Royster Alumna Brings Her Research to Life

Becoming a professor was not originally Andreá Williams' career goal. Instead, she planned to become a high school teacher. As an undergraduate student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Williams recalls one day when one of her professors wrote her a note asking to meet with her after class. “I thought I was in trouble, but when I met with her she told me that she and some of the other professors had been talking about me and thought that I should go to graduate school. It was really encouraging for my professors to tell me that graduate school was in the realm of possibility.”

Andreá Williams

Andreá Williams

After graduating from Spelman, Williams was offered a Royster fellowship to study English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For her master's project Williams contributed to a book edited by her advisor, William L. Andrews, titled North Carolina Slave Narratives. She also contributed to another volume that Andrews edited called the North Carolina Roots of African-American Literature. She elaborates, “These two books contribute to what scholars are now calling the new black regionalism. We've traditionally thought of black literature along a North-South binary, where the South was the land of slavery and the North was the land of freedom. New black regionalism examines other locations of literary development, like the West Coast during the late 19th century.”

Williams' doctoral research also focused on African-American literature. “My dissertation was about how black writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries represented class differences within African-American communities. Media portrayals often examine race instead of class when addressing black Americans. I wanted to highlight the contestation over the ethical and economic responsibilities between different classes.” Williams continues this research as the basis of her first book, Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction, which is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. The book addresses the black middle class at the turn of the 20th century. She also reflects on how her research influences her personally. “I realized how much my research focuses on black class mobility, particularly at the turn of the last century, but grad school had a lot to do with my own class trajectory, from being a young woman in a rural town in Texas to being a professor.”

Williams currently teaches English at The Ohio State University. She says, “I loved being able to share the excitement of the topics that interest me most. What I really enjoy about teaching is being able to convey that information to people who are immediately receptive. To see people in your classroom nodding their heads as you speak is both gratifying and inspiring.”

“I realized how much my research focuses on black class mobility, particularly at the turn of the century, but grad school had a lot to do with my own class trajectory, from being a young woman in a rural town in Texas to being a professor.”

Williams’ love of teaching began while she was in The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill. She primarily taught writing courses, but one class in particular stands out for her. “During my last semester, I taught a class about the American Dream. That was one of my best experiences of seeing students react to the material and think about ideas of class mobility and the American Dream from different perspectives.”

She says her professors at UNC-Chapel Hill had a large impact on her own teaching philosophy. “During that time, I saw professors who were equally devoted to being stellar teachers as well as good research professors. I think that was really the model of educational excellence that influences me in my teaching.”

Williams was also inspired by her membership in the Royster Society of Fellows. “The interdisciplinary nature of the program is one of its best attributes. During our monthly meetings I was able to interact with students from other fields. Because I studied the topic of social class differences among African Americans, that interaction was very useful in helping me examine this topic not only from a literary perspective, but also from a sociological or historical one.”

She also details how the financial support she received as a Royster fellow influenced her graduate school experience. “The fellowship provided two years of non-service support, which proved invaluable for me. During my first year, I was really able to orient myself to the campus and to the rigors of grad school without having to work.”

The support that Williams received while at UNC-Chapel Hill also gave her an appreciation for alumni giving. “I want to stress the importance of donor giving, even in a small way. As a young alumna I have found small ways to give, which I hope to be able to increase eventually. Some younger alumni may think that you have to have $5,000 or $50,000 to donate, but it can start as small as $50 or $75. That amount over time, and with the combined efforts of other alums, can make a real difference for graduate students.”

♦ Enelda Butler