Communication Professor Balances Teaching, Research, Professional Development, Community Service, and More
As newly minted Ph.D. Karsonya “Kaye” Whitehead considered where to continue her academic career, she was drawn to Loyola University Maryland and its Ignatian character—even though she had never experienced Jesuit education before. Whitehead, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University—the nation’s oldest historically black college—an M.A. in International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in Language, Literature, and Culture from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, knew just enough about the life of St. Ignatius to know she wanted to know much more.
“I knew he and his order were very much about social justice and change and had no interest in maintaining the status quo—the same kinds of things that matter to me,” says Whitehead, now an assistant professor of communication at Loyola.
When she joined Loyola’s full-time faculty in the summer of 2009, Whitehead plunged headfirst into Loyola’s Faculty Seminar on Ignatian Pedagogy, a three-day workshop for faculty in all stages of their careers. The workshop covered the nature of interdisciplinary education as well as the life of St. Ignatius, Ignatius’ writing, his Spiritual Exercises, the origins of Jesuit schools, the relationship of pedagogy to the Spiritual Exercises, and more.
“It really helped me to better understand the Jesuit educational philosophy, to find places to infuse that ideology in my teaching, and to build connections with my fellow professors in other disciplines,” she says.
The experience gave Whitehead an initial foundation in Jesuit teaching that greatly informed her approach toward the classes she taught, which included Introduction to Communication and the Documentary Film Tradition. The following summer, she decided to begin strengthening the connection between Jesuit ideals and the practical work of her classes by taking a faculty seminar on service-learning led by the University’s Center for Community Service and Justice.
That fall, she began incorporating weekly experiences for students at My Sister’s Place, a Baltimore City resource center for women experiencing homelessness, into her syllabus.
“The students got to know the clients, broke bread with them, and began taking their oral histories,” says Whitehead. “The students weren’t reporters, telling the clients’ stories—they merely gave voice to the stories of the women, many of whom had had trouble finding their voices before.”
As time passed, Whitehead looked for other ways to strengthen the Jesuit character of her classes. In the summer of 2011, she joined a group of colleagues from other Jesuit institutions on the Ignatian Pilgrimage, a 10-day trip that takes participants on a journey to many of the historic sites in Italy and Spain critical to St. Ignatius’ spiritual formation.
“Standing in the Founder’s Cave in Manresa, knowing that this was where Ignatius has stood, seeing the sketches he had made on the walls, was the first time St. Ignatius really felt real to me,” she says. “It changed the way I wanted to approach my work. I realized if I wanted to transform my students’ lives, I should be open to being transformed myself.”
After completing the Ignatian pilgrimage, Whitehead realized she didn’t want her personal journey of transformation to end.
That desire led Whitehead to participate in a week-long colloquy on faith and intellectual life sponsored by Collegium, a national organization of Catholic colleges and universities. “The experience really led me to consider whether I was where God wanted me to be, and to look for ways to further align my teaching with Loyola’s mission,” she says.
This summer, from Collegium, Whitehead headed to the “Teaching Peace in the 21st Century” workshop held by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Peace Studies, where she worked with many of the same faculty she encountered when pursuing her master’s degree.
In the midst of all of this, Whitehead has been continuing work on three separate books on the lives of African Americans in 18th and 19th centuries and on American enslavement and preparing to teach her first class for first-year students. “I’ve been wrapping up the final notes for my first book, Notes from a Colored Girl: The 1863-1865 Pocket Diaries of Emilie Davis; writing my second book, The Emancipation Proclamation: Race Relations on the Eve of Reconstruction, which has been signed by Routledge; and continuing research on my third book project, Dear Reader, Whoever Thou Art: Interpreting the 1749-1751 Diary of William Chancellor, a transcription and interpretation of the diary of a white slave ship doctor who chronicled his experiences in the Middle Passage. I spent much of my spring 2011 sabbatical working on Chancellor and Emilie, but now need to focus on finishing The Emancipation Proclamation since Routledge would like to have it released right on the heels of the 150th anniversary of the release of the document.”
Whitehead’s work on all three projects has been supported by awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Library Company of Pennsylvania, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and Maryland Historical Society, respectively.
This fall, in addition to her usual courses, Whitehead will also teach her first first-year class, a course on deconstructing stereotypes in U.S. film and television she has previously offered only to upper-class students. “I think it will be interesting for students to begin considering so early in their careers how to disrupt the narrative in the media they are exposed to,” she says. “I want my students, who tend to be from homogeneous backgrounds, to recognize that there are other voices and experiences out there that they may have to search for. I’ve found in previous classes that students are extremely receptive to these ideas, once I’ve established that my classroom is a safe place, that they are allowed to have an opinion, they don’t need to think like me, but I do expect them to think, to extract their opinion from the facts, and be able to defend it—in the classroom, in their dorms, on campus, at Starbucks. I believe that the conversation should never end.”