Thursday, December 20, 2018

Collegiate black men as guides on a Humanities/STEM project

VJ working with high school student on project

This semester for our East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club, I was especially pleased with the work done by my undergraduate assistants Vernon (VJ) Smith, Jr. and Ngugi Geoffrey Njenga. They provided invaluable hands-on feedback and guidance for the high school students during each of our nine sessions this semester. Observing those two undergraduates working with the younger students also gave me a sense of what it means to empower collegiate black men as leaders and instructors.

Bring up the subject of collegiate black men, and people quickly begin talking about "mentor programs" and "mentoring." The dismal retention and graduation rates concerning black males prompts everyone it seems to discuss the lack of mentors and role models for young black men. One of the more popular solution involves the creation of mentor programs where faculty, staff, or older students might serve as mentors for young, presumably struggling black men.

Ngugi (on right) listens to the audio mix created by a high school student 

Perhaps, the high school students view VJ and Ngugi as positive role models, but that was not my primary reason for seeking them out as "team leaders," as I thought of them, for the after-school program. Instead, I reached out to guys from my previous African American literature classes whom I viewed as capable of assisting young people with our technology projects.

Our activities with audio editing and graphic design for the club often blend African American literary and cultural studies, so it works well that they've taken my courses before, where we've covered many topics in those areas. During the sessions, the high school students seek out assistance from the team leaders on technical matters, but they also enjoy talking about all kinds of points about black cultural production in general, with many comments on rap music and African Americans in film, television, and on social media.

Ngugi works on audio mix alongside a high school student 

For stretches of time, VJ and Ngugi were not even guiding or instructing. Instead, they sat alongside the high school students working on activities. After a while, VJ and Ngugi would then move around and pose questions and offer assistance. Or, they would view or listen to what the high school students had created. Having a  personal audience for their creations and drafts of their creations was really crucial.

Something stood out to me as I looked back over the images of VJ and Ngugi with the high school students. I somehow always in conversations with people about programs for "black male" college students, and the articles that are published invariably show groups of black men sitting and listening as someone speaks to or at them. I don't doubt that those programs are beneficial and that guys gain something from the information being delivered. Still or because of those more pervasive images, I was moved by the amount of doing taking place in the photos of VJ and Ngugi.

VJ assists high school student on project

What if, I wonder, we created even more opportunities for collegiate black men to do things? What if they got to use their technological expertise and knowledge of African American music? What if they were called on to view graphic design projects and audio mixes of high school students? Taking note of VJ and Ngugi this semester got me to those and other questions. They were wonderful guides for how we proceeded on the project.

The East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club Fall 2018

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