by Emma Duvall, Graduate Writer and Photographer
James Cobb, a graduate student in the department of English and Comparative Literature, was recently featured in a Diversity Spotlight by the University Office for Diversity & Inclusion. Cobb currently serves as the graduate student representative for the English and Comparative Literature department’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Created in 2017, the committee advises faculty hires in the department and manages numerous projects to diversify and improve the climate of the department. As the graduate student representative on the committee, Cobb works on rethinking the department’s hiring practices, graduate funding, and other aspects of graduate student life. Professor Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the department diversity liaison, says of Cobb, “in everything he does, James works to not only increase diversity on the campus, but to deepen the notion of what diversity and inclusion means in the classroom and in the world.”
Reflecting on how his life experience has contributed to his current work in the committee, Cobb says “[growing up,] I was not openly discriminated against, but looking around the class and not seeing any black faces for the better part of nine years reveals the spaces in which Blacks are and are not welcome.” He continues, noting, “I also existed on the other side of this line. Sports were a space in which a certain type of blackness was expected, but my friends on the team lived different lives and came from exceedingly different backgrounds.” This experience has informed Cobb’s understanding of the nature of diversity. He notes that “I understand a person as not adherent to a particular category.”
This perspective on diversity has influenced Cobb’s initiatives within the department. When asked about how the department’s faculty and curriculum could be improved to increase diversity, Cobb identified diversity of faculty members as a key component of improving the diversity of the department. He notes that ensuring that higher education includes a diverse group of people encourages more diversity in the students who pursue careers in academia. Reflecting on his time in college and graduate school, he says “as a college student, I had no close connections to a professor of color. I only knew that I loved to analyze texts because they revealed something to me about the world. Working at UNC with GerShun Avilez has made the reality of being a scholar less abstract.” By promoting a faculty of diverse scholars, Cobb believes that the department can help further such connections between the faculty and student body.
In the undergraduate courses that he teaches, Cobb also strives for an ever-increasing diversity of authors, aiming to include not only writers of color but also female and LGBTQ authors. In fall 2017, he taught Intro to Fiction, which allowed him to design his own syllabus from scratch. When asked about his own curriculum development, Cobb commented on creating the class reading list, saying “though there is a lot to be gleaned through canonical works, it is equally important to understand the limitations of these works and how subsequent writers reveal these limitations. I wanted my students to understand that even the most heralded writers and works of fiction can be problematic.” This critical view of the reception of literature is in keeping with the spirit of inclusion and community that Cobb promotes in all of his work on campus. For more information about James Cobb and the Diversity & Inclusion committee, click here.