Mentor Spotlight | May 2014
Years at KU: I began teaching in August 1998, but took a leave for one year (2002-2003) to teach at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.
Describe your research in a few sentences that we can all understand:Right now, I am finishing up a book on representations of Black female vampires in literature of the African diaspora. The core of the research is a Trinidadian folktale from my childhood: the soucouyant is an evil folk figure who looks like an old woman by day, but at night she sheds her skin, turns into a ball of fire, and flies from house to house to suck the blood of her neighbors.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research?
A: While taking a children’s literature class as an undergraduate, I began thinking more and more about the soucouyant and what she symbolized. I recognized that she had been used as a type of “bogey-man” figure to frighten children into obedience (“Be good or the soucouyant will come to get you!”), but became curious about why she was always female, and if the skin-shedding and ball of flames represented ideas beyond the literal details. In a way, engaging in this study was a way to conquer my childhood fear—I was always terrified of vampires!
Q: Is there someone who has been a great mentor to you? What about that person made him/her an effective mentor?
A: I have had many, many fantastic mentors and am grateful for all they have taught me. When I was in graduate school, I thought that being mentored would be over when I received my doctorate; I was so wrong! When I arrived at KU, Professor Maryemma Graham became an unofficial mentor to me. She modeled professional behavior, introduced me to a host of colleagues around the country, and provided opportunities for me to present my work and get published. She also continually encouraged me not to lose myself in my career and a purely intellectual identity: she threw receptions where guests talked about more than work, invited my kids over to her house for “play dates,” and reminded me to practice a mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy lifestyle.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: I think a lot of researchers become so consumed with work and a life of the mind that they neglect to make time for other pursuits. My advice would therefore be: Don’t forget to experience life beyond the books (and my family would laugh at this, because I *hated* to do anything but read when I was a child. My mother would have to force me out of the house, yelling, “Go outside and play! Get some fresh air! And sunshine! And leave that book indoors!”).
Q: What is your favorite part about mentoring undergraduates?
A: Lots of interviewees have said this before, but I *love* seeing the sparks that light up students’ eyes when they finally understand a difficult concept, or make an important connection, or come up with a unique idea.
Q: What do you find to be the most challenging part of mentoring undergraduates? Do you have any strategies that have helped you address this challenge?
A: There are many exceptionally talented undergraduates who don’t get the jobs they want on the first go-round, or don’t get into their first-choice of graduate programs when they initially apply. I urge them to broaden their options and consider less conventional careers, but also not to give up on the first try.
Q: How do you spend your time when you aren’t teaching or researching?
A: I love to cook, especially Trinidadian food, although it never tastes quite as delicious as my mother’s! Seaside vacations with my partner and children and throwing theme parties with friends are two more of my favorite activities. I also enjoy arts and crafts; I taught myself to knit when I was in graduate school, but, since I never progressed beyond squares and rectangles, I am pretty much limited to scarves and blankets. ;-)