Longtime professor Martha Jones reflects on her time at the University


Courtesy of Martha Jones


Monday, May 22, 2017 - 5:25pm

In her 15 years at the University of Michigan, History Prof. Martha Jones has invested much of herself into the campus community — and the return has not disappointed. As a co-director of the Law School’s program in Race, Law and History, former associate chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and, most recently this winter, her work as a Presidential Bicentennial professor with the landmark Stumbling Blocks exhibit — Jones has become somewhat of a stalwart in convening campus around issues of race and social justice.

Jones arrived in Ann Arbor the day before 9/11, and — from the battle over affirmative action and Proposal 2 to Obama to Trump to the University’s contentious celebration of its 200th year — took part in molding the University in the years thereafter. This summer, though, Jones will relocate to Baltimore to join the history department at Johns Hopkins University. She joined the Daily for an exit interview of sorts, to reflect on her career at the University and the lessons she’s taken from this year, and decade, of powerful turbulence.

TMD: You’re leaving us! Is the move to Baltimore for research on your new book, a change of scene, or both?

MJ: 16 years is a long time to be someplace. The opportunities to be closer to my archives was really exciting, to have those things at my fingertips…. you can imagine Baltimore presents the kinds of opportunities and challenges similar to a city like Detroit. In a lot of ways at Michigan, I had — at least personally — accomplished a lot of the things I had hoped to accomplish, and more. It seemed like the right moment to think about a change.

TMD: Your Stumbling Blocks exhibit really took ahold of campus this semester, and it was so interesting to watch those conversations unfold. What reactions did you find most compelling?

MJ: Wow, after 18 months of planning and thinking, it was all very compelling. We were really lucky that the Sunday we set up Stumbling Blocks was warm and beautiful, and so while I thought we’d just be setting up, I had a chance to talk with people very informally.

The first people I talked to were a mother from Chicago and her daughter, a Michigan student, and her younger daughter, who was thinking about college. They were African American, and we stood together in front of the chairs to talk about the history, the meaning of the chairs, what it’s like to be a student of color at Michigan. I watched one of my former students, who does tours for visitors and prospectives, give his spiel on the steps of the Union, and incorporate the sign on the front of the Union into students’ first introduction to the University.

What we hoped for was just that, that people just slow down in places like the Diag, Ingalls Mall, the Union and stop, read, talk, look and look again.

Some people won’t know how much goes on behind the scenes in order to create an installation like this. Memorable moments are the first night when it rained cats and dogs and the power went out on the exterior of the Union, and there was a team that worked with me in the mud getting the power back up. I knew I’d be out there, but the staff was out there, too.

The last category, of course, is criticism. I learned a lot myself as a thinker, community member, a creative person about hanging in there for the hard conversations. The ones I was a party to were emblematic of our capacity to have hard conversations when we commit to them. And we walk away understanding each other better and building relationships that, I hope, bear fruit. Some people didn’t want them to ever come down, and I think the pop-up is important to show the real work isn’t in installations on the Diag. I think it was right to do it for a week and let it generate thought, be provocative and then send us back to do the work we do every day.

TMD: The pop-up provided space for conversations and pause in a year where it seemed like we didn’t really have time to stop, where it felt like campus was always moving — especially after a year of multiple racist incidents. How is it that those singular, incendiary moments can take hold of an entire campus? What are your overall reflections on this year?

MJ: This work on climate requires making a lot of noise, all the time. I think the reason that we survived this year was because people stepped up from all kinds of corners of campus and made a lot of noise, in a year where a lot of other institutions haven’t fared as well. That noise functioned in a way that was bigger than any one poster campaign or rally or pop-up. It was all of those things happening at once. An Expect Respect campaign was just a piece, but it was one piece of everything else, the counter-postering, the rallies around urgency and emergency. That’s not to say that we’ve reached the goal or solved all our concerns, but if it were my project for the future, I would be about continuing that noise. Otherwise, it is true that a dirty, small, vicious set of posters can completely undo us. And our voice doesn’t have to be one, as in we don’t all have to agree. If we’re out there, living campus out loud, the posters — which I think weren’t just about targeting particular groups, but were meant to disrupt the whole enterprise of the University — aren’t as loud in that conversation. I’ll be among the first to condemn them in many different ways, but I think we have the ability to marginalize them. If it’s too quiet, the posters feel like that’s the only thing being said.

In 2013, for example, I chaired a themed semester called Understanding Race, and campus was just blanketed with exhibitions, lectures, etc. And then #BBUM came. And I thought that was so poetic, that it continued that substantive noise around race and inequality, even with its own origins in students’ activism.

We do Martin Luther King (Jr. Day) better here than anywhere else in the country, but that one day or weekend isn’t enough. It has to be every day. And that’s a burden, that’s a big job, and it’s different from other programmatic agendas around diversity. But it’s hard to say look at all the things we’re doing — and we really are doing them — if those things aren’t making any noise, because then it’s like they’re not happening.

TMD: Do you think non-Black students have appropriately owned their stake in that noise?

MJ: You’re right to point out that the posters were a tragic opportunity for white members of our community to interrogate where they are in our work around diversity, equity and inclusion. They were caricatured as well — though the stakes are nowhere as high as for Black students — in the notion that our white students would blithely condone a white supremacist vision. In my classroom, I’d say I found students thinking very hard about (it), struggling with this year. Classrooms are an anecdotal experience, but I have never experienced students working so hard in that way before. There (are) a lots of spaces where I suspect it was yet another year of business as usual. But I always take my cues from what students do and try, and I think they teach the faculty and administrators where the bar is. My white-identified students were shaking themselves and waking up, and that takes work. I hope they find their way in these conversations to not replicate the same lines of supremacy and privilege.

TMD: In what ways have you seen this campus change here? From Prop 2 to BBUM to digitizing the academic environment...I mean, Jim Harbaugh is here now. What are some of those trends and patterns you’ve picked up on?

MJ: One of the things I think about Michigan is that we really don’t see ourselves as well as we should. I think in so many ways, we are — not always by design — on the cutting edge of so much that’s important. Prop 2 is that. I certainly have been deflated, disappointed and more in response. But one metaphor is us as the canary in the coal mine on so many questions. That’s why the posters are at Michigan in September and at American University in May. We should appreciate the ways in which, for better or worse, we are defining the 21st century in higher education.

I came to Michigan right on 9/11, and campus was closed, and I didn’t understand why a campus in the Midwest would be closed. I had come from New York, and I didn’t know anything about Dearborn, or our Muslim students. I didn’t understand that in 1993 after the first World Trade Center bombing, students on our campus had been targeted and harassed. We were absolutely at the center — and we don’t often own that narrative. I wish we saw ourselves as the leaders as we are — and not as some trite slogan — but as an institution that has been, in the last half generation — from affirmative action to 9/11 and alongside the worst fiscal downturn in living memory — on the front lines. Why we don’t own that, instead of imagining that we are the Harvard of the Midwest? We’re one of the states that went from blue to red in 2016. That’s the sort of thing you want to understand — and that’s not true in Massachusetts or New York or California, where we think our peers to be. Be Michigan, not the sanitized leaders and best, but the grittiness of the trials we’ve been through.

So who is going to do away with the SAT and ACT as an intervention in admissions diversity? Who’s going to create one campus where students from Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn are one student body? If this is what we believe ourselves to be, then we’re never going to be Harvard. I think we’re in a moment where people are really thinking about what a public good is, which can provide a framework for what we uniquely have to offer.

TMD: You’ve invested a lot in the future of the University community, and higher education in general. Where do you think we are, or should be, moving?

MJ: It’s cliche, but there’s no one research university that wouldn’t say “we’re a global institution.” Part of what I’ve learned through the bicentennial year is that we’ve always been everywhere, but I think there’s some deep ethical questions related to U.S.-based global research that I hope we can lead on. The cutting edge of that vision means that the entities with whom you collaborate with as an institution become true partners. So ethically, to suggest that an indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest is not simply a site of research, but partners. What are the obligations and limits of that partnership? Does our research agenda change in response to this new notion of community?

TMD: And even closer than the Amazon, are we even doing that in Detroit?

MJ: There was a point at which my recommendation was that we pull out of Detroit altogether — that we didn’t really mean it. Now that was more of a provocation, but it’s not so far-fetched. That would be in keeping with one vision of who we are.

As an institution, we’re very late in coming to Detroit, and much of it is that Harvard-Michigan tension. We weren’t sure if we wanted to be a university that just happened to be in southeastern Michigan. A few years ago, I wound up doing a survey of all the programs in Detroit emanating from Ann Arbor, and there are scores of them. But after itemizing them, they didn’t really have one coherent mission or vision. Perhaps what we’re moving towards is a more comprehensive relationship to Detroit, but frankly, I don’t think we’ll get that far without infrastructure. We struggled over the bus shuttle, where’s the light rail or the material conduit between these two places?

I’m also not sure what it means for us to compete with Wayne State or Michigan State, two institutions that have been more organically engaged in the city of Detroit. We need to be respectful of the indigenous institutions that have been there long before and without us.

TMD: And placing that in the context of the global community…

MJ: Right, to think of Detroit as Paris or Dakar or, I mean is that the right sort of framing for how we think of it? Working with (Architecture Prof.) Steven Mankouche through Stumbling Blocks, they asked all of these counterfactual architectural questions about what if there had been no native land gift? What if we had never left Detroit? We do presume that the architecture and organization of us in Ann Arbor and Detroit over there is a given. Asking if there’s a way to get back is complicated, but interesting.

TMD: Where is the University going in the age of Trump?

MJ: Oh gosh. What does the age of Trump even mean? It’s one of those questions that will have different answers for different people in our community.

I’m thinking about an opportunity I had to sit with climate scientists on our campus, and even before the inauguration, they were aware the funding, structure and politics of their work on climate change was going to change dramatically. So that’s one question on research and its relationship to politics — and it seems our research is now going to be vetted in a way that’s much more hands-on.

I think it’s changing what we teach — a lot of us in this winter term went off script and rethought, in real time and nimble ways, our curriculum and what students need to know.

If the University is going to be a site for resistance, there are things we should understand: a) we’re not a monolith, b) this isn’t a dress rehearsal and c) people will come for us. We need not to be naive about it … if we declare ourselves a sanctuary campus, they’ll come. When Schlissel commented, what I thought was in very benign way, after the election, people came. And this is not to discourage, simply to point out that we all have a stake in this.

I do think we have to double down on conversation across difference. Many of us have been set in enclaves because of various social forces, and they’re often very comfortable. Working as an attorney, I’d have vicious battles in the courtroom with other lawyers, and I’d do what it took to win — but afterwards we’d meet up in the hallway and decide on Italian or Chinese for lunch. In academia, when we disagree, we don’t have lunch, Chinese or Italian. I think that’s such a mistake!

Some of the hardest conversations I’ve had this year have been with my colleagues in Genetics or Nuclear Engineering — areas I really know nothing about. But to survive as a community, we need to put in hard work. And I don’t think I really knew that when I came to Michigan. We’ll disagree and get hurt, but we’ll emerge more whole.

TMD: What personal lessons would you impart to this community?

MJ: When Michele Norris was here a few years ago, we worked together on the Race Card project. And Michele decided to host a big town hall, where people got to get up and say anything they wanted. And for 90 minutes, she stood there and answered them. I was so afraid for her … and I asked her later, how did you do that? How did you become that person who could stand up there and open a conversation about race that could go so wrong? She told me she knew herself. And she had to deal with her own self before, well, the country’s problems.

And so I began to undertake a lot more personal, public writing — and this now brings us full circle to you. The Daily has provided a forum for us as a community, our public square. It took me a while to realize it, but I wish I could, more of us could partake in the daily life of the Daily.

I’m on my way out and trying now to make room for other people — to take up the work that I inherited when I arrived here.