Alisha Gaines helps students view literature and society through a wider lens
By Kati Schardl
When Alisha Gaines was a little girl in Ohio, she would sit her siblings down during summer vacation and make them play school, giving them assignments, grades and all.
“I always had a teacherly way,” said Gaines, the Timothy Gannon Associate Professor in Florida State University’s Department of English. “There was something in me that wanted to be that person but never felt represented. I was often the only person of color in my middle school and high school classes. I thought I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up because when you’re a little black kid, it’s either be a lawyer or a doctor.”
It wasn’t until Gaines moved south to attend Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, that she began to believe her childhood game could become a reality.
“When I came to Spelman and saw women of color, particularly black women, as professors, I imagined the possibility of teaching,” she said. “It’s important for me to model that for my students, so many of whom have never had a teacher of color.”
Gaines came to FSU in 2011, after earning an undergraduate degree at Spelman and a doctorate in English and African American studies at Duke University.
“I did a very wide job-market search, and FSU was by far the best offer and Tallahassee the best place, offering the best kind of collegial environment,” Gaines said. “It’s exciting to be part of such an interesting department doing interesting work.
“I first fell in love with our students. There’s something about FSU students — they’re enthusiastic, engaged, open-minded and curious.”
Gaines brings a sense of fun as well as a rigorous and inquisitive intellect to the classroom, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in African American literature and studies, popular culture, gender and sexuality studies, cultural studies and New Southern studies.
“I make sure the classes are active exchanges,” she said. “In no way am I the conclusive authority on a text we’re studying. I want students to know that anything we’re reading is contemporary to our lives and they are a dynamic part of the conversation."
Among the classroom activities are town-hall debates, skits, and timelines that map out how characters live after the ending of a book.
You can’t tell a proper history of America without talking about black folks in America. And the story of black folks in America is told with many voices and from many perspectives.”
— Alisha Gaines
“One of my favorite things to do on the first day of class in my African American Literature and the South course is to give the students a map of the U.S. and ask them to color in the South,” she said. “Then we compare each other’s maps.
The conversation always comes down to Florida — is it part of the South?”
Since coming to FSU, Gaines has been named a 2014-15 McKnight Junior Faculty Development Fellow, was awarded a Transformation Through Teaching Award by the Spiritual Life Project, and won a university-wide 2017 Undergraduate Teaching Award. This past spring, she was named the Timothy Gannon Associate Professor of English, an honor that comes with extra research support.
In 2017, Gaines published a book, “Black for a Day: Fantasies of Race and Empathy.”
It documents a project looking at the stories of white people who temporarily posed as black in the name of cultural empathy and how such stories of racial impersonation affect issues of racial identity and representation.
They’re the same issues Gaines helps all students navigate in her classes.
“Some white students are starting from scratch, or from misinformation,” Gaines said. “That also happens with students of color. It just shows how poorly integrated African American culture, literature and history is into the high school and middle school experience.
"You can’t tell a proper history of America without talking about black folks in America. And the story of black folks in America is told with many voices and from many perspectives,” Gaines said.
Blackness “is not a monolithic experience,” she said. “It’s not just one thing. You have to be willing to read different voices. For instance, Marlon James [author of ‘Book of the Night Women’ and ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’] is talking about blackness differently than, say, Toni Morrison [‘The Bluest Eye,’ ‘Beloved,’ ‘Song of Solomon’] or Zora Neale Hurston [‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ ‘Mules and Men’].
“It’s a matter of amplification, and social media has a huge place in that conversation, because we can talk back as audiences. We can not only show up with our dollars, we can talk back.”
The payoff for Gaines is when she can spark the same kind of connection in a student as the one that led her to see herself at the head of a classroom. Helping her students see themselves in African American literary canon and find their own voices to add to the conversation is her best reward.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Gaines said. “When you’re a teacher, you hope you’re planting seeds that will later grow. Sometimes you never get to see them grow. But sometimes a student will come to class clutching the book we’re studying to her chest and with fire in her eyes.”