Learning How To Be Together: An Interview with Zandra L. Jordan, Director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking

Learning How To Be Together: An Interview with Zandra L. Jordan, Director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking

I sat down with Dr. Zandra L. Jordan, the new Director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, to get to know her better and her priorities for Hume. Zandra came to our meeting straight from working with the Dissertation Boot Camp, and I had glimpsed her through the classroom door facilitating the closing session with a lunch box in her hand.

But she liked being so busy, she told me. Reflecting on her first job post-master’s, at the boarding school Phillips Academy Andover, she told me, “My day never looked like one thing, and I really liked that.” At Phillips, Zandra was an English teacher, a “dorm mom,” a multicultural development advisor for African, African-American, and Latinx students, and even the stepping and cheer coach. “That’s why I like the writing center,” she continued. “It’s never one thing. It’s ten million things.” She laughed. “I’ll tutor 1-on-1, then go lead a workshop for grads or undergrads. I’ll develop strategy, vision for the center. I think I’d get bored with just one thing.”

After Phillips Andover, Zandra returned to higher education, first for her joint Ph.D. in English and Education, from the University of Michigan, and then as a faculty member at her alma mater Spelman College, the all-women HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia—her hometown. Next, she earned a MDiv from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, before founding the Center for Academic Literacy at Columbia Theological Seminary, also in Georgia.

“One of the most attractive things about the Hume Center is its shared mission with writing and speaking,” Zandra told me. Nationally, she said, writing and speaking centers are often housed in the same building, but operate separately. As Hume Center Director, she’s working with Doree Allen, Director of Oral Communication, to increase and make more visible the integration between writing and speaking support in the center. The Hume Center, Zandra stressed, supports students as holistic communicators, in their school work and beyond. “We know effective communication is so needed for effective citizenship in the world,” she said. Communication practices are essential for productive citizenship and scholarship on a campus and in a world which is increasingly digital, diverse, and interconnected.

Beyond being a scholar and educator, Zandra is also an ordained minister—although listening to her talk about “accepting the call,” I learned quickly how ministry, teaching, and research are closely interlinked for her. Beyond preaching, she also is a rhetorician researching Black women’s womanist sermons. These sermons, she told me, put women of color’s “everyday lived experiences at the center of theology and meaning making.” She continued, “I want to consider the strategies womanist theologians provide in their social justice sermons—I’m still in the process of theorizing how they compose for delivery. How do you craft discourse with the intent of delivering it?”

At Spelman, she told me, her students said, “You teach like a preacher.” “I think it was about the exhorting,” she told me, “encouraging students to believe in themselves and to believe that they really have valuable perspectives” and can contribute to these conversations “in times to come, even sooner than they might have expected.” As a teacher, it sounds like, Zandra also preached faith in her students and in their futures. She rooted that pedagogical ethos in the mission statement of the HBCU: “We’re helping them rise.” Zandra recounted a professor at her own graduation taking her by the shoulders after she expressed ambivalence about her own future in an English Education master’s program at an Ivy League institution, and telling her, “You’re gonna be great! You’re gonna knock them off their feet!” This ethics of encouragement, this paying forward of faith, is “part of my ethos as a teacher,” Zandra said. She is “intentional” about imbuing a message of self-confidence in her students. “You’ve got to put in the work, but you’ve got the goods.”

By the end of our conversation, I saw Zandra as, holistically, a culture creator. In her research, her teaching, and her preaching, she is focused on the ways that different kinds of communication practices build on experiences of the world to shift the way people, especially marginalized people, live. One of her favorite projects of the year, she told me, was working with undergraduates from Probe magazine to develop, at their request, a workshop on communicating their interdisciplinary interest in art, biology, and technology to the public. But beyond collaborating with Human Biology Writing Specialist Shay Brawn on the workshop, Zandra also encouraged the students to develop an interdisciplinary public forum to engage those issues. Of the resulting event, which centered on the provocative question, “Who owns your body?” Zandra felt proud. “I thought that was so fabulous.”

In a polarized political moment where racist and anti-racist discourse have been increasing on campus, “my current question is what responsibility does a writing and speaking center have in equipping students to engage in meaningful discourse around race and racism?” This, again, is a question of building culture, a culture of communication. Zandra marveled at the challenges of a university, where a hugely diverse population is dropped in the same space and expected to communicate. Yet no one knows better than a writing center director that communication practices need to be taught. In this way, Hume tutors are central to the growth of a communicative culture, because this culture-building “begins in that 1-on-1 session when we’re interested in our own positionalities and are interested in knowing the students’ as well—what they value, how they think, how they reason.” Communication culture is built “student by student, interaction by interaction,” Zandra concluded. We’re “building the culture...so we know how to be together.