“Infiltrate What Exists, Innovate What Doesn’t”: Mentoring in the Academy, Leading By Example Part 2 – The Feminist Wire

“Infiltrate What Exists, Innovate What Doesn’t”: Mentoring in the Academy, Leading By Example Part 2

HarrisIn the second installment, I discuss scholarship and service, two components of a professional development portfolio that academic women often fall short because they are so focused on teaching. teaching is undeniably important in the life of any academic; most feminist scholars value the interaction in the classroom as a site of activism and engagement. But professionals in the academy are also expected to perform service and conduct and publish scholarhip. In this section, I explore how and why I have done the scholarship and service I have done – and how I justify it as relevant AND NECESSARY to the process of tenure and promotion.


Macalester granted me tenure in the Political Science Department in 2004. That same year the College moved my academic home to the newly formed American Studies Department. Both of my pre-tenure research projects were published as books. The first of these was Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity, which I co-edited with Bruce D. Baum (Duke University Press, 2009).

When my second book Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton was first released in 2009, it was included on the “Intellectual Edition’s” reading list of The Root.  As a part of my post-tenure research, I expanded upon this text and wrote an article entitled “The State of Black Women in Politics Under the First Black President” for The Scholar and Feminist Online, Issue 8:3.  In this article I address why the initial beliefs that the Obama Administration would usher in a new era of inclusion for Black women in politics has not lived up to the expectations. Specifically, I examine the positions of leadership Black women have been given since President Obama’s inauguration, with few being positions of true power. I address the outpouring of protests preceding President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace long-time member Justice John Paul Stevens. I also detail the exit of Desiree Rogers (White House Social Secretary until February 2010) and Shirley Sherrod (USDA’s Georgia Director of Rural Development until July 2010), and why the Obama Administration’s support for both women was either withheld or ill informed.

My publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, was interested in this new development and re-issued my book in 2011 under the new title, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama.  It continues to get positive reviews, including The Feminist Wire on March 27, 2012. In the fall 2012 issue of Feminist Formations, the National Women’s Studies Association’s peer-reviewed journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press, “applaud[s] Harris for naming and critically analyzing [the] inconsistencies within ‘progressive’ American politics that are too often accepted as the radical left.”

Once these projects were complete, I had the opportunity to focus my legal training directly in my publications.   I have authored eight legal articles since tenure. While in law school, I competed in a national “write on” competition for the American Bar Association publication Litigation News.  I was the only student in the country to win a spot on the journal.  When they realized that I was a formally trained academic, they promoted me from the position of “intern” to Associate Editor, and they asked me to write six articles.

My humanities background informed these articles because like law, American Studies wrestles with difficult questions of interpretation, evidence, and value in its respective domain. This is one reason why lawyers, judges, and legal scholars have looked to humanists for guidance.

My positive experience with Litigation News gave me the confidence to launch my own journal. In April 2010, as Editor in Chief, I conceptualized and launched the William Mitchell Law Raza Journal, the first interactive online race and the law journal in the country. My article Civil Rights Law and the Valley Swim Club: ‘Trouble the Waters’ in the Age of Obama (co-written with Craig Green and Keesha Gaskins), was published in the William Mitchell Law Raza Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2012. It examines the well-publicized incident in the summer of 2009, when a group of Black and Hispanic students were turned away from an elite swim club in the suburbs of Philadelphia, even though they had rented time at the club. Statements from staff and club members tied the rejection of the students to their racial identity. With these events taking place so closely after the historical election of the first Black president of the United States, my co-authors and I examined the legality of discrimination in places of public accommodation.

My most recent piece of legal scholarship drew upon my time as a certified student attorney. Experiences I had in the field during law school provided hands-on opportunities to examine policies and see how they affected individuals, families, and communities. These opportunities allowed me to apply my theoretical frameworks to the analysis of these policies and their efficacy—or, in most cases—their inefficacy—and, by extension, to work at the community and institutional levels to create and recommend more effective policies. My experiences with legal fieldwork ultimately served to reaffirm my integrated philosophy of teaching and scholarship, and in my third year of law school, I became a student attorney certified by the Minnesota State Supreme Court. Every week I provided civil legal services and other assistance to inmates leaving the Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minnesota. These women were preparing to reenter society and I worked closely with the Department of Corrections and many local social services agencies to assist my clients. I wrote an article about this experience titled “Incarcerated Motherhood,” in which I explore how theories about race, gender, and the law are applied in the Clinic.

In “Incarcerated Motherhood,” which has been published by Touro Law Center’s Journal of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity, I define and articulate how policies are affecting incarcerated women from several theoretical perspectives, including, feminist legal theory, critical race feminism and gender responsive clinical theory. Then, I apply this theoretical knowledge within the practical context of these clients as a means of arriving at a more nuanced set of policy recommendations for incarcerated women who are mothers.

All of my scholarship, then, can be traced to the central elements of my teaching and education, reinforcing my commitment to lived experience as a site of grounded knowledge that can be – indeed, is – historically and socially informed.

My most recent American Studies scholarship has been inspired by current events and my legal training has proved invaluable. American Studies has the unique opportunity of engaging with history as it is created, not solely after it has been inscribed. The narratives we write as these events are unfolding help direct the very accounts that are written and then embedded in the canon as “history.” On August 12, 2011, The Feminist Wire published my article entitled, Kathryn Stockett is Not My Sister and I am Not Her Help.  A week after the article had been shared 2,000 times online, the magazine’s co-founder, Hortense Spillers, wrote:  “We have been overwhelmed and overjoyed by our readers’ response to Duchess Harris’ article on the novel, The Help.”  This publication led me to write an op-ed for Minnesota Public Radio, and numerous speaking engagements ensued, including a July 4, 2012, presentation at the Australian American Studies Meeting in Brisbane. My legal training helped me argue that Aibileen Clark had a legal claim against Kathryn Stockett for appropriating her story.

Finally, as I believe in the importance of bringing knowledge and theory from the classroom into the real world, I actively sought opportunities to publish my writing in mainstream print and online media. I regularly contribute to The Huffington Post, where I write about politics and cultural issues dealing with race. My October 21, 2010, Huffington Post essay, I was Anita Hill, was used as a writing prompt in the University of Minnesota’s African American Studies 2011 Toolkit. My blogging was acknowledged as a “[n]ew media form of Black feminist archival practice” in an article on Feminist Archives published in Feminist Collections (v. 32, no. 1, Winter 2011, p. 17). I have been featured in and/or interviewed by a number of significant mainstream publications, including Ebony, Essence, and National Public Radio, for my expertise in the subject areas I teach at Macalester.


During the Spring 2003 semester, several of my colleagues and I developed a proposal to create a new interdisciplinary department of American Studies. The Department now offers a major in American Studies. In bringing together multiculturalism, civic engagement, internationalism, and academic excellence, the Department reinforces the ongoing commitments of the College; our vision of American Studies is driven by a concern for and a dedication to innovative pedagogy, civic engagement, public scholarship, and academic excellence. We see American Studies as a rubric that inspires collaboration and healthy debate about the borders and boundaries of citizenship, responsibility, and intellectual work. During the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 academic years I was the first person to Chair the Department.

My responsibilities as Department Chair prepared me to get involved in the American Studies Association, at whose annual meetings I have presented my research. I have also served as Co-Chair of the American Studies Association’s Minority Scholars Committee and was one of five members to draft a proposal to create a standing committee on Ethnic Studies. Subsequently, I was elected to serve as a member of the ASA Ethnic Studies Committee between 2003-2005. My participation in these meetings brought national visibility to Macalester’s new American Studies department, and ensured that our curriculum was growing alongside the discipline, especially while I served as Chair of the American Studies Department.

In 2005, I participated in campus-wide governance for the first time after being elected to the Resources and Planning Committee; I also sat on the Task Force of the Budget and the Trustees’ Committee for Advancement, was a member of the Center for Global Studies and Citizenship Planning Committee, and was a member of the Multicultural Advisory Board. I served as faculty liaison to the Capital Campaign Working Group (the only faculty member on this Committee), and I participated in the Center for Scholarship and Teaching (CST) Academic Leadership Seminar. (Yes, this is a lot of service, but if you are at a liberal arts college, you are expected to undertake it. But it also demonstrates your collegiality, as it would be at a Research 1 institution.) The goal of CST was to work with a group of early- to mid-career faculty to develop perspectives and knowledge that would allow them to work more effectively as institutional leaders. This program also provided faculty an opportunity to learn to “think institutionally” when faced with the complex institutional issues affecting faculty life and student education. A direct result of this program was my drafting the proposal for a $250,000 American Studies Endowed Lectureship included in the Capital Campaign, which resulted in the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies.

In the summer of 2006, I led the three-day Urban Faculty Seminar (UFS) during Professor Karin Aguilar –San Juan’s sabbatical. I escorted new tenure-track faculty on an orientation tour of the Twin Cities with Paul Schadewald, Associate Director of the Civic Engagement Center. The multi-day orientation involved meeting and engaging with scholars and community leaders, giving faculty the larger urban context for their work at Macalester. Six years later, in 2012, I was able to participate in the Detroit Urban Faculty Colloquium (UFC).  This was a tremendous opportunity to be a part of a “think tank” approach that brought together a diverse group of scholars, activists and organizations to dialogue about the real-world problem of economic disparity, its affect on our society, and brainstorm realistic strategies to address it.  It was an engaging four days spent digging deep into how the unprecedented concentration of this nation’s wealth within a small percentage of the population is undermining public education, healthcare, even the democratic process and long-fought for voting rights through redistricting and voter intimidation.  We examined the short- and long-term affect on impoverished people and the middle class, and then developed takeaway strategies to help our students become more engaged members of the political process.

The UFC afforded me new insight into the intellect and interests of my colleagues, engendered a renewed appreciation of the vital contributions of differing academic perspectives to understanding pressing social issues, and gave me a greater sense of fellowship and friendship with those who serve the College in diverse capacities. I normally caution against so much service at mid-career, but in a liberal arts college with three faculty members in my department, it cannot be avoided.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, I am a member of the Legal Studies Steering Committee, Chair of the General Education Requirements Committee, (which includes a seat on the Student Learning Committee), and Coordinator of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows Program. In 2010, Macalester received a $373,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York to continue the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program through the 2012-2013 academic year. The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program is the centerpiece of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s initiatives to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning. MMUF aims to reduce over time the serious underrepresentation of certain minority groups on college faculties as well as to address the attendant educational consequences of these disparities. The program serves the related goals of structuring campus environments so that they will be more conducive to improved racial and ethnic relations, and of providing role models for all youth. MMUF aims to achieve its mission by identifying and supporting students of great promise and helping them to become scholars of the highest distinction. The MMUF program builds a culture of success, which extends beyond the students who are its primary beneficiaries.

In addition to my work with Mellon students, I have served as honors thesis advisor and faculty advisor to more than 200 students at Macalester[1]. Furthermore, I sponsored numerous local internships. As a former Constituent Advocate for the late Senator Paul Wellstone, I sponsored Emily Quackenbush ’98 to work in Senator Wellstone’s St. Paul office. My term as a Civil Rights Commissioner for then Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton helped me to direct my advisee Catherine Hetsko ’01 to the Mayor’s Office. My role as the Chair of Governance at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota placed Nimu N’Joya ’02 and Nkayo Drepaul ’11 with paid positions in development. My work with the Council on Black Minnesotans also led to similar opportunities for capable students. I have helped to mentor future colleagues; Dr. Adam Waterman ’00 is an Assistant Professor at American University, Beirut and Dr. Andre Carrington, ’03 is an Assistant Professor at Drexel University.

Students I have guided post-tenure are also making progress:  Alfretter Fair ’06 is pursuing a PhD in Women’s Studies at UCLA; Meghan Rockwell-Ashton ’07 earned a MSW at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; Kemi Adeyemi ’07, is pursuing a PhD in performance studies at Northwestern; Carmen Phillips ’08 is pursuing a PhD in American Studies at NYU; Mandi Masden ’08 earned a MFA from the National Theatre Conservatory; Brittany Lewis ’09 is pursuing a PhD in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota; Grace King, ’09 earned a MSW from USC; Kyera Singleton ’11 and Stefan Aune ‘11 are pursuing PhDs in American Culture at the University of Michigan, Bimbola Akinbola ‘11 is in the American Studies PhD program at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Ricky Millhouse  ‘13 is pursuing a PhD at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.


I returned to my role as Chair the American Studies Department for the 2012-2013 school year and we celebrated the tenth anniversary of my academic home. It has been a productive decade for both myself, and Macalester.

I spent the 2013-2014 school year on sabbatical partially funded by the Paul Anderson Interdisciplinary Research Fund.  I am working with my Honors student Lucy Short and Margot Lee Shetterly designing a digital humanities project, which is about the legal segregation of Black women who worked at NASA during World War II. Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) was the main research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the precursor to NASA). Computing, as a profession, dated back to the late-nineteenth century, and typically both men and women were employed as human computers in astronomy, the social sciences, statistical research, and ballistics testing. The first computers at Langley took on calculating work that had originally been done by engineers themselves. According to a 1942 report, computing sections were designed to process test data more efficiently, relieving engineers of this essential, but time consuming work. Engineers were free to devote their attention to other aspects of research, while the computers received praise for calculating data “more rapidly and accurately,” doing more in a morning than an engineer alone could finish in a day. While the initial computer pool at Langley proved a success, what really drove the expansion of computing (and the expansion of Langley, overall) was the United States’ involvement in World War II.

During the 1940s, Langley began recruiting African American women with college degrees to work as computers. Initially grouped in a segregated section, the “West Area Computers” processed data sent to the pool and also joined sections on a temporary basis when additional help was needed. According to Beverly Golemba’s unpublished study of early computers at Langley, many women were not aware of the West Computers, although both the black and white women she interviewed reported that when computers did do a project with each other “everyone worked well together.” The first African American computers did the same work as their white counterparts, but in a period when segregation was policy across the South and in the U.S. armed services, they also encountered segregated dining and bathroom facilities, along with barriers to other professional jobs.

My maternal grandmother, Miriam Daniel Mann, who was born in Covington, GA on July 25, 1907, inspires my interest in this topic; in 1943 NASA hired my grandmother as a human computer. She retired in late 1966 because of poor health and passed away in May 1967.  I was born two years later, and I am her namesake.  Very little has been written about this episode in American history and space history, and even less published about it. As is consistent with my earlier work, the purpose of this project is both to recover an important chapter in history by bringing it to both academic and public awareness, and to do so through the integration of conventional academic research, oral history, and applied history.

Following Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s invitation to “infiltrate what exists, innovate what doesn’t.” I have made my way as a Black feminist in the academy in spite of the odds. Mine is, in many ways, a tale of great success – and I am honored to have this kind of job. But I have struggled to live in the rarified air of the academy. I am proud of the work I have done, both in and outside of the classroom. I am proud of the tangible way that my classroom teaching has helped students and members of our larger community live more thoughtful, productive, and meaningful lives. I am proud that my scholarship has an international audience.  These outcomes motivate me to increase my responsibility as a campus leader, a senior colleague, and a mentor.

[1] I first had advisees in 1998.  Since then I have had a total of 216 advisees.  This is just counting how many advisees I had each semester.  It doesn’t take into account if they were different people each semester. The Academic Programs Office provided this information.



1 Comment