Inside Iowa State
Feb. 7, 1997
Teaching by example
by Steve Sullivan
Valerie Grim's return to Iowa State was supposed to last a year. But Grim's stay has been extended with her recent appointment as interim director of African American studies.
An associate professor with Indiana University's prestigious department of Afro American studies, Grim earned her master's and doctoral degrees from Iowa State in 1986 and 1990, respectively. She returned to campus this fall as a visiting professor of history, and now will stay through 1998 to guide the African American studies program through a sensitive period.
Grim has a number of goals for the program -- the most important to find a permanent director. An earlier search was unsuccessful, and a new search has just been launched.
"When I arrived here, a number of issues surrounding African American studies were brought to my attention by faculty and students," Grim said. "I wanted to offer my services as a person who has been involved in an African American studies program and has an understanding of how teaching, research and service come together to create a quality interdisciplinary program."
It's not surprising people wanted Grim in the interim directorship. Indiana University's Afro American studies program was established more than 25 years ago and has a national reputation. Grim has done extensive research on the African American experience in agriculture, particularly in the South.
"I saw really diligent people trying so very hard to make this program work and I became interested in contributing any way I could," she said of her decision to stay on at Iowa State. "When the first search for a director was unsuccessful, it left a serious vacancy not only in terms of the position, but also in people's minds, as to how the program would move on."
As interim director, Grim wants to bring structure to African American studies, particularly through curriculum development and programming that involve faculty and students across the university. Among her other goals are establishing an African American cross-cultural lectures program and essay contests built around such events as African American history month.
"I'm optimistic about the future of the program because of the commitment I've seen at every level. I have seen nothing but sincere desire to see this program succeed," she said.
"The primary issue for me is to create a diverse and dynamic program that fits into the educational objectives of Iowa State. The issues for me are money for faculty hiring, curriculum development and programming, and developing relations with scholars from every college on this campus. I want the program to move from just offering a few courses to offering an array of courses that are taught by professors across the university."
Grim came to Iowa State in 1984 after earning her B.A. in history from Tougaloo College, Mississippi.
"Iowa State was my first integrated educational experience and Ames was my first urban experience," said Grim, who grew up in an agricultural region of the Mississippi Delta. "Being in an all-white environment, a lot of things were going on in my mind. But the primary one was wanting to excel as a scholar. I knew how well I did would determine to some extent whether other blacks would want to come and pursue an education in history at Iowa State."
Grim said she can relate to the concerns she hears from African American students at Iowa State -- concerns about the lack of African American faculty and programs that represent their interests. She also can relate to the experience of being the target of racial slurs. It happened when she was a student at Iowa State. It has happened during her time here as a visiting professor. But Grim stresses the importance of "keeping your eyes on the prize."
"I came here with the goal of getting a master's degree and a Ph.D. and I understood that, along the way, there would be some struggle, both personally and academically," she said. "But, I never forgot why I was here. I now have a mission to be in the classroom to talk about the experiences of black people, so people will be encouraged not to be ignorant and say insensitive things.
"There are many white faculty who understand when black students say they need to see African American faculty representation. As a student and as a scholar, I know the importance of being in the classroom not only for students of color, but also for white students, so they will see minorities in positions of authority and intellectual ability."
Grim is completing a manuscript on African American rural culture in the Mississippi Delta and another on African American rural women. Recently, she was asked to contribute a chapter to a book on African Americans in Iowa. The chapter will focus on their agricultural heritage in the state.
"There is an African American agriculture heritage in Iowa, but you've really got to work to dig it up. It needs serious resurrection," she said.
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