North Carolina Central University
During the summers growing up on the northwest side of Detroit, Michigan, Karen Keaton Jackson would compose and type up little chapter books patterned after the young-adult fiction she was reading. During the school years, she would accompany her Aunt Judith to her job as a public elementary school science teacher, where she would volunteer in the classroom and help grade the multiple choice and true/false parts of student tests.
“I loved seeing my aunt teach and seeing how students responded to her,” Jackson said. “We would be out and former students would see her and talk about the impact she made.”
In the decades since, Jackson has made a career of the two pastimes she gravitated toward as a child: writing and teaching. And as an associate professor of English and director of the Writing Studio and University Writing Program at North Carolina Central University, she is now making an impact of her own.
“I really love being able to empower and inspire students to be their best and discover something in themselves they don’t know yet,” Jackson said.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Jackson the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for NCCU. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC constituent institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.
David Hood, the NCCU associate dean who oversees the Writing Studio, met Jackson in 2010; she was on the search committee that selected him.
“Dr. Jackson is an outstanding role model for our students,” Hood said. “She gives tirelessly of herself. She provides a service that is needed on our campus and creates an atmosphere and environment that is welcoming for our students, who in many instances are fearful of seeking out assistance."
MORE THAN CONSTRUCTING SENTENCES
When Jackson entered Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia, she was not planning to pursue more advanced education. With varying degrees of subtlety, however, several of her professors suggested that she earn her Ph.D. and teach at the collegiate level. Students of color need to see people who look like them at the head of classrooms, these professors had said.
Jackson graduated summa cum laude from Hampton with a degree in English Secondary Education and, following her teachers’ nudgings, continued on to earn her master’s and doctorate in English composition from Wayne State University in Detroit.
“Professors at Hampton University let me see who I could become,” she said, describing her time at the institution as “magical.” “I grew up there so much professionally and personally.”
Immediately after earning her Ph.D., Jackson landed a job at NCCU. She appreciated that the school was a historically black university, in part because of the nurturing, supportive atmosphere historically black schools often have. “One thing that’s always been important to me is the idea of giving back,” she said. “I had a great childhood and was blessed by a lot of opportunities that people who look like me aren’t able to get. The idea that I could come back and teach at an HBCU [historically black college and university] and focus on a diverse population was exciting to me.”
Jackson teaches writing at all levels — from first-year writing courses to graduate-level advanced composition. “Some people don’t like to teach freshmen, but I like grabbing them when they first come in,” she said. “They might be the first in their families who have gone to college, and they don’t know how to navigate it. It’s a really important transition for them, and I like being a part of them feeling like they made a good choice.”
Over the years, Jackson has realized how much more her job is than just teaching writing. “Teaching my students to write is the medium I can use to reach them,” she said. “I want them to be able to put together sentences well, but when I’m able to see them do more than write a sentence — get excited about learning and excited about themselves — that’s the best feeling for me.”
In the classroom, Jackson tries to make the learning as relevant to the students’ lives as possible. She selects materials from pop culture and current events to inspire student writing. And, she tries to make her students more socially conscious.
For final projects, for example, she asks students to choose a group in their community that needs help, research the issues they’re facing and create an organization that offers them the necessary assistance. Then students have to write a paper about their organization directed at potential donors and present their organization to the class.
“The students always look overwhelmed when I first give the paper — horrified — but by the end, they always create some cool organizations,” Jackson said. Upon learning how few African American males teach school, one young student decided over the course of his project to go into teaching — an outcome she found particularly gratifying.
LaKela Atkinson, who served as a consultant in the Writing Studio while in the graduate English literature program, has worked professionally in the studio since her graduation in 2010. Atkinson described Jackson as warm, intelligent, dedicated and insightful and said her assignments, which often asked her to analyze her work as a tutor, helped her realize the importance of embracing the differences in students and developing different approaches for each individual.
“The most important things I have learned from Dr. Jackson are to lead by example, the value of the power of networking and to always pay it forward,” Atkinson said. “These things have constantly taught me to be reflective and assess my relationships with others. As a result of her influence, I have become more intentional in my day-to-day interactions.”
CREATING A POSITIVE SPACE
When Jackson arrived at NCCU, the Writing Studio she now directs was not the most welcoming institution, she said. It was tucked away in the English Department; the door was often closed; and the tutors were English majors but weren’t specifically trained. Jackson set about to transform it.
“There’s a stigma attached to the idea of tutoring in any field,” she said. “Students feel ashamed. I wanted to make it a really positive space.”
She changed the name from the “Writing Center” to the "Writing Studio,” which she felt had more positive connotations, and she changed the student mentors’ titles from “tutors” to “consultants.” In 2010, the studio moved to a more central location on campus, and the door stayed open most of the time. Currently, four graduate students, one undergraduate student and Atkinson staff the studio, and they all receive formal training in pedagogy.
The year before Jackson took over as director, the center offered about 200 tutoring sessions. But this past year, it offered about 1,100 sessions — and another 1,100 workshops and presentations elsewhere on campus, which were previously not offered. The studio is now the most widely used academic service on campus, according to Hood, the dean who oversees it.
Jackson’s research, which she generally focuses on how literacy, race and identity impact each other, especially for students of color, is currently examining how tutoring writing affects student success and retention. Hood admires Jackson’s data-focused, outcome-driven approach to running the studio.
“She’s always focused on what the data says about usage and about how the students who are taking advantage of the services are performing,” Hood said. “She is very meticulous in how she executes her management of the Writing Studio."
Atkinson said she feels extremely grateful for Jackson’s mentorship and instruction, which have prepared her for a career in higher education, whether as a teacher, tutor or administrator.
"Dr. Jackson truly has a passion for teaching and people,” Atkinson said. “She has a positive impact on those with whom she interacts. I believe her selflessness and genuine interest in the progress of others are what make her one of the most highly respected individuals on campus and in academia.”
Story by Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Photos contributed by NCCU