Finding herself the lone Black, female professor in her department, Dr. Joanne Kilgour Dowdy confronted her situation the best way she knew how. She would apply her research skills to finding, interviewing and writing about other Black women with Ph.D. degrees.
In 2001, she had just arrived at Kent State University in Ohio from Georgia State University to be a professor in the Department of Teaching, Leadership and Curriculum Studies.
“It was an important moment in my settling in here,” she recalls in an interview. “I was desperately in need of a community. I decided to go out and find a network and to learn from their experiences.”
She interviewed nine, tenured Black female professors, primarily at one university in northeastern Ohio about their lives and academic experiences, most importantly about their journey to the doctoral degree. Dowdy interviewed each four times over the course of a year (2004 to 2005).
The research is the basis of her most recent book, Ph.D. Stories: Conversations With My Sisters, published last year by Hampton Press. Dowdy recently received a prestigious national award, the 2009 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association Narrative and Research Special Interest Group.
Perhaps less tangible than publication of the book or the award is the role the research project had in affirming the women’s work and creating the community Dowdy craved.
“It was a mutually enriching experience … a very soul-searching time,” she says.
The women said they never had been asked to talk about their experiences and the isolation they too often felt in their work. Before the project, they did not know even know each other.
“I was not surprised (by that) because I started from a place of isolation,” she says.
Black females hold only 1.9 percent of the Ph.D. degrees in this country, her book notes. Dowdy says that the demands of teaching, research, travel and other duties, including those to family, make it difficult to network outside of that sphere.
As she writes in Chapter 1, African-American women who pursue the scholar’s life, “must understand from the outset that their journey will be lonesome … . Integrating settings where you are most likely to be the only Black, female academic becomes one of the duties that you are expected to fulfill.”
To overcome isolation, faculty members have to work at staying in touch with others who understand their situation and their work, using e-mail, e-cards, telephone, personal contact and other means, Dowdy says. Such communication is essential to mental health and well-being, as well as to academic success, she adds.
“Networking is very time-consuming work,” she says. “It’s a lifestyle … Everyone has to work on it — to accept that part of my job is keeping in touch with my posse.”
Dowdy earned her Ph.D. in literacy studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also a graduate of the Juilliard School in the drama division and earned a master’s degree in the teaching of English from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
A native of Trinidad, she was performing as a dancer on television by age 10 and later starred in television serial dramas. She was a founding member of the Trinidad and Tobago Television Workshop. One of its series, “Who the Cap Fits,” still runs on Trinidadian television.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott sponsored her scholarship to study theater in the United States after he received a MacArthur Fellowship. Norline Metivier Walcott, who was his wife then, had known Dowdy from the Caribbean School of Dance and mentored her since childhood. Dowdy graduated from the Holy Name Convent School in Trinidad and lived with the Walcott family to study at Boston University, before going to Juilliard in 1983.
Dowdy uses her drama training to prepare teachers to foster literacy and teach writing. She says she decided to focus on literacy after teaching drama in Wilmington, N.C., to high school students who struggled with reading and writing. She also taught for a while at a private school in Manhattan.
She has published five other books, including Readers of the Quilt: Essays About Being Black, Female and Literate, (Hampton Press), The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (The New Press) and GED Stories: Black Women & Their Struggle for Social Equity (Peter Lang).
While many people struggle to find time to write, Dowdy says she makes it less formidable by thinking of a page as two paragraphs and tries to write that much every day. If she misses a day or a week, she catches up to meet her quota of paragraphs, Dowdy added.
Her next book on “multiple literacies” has been delivered to the publisher and is expected to be issued next year by Hampton Press. Dowdy just returned from visiting Morocco to help train teachers in writing and reading, stopping in seven cities in 10 days.
She is also celebrating her 50th year of life with a different observance each month. In March, she updated and performed a one-woman show, Between Me and the Lord. In April, she did a presentation for colleagues on her television career in Trinidad. In May, her birth-year celebration will be to stand in as “grandmother for the day” for a four-year-old neighbor’s school event.
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