All in the Family

By Lum, Lydia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, November 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

All in the Family


Lum, Lydia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Having grown up in the academy, second-generation scholars chart their own course to become their professor parents' academic peer.

Even as a little girl, Dr. Nitasha Sharma aspired to become a college professor like her parents, whose careers let the family spend entire summers or longer in either her mother's native Brooklyn, N.Y., or her father's native India. She dreamed of long vacations as a grown-up and going home for lunch on weekdays. But during a stay in India when Sharma learned Hindi as a middle schooler, she realized how such travels fed intellectual growth and how her parents' work nourished the minds of their students.

Today, Sharma, an assistant professor of African American studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University, is a member of countless two-generation U.S. academic familles. In recent interviews with Diverse, grown children recalled how dinnertime chatter featured generous helpings of their parents' research and teaching, along with sides of university politics and activism. Parents didn't consciously steer their progeny into their professional spheres but welcomed them as colleagues, sometimes even becoming pedagogically influenced. Of course, so-called shop talk flavors the present-day conversations between both generations.

Sharma, a 2009 Diverse Emerging Scholar whose research examines relations between racial groups, including the influence of African- American-inspired hip hop culture on musicians of South Asian descent, has often related to her parents as their academic peer. Her mother, Dr. Miriam Sharma, a longtime University of Hawaii professor of Asian studies, initiated a course about South Asians in England and their diaspora largely in response to her intrigue with her daughter's research. The two are as likely to attend conferences together or invite each other to serve as a discussion panelist as they are to have a mother-daughter phone chat.

Following parents into the academy is not without challenges, particularly when scholars are overshadowed by their more famous parents. And, sometimes, a boundary between parent and child is warranted - - if only temporarily.

Dr. Emeterio Otero, executive dean at Monroe Community College's campus in downtown Rochester, N.Y., says that when his term on the institution's labor management team overlapped with that of his son Christopher as faculty union representative, the two agreed not to discuss work whenever they met for brunch along with other family. "We were clearly on opposite sides on hot topics like tenure, health insurance."

Christopher Otero-Piersante is an associate professor of English at an MCC campus on the edge of Rochester. When advocating for faculty, Christopher "was so passionate, transparent and so far to the left on all the issues that no one accused him of being unduly influenced by me," Emeterio says. "And I told my colleagues of our agreement to not discuss work outside of work. I also recused myself entirely from the negotiating team. That would've been a nightmare."

While recounting details of that three-year period, he sounded more like a nail-biting parent than a put-upon administrator, though. "Chris held the flag high for faculty, no doubt. I worried that if he ever wants to become a dean, his words as union rep could become a problem. But he did what he thought was best."

Christopher still invites Emeterio to faculty parties at his home. "It's purely sodai. The faculty see me as a human, and I get a chance to hear about pedagogy and their passions, their heartaches. My son has helped me bridge the gap between teachers and the administration, and I became a better administrator because of it."

Home Training

M.K. Asante, an assodate professor of creative writing and film at Morgan State University, credits his multitasking abilities and multiple creative outlets to watching, throughout his childhood, his Temple University professor parents juggle their interests in scholarship, art and community activism.

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