When students walk down the hallway on the bottom floor of Bailey Hall, Shawn Leigh Alexander, professor of African and African American studies, will always have his door open, whether he’s working or not.
“The joke I always make is that if the light's on, and the door's shut, I'm coming back,” Alexander said.
Alexander wears many hats at the University of Kansas. In addition to his professorship, he’s also the director of the Langston Hughes Center and president-elect of Faculty Senate, but he said a common theme of all his work is his support of students.
“Undergraduate students and graduate students have legitimate concerns on this campus, and I think sometimes they're taken for granted, or they're dismissed out of hand,” Alexander said. “I think that it's important for a faculty member to show support for their voice.”
He said his open door policy also stems from his goal of getting each student to a degree.
"What does it mean to have a space, that's supposed to be an educating environment, with closed doors?" Alexander asked. "We should be welcoming — encouraging students to stop by and talk and ask questions. I think that too many of my colleagues shut their doors, or are physically not here, and then I question what our objective is.”
The Langston Hughes Center is another space for students to congregate, study and talk about issues of race and culture.
The Center hosts three events every month. One is a brown bag discussion with a professor, graduate student or distinguished scholar. Another is a seminar hosted with the Hall Center for Humanities called Place, Race and Space. The third is an evening discussion at the public library on the issues of race in the community.
“It’s important to have a space, whether it's my office, the department, the Langston Hughes Center, to be a welcoming space for students who are interested in the field, but particularly students of African descent on a campus that is predominantly white,” Alexander said. “Interacting with students and trying to give them a space to exist, in often times a very traumatic and difficult campus [is important].”
Alexander studied African American studies throughout his entire educational career. He said it’s very important to him that he has a 100 percent appointment within AAAS, and not a joint appointment with another unit, which is common for AAAS professors.
"I have a strong commitment to the field and the department," Alexander said. "The African American experience is central to understanding America. While it's always been central to our understanding, now is a moment that it's maybe even more important to understand our current experience.”
He said he was interested in coming to the University because of the uniquely large number of faculty members dedicated to African American, African or race-focused studies.
“I still think it’s unique, and something that this University probably doesn't promote and understand as much as they should," Alexander said.
This semester, Alexander is teaching an honors seminar for the first time on the topic of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said that teaching the honors class has been rewarding, but that he misses the larger classes.
While it is a current and at times a controversial topic, Alexander said Black Lives Matter doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that it’s important to look at the historical context.
"Black Lives Matter is a contemporary moment and a contemporary movement, but it's a movement that has historical roots,” Alexander said. “The idea of Black Lives Matter, when you boil it down to it, it's asking for recognition of one's humanity. That has been part of the African American experience, and the African American struggle, particularly in the United States, since the first slave was dragged upon these shores in 1619.”
Dania Shoaib, a sophomore studying molecular, cellular, developmental biology from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, said she enjoys the class because of how relevant the subject matter is, and that Alexander doesn’t sugar coat important moments of the movement.
“There aren’t many classes that focus entirely on something that we all remember from the very beginning, and Dr. Alexander is clearly very well read on the black experience and often facilitated discussions other professors may be weary to have,” Shoaib said.
Outside of teaching at the University, Alexander is also the president-elect of Faculty Senate. He said he got involved in University governance to give students, staff and faculty a voice.
“We are a campus that is top-down run," Alexander said. "We often talk about discussing issues with faculty, staff or students, but ultimately the decision is made by the administration, and is sometimes made with no consultation. I feel that, in recent years, increasingly so, decisions are made with no consultation. I got involved in faculty governance and University governance to have a voice.”
He said when he got involved in governance, he wouldn’t have predicted the budget cut. He said he tries to represent faculty concerns as best he can to administration, even in difficult times. He also supported the Graduate Teaching Assistant Coalition when they protested at the last budget conversation.
“[Students’] questions are legitimate, and they deserve well thought out answers,” Alexander said. “Sometimes having a faculty member there saying 'these concerns of the students are legitimate, please speak to those,' means something.”