UA English professor sweeps awards season
Born in Greene County, Trudier Harris and her family moved to Tuscaloosa after her father died when she was six, leading her to Stillman College and her lengthy, notable career in English.
Harris, a University of Alabama distinguished research professor of English, majored in English and social studies at Stillman College. Between her junior and senior year, she went to Indiana University in Bloomington where she took several courses in literature, and then a year later went to Ohio State University on a fellowship. She then got her PhD in English with a specialty in folklore and secondary interest in African-American literature from Ohio State.
Her teaching career began at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, then continued at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After 32 years of service, Harris came home. Due to getting her PhD at 25, she was a young retiree.
“I retired and I came home to Tuscaloosa, and when I got here, after a couple of months, I was bored out of my skull,” Harris said.
Harris approached the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University about getting a job and now teaches in the English department.
“I like working with Dr. Harris very much, she’s been a really excellent colleague in the department and always does her share of the work around here, so we appreciate having her on the faculty,” said Joel Brouwer, an English department professor and chair.
Not only is she known as an exemplary colleague, Harris is now the recipient of three awards: The 2018 Clarence E. Cason Award in Nonfiction Writing, the 2018 SEC Faculty Achievement Award and was named a 2018-2019 Fellow of the National Humanities Center.
“If you were to look at a list of people who’ve received the Cason Award, you will discover that there are like, six Pulitzer Prize winners among them, and I am just, you know, a little person in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – not necessarily a Pulitzer Prize winner,” she said. “So, that was really a surprise and really special because it does recognize the writing.”
Brouwer said beside a terrific and successful writer, Harris is a great scholar and teacher, earning her The SEC Faculty of the Year Award. The SEC Faculty Achievement Award recognizes both teaching and scholarship.
“It is only because of wonderful students and colleagues that I have been able to reach this point in a career that has garnered this award,” Harris said in a UA press release. “And it is only because someone took the time to nominate me for this prestigious honor that I could be so noticed.”
Brouwer said Harris is a very productive researcher and teacher.
“She publishes a great deal, and she publishes very well, but she’s also an excellent teacher and mentor both of undergraduate and graduate students,” Brouwer said.
Harris said the the National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship recognizes scholarship and is significant because of its competition.
“National Endowment for the Humanities was really special because they had like 556 applicants, and they selected like 30 people from the United States,” Harris said.
For the fellowship, Harris will return to North Carolina, where she will spend a year working on a scholarly project at the National Humanities Center. Because Chapel Hill is only 25 minutes from the Center, she said the fellowship is taking her back to very familiar territory.
“I have former students there, good friends there, former colleagues there, current colleagues there, and it’s an opportunity to renew those kinds of acquaintances, but more importantly, I appreciate the uninterrupted writing time that I will have to get a book project done,” she said.
The project she will be working is called “Ungraspable?: Depictions of Home in African-American Literature,” which raises questions about the impact of movement, migration, forced migration and any relation to home that African-Americans relate to historically. She said a lot of people of color have what she refers to as “African fever,” which is the desire to return to Africa as an ancestral home. Her work is going to focus on defining home as a geographic and physical place but also in terms of an emotional, psychological place.
“So if you’re forced into a space, and then people tell you ‘This is your home,’ how can you feel as if that’s really home?” Harris said. “And if you’re uprooted from a space you call home, then it is not surprising that many generations later people still want to return to home.”
While all of the awards Harris has won are really special, Brouwer said the fellowship is a very prestigious and great honor due to its competitive nature. He said he likes to think Harris is an example to the English department in terms of her consistent scholarly work and her teaching and mentoring of students.
“We really pride ourselves on being a department that produces a lot of wonderful research and creative activity – critical books, books of poetry, novels, short stories – our faculty are very productive, but we also really pride ourselves on being great teachers, it’s very important to us and working carefully and closely with students to mentor them to be successful, and I think that she embodies those qualities and I think we all seek to do the same,” he said.
Briana Whiteside, a graduate student studying English and graduating in May, worked closely with Harris, as she was her mentor and dissertation director.
“It [working with her] was an amazing experience,” Whiteside said. “She’s actually the only reason that I came to Alabama, because I came to work with her, and so she was very tough, but it was a tough in a way that caused you to grow. And she’s very knowledgeable like none other, and she goes the extra mile for students – maybe the extra ten miles for students.”
Whiteside said she thinks the awards Harris received do not reflect her enough because they do not show all of who she is and what she offers.
“I mean they’re great awards, but they are not comparable to Dr. Harris and who she is,” she said. “That’s only a small snapshot of who she is. I think that she’s well-deserving of all three of them and more, but that’s just a little taste of who she is and her commitment to academia.”