Given that February is African American History Month, I think it is fitting to devote today’s Monday Missive to celebrating Dr. Mary Harper’s lasting contributions to the history of our English Department. Dr. Harper joined the English Department in the early 1970s and continued to teach in our department until her retirement in the early 1990s. She played a pivotal role in creating and teaching the first African American literature classes in our department. I contacted two faculty members who worked with Dr. Harper and asked them to comment on her contributions to our department and the larger university.
In her comments, Dr. Sandra Govan stressed Dr. Harper’s commitment to teaching:
As the “first” Black full-time faculty member in the English Department, Mary’s contributions were many and varied. She was a consummate classroom teacher, always thoroughly prepared to not just provide information to her students but to hold them accountable for their learning. Back in the day, we did not have the toys and tools that people use now. The relationship between student and teacher was one of trust and teamwork. Part of that team effort is that students understood that learning is a participatory two-way process. As a great teacher, Mary built foundations with students. They understood that a large part of her role was to challenge them, to have expectations of them, and to demand in her classrooms that students rise to meet those expectations. Their best effort was what she demanded. Mary was creative and responsive in the classroom. Her students read and wrote many different types of assignments, and Mary responded to everything they wrote–multiple papers, presentations, and classroom projects.
In her comments, Dr. Boyd Davis recalls how Dr. Harper’s commitment to teaching benefited her fellow faculty members as well as the students:
I want to talk about how Mary raised the bar for everyone teaching lower division courses – and in those days, that was literally everyone in the department. I was lucky enough to team teach a course with her. What was most exciting was the way Mary planned each segment of the course and each presentation to incorporate music, art, history and science as necessary components for fully literate comprehension of a topic. Every writing assignment, in each and every draft, was fully contextualized. Were we working with a play by Shakespeare or Marlowe? Then the students had to create the broadsides reviewing the plays and players, warning about current diseases, reminding of current food shortages, admonishing raucous behavior at the playhouses. Were we working with a short story, such as “Sonny’s Blues”? Mary brought in carefully chosen paintings from her own collection of emerging artists, and we invited local musicians to play the blues. Students interviewed each other about the experiences they had had, comparing them to the powerful images in the short story.
Mary was and is wickedly funny, a colleague and dear friend. Her students still come back to see her, their mentor. She either scared them or loved them into excellence, they were never quite sure which – but they revered her then and now. And so do those of us who worked with her.
Dr. Harper also worked with faculty members from other departments, including Dr. Herman Thomas from the Department of Religious Studies. The two of them often collaborated on programs and projects, and now they are being jointly honored with the establishment of the Harper-Thomas Legacy Endowment for Study Abroad. This fund will be a perpetual merit-based award to support students’ international educational experiences with preference given to self-identified first-generation college students from underrepresented populations. Depending on the demand for the scholarship and the strength of the applications, the award could support up to six scholars. To donate with a credit card, please go to giving.uncc.edu and select “College of Liberal Arts & Sciences” from the dropdown field and click the “Submit” button. On the following page, select “Harper-Thomas Legacy Endowment (H10401)” from the dropdown field, enter the amount you wish to donate and click the “Proceed to the next step” button to complete your donation online. For more information about the Harper-Thomas Legacy Endowment, please click on the following link: http://clas.uncc.edu/alumni-friends/harper-thomas-legacy-endowment
Kudos— As you know, I like to use my Monday Missives to share news about recent accomplishments by members of our department. Here is the latest news:
Jarred Hamilton, a senior English major, presented the paper titled “Delacroix and His Portrayal of the African Servant” at the 5th Annual Undergraduate Art History Symposium celebrated at UNC Charlotte’s campus last Friday.
Upcoming Events and Deadlines— Here is a date to keep in mind:
February 5 — The English Graduate Student Association is hosting its 16th annual conference this upcoming Friday, February 5th at the Student Union. Registration begins at 9:30.
Quirky Quiz Question — Dr. Mary Harper was not the only member of the English Department to focus on African American literature during the department’s early years. Another faculty member from this time period became well known for editing The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Can you name this former faculty member?
Last week’s answer: HAMLET
Shakespeare once wrote the following line: “The play’s the thing.” Can you name the work by Shakespeare in which this line appears?