By Dr Josie Gill, Associate Professor in Black British Writing, School of Humanities
With thanks to The Leverhulme Trust for their consent to republish piece in February 2023 newsletter on ArtsMatter platforms.
Fewer than 1% of professors at UK universities are black. The implications of this startling statistic have been much debated, and sociologists and educational researchers are increasingly studying the experiences of black academics. As a literary scholar and a black woman, I am interested in exploring narratives about black people in higher education in literature, memoir and life writing. While many such accounts exist in the US, there are far fewer literary and autobiographical representations of black British academic life, no doubt a reflection of the fact that there are, and have historically been, so few of us. Black British writing about UK education has tended to focus on the school level; for example, E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love (1959), Dillibe Onyeama’s Black Boy at Eton (1972) and Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher (1976).
I am using my Leverhulme Prize funds to write a book called Black Lecturer, which will bring my own experiences of working in higher education into conversation with fictional and non-fictional writing about black British experiences of education. I aim to illuminate the ways in which black academics move through university life, as a means to examine the institutional and research cultures that characterise twenty-first-century UK academia. This project includes a close look at the politics of race in my own discipline, literary studies, and how black British writing has been historically addressed within it. Using the history of the English department at the University of Bristol as a case study, my book will connect personal reflection with literary, disciplinary and institutional analysis to explore the significance of race in higher education.
My approach to writing this book differs significantly from my previous work. I aim to draw parallels between the strategies, structures, affects and language that characterise my everyday experience as a black lecturer; literary methodologies; and the characteristics of institutional culture. The book will be organised around a series of themes which traverse these areas and will model, in its approach and structure, a methodology for literary research in which the archive is expanded to include my emails, where textual analysis includes institutional statements and departmental strategy, and close reading moves beyond text to include bodies and interpersonal interactions. I hope my research will contribute to ongoing discussions about how we study English Literature and demonstrate how accounts of the black British experience can inform this debate.