Michelle Strickland
KU Endowment

University Distinguished Professor, literary scholar receives Chancellors Club Teaching Award at KU

Tue, 09/22/2020

LAWRENCE — A distinguished professor and Black writing, literary and cultural studies scholar in the Department of English at the University of Kansas is the 2020 Chancellors Club Teaching Award recipient.

Maryemma Graham is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. She also is the founder and director of the Project on the History of Black Writing, which she brought to KU when she joined the faculty in 1998.

Founded in 1983, the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) is committed to literary recovery work in Black studies; textual scholarship, book history and pedagogy; professional development, curriculum change and innovation; and public literacy programming. HBW has created the largest digital archive of African American fiction currently in existence, and it provides numerous professional learning opportunities for KU undergraduates and graduates.

Former students who wrote in support of Graham’s nomination praised her as an innovator, mentor and advocate. Mona Ahmed said Graham worked with students regardless of their area of study, whether they were from the humanities, science or mathematics.

“She has effortlessly created a space for everyone, which is especially important for marginalized students who often can feel lost in the crowds of the majority at KU,” Ahmed said. “She has a knack for seeing potential in students, even when they don’t see it in themselves.”

Kathryn Conrad, chair of the English department, hailed Graham’s development of teachers both within and outside KU through years of workshops and seminars, many funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. She also noted Graham’s dedication to students.

“She has been a key source of recruitment, mentorship and support of students, and in particular students of color, both in the classroom and beyond,” Conrad wrote in her nominating letter. 

Graham said the award is a tribute to her late aunt and mother, noting their influence as courageous and dedicated teachers during some of the most difficult years in the South.

“I grew up hearing my great-aunt’s stories of Klan terror and watching my mother’s tireless advocacy for students forced to learn in hostile and violent school environments after desegregation,” Graham said. “From them I learned that teaching was a test of one’s character and bound to a commitment to change a single life, and by implication, the lives of others. It was a way to change a world in desperate need of change. I am grateful that KU has allowed me to extend the vision of generations of Black educators whose lead I follow. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.”

Graham plans to use the award to assist graduate teaching and research assistants, whom she praised for their dedication.

“I want to thank all of my current and former students, and those who are part of our unique experiment in teaching, learning and research at the Project on the History of Black Writing,” she said. “I accept the Chancellor’s Teaching Award, which I will redistribute through a socially responsible model that will provide some degree of relief for many of our working students.”

The Chancellors Club was founded in 1977 and recognizes donors who give $1,000 or more annually to the Greater KU Fund. As an honoree, Graham will receive a $10,000 award and recognition at a future Chancellors Club celebration. 

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