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Robert Patterson

Field: English
SR-EIP: Stanford University, 2001
Undergraduate School: Georgetown University
Graduate School: Emory University
Graduate Program: African American Literature & Cultural Studies

Current Position: Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, Director of African American Studies Department

What are you currently doing in your professional life?

I am in my third academic year as a full-time assistant professor in the English department at Georgetown University and the director of the African American Studies program.  I am up for tenure this year.  In my research, I examine the relationship between art and politics to broadly conceptualize how African American literature has been rethinking the civil rights movement and black leadership.  My first book, Exodus Politics: Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture, came out November 2013 and it has done well.  The next book I am working on, Between Resistance and Resinscription: Black Popular Culture and the Intimacy of Politics, will examine black popular culture and how it is trying to negotiate race, civil rights, and related issues in this particular historical moment.  And when I say civil rights, I am talking about the confluence of racial rights, gender rights, and sexual rights all at the same time.

What have you most enjoyed in your career path so far?

I have enjoyed negotiating the relationship between teaching and research as a member of a historically underrepresented group.  The research question that I am trying to answer is very much relevant to a broader scholarly conversation.  I do think scholarship is not always translated well into everyday life and outside the walls of the academy.  I am constantly trying to bridge that gap and make that kind of work visible.  One thing that I think all my research, teaching, and even service does in terms of mentoring, is to try to get students to take knowledge that has become familiar, easy, or commonplace, and to challenge it, to push back at it, to think about the grey area.  To really understand what it means to be operating in something that is not black and white, so to speak.

What are your current career goals?

My short-term career goals in the academy, should I be successful in getting tenure and being promoted here, is to write my second book and be promoted to the rank of professor.  After that, staying in the academy and moving up the administrative ladder would make sense for me, considering my interests.

What tools or strategies have you found useful for pursuing your goals?

Having smart goals—specific, measureable, realistic, attainable, and timely goals.  Having goals and setting deadlines for them and holding myself accountable for them.  But also having a mentor and understanding that there are a range of activities that constitute mentorship. Figuring out among my mentors who can do what and realizing my responsibilities as a mentee, which include listening, responding, and engaging with the mentor in a particular way.  For example, some mentors are good about giving advice, whereas other mentors are good about reading your work.  So realizing the tools you need and that you may not be able to get them from one person or all in one place.

How did your Leadership Alliance summer experience prepare you for graduate school? 

There was something about the level of independent work that I did in that program—you’re in the library, meeting with your cohort, presenting work, engaging in seminars.  It really helped to transform my role from student to knowledge producer and consumer.  Saying, even as a student, that it is my job to engage and bring something to these texts.  We had conversations and went on trips and excursions.  We were really trying to deal with engaging our whole person, how the various aspects of our lives came to bear in terms of research questions we were asking and the kind of work we were trying to do.  

What is the one thing about graduate school you wish you had known from the beginning?

I had a very specific interest when I was an undergraduate student, which was African American studies, and I really tailored my curriculum around that topic, and I think it helped me in graduate school.  But I also think engaging in the things you don’t have an interest in helps to widen your perspective, and/or helps you to discover an unrealized interest. 

How has the Leadership Alliance impacted or influenced your academic and career paths? 

In many respects, because of the experience I had at the Leadership Alliance, I am always mindful of certain goals, in terms of diversification of the professoriate and higher education.  When I was in graduate school, I had the sense of reaching back to help undergraduates, in terms of opportunities that are available for research, for careers.  That was an important part of my extracurricular education.

What makes the Leadership Alliance unique from other diversity programs or internship programs? 

One of the very unique things about the Leadership Alliance is not simply its focus on the Ph.D., but the schools that it selects to be in the program, as well as the emphasis on the mentor relationship and professionalization.  The Leadership Alliance keeps coming back to engage the students.  The program itself has a clear sense of the ongoing nature of the mentoring relationship as well as how the pipeline should and can work.

Could you tell us about your role as a mentor?

I definitely see mentoring—and good mentoring—playing such a significant role in the work I do. Sometimes being a good mentor means having hard conversations that people don’t necessarily want to have.  Being constructive is a key component to mentoring.  I think there are two trends: one is a lot of critique without correction, the other is not wanting to be unkind and therefore not giving the type of correction that could easily help make someone a stronger scholar, student, etc.  I am always trying to be mindful of that.  It is hard work because it’s ongoing—it’s a relationship that has to be sustained.  It’s not just for the semester, or a summer program, it doesn’t necessarily end there. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say? 

I think that the work the Alliance is doing is remarkable.  Any institution that has an opportunity to become a part of it should really explore that, because it’s not just about the students having the summer experience, though that is central.  It’s more about the life that can emerge out of the “life of the mind.” And, it is important to return what one has benefited.  That re-engagement can’t be underestimated.