While attending UF, sometimes we can underestimate the exact prestige associated with the university and forget just how advantageous it is to go here. I have had the privilege to study under and work with extraordinary professors, learning from those who are leading their field. We just think of them as those that assign us papers and show up in our Zoom squares. But little did we know, the professors walking around campus are essentially stars among us.
One of which is Dr. Debra King, a full professor in the English department, here at UF, teaching mostly African American literature. You might remember her from the popular Survey of American Literature class or perhaps heard of her famous “7 Fatal Flaws” rule that strikes fear in most first-year English majors. Or you may recall her infamous teaching style, known for her impassioned lectures and the genuine care she has for each of her students. I am currently a student in her class on Toni Morrison’s literature (and no, I’m not just writing this to get a good grade). If you have not had the pleasure of being in one of her classes, it is a true rite of passage for CLAS students (and students for any college here really) and you really should consider it. Despite what you may have heard, Dr. King is a fixture at UF, and there is so much more to learn about her.
After earning her Ph.D. in African American Studies and African American literature and cultural theory and her certificate in Women’s studies from Emory University in 1994, Dr. King became an affiliate faculty member here and has never left.
Her achievements as a teacher including being not only the CLAS Humanities Teacher of the Year in 2017 but also the CLAS Teacher of the Year 1996-97. Dr. King is also currently a 2019-2022 UF Term Professor. Before earning her current title of full professor in the English department, she made headway in the administration here. First becoming an associate provost, then becoming the first African American female Associate Dean for Humanities in CLAS. She is a necessary figure here, an inspiration for all women, especially women of color, for her professional achievements and groundbreaking work in her field.
Despite her years of service in administration, she made the transition back to a professor because she “missed her babies.”
She once told a story in class about why she chose to study and teach African American literature. As an African American herself she described it as something expected of her like it was such an obvious choice to outsider observers. Dr. King recalled that while defending her thesis on Shakespeare, a woman on her panel was thrilled that she, as a Black woman, had chosen to study Shakespeare, as most Shakespearian scholars didn’t look like her. Dr. King claims she chose to study African American literature right then, deciding that Shakespeare had enough scholars and that even though some in academia saw it as an “obvious” choice, it was the right one. Dr. King still remarks that the woman on her panel that saw so much promise in her career as a Shakespearian scholar was deeply disappointed in her change of her area of study.
Now, and for some time, her focus is on womanist thought and theory. Yep, womanist, not feminist. Although the terms may sound similar, they’re quite different. A quick and simple definition of womanism; the term was originally defined, Dr. King states, as a Black feminist, but has since evolved into a field of thought separate from feminism that centers around love between women and engagement with communities. She explains how womanism does “all the work that Black women had done to give their side of the story, because their voices, their side of the story, their interests were not being addressed by White feminists.” Dr. King refers to womanism as “a way of being in the world.”
Although her academic and professional achievements are groundbreaking and impressive, I think her work in the classroom is most impactful, especially to students such as myself.
Little did you know Dr. King is also an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and is a minister at Greater Bethel AME in Gainesville. She is currently working on the Daughters of Sarah, a group for young girls, to create an equal balance in the church where, previously, there was only a group equivalent for young boys. Her impassioned voice, the voice of a minister, follows over into her lecturing frequently, moving students and making them hear her.
Her ministry, she says, impacts her teaching immensely, for “you can’t have Black history or African American literature without religion.” Teaching African American literature and Black authors, more specifically Black women authors, Dr. King incorporates religion frequently into her work. “Toni Morrison’s work, and some other Black women’s work, makes us realize that this is not just a religion handed down to Black women who accept it but it’s a religion that Black women look at and take from what is of value to them and their lives”. Dr. King refers to it as marketplace ministry, bringing the ministry in her church into her work, claiming “If I was to ignore this very strong part of the text, then I would not be teaching the text.”
I think what struck me the most upon my first impression of Dr. King is the genuine care and devotion she has for the education and well-being of her students. Although most professors here feel as though they care about teaching and their students, Dr. King makes her students feel loved when praised and scolded when corrected (in the best way possible). When I asked her about it, she said that for a long time before she adopted her son, her students were her children, acting as a sort of “mother of many.” That, I think, is the best way to describe her teaching style- mothering. Instructive as a mother would teach her children, but in a professional way of course. A “mother as sage,” as Dr. King frequently puts it.
Dr. King’s goodness is most clearly seen when, at the end of each class, she leaves us all with a big air kiss and says some goodbyes filled with affection, telling us that she loves each of us. On a campus filled with thousands of brilliant and successful young people, she makes her students feel important, valued and meaningful.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking one of her classes then you know and have experienced this firsthand, and know I’m not exaggerating. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of being her student, I highly recommend it. Fall and Summer session registration is coming up soon, so consider signing up and I promise she will be one of your favorite professors in your college career.
I recently divulged to Dr. King that I was putting off taking one of her classes because I had heard that she was so incredible and that her classes were so powerful because she was a minister and that she expected a lot from her students. I was intimidated by all the rave reviews and I didn’t want to fail a professor that put so much into teaching; it would feel like I was failing her. But, I knew, as an English major, I had to take her some time, and I’m so grateful I did.