Unlike other Knox professors in his department, Yannick Marshall is not cross-listed in other disciplines. Currently, the newly hired Assistant Professor is the only one located completely within the Africana Studies department. And as professor Frederick Hord, founder of Knox’s Africana Studies Department, prepares to begin a phased-retirement, Marshall is likely to become one of the faces of the program’s future.
“It would be nice to have an influence on a program,” Marshall said. “That would be very new to me because I’ve always just been like a visiting professor. So this would be the first time to be like, ‘Ok, well, I’m gonna have some say in how it ends up looking’.”
This is Marshall’s first year at Knox but fourth year teaching at a liberal arts college. Marshall said he has noticed that students today are more aware of and more interested in exploring radical ideas regarding philosophy, politics, gender, environment and race. Surrounded by “radical” professors at Columbia University where he received his PhD, Marshall said radical ideas have always surfaced in his general research interests.
“I was hired in my first liberal arts school pretty much right after the Ferguson Riots and so [in] my first course, I was speaking about Black Lives Matter and there was at least about 15 or so students. But by the next semester, there was like 96 students,” Marshall said.
Marshall believes that this interest was not as present 10-15 years ago and is a result of changes within U.S. politics.
“Specifically that when Trump [was elected], students did not think the type of administration was actually possible in America, and so they kind of got shocked into reality,” Marshall said. “And so they started to think, ‘Okay well, if this can happen, what are the radical alternatives? What is something very different to what this is?’ That has generated students to want to know more, open to ideas not open to before.”
But Marshall does not define what is radical within the common definition it has of being far left ideologies. Marshall said he prefers not to focus on factual presentations, things that can be researched in a student’s own time. He takes a critical approach, responding to questions with more questions.
“I take my radical idea from Angela Davis who says that radical thought means really taking things from the root,” Marshall said. “So basically if things are just presented as, let’s say, a prison, should we incarcerate people Ñ the radical question would also be, ‘What exactly is the root of a prison?’ (and) not just take the prison as granted.”
Marshall said institutions have a lot of “catch up” to do in order to offer radical courses that meet student demand. As race and power conflicts saturate our society, Marshall said, universities are crucial for matching the crisis by exploring different ways of thinking.
When Africana Studies departments aren’t given as many resources and faculty as Political Science or English, it can cause the Africana Studies department to feel the need to fight for its legitimacy as an “intellectual inquiry.”
“I haven’t encountered a university that had an Africana Studies that was larger than a Political Science class or an English class despite the fact that race affects our population as much as language does Ñ because race is embedded in language, race is embedded in politics, etc.,” Marshall said.
Despite this, there tends to be no training within PhD research programs on how to navigate how universities are run. Marshall attended his first ever faculty meeting this month and still feels sheltered from logistical divisions between a college’s faculty, administration, finances and other aspects of the college.
“You just research your own topic and become a strict academic and then are thrust into worlds that have more practical than scholarly issues,” Marshall said. “I am not as equipped as I would like to be to figure out how to expand these things, but as an ideal, I would like to expand.”