Dr. James Coleman ripped apart the first paper I wrote for him. It was a deeply labored effort to write critical theory, a language I neither understood nor particularly appreciated. Such a terrible paper—oh, it still makes me cringe to think of it. Jim did what the best professors will do: he carefully engaged with every flawed argument, every mistake, every increasingly, cataclysmically embarrassing moment of shallow, sophomoric understanding. All of those penciled marks! I will never forget them.
I took his class in the spring of 1992. As the semester was ending and the UNC campus was flowering, on the other side of the continent Los Angeles erupted in riots over the beating of Rodney King, and I wrote my last paper, something on Nella Larsen’s Passing, for Professor Coleman as the city was burning. I wrote much of it in a language I knew and loved: the direct, vivid prose of newspaper reporting, my previous life. A scholarly analysis bursting from a news event.
Jim called me into his office to talk about my paper. I wondered if he doubted that the same graduate student who had written that first poor effort could have crafted the final paper, but I didn’t wonder that until much later, because what he said was lovely. And he offered to help me rework my paper for publication. I didn’t take him up on it because I was too new to academia to think I could do any better than what I had written, and I was afraid he would discover that the promise he’d seen wasn’t really there. But I cherished his words.
As a teaching professor at UNC, I’ve worked with Jim for twelve years now, and time has only deepened my appreciation for him. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to stop by his office door to chat, and to work together on several projects. I doubt he remembered that talk in his office in the spring of 1992. I wish I had reminded him, at least once. Thank you, Jim.