Central to Professor Andrea Davis’ transformational work as a teacher and academic is the belief that “racism is a refusal to really learn,” and the philosophy of “teaching as activism.” Her 20-year career embodies both and, now, she has been recognized with Canada’s most prestigious award for teaching, leadership and innovation.
Davis, an associate professor of humanities in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) and special advisor on LA&PS’ Anti-Black Racism Strategy, is one of the 10 recipients of a 2021 3M National Teaching Fellowship. The fellowships were created in 1986 by the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education to recognize “educators who show leadership in enhancing post-secondary education and a sustained dedication to undergraduate education.”
“I am deeply honoured by the award and the recognition it brings,” said Davis, who has received previous commendations, including the President’s University-wide Teaching Award. “I’m thrilled for York and my Faculty and encouraged that the kind of labour that often goes unseen has been acknowledged. This award is also a tremendous recognition for my students because it validates what is meaningful to them; they feel recognized and heard and it shows that the interventions I bring to the academy are meaningful. I believe that everything we do in the university—research, service or teaching—must positively impact the lives of students. I am pleased to see that when you pour love and care into your students, that can be rewarded.”
“Professor Davis’ devotion to education and critical thinking has, indeed, positively impacted and transformed the lives of thousands of LA&PS students,” said J.J. McMurtry, dean of LA&PS. “She inspires her students to challenge the status quo, to interrogate our histories and to recognize the inherent value of diversity.
“While this award recognizes Professor Davis’ outstanding teaching, it is amazing that she is also able to lead in every aspect of our work as a Faculty, including forthcoming publications and serving as special advisor on LA&PS’ Anti-Black Racism Strategy.”
Davis comes from a background in literature and literary studies, but her courses are interdisciplinary.
“I use diverse texts to help students think about the world and to use that knowledge to imagine a different kind of future,” said Davis, former chair of the Department of Humanities. “I encourage them to think about what different possibilities might exist.
“I think about how to use humanities to help bring Black ideas, thoughts and cultures into the centre of the academy so when we look at Black writers and ideas, we think of them the same way we would the work of Western European men. In my role as special advisor, too, I am working to move the university toward a more just version of itself.”
As part of her passion for justice and equity, Davis developed a Black Canadian Studies certificate at York and is working to create a pan-University Black Studies major. It is work that many other institutions are studying and seeking to emulate, looking to a professor and a university that seek positive change and a just future.
“It is terrific to see Dr. Davis recognized for her commitment and unique talent as a teacher,” said Provost Lisa Phillips. “From launching the Black Canadian Studies Certificate to her work on a pan-university interdisciplinary Black Studies Major, she extends her leadership in teaching across and far beyond the York community, in ways that value justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Davis believes that her simple presence in the classroom is hopeful for many members of York’s racialized student body; it’s another way of leading.
“Just walking into a classroom and seeing a Black professor model a career that you didn’t think possible before might seem so small, but it is profound in ways I can’t even give voice to,” said Davis.
“Professor Davis teaches in a way that empowers and inspires her students,” said Ravi de Costa, associate dean with the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “She is a revered instructor, a leading academic in Black diasporic studies and a respected colleague. Her love of teaching and commitment to social justice is apparent in all her work, in and outside the classroom.”
Davis nurtures the students who have been told by others that “they have no future,” and “loves seeing them grow.” As she has grown in her academic career, Davis has also mentored graduate students and younger colleagues with the same care and attention.
"Not only is Professor Davis an outstanding educator; she is also a leader in creating pathways for students to nurture their academic talents, smoothing their way as they enter university and later consider post-graduate studies,” said Professor Will Gage, York’s associate vice-president, teaching and learning. “We value her contributions to teaching and learning at York and look forward to having her continued energy and creativity enhance our academic programs."
University teachers are also scholars and Davis is no exception. Her most recent work is a book that will be published by Northwestern University Press this year. In Horizon, Sea, Sound: Caribbean and African Women’s Cultural Critiques of Nation, Davis uses the expressive cultures of Caribbean and African women in Canada to imagine new affiliations of community among Black, Indigenous, and other racialized women.
As the recipient of a 3M Fellowship, Davis hopes “this award will encourage another generation of teacher activists. I want them to see that you can teach from your own place of truth and academia can recognize and honour that.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, teaching and learning