Growing up, Dr. McKinley E. Melton was fascinated by language, learning, literature and the articulation of ideas, but wasn’t sure what career path to pursue that matched those curiosities. It wasn’t until his time as an undergraduate at Duke University that he became interested in “diversifying the academy.”
“Having attended predominantly White institutions, I understood the value of having Black faculty members, and I knew how powerful it was to see someone at the front of the classroom who looked like me, who reflected my reality and served as a reminder that the classroom is a space for everyone,” Melton says. “I was compelled by the idea that I could be one of the faculty members of color that students were always looking for.”
Originally from Marietta, Georgia, Melton is currently an assistant professor of English at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and has worked there since 2012. He was recently granted tenure and will be an associate professor of English beginning with the 2018-19 academic school year.
He received a bachelor’s degree in English, African and African American studies at Duke University and a Ph.D. in Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He says his time spent at UMass Amherst “shaped the way” he reads and interprets literature and greatly informed his “critical approach to Black creative and cultural expression.”
Melton’s teaching style focuses primarily on 20th century African-American and African diaspora literatures, and his courses explore the intersections between social, political and cultural movements as part of a critical approach to Africana literatures.
“I’m a firm believer in a learning space that is engaging and interactive,” says Melton. “I lecture from time to time, but I find that a classroom that’s driven by discussion and ongoing conversation feels much more energetic and productive.
“I think it’s important that I function as a guide for the conversation but also allow students to feel a strong sense of ownership over their own learning process. That said, I do think it’s important to provide lectures when necessary, offering important historical and cultural context that will also help students to engage with the course material.”
Melton is teaching eight diversity-enriched courses that include: “Black Superheroes in American Culture: From Nat Turner to Netflix” and “Literature of the Civil Rights Movement and Voice and Visibility: African Americans and the Power of the Spoken Word.”
Courses taught by Melton tend to be popular. “I’m happy to take some credit for the popularity of the classes, and I do get students who sign up for multiple classes with me because they appreciate my approach to the classroom, but I think that students are often really drawn to the material that I have the privilege of teaching,” he says.
His most recent research is a book project, titled Along Their Own Way: Manhood, Spirituality, and Survival in Black Diasporan Literature, which argues that an understanding of Black spirituality facilitates our critical understanding of Black literatures. The project focuses on African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean literatures of the 20th and 21st century and other forms of cultural expression, such as music and film.
In addition to this research, Melton has been studying contemporary poets whose poetry is framed through performance and competitive venues.
“I’m fascinated by the interaction of literacy and orality, and … how our understanding of race, sexuality, and Black identity in the 21st century can be facilitated by contemporary expressive forms such as spoken word, hip-hop and popular culture,” says Melton. “I think it’s also important to continue to expand our (often) limited conceptions of poetry and to re-think how we have defined what is ‘real’ poetry, and who gets to participate in the conversation around who is a ‘real’ poet.”
Within his family, he says his role models are his mother, aunt and late father, who “have pushed me to understand the importance of a life that’s dedicated to learning and to shaping the communities to which I have dedicated myself.” Intellectually and professionally, he believes his role model is James Baldwin, an American novelist, social critic and civil rights activist.
“I love the richness of his work and of his writing, and I love the way that he consistently and persistently challenges his readers to interrogate the world around them and to challenge those things that they thought they knew,” he says, adding that that is what he strives to do with his classes.
Reflecting on his career, Melton would not change a thing.
“I get to think about ways that culture and cultural expression blend with historical and contemporary socio-political realities to shape the world in which we live,” he says. “Most of all, though, I find myself energized by working with students and those ‘light bulb moments’ that sometimes happen in the classroom and in office hours; when an idea that they’ve been working to process finally comes together, and things make sense to them in a new way.”