Dr. Omari Jackson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Morgan State University, spoke with The Ebony Tower about his path to academia,why he made the transition from teaching at a predominantly white institution (PWI) to teaching at a HBCU, and how he navigated the job market. The interview is divided into the following five sections for your reading pleasure: 1) Dr. Jackson’s path to academia, 2) how he developed his research agenda, 3) the differences between teaching at a PWI and a HBCU, 4) job market advice, and 5) general advice. We hope you enjoy!
I. DR. JACKSON’S PATH TO ACADEMIA
Daphne: Tell us a little about your background. What led you to the academic path?
Dr. Omari Jackson: I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. My father sent my brother and my sister to private school before I was born. Then when I started school he decided to transition them from private school into public school. So I never went to private school, only public school. I happened to have really good teachers in elementary and middle school. Then I ended up going to a magnet high school — Cass Tech in Detroit. The Magnet school was a really strong school; we had the opportunity to choose our curriculum and develop as professionals in a way that I don’t think I would have been able to at a different school.
My older brother went to the same magnet school; I think it was one of those, “little brother wants to do what the big brother does,” and I had a lot of encouragement from my father. So I really credit him for making me want to go to a school like that because it surrounded me with a group of people that had very similar interests.
At my school there was an expectation that we would all go to college. There was never a question about if I was going to college; it was just like, “this is the college I’m going to.”
Daphne: It sounds like your family had a strong influence on your education.
Dr. Jackson: My parents are still married, and both of them raised me, but my father was the one that really strongly encouraged education.
My father worked at Ford Motor Company in Detroit, much like a lot of blacks back in the 80s. He knew that a job like his wouldn’t be around for a long time. As a sociologist, I look at theories of capitalism and Karl Marx’s predictions for our society and, I think “wow, my father understood our country’s trajectory without knowing much about sociology or social theory.” He simply knew that factory jobs wouldn’t be around, so he did a really good job of saving for college and encouraging me to think about college.
I went on to the University of Michigan, and had a fantastic time. I really developed as a person there, and graduated with a degree in sociology.
Daphne: So you knew as an undergrad that you wanted to be a sociologist?
Dr. Jackson: At one time I wanted to go to law school, but I had several failed attempts at getting into law school. I tell my students that I’m in front of them because I couldn’t become an attorney.
I ended up applying to Wayne State for the PhD in Sociology because I knew that I liked studying sociology and I always thought about teaching. I got in and from there on I just became a sociologist. I’m grateful for those failed attempts because I’m doing what I love.
II. ON DEVELOPING A RESEARCH AGENDA
Daphne: Your research currently focuses on urban education. Were you interested in studying urban education before going to Wayne State? Or is that where your interests were crystallized?
Dr. Jackson: I was not a graduate student with this well-defined path. Even though I liked sociology and I wanted to teach, I didn’t know what I was passionate about. During my first semester seminar, I had to write reflection papers; it was through those papers that I uncovered my passion for education. I think my interest in education stemmed from my personal experiences in school, what took place in my household, as well as what was going on in my community. It was through those things that I became interested in the black middle class and their education patterns.
Now again, it wasn’t that well refined in my first year. It probably wasn’t until half-way through my graduate career that I read a book by Mary Patillo, who is on faculty at Northwestern, and became interested in studying the black middle class.
Daphne: Speaking of research, can you tell us a little bit more about your recent projects or your dissertation? What are you currently working on?
Dr. Jackson: I am all over the place with my research interests, but I try to stay under the broad umbrella of looking at the black middle class.
For my dissertation I examined aspirations and attainment among black middle class children. I wanted to know whether aspirations were important in regard to later degree attainment. I think it’s a fallacy that certain students don’t want better or want to go to college. The data show that most people want to go to college, regardless of their age, race, or socio-economic background. The issue is that not all people are given the resources that they need to go to college, which explains the gap between aspirations and attainment.
I’ve continued to work on things to publish from the dissertation, but I’ve also moved on to another project related to the Flint Water crisis. I’m interested examining the departure of the black middle class from Flint, Michigan and how it’s left the poor citizens subjected to the government’s rule. Political officials don’t typically care a whole lot about the poor; they don’t really listen to them. When that black middle class left, they took their agency with them. I’ll be examining that and other related issues.
III. TRANSITIONING FROM A PWI TO A HBCU
Daphne: You recently made the decision to leave a PWI in rural New Hampshire to teach at a HBCU. What contributed to your desire to move to an HBCU?
Dr. Jackson: My HBCU is a place I feel like I am going to thrive. It’s a place that I needed, a place that I feel needs me.
When I was in New Hampshire, I really credit my colleagues, as well the institution, with supporting me and helping me develop as a professor. During my time there, I just really realized that that wasn’t the place for me. I was there for three years, and I think each year I grew more and more conscious about … I mean, I always felt conscious of being a black person, but obviously that consciousness grew.
Right when I moved to rural New Hampshire, racial tensions across the country were increasing. I went there in the fall of 2013, and just one month before I moved, George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin — that was really tough for me. My wife thought I was crazy at the time, but when we got to our new town, I was like I need to go to the police station and let them know that I belong there [rural New Hampshire], that I work there.
I also noticed that I was not teaching students that looked anything like me. By moving from a PWI to an HBCU, I get a chance to teach people who look like me. These students could be my daughters and my sons, and definitely be my nieces and nephews. I’m teaching them how to navigate a white world that doesn’t love and support them, but still nonetheless, they need to learn how to navigate that world.
Daphne: I recently read an article that suggested professors of color engage in invisible labor. Have you found it overwhelming as you are trying to move through your career and get tenure? Or is it something that you’ve been able to balance?
Dr. Jackson: Honestly, when my father decided to enroll my siblings and me into public school, I feel like that gave me a commitment to the community. My father could have sent us to private school, he could’ve lived in whatever neighborhood he wanted to, but he wanted to live in the city, and he wanted his children to be educated by the public school system.
I went to school with children who had parents from all walks of life. Had it not been for the relationships that I developed with friends from different backgrounds, I’m not sure I’d care much about the struggles of those different from me. I think you care about the things you face or that your friends face; that’s what fuels my passion.
I’ve gone to conferences where minority faculty members say things like, “I don’t want to be the expert on being black, or being Latino; I teach physics, or I teach English.” I would hear these colleagues saying that they don’t want to be the expert, and I think to myself that I DO want to be the expert. I feel that any place I go should be different because I’m there. I can’t sit back while black and Latino students lack the resources they need to succeed.
Especially in regard to my PWI, I did not feel it was a burden. Did I feel like I was overworked? In a way, yes, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the work; it just means that I had a lot to do because I was one of the few minority faculty members. I think that I grew a lot professionally because of that work.
Daphne: Beyond the demographics, what are some of the things that distinguish your teaching experiences at a PWI verses your HBCU (Morgan)?
Dr. Jackson: My students at Morgan really give me inspiration. When I go to class, I try to use their slang. I will be like, “I am lit. I am lit because I’m before you all.” When I go to class, I’m on fire, and it’s because of them.
I was at my previous school for three years, and I really developed there. I got a chance to do a lot of amazing things in terms of research, in terms of service. I had a lot of supportive colleagues, but didn’t always feel like I was changing lives there. I felt like I was just going to work, and doing a job. I felt like anyone could come in and do the stuff that I was doing. Not necessarily that it had to be Omari, if that makes sense.
I felt really uninspired, and after my first year I considered actually leaving the teaching side of academia, and going in to administration. I knew I wanted to remain in academia because I loved it, but I really felt like I wasn’t an effective teacher. It took me some time to reflect on this, but it wasn’t my teaching per se; my teaching style just didn’t necessarily match up with my students’ preferences.
At Morgan, I don’t feel like just anyone can come in and do what I’m doing; I feel like they need Omari. Black professors are a minority in academia, but black male professors, are an even smaller minority. Therefore, it’s important that students see black males in these positions. The media sells us a lot of images, but my students get a chance to see these portrayals and then say, “Dr. Jackson is a testament to what we can accomplish.”
My colleagues really give me a lot of motivation and drive as well. It’s so cool to walk across campus and see so many black professors doing their thing.
Daphne: That sounds like an awesome environment for both students and faculty.
Dr. Jackson: I think HBCUs teach our community how to thrive from within.
HBCUs are nurturing environments. Whether it’s from the professors, the custodial staff, or the people who work in the cafeteria, students are treated as family members and are genuinely loved.
I went to PWI’s for undergrad and grad school, and I can say that, while I am confident that I’m a good teacher, a good researcher, and etc., I don’t always feel that way when I compare myself to others. I think it goes back to the kinds of professors that I had when I was at Michigan and even some at Wayne State. I didn’t have someone that would look at me and say, “Omari I want you to come and write this paper with me,” or “Omari I want to take you to this conference,” or “Omari I went to my graduate school friend who’s the chair at Brown and he can get you in to this program.” I didn’t have the nurturing or mentoring that happens at HBCUs. That’s the Morgan difference, and it’s why HBCUs, in general, are still very much needed and relevant.
IV. JOB MARKET ADVICE
Daphne: So now that you have settled into a new position at a new institution, what advice would you give to graduate students on the job market?
Dr. Jackson: I think that applying for academic jobs is like the hardest thing in life. The faculty hiring process is very political. Within academia, you have a committee of people who are deciding. Even if the initial committee likes you, it doesn’t mean they’re going to like you at the next level, which would be the deans’ level. You have to be very mindful and intentional about the interview process, and know that everyone counts.
It’s really important to organize your search. I think applying for jobs can be so difficult when you’re just applying all over the place. You might see a job, or someone might tell you about a job, but you don’t remember when the application is due, and things like that. I would highly suggest using an excel spreadsheet where you can keep all the pertinent information, like when applications are due, who’s the contact person, and all the different components of the application that you need — like if you need letters of recommendation, the CV, a cover letter, a writing sample, and etc.
Also, I would often send my recommenders an updated list of the jobs that I was applying to, as opposed sending an email every time I needed a letter. Otherwise, it will become difficult for you, and it will become difficult for them. Remember, you’re often getting an interview based on your recommenders sending letters. If one letter is missing, some schools will give you a heads up, but for a lot of schools, if they have a ton of applications, that’s just one less application they have to read.
Daphne: Generally, how many recommendations do you need?
Dr. Jackson: Generally three. There are some jobs that haven’t asked for any.
I think you want to be very intentional about who you ask. Also, if you have a hunch that the person might not be writing favorable things in that letter, don’t even ask them. Additionally you want to make sure that you display the kind of behavior that would make a person want to write a letter for you. So if you’re always late to someone’s class, then that’s probably not the person you want to ask.
I would tell graduate students to turn in applications by the date the department begins reviewing. Departments might indicate that they’ll start reviewing on September 1st, but will continue to collect applications thereafter. Get it in by September 1st, because that is really the deadline. I think the reason they still accept applications after the priority deadline is in the event that they don’t find what they were looking for in the first pool, but that may not always happen.
Daphne: What should you ask during interviews and/or look out for when visiting departments?
Dr. Jackson: It would be good to ask about how everyone gets along. I once went to an interview where the colleagues were talking negatively about each other, and that didn’t sit well with me. I was thinking even if you have beef with someone, it’s inappropriate to let me know because that puts me in an odd predicament coming in as a junior faculty member; I feel like I’m going to be pulled from side to side when it comes to a tenure promotion.
Ask about the kinds of support that they have for junior faculty members. Ask about their expectations of you. You don’t have to be shy about asking any of these things because you also want to make sure that it’s a well-suited place for you.
The last thing I want to say with that is make sure you write thank you cards. I’m a stickler for cards. I think if you have a phone interview, or a Skype interview, a thank you email is just fine, but if you have a physical interview I feel like you should send a physical card because people really do remember.
V. GENERAL ADVICE
Daphne: You’ve given some really great advice. I don’t know if you have any other general advice you’d like to share.
Dr. Jackson: I would say just develop good relationships. In graduate school develop good relationships with your professors. That’s not suggesting that you need to be a suck up, but I think that you want to recognize that those professors will one day be able to help you out. They’ll be able to tell you about jobs and write letters for you. Additionally, you want them to think of you for opportunities surrounding research, teaching, and etc.
I would also make friends with your classmates. Those will be people who go on to different institutions and can tell you about opportunities at their universities when you’re on the job market.
I will also say get involved. In graduate school, it’s easy to just go to school, go to the library, and go home, but you should get involved in your department so that people know your name. Additionally, get involved on your campus. If you want to go on to the professoriate or into administration, people want to see that you’ve done more than just school. The time when you can get a job just because you have a PhD is gone; they want to see that you’ve done more than simply study.
Daphne: What are you currently reading or watching?
Dr. Jackson: I’m probably watching more than I am reading. My favorite show on television is Blackish, and I found a way to incorporate that into my research. I’ve given a couple of presentations on Blackish, and I’m working on a paper related to the show. I’m also currently reading Advancing Black Male Student Success from Preschool Through PhD; it’s by Dr. Shaun Harper who’s on the faculty at Pennsylvania.
Daphne: That’s so cool. I’m going to find a way to try to turn my favorite television show into research. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with The Ebony Tower. Your wisdom is greatly appreciated.
*Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.