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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 66–72 

My Mission as a Scholar: An Interview

Aleen J. Ratzlaff

What is the story behind your becoming a scholar?

I graduated from Tabor College in the 1970s with an undergraduate degree in social work. Following college commencement, I joined World Impact, an urban mission organization, to live and minister in the African American community of Wichita, Kansas, for a summer term. I then stayed seventeen years and became a part of that community where I expected to remain until I reached retirement.

Something about my life and values spoke to colleagues in my program. It wasn’t so much what I said but how I lived and the importance I placed on the spiritual dimension of my life.

The community in which I lived was an intense place where I was on the job 24/7. I experienced both joys as well as challenges. With time I began to feel a restlessness. I had been working with a group of twenty-five teenaged girls set to graduate from high school that upcoming May. I had known many of them since they were young, some since the age of seven. As I pondered my future, I found it difficult to imagine establishing and building relationships with another group of young girls.

At the same time I was familiar with the News Hawk, a newspaper published and distributed intermittently in the African American community of northeast Wichita. I had once met its editor and also knew a woman who {67} wrote an opinion column and was a regular reporter for the newspaper. I was intrigued by the idea that a newspaper targeted an African American readership. Its news focused not only on social aspects of the community but also on the equity and justice issues its readers faced.

In the fall of 1990, as I contemplated leaving the ministry, I took a three-month sabbatical. I spent one month with my brother in my hometown of Hillsboro, Kansas, where he was the editor of the Christian Leader, the Mennonite Brethren denominational magazine. While I was there, he asked me to do some writing for the magazine. I found writing to be a surprisingly freeing experience for me. In the second month of my sabbatical I traveled to Newark, New Jersey, and stayed with Marcy Bullmaster, a friend and colleague who was the principal at World Impact’s school there. She was concurrently working on a doctorate at Columbia University. Marcy immediately put me to work and had me help students put together a class newspaper.

The last month of my sabbatical took me to Iowa City, Iowa, where I spent time with the family of Don Davis, who had previously worked with World Impact in Wichita. Don was also in a PhD program, which was at the University of Iowa. 1 I myself had begun to consider going back to school, but didn’t know what I would study or what goals to set. I thought about continuing my social work education but doubted I had the motivation and energy to seek an advanced degree in a helping profession. While I enjoyed working with people, my inclination toward empathy with those who suffered had led to some emotionally draining relationships while at World Impact.

During this time, I read Theirs is the Kingdom by Robert D. Lupton, a collection of narratives from his ministry in the inner city of Atlanta. 2 My experiences resonated with the vignettes he recounted. I enjoyed writing and wondered whether I could perhaps help others from the city tell their stories. That idea became my initial impetus to return to school, but I didn’t know if that meant working for another undergrad degree or enrolling in a master’s program. Both Don and Marcy encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree.

Initially, I decided to take an undergrad editing class at Wichita State University. Because I had enjoyed my time with my brother at the Christian Leader, I thought perhaps journalism or feature writing would be the route to go. I met with the professor of the course, Les Anderson, who also encouraged me to apply to grad school.

So I applied to Wichita State, which had an interdisciplinary communication master’s program. I was accepted, plus granted a teaching assistantship. Teaching undergraduates invigorated me. Part of my program included a qualitative research methods class. My class project focused {68} on a couple of black newspapers, published in 1894, which I discovered on microfilm in the library. My master’s thesis examined the framing of politics, race, and religion in 1890s newspapers published in Wichita. 3 Three of the newspapers in the study were black newspapers. I discovered that while historians had used the black newspapers of Kansas as primary source evidence for events and people, the role of the newspapers in forming the unique identities of the state’s African American communities hadn’t been a focus. I also was energized by engaging in academic research.

After I completed my master’s program, I joined the faculty at Tabor College where I taught communication courses for a couple of years. I found that my World Impact experiences in Wichita and my earlier research into ethnic media merged to compel me to go further in my studies to research the early black press of Kansas. 4 In 1996 I was granted a leave from Tabor to begin doctoral studies at the University of Florida. There I had the good fortune to study with Dr. Bernell Tripp, a noted historian of antebellum and black newspapers.

How has your research shaped and enriched the person you have become as a scholar and a person of faith?

The thesis for my dissertation centers on the role of black newspapers in community building. 5 Black-owned newspapers published in Topeka, Kansas City, and Wichita targeted readers in enclaves and neighborhoods of African American communities, such as Tennessee Town in Topeka and String-town in Emporia. My dissertation argued that these newspapers connected and extended communities of African Americans in Kansas and beyond.

I believe that being a Christ follower is all about being part of community, so I naturally recognized how newspapers facilitated social connections. My faith was informed by and shaped in community. Underlying my dissertation was Benedict Anderson’s theory of an “imagined community,” which argues that a community—especially one as large as a nation—is a socially constructed concept. 6 Shared information forms a basis for connection and community with people who may not know one another personally. Being connected in a faith community and with other faith communities results from a shared knowledge and understanding of God and Jesus, which mirrors what happens with newspapers and their readership.

As a media historian whose primary research area has focused on the role media play in building community, I am convinced that it is essential to understand the perspectives of others. It’s easy to assume that the way I see the world is how others have always seen it. It’s therefore important to resist present-mindedness when we interpret evidence from an earlier {69} time. My twentieth and twenty-first century mindset will tend to distort my understanding of the late nineteenth century, and this affects the way I interpret primary sources from that earlier period. For example, one of my studies focused on editorial cartoons published in the black press of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The cartoons make little sense unless one knows their historical context. Just as understanding the Bible requires understanding the context of its original recipients, correctly interpreting the role and content of black newspapers is dependent on understanding the context and issues of their era.

Has the church supported you and been a nurturing place for you?

While I was on staff with World Impact, a significant part of my work focused on teaching children about Jesus as well as discipling teens and young adults in their faith walk. Over time, the ministry started a church plant in the community in which we lived. When I entered the ministry as a recent college graduate, I brought along notions of what I would be able to give to others. I’m thankful that I was there long enough to realize that I had much to learn from the people to whom I felt called to minister. Life became a mutual give and take with my neighbors and friends in the African American community.

After leaving full-time Christian ministry, where involvement in church had become a job, I found myself burned-out and disillusioned with the established church for a season. So much of the talk at church seemed to lack authenticity. While I never considered that my faith was in jeopardy, I certainly chose distance and resisted personal involvement with a church. I thought that I needed space, away from organized religion. Actually, I felt more at home attending African American than white churches. The authenticity and energy I experienced in the black church seemed to be missing in mainstream churches.

In many ways, those years in graduate school and afterward freed me to process my identity and discover more fully who I was in Christ. I learned the importance of being in relationship with others. As a doctoral student at the University of Florida, I know that something about my life and values spoke to colleagues in my program. It wasn’t so much what I said but how I lived and the importance I placed on the spiritual dimension of my life. Some of those relationships with UF colleagues continue to this day.

In the past seven years or so I have had a renewed desire to commit myself to active membership in a church body. I’m so thankful that God faithfully saw me through the days when I only attended church services irregularily. {70}

Has your sense of God’s direction for you in academia ever been threatened or challenged?

In academia you will be challenged at multiple levels. When I was in my master’s program, one of my professors discouraged me from choosing the black press for my research focus. She was concerned that I wouldn’t be accepted by African American scholars because I am white. But that’s where my interest and passions lay, and I was determined to continue that focus. Several years later I read a collection of autobiographic essays by respected scholars of African American history—some were African American and some were white. 7 That affirmed the notion I could be in that arena with a role to play and a contribution to make.

For more than fifteen years I’ve been involved in a couple of professional organizations, including the American Journalism Historians Association (AJHA). My doctoral advisor, Dr. Tripp, introduced me to this group where I am now recognized as an expert in African American press history. 8 AJHA is an organization that is supportive and accessible to graduate students. That’s where I’ve made connections with other media historians from across the United States. I have presented papers on my research as well as served on panels at the organization’s annual national conferences. Also I have published several book reviews on black press history as well as book chapters of various black press research projects. As my various interests and passions have blended, I sense that God has led me into an academic career that suits me well.

Are there parts of your story, difficult moments or periods of life or times of joy, that have pulled you through?

I don’t know how I would have managed in a publish-or-perish setting. I’m thankful that at Tabor I’m in a good place where I work with collegial colleagues. I also have opportunities to invest in and mentor students. I am more of a generalist here in the communication courses I teach. But because of my involvement in professional academic organizations, I can still connect with a larger world of scholarship.

Tabor’s academic dean recognizes the value of scholarship and provides professional development funds that allow me to attend and present papers at prestigious conferences. At AJHA national conferences, some attenders teach at top-tier research institutions. Even though I am from the smallest school represented there, I can receive feedback about my research projects from knowledgeable, respected scholars in the field, and give feedback to others in turn. So I do have the best of both worlds: I spend most of my days in a small, cordial academic setting, but annually connect with the larger community that includes highly respected scholars in my field. {71}

What words of advice would you offer to those considering an academic career?

I remember the first semester of my doctoral program. I was in a new place and knew no one. Initially I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and questioned whether I had made the right decision to commit to a PhD program. I had doubts whether I would succeed in my courses and scholarship. On the other hand, I also felt that to quit the program would be far worse than to have not started it. For that reason, I would advise those considering an academic career to take time in making that decision. I am grateful that prior to deciding to pursue a doctorate, I had met with a group of friends and colleagues to determine my best course of action.

In choosing programs for application, it’s important to decide with whom you hope to study. If you have an idea about the general area or a specific topic of interest, research the potential program options. Visit the universities you’re considering before committing to a program. Make sure the school has a good library.

Once I was in my doctoral program, I chose my dissertation committee members carefully, waiting as long as possible before asking faculty to serve on my committee. I had been cautioned by my master’s thesis advisor to be alert to faculty politics. I had colleagues in my program who had difficulty getting through their dissertation defense because their dissertation committees consisted of faculty members who had deep philosophical and personal differences.

Two professors in my doctoral program significantly influenced my teaching and scholarship. Dr. Julie Dodd, who taught a pedagogy class required for all graduate assistants, helped to shape my approach to teaching at the collegiate level. Dr. Bernell Tripp, my dissertation adviser and professor, modeled systematic and comprehensive research and maintained that standard for me and my peers.

Above all, I say embrace those opportunities, experiences and people that God brings into your life as you learn to trust God step by step.

NOTES

  1. After completing his PhD in Religion (Theology and Ethics), Don Davis returned to World Impact in Wichita to found and direct The Urban Ministry Institute.
  2. Robert D. Lupton. Theirs Is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).
  3. Aleen J. Ratzlaff, “Issue Framing in the 1890s: Race, Politics, and Religion in Early Newspapers of Wichita, Kansas” (Master’s Thesis, Wichita State University, 1994). {72}
  4. The Kansas State Historical Society has a rich collection of African American newspapers on microfilm, beginning in the late 1870s.
  5. Aleen Ratzlaff, “Black Press Pioneers in Kansas, Connecting and Extending Communities in Three Geographic Sections, 1878–1900” (PhD Dissertation, University of Florida, 2001).
  6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991).
  7. Paul A. Cimbala and Robert F. Himmelberg, eds., Historians and Race: Autobiography and the Writing of History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996).
  8. Bibliographic citations of representative research: Aleen J. Ratzlaff, “Ida B. Wells and Coverage of Lynchings and Antilynching Efforts in Selected Mainstream Newspapers, 1892–1894,” in After the War: The Press in a Changing America, 1865–1900, ed. David B. Sachsman, with Dea Lisica (New York: Routledge, 2017), 247–68; review of Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, in American Journalism 33, no. 4 (2016): 471–72; “Diverse Voices on the Plains,” panel presentation at American Journalism Historians Association annual conference (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, October 2015); “Black Newspapers and African-American Newspapers in Kansas,” presentation at Wichita Public Library (Wichita, Kansas, February 2013); “Ebony Triangle: The Black Newspaper Network in Kansas,” “Illustrated African American Journalism: Political Cartooning in the Indianapolis Freeman,” and “Ida B. Wells, Crusader Against the Lynch Law,” in Seeking a Voice: Images of Race and Gender in the 19th Century Press, ed. David B. Sachsman, et al. (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2009), 119–30, 131–40, 151–62.
Aleen J. Ratzlaff earned her BA in Social Work from Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas), her MA in Communication from Wichita State University, and her PhD in Mass Communication from the University of Florida (Gainesville). She serves as Professor of Communications at Tabor, where she has taught since 1993. Before teaching there, she served on the staff of World Impact in Wichita.

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