Fall 2010 / Spring 2011
The ‘Self-Styled Ombudsman’
A conversation with Dr. George Bailey of the Department of English.
“There are no gods in the classroom except the clarity of questions and ideas.”
Such is the unique mantra of Dr. George Bailey, Associate Professor of English. For more than three decades, he has created and taught progressive courses that blend issues of diversity and race with contemporary media, challenging his students to accept that “we, teacher and student, can pose, style, and profile our way through the business of teaching and learning, or we may, as much as possible, fully engage the glory and horror of it all together.”
@LAS caught up with Dr. Bailey to get his thoughts on the profound changes to Columbia over the last thirty years; how he applies his scholarly work on diversity, race, and music to his curricula; and the legacy he’ll leave when he decides to retire.
@LAS: What changes have you seen in the student body during your long tenure here?
Dr. Bailey: I first taught
in the Fiction Department, which was then called the Writing English
Department. I became an adjunct faculty member, I think, in 1977. The
collective liberal ethos of the time focused on the struggle for civil and
human rights, social justice, and the war in Vietnam. Since that time, the
student body has shifted from one made up primarily of students from
Chicago-area high schools to a steadily increasing population of students from
broader geographical locations. The student body then, it seemed, consisted of
more people of color as compared to the present; however, in the last few
semesters, I’ve seen an uptick in Latino and African American students.
It’s hard to generalize about comparisons in shifts in socio-cultural attitudes from then to now, but I’d argue that students today are a lot more pragmatic—no, less idealistic, perhaps in ways I am unable to discern.
I also think Columbia’s current students contend with a greater array of complex and shrinking resources that require them to fashion and deploy a greater variety of survival mechanisms. Students are working longer hours, studying fewer hours, raising families, and the like. With the advent of new media, as compared to the communications revolution, students’ attention is vied for in ever-generating ways. It is this new medium—not fully understood by geezers and luddites—that is assisting current students in shaping the Columbia College community in quite productive ways.
@LAS: What changes have you seen in the faculty, administration, and the institution in general?
Dr. Bailey: Now that Columbia College has begun to represent and project an … imaginative brand of itself into the local, regional, and national academic communities, it has attracted quality teachers, scholars, and practitioners. When I go to conferences, or when I’m on vacation, and mention that I teach at Columbia College Chicago, I’m no longer surprised that people know a great deal about us, our programs, and what we stand for in the educational community.
The current administration, in order to address the fundamental changes with growth and the reality of a national and international institutional image, has moved the college toward a more recognizably traditional university culture. Perhaps the most visible change at the institution is the creation of different Schools with a Dean structure. By virtue of the aforementioned changes, the college, to some degree, enjoys a benefit, in terms of attracting a wider student population. But I think a great deal of work remains for faculty and administration around issues of shared governance.
@LAS: What positive changes have you seen in our liberal arts and sciences curriculum during your time here?
Dr. Bailey: I think the School of LAS has gained a great deal more respect over the last few years. I think the evolution of LAS is yet an unfinished story; it is poised to compete with what some people call the professional or technical departments. The word “compete” is perhaps out of the old memory of the college culture.
One of the critically positive changes taking place has been the creation of several new and exciting majors within the School of LAS. Perhaps it’s because I work in this School that I say this, but out of all the Schools within the restructuring of the college, I think LAS has emerged as one of the most significant elements of the college community.
I think the decision of the college administrators, chairs, and faculty to consciously and intentionally elevate the mission and purpose of the liberal arts within the matrix of a creative community has served to heighten the visibility and the integrity of the college.
@LAS: How do you apply your scholarly ideas on race, diversity, and music to the curriculum you create?
Dr. Bailey: Creating curriculum with those elements in mind has been an ongoing vision, project, and process for me, and will hopefully continue long after teaching at Columbia. Historically, I have come to see the Africanist/American presence in the United States as perennially contested space. Each generation of blacks, individually and collectively, in the New World, if they’re not brain dead, have had to engage in creating pathways to becoming communities of recognizably accepting selves. This is heavy lifting. In doing so, each successive generation has created traditions that addressed modes of survival, as well as conduits for spiritual uplift.
These practices, especially with respect to black music, until recently, were not altogether valued. My increased interests in the relationships between black music and American literature have provided materiality to create curriculum that enables people from diverse backgrounds to come to the middle and create discourse communities that provide access to strands of the national narrative hitherto inaccessible. I find that teaching “Blues as Literature” and “Slave Narrative as Documentary” invites students to inquire beyond the surface of what they’ve been taught about their history. Sometimes the reactions to the materials presented in these classes produce a wide range of responses in students—from disbelief to a desire for deeper inquiry.
The protracted reluctance of American institutional systems—systems to include the African in the New World into greater orbits of society—has left a historical record of interactional relationships. Often these records have been erased, abraded, diminished, ignored, and forgotten. Reclaiming and setting forth these cultural, economic, and political histories extends and deepens the national narrative. This stance, with these ideas, serves as a first premise in my teaching for structuring meaningful and valued curricula. I think the academic freedom to create such curricula is one of the enduring features of this institution.
@LAS: Diversity is important to our institution. How would you articulate the need for continued commitment to diversity goals here at Columbia?
Dr. Bailey: Since the word “diversity” is an ever-expanding term, and not just for the ghetto-fication of minority people—whatever … a “minority” is these days—I think the college should find ways to continually define and illustrate the force of the concept and term. I’m made aware of this by how often I’m engaged in modifying my syllabi to include individuals with all kinds of physical, attitudinal, skills-based, hearing, visual, and gender challenges. I think Columbia has lived up to its commitment to diversity as well as, or better than, some institutions of higher learning.
@LAS: What have you done over the years to address and meet the needs for keeping Columbia diverse?
Dr. Bailey: Over the years, I’ve imagined myself a self-styled ombudsman for this institution. Being a part of this community has opened doors in diverse communities for me. In turn, I’ve always sought to inform, remind, and persuade individuals and groups of individuals that Columbia is a place of wonder where artists practice their craft in an enriched community of possibility. I’ve always imagined that the life-changing work taking place at this institution stood for something and could be effectively communicated to people like me—a first in my family to graduate from college.
@LAS: Of all the courses you’ve created, which are you most proud of and why?
Dr. Bailey: I’m proud of several courses that I’ve helped to create here at Columbia. I once taught a course called “English Usage,” and another called “Oral Traditions and Writing in America.” Of course, I’m proud of the Speech courses, now “Oral Expressions,” that I helped to establish. But the courses I’m most proud of are ones I’m currently teaching: “Blues as Literature” and “Slave Narrative as Documentary.” The courses add to the overall canon of American literature, but focus primarily on, and spotlight, the literary journey of Africans in the New World.
@LAS: What’s different or innovative about your teaching methods and subject matter?
Dr. Bailey: I’m not sure that I do anything different from most teachers. I’m always the student before I’m the teacher. As a teacher, I’m committed to de-centering and breaking down the artificiality of my classroom environments. There are no gods in the classroom except the clarity of questions and ideas.
My primary teaching modalities flow from the notion that students are, in part, responsible for their learning. That’s an ethical responsibility they must shoulder. I remind them that we, teacher and student, can pose, style, and profile our way through the business of teaching and learning, or we may, as much as possible, fully engage the glory and horror of it all together. This is attempted through great doses of didactic humor—with pedagogical content, best-practice approaches, materials, methodologies, activities, and ideas that are horrible, beautiful, difficult, graceful, exciting, ineffable, and wonderful.
I continually illustrate and make alive what’s at stake for us all by bringing to the site of learning the possibility of making useful and generative connections. I implore them to become researchers into their own reading and writing processes by adopting the notion that syntax is style. I remind them that if they don’t read they’re not in the conversation.
@LAS: There’s been talk of your retiring in the coming years. How do you want to be remembered after you leave Columbia? What would you consider to be your legacy?
Dr. Bailey: I’d like to be remembered as someone who pulled his weight and worked vigorously to build an important community. But I’m a bit uncomfortable with commenting on my legacy. I suppose I equate the concept of legacy with being dead. I ain’t dead yet!