Turning Pain into Purpose:
How an English Professor Used Past Experiences to Address Current Events
When reflecting on everything that has formed Dr. Maya Hislop as a professor, she turns back to her time at the University of Virginia where she received her Ph.D. and worked until moving to Greenville, S.C., to become a professor at Clemson University.
It was 2014 when an article came out in the “Rolling Stone” depicting a very violent sexual assault case on the UVA campus. The article’s primary purpose was to out the university for mishandling the case and address the failures of universities in managing issues like sexual assault and rape. Immediately people began reacting to the article and students became motivated to push the university to make changes through mainly white feminist-led protests.
At the same time, a police officer in Missouri had murdered Michael Brown, and a Black student on UVA’s campus was violently denied entry to a bar by an ABC officer, leaving the scene with a broken nose and bloody face. Shortly after this occurred, Darren Wilson, the police officer who gunned down Michael Brown, was acquitted. Students on UVA’s campus held a peaceful march through the library to protest the acquittal. However, there was significant backlash towards the protesters shared through an anonymous app called Yik Yak, calling the Black students protesters farm equipment and monkeys.
While UVA sent daily updates and made announcements about how they were dealing with the sexual assault charge, the university did almost nothing to address the concerns of police brutality and anti-Black racism. Instead, it was left up to a group of UVA students, including Dr. Hislop, to create an event where students could address how they felt about the incidents in an open forum setting.
“The university had phenomenal resources and opportunities for students of color. They have an Office of African American Affairs, Woodson Institute, Luther B. Jackson space and so many more Black professors than other universities. Nevertheless, I still felt as if there was a lack of support from administration,” said Hislop.
Flash forward to the summer of 2020 when police officers brutally murdered George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Hislop was in Greenville feeling angry and upset and sometimes not feeling anything at all because of the numbness that overcame her.
These feelings acted as the inspiration behind this fall’s Common Read, an initiative in which 15 teachers and around one thousand students in Clemson’s English 2000-level general education classes are participating.
“With the Common Read, I wanted to create a space for students to feel listened to. All I ever want to do is support my students, especially my Black, brown and otherwise marginalized students. As a queer Black professor, I feel it is important for me to try to think about all of my identities and how events like these murders can affect them.”
The idea behind the Common Read is to educate students on police brutality, anti-Black racism, white supremacy, race and racism while also bringing the world into their classroom. This semester’s Common Read is Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, which focuses on race and the realities of everyday racism. Students involved in the Common Read will read the book and have the option to attend virtual events surrounding topics in Citizen, much like how first-year students in years past received a book that they all read and attended events on.
“What I hope students will grasp from the Common Read is how relevant their education is to current events. I want them to think they are engaging with their education in a different aspect that is not normally associated with general education classes while understanding how literature can introduce you to a new idea.”
While Dr. Hislop plans to change the Common Read every semester, the idea behind the Common Read will stay the same. Dr. Hislop plans on keeping the Common Read as a novel written by a Black author that acknowledges race and racism.
“I feel like sometimes people are oblivious to the experience that Black students have on campus. Because they are such a minority, people frequently fail to think that their peers or students could be having a completely different experience than they are. So if I can do something that promotes recognition and acknowledgment of this, even through something small, like a book English classes read, I want to be able to do that for my students.”
The events organized by Dr. Hislop and the rest of the team involved in the Common Read are all virtual, kicking off on Sept. 18 with a visit from guest scholar, Kamran Javadizadeh, who will have an informal conversation with the instructors of the 2000-level courses with tools to teach Citizen. On Nov. 13, the author of Citizen, Claudia Rankine, will be a keynote speaker, talking about Citizen and possibly her newest book Just Us, released September 8, 2020. The semester’s final event will besometime in December with New Orleans-based artist Malcolm Peacock to discuss the visual art in Rankine’s book. If anyoneis interested in joining the Common Read contact Dr. Maya Hislop at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Written By: Elizabeth O’Donnell