Prof spotlight: Williams Brown talks educational diversity

Assistant Professor of Education Kimberly Williams Brown conducts research on and teaches about identity, race and gender. Duncan Aronson/The Miscellany News.

[Correction (Monday, December 10): The original version of this article contained two inaccuracies. First, it suggested that the teachers with whom Professor Williams Brown worked did not have agency. In fact, a major finding from Professor Williams Brown’s dissertation was that the teachers had significant agency and resisted the hegemonic subjugation that they experienced in U.S. schools. Second, the teachers were recruited to teach in “failing” schools in the boroughs of New York City’s inner cities, and not only the Bronx or Queens.]

Just before Thanksgiving break on an already sparsely populated campus, I stopped by the Old Observatory Building to have a chat with Assistant Professor of Education Kimberly N. Williams Brown. Only in her second year as a Vassar faculty member, Williams Brown has taken an unlikely path to enter the world of education, academia and teaching.

The Miscellany News: Why did you become an education professor? What got you interested in education?

Kimberly Williams Brown: I’ve always been in education in different roles and different capacities. So it’s really interesting to be teaching. I don’t think I ever saw that coming. When I was an undergrad, my majors were psychology and sociology…Then I did my master’s degree in HR. Then I ended up at Syracuse getting a master’s degree in communication and rhetorical studies. At Syracuse, I was working in student services—I worked in residence life and multicultural affairs. Teaching was a part of the responsibility I had there, but co-curricular teaching. So when I entered the PhD program, teaching or becoming a professor was a possibility, but it was not the only thing that I could’ve done.

The Misc: Do you think that your past experiences in student services affect your teaching or your research?

KWB: I think it makes you a different teacher when you have worked with students in intimate ways that are outside of the classroom. It allows me to have a much broader scope of who students are and what their lives are outside of the contact I have with them in the classroom and in office hours … The experiences prior to this have really allowed me to ask different and better questions when I sit across from students that really get at root causes. I think it makes me more empathetic and allows me to teach in ways that are hopefully much more accessible to them.

The Misc: What courses do you teach?

KWB: I teach EDUC 235, which is the contemporary issues in education class. I’m teaching it very similarly to how Maria [Hantzopoulos] and Colette [Cann] taught it. We’re trained very similarly and we do a lot of similar work around race and intergroup dialogue and those sort of things. This semester I also teach Rethinking Gender in Education. In the spring I will teach Adolescent Literacy, and Race, Representation and Resistance. The latter course will be taught…through a feminist and Afro-futurist lens. In the Fall of 2109, I am very excited to offer an intensive that focuses on the Afro-Anglo Caribbean. We will read about the Afro-Anglo Caribbean broadly – history, music, culture etc. with particular focus on the uniqueness of particular islands and a critique of the similar ways in which Caribbean nations are subjected to the perils of imperial capitalism and governance. I will also work with Poughkeepsie high school students of Caribbean-descent and Vassar students through this intensive to offer an intergroup dialogue about race. This intensive brings together my passions for migration/immigration, the Black diaspora, and intergroup dialogue.  

The Misc: What are you researching?

KWB: My research is primarily focused on teachers. I looked at Afro-Caribbean teachers who were recruited from the English-speaking Caribbean to come to New York City to teach at “failing” urban schools across the boroughs. I really tried to think about the kinds of neoliberal recruiting tactics that were used to get them here—all the kind of things that are in place to make them fail—and then to think about how they negotiated their identities in these new places and resisted heteropatriachal and racist dominance to become successful teachers… Right now, I’m working on a project about students of color as Afro-futurists and architects of their own experiences in teacher education programs with a colleague from Syracuse and most recently I worked on a project with a friend and colleague about Blackness, Indigeneity and coalition building across difference.

The Misc: What non-academic activities do you enjoy?

KWB: I have a two-year-old, and so I spend a lot of time chasing my two-year-old. So that’s a lot of fun. I travel and hang out with my family as much as I can with said two-year-old. Also, I’m new to the Vassar community and mid-Hudson region, so I’m trying to explore the area. I love being outdoors. I’m transitioning, transitioning with a kid, transitioning to a new job. And so I have to think differently or more creatively about what fun looks like for me.

The Misc: Do you have any words of advice or book recommendations for students?

KWB: You know, I always want students to ask me this question but when I get asked that, I go, “I don’t know…” What I would say is, it would be a missed opportunity for students at Vassar not to take classes in fields, regardless of your major, that are thinking about identity and critical theory such as feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory etc. You can find these classes in disciplines such as Women’s and Gender Studies, Africana Studies, Urban studies, Anthropology and Sociology to name a few. Those classes push you to think in different ways about social constructs one has always taken for granted. As for books you should read, it’s not one book but a series of books. You just have [to] philosophically change how you approach education. If you just get through college, complete your major, I think it becomes woefully disappointing when you enter the real world and you realize that actually what you learned in undergrad is of little consequence in terms of its direct relationship to the day-to-day practices of a job. What you should learn in college are a set of skills that allow you to think critically about the world so that indeed when you become “successful” or you have influence (which by the way you always have), you are able to think about those socially marginalized individuals and make decisions that will change their lives for the better. When their circumstances change for the better, everybody’s circumstances improve.  

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