Faces of Fisk
Katharine A. Burnett: Broadening Literature Through the Minds of Fisk Students
by Tierra Robinson, Communications and Digital Content Coordinator
Katharine A. Burnett, Ph.D., assistant professor of English, has always enjoyed a good book and since her arrival at Fisk four years ago, her love for literature has broadened the minds of many students.
“I’ve always been kind of a nerd,” Burnett said. “My parents are bikers, so my brother and I would spend a lot of time at motorcycle rallies on weekends. These were usually long and boring trips so I always had a book with me.”
Often times, her parents joked that a slideshow of her childhood would be her in front of a green screen, sitting on motorcycle, while reading a book with different scenes playing in the background.
“Books were a moment of escape and connection. A lot of things I read about were so different from my experiences,” Burnett said.
Burnett references Mildred Taylor’s acclaimed novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as one of her favorite literary pieces growing up. “The book is about this black family from Mississippi and their experiences of living in a segregated south. This experience was so far removed from my family, being a white girl growing up in Nashville.” Burnett continues, “I think that’s why I still love reading and teaching because it allows us to connect with experiences that are foreign to us. Also, we find things that we identify with, and help us connect with other people as well.”
The Nashville native’s ties to Fisk began long before her period in the classroom. In fact, she went to Martin Luther King High School just a couple miles from the historic university.
“I grew up in West Nashville and had a lot of connections to Fisk growing up. My best friend from childhood is a Fisk graduate and we often came to campus for the research symposiums.” Burnett pauses and beams as she reminisces on her experiences at Fisk and points out the talents of Fisk students. “When I saw the job opening at Fisk, I said to myself ‘I want to be there,’” Burnett recalls. “I remain at Fisk because I love it here. My students are hands down the best students and at any point, I can go into my composition classes and my students are always on it.”
Burnett readily admits that teaching was a challenge for her when she first began. In fact, teaching was not her first aspiration.
“While I was working on my undergraduate degree in German at UT-Knoxville, I thought I wanted to be an international lawyer. However, I continued to take English classes because I loved them,” said Burnett. “So I inadvertently got an English degree while getting my German degree because I had enough credits for both.”
After a year studying in Germany, Burnett returned to the states and found herself torn between her passion for English and her original thoughts of becoming an attorney.
“I applied to Law Schools, took the LSAT, and applied to English programs because they were the classes I was more interested in. I did mock trials and I liked them, but they weren’t my passion. I just didn’t get excited about law the way I did when I was writing in my English courses,” Burnett said. “I took a gap year to figure out what I wanted to do. I worked as a paralegal and found that I didn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, my job at the time was such that I could just sit and read books the whole time. I read materials I didn’t get to read in college.”
Burnett would later go on to obtain a Masters of English from the University of Mississippi and a doctorate in English from UT-Knoxville.
At Fisk, Burnett teaches American Literature, English Composition, Gender Studies, and serves as the advisor for FLO, the LGBTQ group on campus. She credits Fisk students for helping her overcome obstacles that she faced many times at other institutions.
While teaching Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved, at a school in Mississippi, she was questioned, “why do we always have to talk about black people?” She also noticed students mentioned on her evaluations, “why do we always have to talk about slavery?” She was hesitant and did not know what to say at first, but then realized our history is inclusive of everyone and it is a part of who we are.
“At Fisk, there is this inherent engagement, curiosity, and a sense of social justice. It just permeates our classes and everything we do,” Burnett said. “The things I want to talk about in my classes require much thought and Fisk is the perfect environment for these sometimes, tough conversations.”
Burnett is often asked by her students if the stories they are currently reading have any relevancy in today’s climate. She often reminds them that “even stories that have taken place over 150 years ago have a timeless component. Good literature, good art has this timelessness to it.”
Burnett remains committed to the student-centered nature of Fisk and wants to contribute to the success of the university and its students. “It’s not about me. I’m here to help and facilitate and make things happen for my students or my colleagues.”
Although she recently finished writing a book, she does not consider this her biggest accomplishment. “My biggest accomplishment is helping my students overcome obstacles, get into a big academic program, or helping a colleague achieve something great,” Burnett said. “The small successes build up into something larger and keep me excited about working here at Fisk.”
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