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A Scholar and Educator, Outside of the Academy: Brian Jones Is in the Conversation

Brian Jones (Photo courtesy of Jones)

Brian Jones (Ph.D. ’18, Urban Education) just launched his latest publication, a chapter in the new book Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice. He’s also working on turning his dissertation on a 1960s student uprising at the Tuskegee Institute into a book to be published by New York University Press.  

Instead of opting for a career within academia, Jones took a position in 2018 as the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, a nearly 100-year-old research library that is part of the New York Public Library. A scholar and activist who was previously a New York City school teacher, Jones spoke to The Graduate Center about taking an unexpected path to a fulfilling career.

Watch Jones describe his dissertation in 3 minutes as part of the 2018 Dissertation Showcase:

The Graduate Center: How did you get your position at the Schomburg Center?

Jones: I was a doctoral student and had completed five years of funding, and I really needed a sixth year to keep working. I did the job market with one dissertation chapter written. One of the things my adviser, Professor Stephen Brier, encouraged me to apply for was a dissertation fellowship at the Schomburg Center. I want to highly encourage anyone who has a project that could use the Schomburg Center's archives to apply for a fellowship when you’re at the writing stage. It was incredible experience.

I actually got an offer for a tenure track position, but I thought the Schomburg Center fellowship was a better opportunity, even though it was less money and not a job. I took a risk and decided to be a graduate student for one more year. Suddenly I had an office at the Schomburg Center and I was in a weekly writing discussion with colleagues who were postdocs and assistant professors and associate professors. It really transformed my writing and my thinking. 

I went on the job market a second time during my sixth year. I got two offers this time, one for a postdoc and one for a tenure track job, but I noticed that there was an opening at the Schomburg Center for an associate director of education. My plan was to be a professor of education, but the job at the Schomburg Center was intriguing. 

I tried to get my head around it. What would this mean? What does one do with all of this scholarly training, if you’re not a professor? 

When you think about being a professor, there’s a pretty clear plan. Maybe you get a postdoc or a visiting professorship. You hope to get a tenure track job. You hope that you get tenure, become associate. Then you go up for full professor and you retire as emeritus.

I had not contemplated what a path could be outside of academia. It turns out there’s quite a lot you can do.  

GC: What do you do in your role at the Schomburg Center? 

Jones:  Everything the Schomburg Center does is educational. The things in my portfolio tend to revolve around parents, teachers, and students involved in formal and informal education, broadly conceived.

We have youth programs that are Black history- and culture-oriented, where students enroll and have in-person experiences with instructors at the Schomburg Center. We have public programs and evening lectures, and discussions and symposiums on topics in Black education. And we have a summer research fellowship for undergraduates that I oversee.

We help teachers to work with our archives to teach Black history. And we do that in a number of ways, primarily by creating experiences for teachers, workshops, professional development and training. And we are now building a curriculum that will make it even easier for teachers to use our archives in the classroom. My goal is to help bring cutting-edge scholarly ideas and conversations about Black history into K-12 classrooms.

GC: Did the Urban Education program help prepare you for this position?

Jones: Absolutely. The Urban Ed Department has a long history of prioritizing and focusing on questions of social justice, inequality, and anti-racism, and all of that is brought to bear on the work that I’m doing now.

I bring in people who are on the front lines of these various questions, be they scholars or activists or scholar-activists, to engage in discussions. For example, there is a group by the name of Teens Take Charge, who have been fighting what they see as segregation in New York City public schools. One of the things I’ve done is create spaces for them to have public discussions, and to do so in dialogue with historians of New York City schools, who can help them and help us all understand how we got to where we are now. 

GC: Your dissertation is under contract with NYU Press. Do you have any advice for students who hope to get their thesis published as a book?

Jones: I have found academic publishing to be very challenging, and my learning curve to be very slow. There’s learning how to try to write a journal article. Learning how to write a book proposal. Learning how to write a job letter. In academic publishing, there are so many different genres. 

All of these different genres make different demands of you, and it’s challenging to get the tone and the pace and the language to the right level. And the more high-profile the journal or press, the more challenging it can be to make a competitive application or submission.

What I found works best is having people straight up help you. You need a community. This summer I submitted a 10,000-word journal article that was taken to another level than what I could have done on my own, because I showed it to scholars at the Schomburg Center and asked for feedback. That made all the difference. And my adviser read several drafts of my book proposal, even after I graduated, and that was very generous. Another extremely generous scholar even shared her own first book proposal with me, and also read several drafts of my proposal.

If you are feeling stuck or not having success, I’d say you should build up your team of generous scholars who have been there, who have gotten over that hurdle that you’re trying to get over, and can help you to do it. And, obviously, be prepared for rejection. The article I submitted this summer was rejected from a previous journal when it was in an inferior form. And now it’s much sharper, much better. So I’m trying again.

And I want to point out that I’m submitting these articles, but not for a tenure portfolio. I’m submitting them because this is my work and I care about getting it out there. I’m continuing my work, scholarly and otherwise. I have found a way to be an intellectual, if not an academic. I want to be in the conversation.​​

Submitted on: DEC 17, 2020

Category: Alumni News | Diversity | GCstories | General GC News | Urban Education | Voices of the GC