“People keep making the joke that I didn’t come here for the weather,” Professor Jane Rhodes said, when discussing what drew her to the University of Illinois at Chicago from Minnesota’s Macalester College, where she served as professor and chair of American Studies and as the dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity within the college. “Although it’s warmer in Chicago, believe it or not, than it is in the Twin Cities.”
Rhodes, professor and head of the African American Studies department at UIC since January 2015, is a noted interdisciplinary scholar whose research interests include the relationship between media and communication practices, race, and African American communities. Since receiving her PhD in Mass Communication Research from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Rhodes’ work has explored how marginalized communities utilize print, film, electronic media, and music as modes for resistance and empowerment. She is particularly interested in the ways in which people use media as a critical tool in social movements.
Rhodes was not even officially on the job market when the opportunity to work at UIC came up, but the draw of the university forced her to reconsider: “UIC is an innovator in interdisciplinarity, and working in urban communities,” she said. “I’ve followed the university for a long time and I thought this was an exciting place.”
It is also located, she said, in a city with an extremely rich catalogue of African American history: Rhodes makes note of the Great Migration, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and Harold Washington as being just a few touchstones of the city’s storied African American historical tradition. Having such proximity to what she calls “a real hotbed” of African American media and culture is indispensable to her research. “For someone who does African American Studies,” she said, “it’s a pretty amazing place to be.” Perhaps the driving force in Rhodes’ decision to join UIC, however, was the talent of her future colleagues. “The faculty in African American Studies were key. I knew a number of people in the department, I knew about their work, I knew how amazing they were. I think this department is one of the most exciting and generative departments in the country.”
For Rhodes, becoming head of African American Studies is the ideal position because it allows her to teach as well as to lead and innovate. Fortunately, as both a professor and department head, Rhodes can observe the challenges today’s college students face firsthand, and then tailor the curriculum to optimize learning. “Student bodies have changed over time: their needs, their interests, how they learn, all those things have shifted,” Rhodes said. “And I do not want to engage with that only abstractly, I want to be with them, in the classrooms.” Rhodes believes the core tenets of African American Studies teach students the communicative and analytical skills needed to be “productive citizens.” “Understanding the history and politics of race in America is vital to careers in law, healthcare, public service, the arts, and virtually every other profession,” she added.
One of Rhodes’ goals is to make the department a space for public discussion and interdisciplinary content, an undertaking that has produced events such as the recent panel discussion of the hit FOX drama series Empire. The program attracted a standing-room only crowd and Rhodes was interviewed on local radio and television to explain what academics can contribute to discussions of popular culture. In the spring of 2016, the department will host the Grace Holt Symposium (an endowed lectureship in African American Studies); this year’s focus will be on Chicago’s black communities and the struggle over educational access. Other events in the works are a discussion about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans, and a continuation of the Black Lives Matter lecture series that began last year with acclaimed poet Claudia Rankine.
Rhodes believes that alumni of the department and College as a whole are “critical” to supporting the department’s mission of exploring the social and economic issues and political processes that have shaped the African American experience in the United States. One of her main priorities for the department is to reach out to alumni and to get to know them because “there’s this amazing community of folks who studied in this department, who majored and minored in this department, who went on to do important things in the world. And I want to bring them back so they can see who we are now and feel connection and pride with the new African American Studies department at UIC. And I think they can help us get the message out,” Rhodes concluded. To this end, the department has launched a new social media initiative to provide access to the world of African American Studies on multiple platforms. “We are particularly excited about making ourselves more visible to all of our constituencies,” said Rhodes. “I hope people will check out our updated Facebook page as well as our new Tumblr and Instagram pages.”
Perhaps above all else, Rhodes wants students and engaged alumni to understand one thing: that the department is uniquely situated and equipped to be a space for public discussion about complex social and political issues. If students take full advantage of this, they will be prepared to grapple with important contemporary issues such as police violence in black communities, the legislative struggle over the Voting Rights Act, or the educational achievement gap. Rhodes believes that the African American Studies department at UIC is a place where students can indulge their intellectual curiosity and push themselves outside their comfort zone: “This is your chance.”