Although he grew up in Stamford, CT, a fairly diverse suburban enclave just north of New York City, James Cobb often felt a keen sense of academic isolation. “There were very few students of color, especially black students, in honors classes. With few exceptions,” he says, “I was the only black student.”
Perhaps this unique perspective is what has contributed to his status as an essential member of the Diversity Committee in the department of English and Comparative Literature. As a graduate student and teaching fellow, James has thrown himself into the task of diversifying the English Department and thinking through hiring practices, graduate funding, and graduate life.
In addition, he is an ambassador for the program outside of the university through his recruitment efforts and travels to conferences and the Co-Social Chair of CoLeags, an organization designed to improve the academic, professional, and social experience of all graduate students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature through effective advocacy, organization, and planning. Students in the Introduction to Fiction and many Composition and Rhetoric classes he teaches have benefited greatly from his wide-ranging scholarly interests.
“In everything he does, James works to not only increase diversity on the campus, but to deepen the notion of what diversity and inclusion means in the classroom and in the world,” says Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the department’s diversity liaison. “The sheer amount of work he’s done while also studying for his exams is a real inspiration. Watching his dedication to the program and the university is humbling.”
How did your identity shape your approach to diversity work?
[Growing up,] I was not openly discriminated against, but looking around the class and not seeing any black faces for the better part of nine years reveals the spaces in which Blacks are and are not welcome. But I also existed on the other side of this line. Sports were a space in which a certain type of blackness was expected, but my friends on the team lived different lives and came from exceedingly different backgrounds. As a result, I was not always certain of how to BE around them. They would call me out at times for not being “black enough.” When I was injured, I would bring books to practice and was made fun of for it. I was always aware of not adhering to the “accepted” level of blackness in a given situation. I, thereby, came to understand my blackness as performative. I was black in both spaces, but the politics of these spaces required that I BE black differently.
[As a result], I understand a person as not adherent to a particular category. To quote [the philosopher, Ludwig] Wittgenstein, it is important to first “look and see.” Address a person and let them show you who it is that they are. Whether you are black, trans or however you understand yourself as diverse, you are not limited to how that term is publicly defined. My work has been shaped by how I can allow people and institutions to understand the need to take someone at their word.
Was your family and/or community supportive of your educational and aspirational choices? If so, how?
My parents were always supportive of whatever [I] undertook. They never made any aspiration seem unreasonable. When I decided to take the long path to academia, my parents and friends simply saw it as an extension of who I was, of my curiosity. Never once did they ask if I thought I could actually do it. It’s the reason why I’ve been able to travel and engage in so many parts of the world and disparate experiences. When I told my mother I was going to work on a farm in northern Italy to learn Italian, her only comment was “That is so you.” There was no judgment – simply the freedom to let [me] pursue [my identity].
Issues about curriculum and policy come at the level of faculty. [Our] department needs to have and maintain a diverse faculty. Yet this requires that the university provide the department with the money to make diversity hires as well as provide the funds necessary to keep rising faculty and hire diverse young faculty members. [This would] not only ensure that curriculums are diverse and inclusive, but that bright young graduate students from a multitude of identities will attend our program. The desire exists within the department, but there are times when it is difficult for those leading the department to get the resources they need. This difficulty is not only at UNC, but at so many public universities.
Having a diverse faculty also allows undergrad and grad students to envision the possibility of a future in academia. It is not a domain simply for white, heterosexual, cis men. As a college student, I had no close connections to a professor of color. I only knew that I loved to analyze texts because they revealed something to me about the world. Working at UNC with GerShun Avilez has made the reality of being a scholar less abstract. In my own relationships with undergrads, I likewise try to make them aware that my position is one that they can occupy.
In what ways have you contributed towards implementing these improvements? What diverse literature do you include in your curriculum?
During Fall 2017, I taught Intro to Fiction. It was my first chance to build my own syllabus completely from scratch. My goal in putting together the reading list was to provide fiction that would allow students to witness literature criticizing other forms of literature, particularly along the lines of diversity and inclusion. Though there is a lot to be gleaned through canonical works, it is equally important to understand the limitations of these works and how subsequent writers reveal these limitations. I wanted my students to understand that even the most heralded writers and works of fiction can be problematic.
[Included were] The Slave Narrative of Fredrick Douglass and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which allowed us to discuss the deficiencies in Douglass – despite the importance of his narrative, he sidelines the experience of the female slave. Morrison, therefore, needed to later do this work. Similar issues arose during Ishamel Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. His post-modern critique of Eurocentric [interpretations] is brilliant, but I was proud of one student for bringing up the novel’s misogynist treatment of black feminine sexuality. We continued these critiques through the works of Virginia Woolf, Franz Fanon, Aimee Césaire, and Paul Beatty. I wanted to show [students] the importance of reading an author that shares your own life experiences.
[Yet,] my syllabus could have been better. I need to include texts that more explicitly incorporate LGBTQ perspectives and more women writers. In addressing diversity, you are always losing and never doing enough. I hope to always reevaluate my syllabi with that in mind.
As an ambassador for your department, how do you impress the urgency of increased awareness and application of diversity and inclusion tactics to people who may not understand the need?
When I attended the ATTR (Authoritative Texts & Their Reception) Seminar in Oslo, Norway on Authorship and Intention, the grad students had to present their research projects for feedback and to practice defining their projects to people who have no idea what they are talking about. The seminar was trans-disciplinary and included scholars from a wide range of backgrounds. They asked me for reading lists and recommendations because they wanted to experience what I detailed in my treatment of contemporary African-American fiction and how reading the works of Percival Everett and Jesmyn Ward might change some of their ideas about Black life in America.
Though the exchange of ideas and material is important, what is crucial to expressing the urgency of increased awareness is existing spaces where bodies of minorities are not expected. I made a lot of friends [there], people with unique perspectives, sets of knowledge and stories. As we spoke and described our lives, I could view the way in which my life experience began to tint the level of discussion as my new friends did my own. Only through a consideration of your being are people truly forced to consider the need for diversity and inclusion. Abstract arguments only go so far. They need to see the body they do not expect in that space, so they can stop ignoring it.
Graduate school is an isolating place. I came into the program with grand ideas about community and intimate friendships and late night wine and philosophy. However, this is not the reality. You are dropped into a world on your own and given little direction of how to care for your emotional needs. Over the last two years – with the help of Ashley Werlinich, my Co-Social Chair – we’ve tried to provide some sense of community for graduate students in the English department. Our main activity has been a weekly happy hour. We just wanted to provide a space for grad students to blow off a little steam, be themselves, get beyond the pressure. I’ve also tried to provide a sense of accomplishment. With the help of faculty, I organized a small gathering at my house in which the 10 or so students who had taken their comprehensive exams could hang out, commiserate and congratulate one another.
What do you do in your off-time? Any special interests?
It sounds rather banal, but I really love food and wine. I used to work in one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York, Bar Boulud. It was especially known for its wine program, almost winning a James Beard Award while being run by Michael Madrigale. [When] I got accepted into UNC, I had to quit that job to come down here, but I didn’t want to give up [such fine wines as] Cote-Rotie’s Barbaresco or Gevrey-Chambertin. Yet, teaching fellowships don’t really account for lavish living. On a trip back to New York, I asked Michael about this dilemma. He quickly told me to “start a wine club.” So, I did! It’s entering its fifth year. We meet once a month. I buy some delicious wine and we split the cost. Everybody’s happy.