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I had a dream

Times columnist and editorial board member Bill Maxwell kept a promise to himself, to become a professor at a small historically black college, to nurture needy students the way that mentors had encouraged him as a young man. It was tougher than he had anticipated.

By BILL MAXWELL
Published May 13, 2007


The August sun beat down and the temperature already was approaching 80 degrees on Monday morning as I neared Stillman College. This would be my first day as a professor at this small historically black school in Tuscaloosa, an old Southern city of fewer than 80, 000 residents where the University of Alabama and the Crimson Tide football team overshadow everything else.

As I drove through Stillman's black-iron main gate and approached Martin Luther King Jr. Hall, a three-story men's dormitory, I was on a mission to fulfill a promise to myself. The college was founded in 1876, sits on a tidy 106 acres and has an enrollment of fewer than 1, 000 students. Many locals see the campus as an oasis, the only real symbol of hope in the most racially segregated, most economically depressed part of Tuscaloosa. The original front section of the campus, with its sprawling green lawn and red brick buildings, has some of the grand magnolias that greeted students at the turn of the 20th century.

Driving my 13-year-old, unairconditioned Chevy Blazer past the guard house, I became apprehensive when I noticed about a dozen male students wearing baggy pants, oversized white T-shirts, expensive sneakers and assorted bling standing around shooting the breeze. At least two had "jailhouse tats" on their arms, crude tattoos suggesting that these young men had spent time behind bars. They carried no books or anything else to indicate they were on a college campus.

I got a good look at their faces. I wanted to remember these young men if any of them showed up in my classes.

Behind them, several others sat on a low brick wall near the dorm entrance. They, too, were clad like extras in a gangsta rap video. It was a scene straight out of "the hood" - young black men seemingly without direction or purpose, hanging out on the corner. In this case, they were hanging out on what is popularly known as "The Yard" on a college campus where they were supposed to be preparing for a more productive life.

I had expected a more collegiate scene on Aug. 9, 2004.

A year before coming to Stillman, I had written a commentary for the St. Petersburg Times arguing that Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, remain viable. I further argued that given the increasing reliance on standardized tests to determine college admission and given the nation's conservative turn, HBCUs are needed more than ever to provide an opportunity for many young blacks who otherwise never would be able to attend college because of factors such as low standardized test scores and criminal records.

There are 106 HBCUs in 24 states, and they are mostly in the South. They are public and relatively well-funded, such as Florida A&M University in Tallahassee; private and well-financed with solid academic reputations, such as Howard University in Washington, Spelman College and Morehouse College in Atlanta and Hampton University in Virginia. They are also tiny, poor and struggling, such as Stillman. They offer four-year and two-year degrees, liberal arts and technology paths. Some have graduate schools and schools of law and medicine.

Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, these schools were the ticket to the good life for blacks. But integration gradually siphoned off many of their best kids, and HBCUs now enroll just 12 percent of all black college students.

Yet I still believed in these schools. So in 2004 I resigned from my job as a St. Petersburg Times columnist and editorial writer that paid more than $70, 000 a year to teach at Stillman for $33, 000 a year. I wanted to fulfill a long-ago promise I made with the professors who taught and nurtured me during the 1960s at two historically black colleges, Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.

When I began my first day at Stillman, I was channeling my experiences of long ago. I would be a professor who would inspire and guide the lives of young black women and men who wanted to become successful journalists.

As it turned out, I would last just two years before returning to the Times. I left the campus disheartened and disillusioned, and I regretted leaving behind a handful of dedicated students with real potential. Another graduating class has just left Stillman through the same gates I first entered in 2004, but I no longer feel welcome on campus.

I had chosen Stillman for several reasons. I had friends in Tuscaloosa, and I had a nostalgic connection dating back to 1964, when I helped register voters who had sought the safety of the campus.

I also liked Stillman president Ernest McNealey. An Alabama native, McNealey wanted Stillman to have a strong journalism program. He knew that newsrooms around the nation look for competent black reporters and editors, and he wanted me to re-establish the journalism major that had been discontinued in 1997. With an effective program, we could find good jobs for many of our graduates. He was the kind of man I wanted to work for.

With a $100, 000 gift from a Tampa donor, my colleagues and I re-established the major during my first semester, and we set up a modest scholarship. After that, my main responsibilities were managing the program, teaching and recruiting students and co-advising the student newspaper.

'Take your seats and be quiet!'

At 8 on that first morning, I met my freshman English class. I had volunteered to teach it because I wanted to assess the writing skills of the students in general. Because the chairman of my department had promised me small classes, I had expected no more than 15 students. Instead, I faced 33. All were black; more than half were women. Four of the men had been in front of King Hall earlier.

The room was noisy, and two who had been in front of King Hall were horsing around. I put my books on the table and raised an arm for silence. When only a few students paid attention I raised my arm again, and this time I yelled.

"All right, knock it off! Take your seats and be quiet!"

I could not believe that I had to yell for college students to behave in a classroom. This is not going to be a good experience, I thought, unfolding the roster and preparing to call the roll. When I could not pronounce the second name on the list, I knew for sure I was in big trouble. As I fumbled with the strange combinations of alphabets and apostrophes, the class roared.

"He can't even read, " a student said.

More laughter.

The air conditioner was down, and sweat dripped from my face as I struggled with the last name on the roll. After getting the room quiet, I instructed the students to "write an in-class essay of no more than 500 words describing at least three positive or negative things about your high school." I told them I would read the essays and return them the next time we met.

"This is a diagnostic essay, " I said. "I won't grade it. I simply want to see how well you write. If you plan to major in journalism, I want to see you after class. I will hand out the syllabus next time."

After class, just two female students said they wanted to major in journalism. During office hours and lunch, I read the essays. I wondered what I had gotten myself into when only one paper demonstrated college-level writing. During my 18 years of previous college teaching, I had never seen such poor writing - sentence fragments, run-on sentences, misspellings, wrong words and illogical word order.

From one paper: "In my high school, prejudism were bad and people feel like nothing." From another essay: "Central High kids put there nose in other people concern."

I was surprised and disappointed that the two prospective journalism majors had as many mistakes in their copy as their classmates.

I shared the results with a colleague who had taught journalism and English at Stillman for three years. Her response was discouraging. The abysmal writing was par for the course, and I had better brace myself if I intended to keep my sanity.

'I ain't taking this class'

That afternoon, I met my opinion writing and news writing/reporting classes. I had five students in one and seven in the other. Again, I called the roll and took writing samples. That night at home, I eagerly read the papers. These budding journalism majors were the reason I came to Stillman.

But after an hour of reading, I did not see how any of them would become reporters and editors without superhuman efforts on their part and mine. None had any sense of how a news article comes together. None knew how to write a compelling lead or how to use the active voice. Only one, a young woman in the opinion writing class, had written for a high school newspaper.

During the next class meetings, I returned the papers. I did not mark the work, but I explained the writing was disappointingly bad and that they would have to work overtime to learn to write at an acceptable level. All except the one student who had a decent essay were outraged.

"I thought this was going to be a real English class, " a student said.

I asked her which high school she had attended and what she meant. The Selma High School graduate said her English teacher had let students spend most of their time discussing current events and writing short paragraphs. They wrote one essay all term. Most of the other students nodded approvingly. I did not tell the class that Selma High was considered to be academically inferior. I did tell them we would follow the syllabus, which required eight essays and four revisions. I also told them they would have to complete the grammar quizzes in the textbook. Everyone, except the competent writer, groaned.

"I ain't taking this class, " one of the students who had been in front of King Hall said. He stood, nodded to his three friends and walked out of the room. One of them followed. The other two stared at me and scowled for the remainder of the period.

The journalism students in the other two classes accepted my criticism without grumbling. In fact, they were pleased with the prospect of learning how to write "like real reporters, " said Kristin Heard, a freshman from Montgomery.

'The endangered chair'

Even as I attended my first faculty meeting in those first few days, I sensed I might not belong at Stillman. During a break, I went to the refreshment table for orange juice. I spoke to two black professors already there.

"You're Bill Maxwell, right?" one asked.

"Right, " I said.

"The new endowed chair, " he said slyly.

"The endangered chair, " the other said.

They had a big laugh at my expense.

"It's scholar-in-residence, " I said, trying to save face.

By the beginning of my second year, I would find myself alienated from most of the senior administrators and most of the longtime staff members who were responsible for the day-to-day operations of the institution.

My alienation, a colleague told me, was the result of a disease found at most HBCUs: professional jealousy. The college president hired me as the "scholar in residence" on a 10-month contract for a modest salary. Some professors resented the arrangement because they had been there for several years and were earning the same or less.

In addition to re-establishing the journalism major, my duties included teaching at least three courses and advising the student newspaper. Unofficially, I was expected to be the guest speaker at select campus functions and assist with public relations.

At least two colleagues publicly complained that the president had created a job for me and was spending money unnecessarily. Several colleagues called me "McNealey's boy."

Although I considered the whole affair to be childish and foolish, I was offended and embarrassed.

Refusing to buy the book

After a week, I faced another problem that my seasoned colleagues knew well but failed to warn me about: Most Stillman students refuse to buy their required textbooks. I discovered the problem on a Friday when I met my English class to discuss the assigned essay in the text. They were to write an essay in response to the reading.

Only one student, the young man who wrote well, had read the essay. He had the text in front of him. The others had not purchased the text. I warned them that if they returned to class without their books, they would receive an F. But only five of 31 students brought their texts to the next class.

Most students had book vouchers as part of their financial aid, so I told those without books to walk with me to the bookstore, a distance of about three football fields. Some did not follow me, and I tried to remember who they were. At the store I watched students wander around, obviously trying to avoid buying the book. Only about eight wound up buying one.

I became angry that I had to deal with such a self-destructive, juvenile problem. I saw the refusal to buy the text as a collective act of defiance. I knew that if I lost this battle, I would not have any control in this class and no respect.

The next Monday, I went to class dreading a showdown. While calling the roll, I asked the students to show me their texts. Eighteen still did not have them. One said he had bought the book but left it in his dorm room "by mistake." I told him to go get it. He gathered his belongings and left. He never came to class again.

As promised, I recorded an F for all students who did not bring their texts. The last two young men from in front of King Hall walked out. I saw myself as having failed them as a professor, but I was relieved they were gone.

I also decided to take away students' excuses for not having access to the texts. I personally bought two copies of each book and put them on reserve in the library. From time to time, I would check to see who had used them. During the entire semester, the books were used only six times.

Below average by most measures

As I settled into my routine at Stillman that first fall, I researched the backgrounds of the students in the English class. None had an SAT score above 1000. The average combined SAT score for the nation was 1026; the best possible score was 1600.

None of them had taken advanced placement courses in school. Of the 33 students, 21 came from single-parent, low-income families who lived mostly in Alabama. Some came from the state's Black Belt, one of the poorest areas in the nation with some of the worst public schools. The Black Belt's most famous town is Selma, home of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the site of "Bloody Sunday, " where state troopers and sheriff's deputies beat hundreds of civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965.

Of the nearly 1, 000 students on campus, all but 100 or so received financial aid and loans. Nearly everyone qualified for federal Pell grants. I had come to campus having read studies showing that students in this demographic group tend to perform below average by most academic measures.

Instead of being disheartened, I remembered I was much like my students as a 17-year-old freshman at Wiley College not knowing what to expect. Unlike the majority of my students at Stillman, though, I was an avid reader. Even at age 13, I knew that I wanted be a writer. I was determined to learn my first day at Wiley, which I attended from 1963 to 1965.

I played football my first semester. During the second semester, I gave up my football scholarship and got a federal student loan. I wanted to devote all of my time to my studies and to reading on my own. And I was not alone. Many of my schoolmates were similarly inspired after a few months on our tiny East Texas campus.

I also had caring professors who introduced the life of the mind to this kid reared as a migrant farm worker in labor camps up and down the eastern United States. My professors were intellectuals, and I wanted to be just like them. Our professors - whether we liked them or hated them - were gods, and we were to learn all we could from them.

For many of us, Wiley was the only opportunity to earn a four-year degree. Jim Crow barred us from most colleges and universities in the South, and our low ACT and SAT scores disqualified us from attending most other campuses nationwide. Wiley was our lifeline to professional success. And we knew it.

Highly dedicated teachers

While students at Stillman often had a lower assessment of their professors, there were some highly dedicated teachers who were not there for money or fame. Most earned doctorates from some of the nation's best universities. Of the college's 88 full-time professors during my time there, about 70 percent were white. Stillman was typical of the overwhelming majority of other HBCUs, where white professors outnumber black professors, a trend pejoratively referred to as the "whitening" of the HBCU faculty. A major reason for this phenomenon is that mainline universities seeking ethnic diversity on their faculties heavily recruit new black Ph.D.s and specialists. Another reason is that many black Ph.D.s see teaching at the HBCU as being "drudge work" - a step down, not a step up.

As far as I could tell, black and white professors were collegial to one another, and I never heard of any serious racial conflicts. I did hear several black students complain about having so many white professors in a historically black environment.

One student, Jillian Freeman, a freshman cheerleader, said: "I came here because I wanted black professors, but most of my professors are white. I don't like this."

Before coming to Stillman, I had heard and read about the so-called inferiority of the professors at HBCUs. Because Stillman was essentially a teaching institution, the "publish or perish" rule did not apply. But I was surprised that many of my colleagues still had impressive scholarly publications.

I have taught at several other colleges, and I must say that Stillman's faculty, despite the low salaries, is highly competent. I regularly sat in on lectures that were outstanding. Most are dedicated to the institution and to the students. On any given night, many professors return to campus to attend student events. Professors also routinely spent their own money for field trips and classroom supplies.

The college had precious few young professors because they could not support their families on the low salaries. Only older people who had spouses earning decent salaries or who had other sources of income could teach at Stillman without struggling financially. I supplemented my much-envied salary with two small pensions and money from freelance writing.

An ally at my side

Lucinda Coulter was one of the bright lights at Stillman and an ally in the mission to groom young journalists. The professor, who is white, had a doctorate in American literature and had written for several magazines. She was a journalism instructor at the University of Alabama until she was hired at Stillman for a tenure-track position in 2000.

It wasn't an easy transition.

"During my first semester, I was overwhelmed with the workload, " she told me during one of our gripe sessions. "I taught five classes and revitalized the student newspaper. The president had shut it down. It had become unprofessional. It looked like a yearbook instead of a newspaper.

"I was discouraged by the end of the year because of the workload. I returned the next year only because the faculty members in the English department were so supportive. We became close friends. We felt a common bond because we had a handful of genuinely wonderful kids."

We quickly developed a similar bond as we each taught about a dozen journalism students my first semester. Together we urged the students to read the Tuscaloosa News, which cost 50 cents, so we could discuss the news and how the newspaper approached it. But the newspaper had long ago removed its lone paper rack from Stillman's campus because of theft and vandalism. The nearest racks were several blocks away at two gas stations. None of our students would walk that far to buy the newspaper, and only a few would go online to read it.

"If you want to be a piano player, " I often said in class, "you have to practice playing the piano. If you want to be a reporter, you have to read newspapers."

Hardly any students brought the newspaper to class. So Lucinda and I used our own money to buy each student a copy of the Tuscaloosa News every morning. The students repaid us for about three weeks, but when they stopped we kept buying it anyway. We knew some of them were living from hand to mouth. We also bought enough copies of the New York Times, the Birmingham News and USA Today for the students to share each day.

Newspapers weren't all we bought. Students at other college newspapers have plenty of camera equipment. We bought dozens of disposable cameras for students to take photographs to go along with their stories for the student newspaper, the Tiger's Paw. We changed the name to The Advance, a more mature-sounding name, during my second semester.

While many college newspapers are printed daily or weekly, we struggled to publish one edition each semester. Of the 12 students on the newspaper staff when I arrived, eight were English majors and only three had journalism experience in high school.

Few efforts in academia are tougher than trying to teach English majors how to write like journalists. English majors tend to believe that complicated prose and obfuscation are smart. Clear prose - the bread and butter of journalism - is considered unsophisticated and incapable of conveying deep thought and important ideas.

I had a hard time getting students to use short words instead of long ones: "ended" instead of "terminated;" "use" instead of "utilization;" "aim" instead of "objective."

Constance Bayne, a freshman from Tennessee, was an immediate exception. After I graded three of her stories, she had an epiphany during an individual grading session.

"I see what you mean, " she said, studying my revision of one of her attempts at pomposity. "Yours is better. It's real easy to read."

"That's what we always want, " I said. "Simplicity is elegant."

She smiled and read the rest of my revisions.

The messages were lost

I tried my best to cultivate a love of language and reading. Two sayings were on my office door. One was a Chinese proverb: "It is only through daily reading that you refresh your mind sufficiently to speak wisely." The other came from me: "Being Smart is Acting Black."

But the messages were lost on students who had read so little growing up and had never acquired basic academic skills. I was not surprised to learn that only two of my students had read more than three of the books most high school students have read, books such as Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, The Color Purple and Invisible Man.

Those of us who were teaching the required general education courses - all of us from the nation's respected universities, such as the University of Chicago, Indiana University, the University of Florida and Princeton - had to face a harsh reality. We primarily were practicing remediation.

Every day in my classes, I reviewed basic grammar and showed students how to use the dictionary effectively, lessons normally taught in elementary and middle school.

Homework was another major problem. Writing courses, especially journalism courses, are labor intensive for students and the professors. Reporting - going into the field, interviewing sources, finding official records and verifying information for accuracy - is essential. After most of my students continued to hand in articles that had only one interview, I began requiring at least four interviews, with the sources' telephone numbers, for each story. Most of the students balked and continued to hand in work with an insufficient number of interviews.

Meeting deadlines, a must in journalism, was yet another problem. Few of my students regularly met the Monday deadline. I would deduct a letter grade for each day the copy was late. Some students received F's on all of their work. To avoid flunking them, I let them write in class.

But that required them to show up, and I seldom had all students present. Attending class seemed to be an inconvenience. The college had an official attendance policy, but few professors followed it strictly because most of our students would have flunked out before mid-term. On most days, I did not call the roll. I simply tried to remember who was present.

I recall the afternoon I sat alone in my room waiting for the seven students in the reporting class to show up. At 20 minutes past the hour, a white colleague peeked in and saw me in the otherwise empty room.

"You must've had a serious assignment due?" he said.

We had a big laugh. But it was a painful laugh.

"It's the Stillman way, " he said. "A lot of these kids won't attend class, and, when they do, they walk in late. They're on CPT (Colored People's Time)."

Although I laughed with my colleague, I was ashamed that a white person so easily joked about CPT.

"They don't have intellectual curiosity, " I said. "We weren't like that at Wiley or Bethune-Cookman."

"I know what you mean."

This time, we did not laugh. I gathered my books and newspapers, turned out the lights and left.

I hardly ever saw anyone take notes during lectures in the English class. Instead, I had to regularly chastise students for text messaging their friends and relatives and for going online to read messages and send messages. The college issued free laptops to all students who maintained a passing grade-point average.

When I confronted students about text messaging, I was met with hostility. I even had a few students leave class to make calls or send text messages. Two male students threatened to physically attack Lucinda and another female professor because they demanded that the students put away their laptops in class.

Each time, I would leave the English class exhausted, angry and sad. I would go home on many evenings during my first month wanting to cry, and things didn't get much better as the year progressed.

I had come to Stillman on the mission of my life: I wanted to be of use, to help "uplift the race" as my professors had taught me. But as my first school year ended in the spring, instead of feeling useful and as if I were helping to uplift the race, I was feeling helpless and irrelevant.