laymon, I was teaching him that semester--the Fall 2016 semester [when Trump was elected]. So, we were reading Long Division, his novel about Mississippi,where he goes back in time to 1964--and it deals with the Civil Rights Movement. So, you know, those conversations were already in the room as we were watching things unfold. And a lot of my students are from immigrant backgrounds. That was something I also wanted to address too, to acknowledge the type of students that we teach at CUNY. People have responded well to that--the acknowledgements--I will say that.
Mary Churchill: [00:05:52] Excellent.
Roopika Risam: [00:05:53] Do you think that a lot's changed or a lot hasn't changed between the kinds of experiences that you write about in your book that Black academics have had versus now?
Lavelle Porter: [00:06:05] Yeah. You know, a lot of things have changed. I can't be cynical and just say, “No, everything's the same as it was back then” because I do this historical analysis in the book. I start in the late 19th-century, with the founding and first years of some of the first historically black colleges--what we now call historically black colleges and universities. And the first works of black academic fiction that I analyze, most of them come from those experiences because that was where--if you were a scholar and wanted to teach in an institution of higher education or pursue advanced degrees--that was where you ended up. Or even if you did pursue advanced degrees like W.E.B. Du Bois at Harvard, you still couldn't teach any at any of those institutions. So I think the biggest change over the course of the period that I study is the movement of Black students and professors into majority white institutions. And that's not a linear narrative of progress either.
Mary Churchill: [00:07:03] So building on that and thinking about race and the academy today, what do you think are the biggest challenges that Black scholars are facing and what can allies do to help improve the working conditions for Black academics?
Lavelle Porter: [00:07:16] I'd say, Black scholars, Black students and professors and administrators, are facing all of the same economic conditions that everyone else is facing, except worse in many ways. When you look at things like the student loan crisis, for instance, that's hitting Black students particularly hard. When you look at things like the casualization or adjunctification of the professoriate, that's also something that has affected Black scholars. So, I think in some ways, you know, take everything that you all discuss on your podcast and amplify that by 10 for Black students and professors.
Mary Churchill: [00:07:47] Well, and to follow up, what can those who have more power do?
Lavelle Porter: [00:07:52] I think speaking up about this stuff is important. I don't want people to just look at me as somebody who just made it because I am a tenure-track professor. So I also talk about the difficulties that are happening in the profession--some level of candor about the reality of those working conditions. And that was also kind of behind my acknowledgements too because I mentioned the fact that so many of our professors are adjuncts. So, I didn't want to write this book and pass it off as just another academic monograph, but I wanted to also mention, “Hey, you know, wait, the place where I teach, 70% of our faculty are adjuncts.”
Mary Churchill: [00:08:26] And you know, I was with Roopsi at Salem State and now I'm at Boston University and they really are different worlds. And it is as if faculty from the two institutional types do not interact. I am constantly doing that translation of trying to explain what it's like at a teaching-intensive regional comprehensive and talk about the lack of resources and just the bench strength of faculty, you know. They'll say, here, “We don't have enough.” And I'll say, “Yeah, but if you look at this other institution, they have one person who does that, or they have two people and they feel lucky to have two people”--and it's just they are different worlds. So I am glad that you're drawing attention to that.
Lavelle Porter: [00:09:10] And that's something that comes up in the genre itself. If you just limit it to film--if you watch most of the films about higher education, they's very little representation of the type of institutions where we teach. And you know, there are many different reasons for that. I guess that those kind of prestigious institutions make for the type of place that filmmakers would want to think of as the definitive college experience. I have my theories about why there's less representation of some of these other institutions. Some of it is just the amount of work that we do. There's not much time for reflection. There's also, you can think about the access to--if you're talking about novels about higher ed--the access to the big publishing houses that will publish a book about one's college experience. It's more and more likely that one's gonna come from those elite institutions. The good news, I think, is that there are other critics and artists who are paying attention to this. There was just a great piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Kristina Quynn about the adjunct novel. So she looks at some of these academic novels that address the plight of adjuncts.
Roopika Risam: [00:10:10] So what gives you hope? What keeps you motivated and inspired to keep going to work and keep working with your students?
Lavelle Porter: [00:10:18] I think there's several developments that have come about in the last few years. I think the student activism that we've seen-- that's also something I addressed in the book--the Black Lives Matter movement and some of the things that came about after that. That's been hopeful. The fact that there's more conversation about student loan debt and student loan debt relief and also the affordability of college. Those issues are on the table in a way they haven't been in the past. So I think that it can't be ignored anymore. And that's, I think, something to look forward to. I don't know whether anything will be done about them, but at least those conversations are happening.
Mary Churchill: [00:10:54] I do think this idea of free college and loan cancellation--it is gaining momentum. It's not just folks who are in higher ed, it's people who are on the street talking about it, which is fantastic. And especially, I mean, there are two different groups of people, right? The people who can't really launch their lives because they have such debt. And the fact that they could file for bankruptcy and write that off--that's a start of a conversation. Canceling student debt and then even making community colleges free--I think people are starting to talk about it, which to me means they're starting to hope
Roopika Risam: [00:11:46] You have been listening to Rocking the Academy. Rocking the Academy is sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of An Insider's Guide to University Administration by Daniel Grassian, available where books are sold.