Interview with Vernita Burrell: Fordham PhD Graduate

As any graduate student knows, the job hunt can be overwhelming and exhausting. Professor Vernita Burrell is one of many Fordham English Ph.D graduates who have emerged victorious from that experience. Burrell is now a tenure-track Assistant Professor at East Los Angeles College. In this interview, we discuss her theater background, her intellectual interests, and the road that led to her new teaching position.

1. What is your educational background? 

My educational background spans a lot of years! I started as an undergrad at UCLA in the mid-1980s, but during that time I was not a serious student. Although I was born and raised in Los Angeles, my absolute dream was to move to New York and become a musical theater actress. I was not able to finish UCLA, but I did move to NYC in the late 80s and went through musical theater training. For a good ten years, I was pretty successful as an actress, doing summer stock, tours, and musicals in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. But the idea of not finishing college weighed pretty heavily, so I enrolled at Hunter College in NYC and finished my degree. From there, I eventually moved back to Los Angeles temporarily to get my master's at Loyola Marymount, then returned to NYC in 2009 to get my PhD at Fordham.

2. Your field of study is 18th-century British literature? How did you decide this was what you wanted to study? 

I originally entered Fordham with the idea of being a Victorianist! But one of my first classes at Fordham was John Bugg's "The Radical 1790's," and that class quickly changed my mind. I wasn't at all familiar with the literature and political history of the 18th century, but as we read works by William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, and the like, I began to realize that the rich history of the 18th century contributed to much of the political ideology that the West holds today.

3. Tell us about your dissertation: what was its topic, its argument, and its contribution? How did you become interested in the topic, and how did your thinking evolve over the course of working on it? 

My dissertation, titled "The Ambiguities of Abolition: Pro- and Anti-Slavery Writings, 1757-1824," focuses on the nuances and complexities about slavery and abolition that go beyond the conventional binary pro- and anti-slavery arguments within 18th-century slavery discourse. Again, thanks to John Bugg, we studied some works that showed ambivalence, as well as ideological wavering, regarding the abolition movement in the late 1700s. This ambivalence fascinated me, mostly because I had believed that, to put it in simple terms, 18th-century political pundits were either for slavery or against it. I wanted to look closer at the beliefs between such an abolitionist binary.

Not only did I focus my research within Great Britain, I also looked about texts and political ideology from the British Caribbean. In Julie Kim's class "The Caribbean Enlightenment," I was introduced to texts that spoke about the black and mulatto West Indian slave experience. I became interested in West Indian slave narratives, and learned that the slave experiences of black and mulatto women also held a small, but a relevant presence within 18th-century scholarship. It was a challenge to infuse the many voices of abolition—from the British metropole to the British colonies—into a coherent research project, but it was one of the most academically rewarding endeavors I have ever undertaken.

4. Which professors advised you, and what kind of mentorship did they provide?

My advisors were John Bugg, Frank Boyle, and Julie Kim. I couldn't have asked for a better mentoring team. They were wonderfully encouraging and extremely tough when they needed to be. I could go to them with writing or research issues, or just sit and hash out ideas if I was experiencing writer's block. They all are such experts in the 18th century, and I felt that I was in good hands.

5. How do you view the relationship between your research and your teaching? 

This may seem a little strange, but I find that my research and teaching don't exactly connect. I primarily teach English composition and reading comprehension at East Los Angeles College, and I have deliberately focused on texts that are more current and more socially and culturally relatable to the college's primarily Latino and Asian population. However, I still keep up with the 18th-century field through scholarly journals and literature.

6. How did your training at Fordham prepare you for the job market in general, and for East LA College, specifically?

My pedagogy training at Fordham was absolutely essential in preparing me for the job market. Moshe Gold and Anne Fernald were especially knowledgeable and inspiring, always letting us teaching fellows know that the student is the most important element in the classroom. This idea may sound a little obvious, but it was extremely helpful to remember, especially when interviewing at community colleges. I had quickly learned that community college search committees are looking for people who are committed to teaching the basic fundamentals of English reading, grammar, and composition that seem to be overlooked in secondary education, particularly in low-income and underserved areas. East Los Angeles College has a motivated student body, and its English department faculty are dedicated to providing the best and most thorough education that these students deserve. Fordham's pedagogical training prepared me for that level of intense and thorough reading and composition teaching.

7. What was the job market process like for you?

The job market process was stressful but relatively fast!  I started my job search in January of 2016 and got a full-time, tenure track job by June. Needless to say, John Bugg, Moshe Gold, Frank Boyle, and Julie Kim were with me every step of the way, regardless of the fact that I was doing my job search in Los Angeles! Skyping with my mentors and the many emails about interview tips and protocols really made the job search experience and positive one. I can honestly say that all the teaching training that I received at Fordham served me well in the interview process, helping me land such a wonderful job at East Los Angeles College.

8. What advice would you give to any graduate students currently going on the market?

The best advice I would give graduate students currently on the job market is be in constant communication with your faculty mentors. I'd like grad students to know that no question or concern is too small or insignificant. Constant communication also helps when you are feeling absolutely discouraged. Also, have your application materials in tip-top order—the English Department’s Director of Placement and Professional Development is invaluable in this respect. Most importantly, know yourself and be yourself. When I started Fordham, I knew that I wanted to be a professor, but my main goal was to focus on teaching, not research. My advisors knew this and encouraged me to promote my teaching methods to job search committees. In essence, graduate students need to know what kind of scholar and teacher they want to be and pursue that passion.

9. How has your first semester at East LA College been going? What is your favorite thing about teaching? What were some unexpected challenges? 

I'm in the middle of the second semester of my first year at East Los Angeles College. It's the hardest but most gratifying job I've had. My students are wonderful and so eager to learn, and my colleagues in the English department are so incredibly helpful and welcoming. Los Angeles is in the midst of a state-wide improvement project of all its community colleges, using monies from government bond measures and other funds voted on to build new, state-of-the-art buildings and classrooms and to further improve the quality of community college education by hiring more full-time teachers and offering more classes. One major challenge for me is the class sizes and the variety of education levels in the classroom. I had to learn to handle four classes a semester with a cap of 45 students each. I also had to learn to monitor those students who struggle with English composition, making sure that these students don't fall through the cracks. I'm getting better at handling the challenges, and in the end, nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing all of my students succeed.