Dr. Shayla Nunnally, Professor and Chair of the Department of Africana Studies, first started “teaching” as a passionate little girl, who would line up all her dolls in her parents’ family room, teach a lesson, then write the responses for each of her “students” (including making sure that they had different levels of performance), and grade their papers, with corrections and comments. On her journey from then to now she says, “As I think back on the contributions of my mother, who was an educator for almost 45 years, I find myself each day, becoming even more inspired to assist my students in achieving their highest potential. My mother passed in May 2022, but I feel as if more and more, I am assuming her passion for ‘giving back’ in various ways to her students and community.”
As an undergraduate student at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), in her freshman year this passion became a calling and a career with her first co-teaching experience with other NCCU and Duke University students, who devised a course syllabus and service-learning experience as a student-initiated course about homelessness. “Atlanta was our site of interest and where we eventually took an ‘alternative spring break’ to study the politics of the upcoming 1996 Olympics that was also being held there,” she recalls.
Dr. Nunnally then went on to pursue a summer teaching experience at an experiential learning school, Eagle Rock School, in Estes Park, Colorado, where she taught English and American government classes. Then, as a graduate student at Duke University, she developed her course and taught it, “and it has been one of my staple courses over the several years that I have been teaching American politics-related courses,” she says.
Dr. Nunnally also served as a teaching assistant to a pipeline program in political science—the American Political Science Association’s (APSA’s) Ralph Bunche Summer Institute—which introduced her to the power of promoting pipelines within professions. “One of my proudest moments,” she reflects, “was being able to go back to my alma mater, North Carolina Central University, and teach American government courses.”
Before coming to the University of Tennessee, Dr. Nunnally had been a tenured faculty member for almost 15 years, with a joint appointment in Political Science and the Institute for Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut. “It was there that I had served for several years as a faculty of record for UConn’s U.S. Congressional Honors Program,” teaching at UConn and in Washington, D.C., “and I co-established, as a part of a national initiative, the UCONN Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research on Women and Girls of Color.” She achieved success in these programs by initiating research, seed funding, and support for a brain trust for university faculty, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate students, across departmental and college collaborations in courses and programming, as well as within community partnerships to promote knowledge production, publications, and community service related to women and girls of color. It proved to be an incredibly formative experience for Dr. Nunnally, one that would go on to shape her own philosophy on teaching as well as her equitable and inclusive methodology to the field of education as a whole.
“However,” she notes, “I did not anticipate leaving my former university.” But then the University of Tennessee had an ideal opportunity for growth. “I learned about the Chairship in the (now) Department of Africana Studies Africana, and with serendipitous timing and my excitement about contributing to knowledge production in Africana Studies, my family and I moved to Tennessee, bringing me closer to my home state, Virginia.”
From here, Dr. Nunnally’s teaching philosophy and approach to education began to flourish:
“Whether public or private in secondary education, satellite or pipeline programs, my teaching philosophy is that all students have the potential to be great scholars. I hope to facilitate students’ learning by speaking to what interests them so that they can pursue interesting research questions and find more information to build more knowledge and research inquiries.”
Over time, Dr. Nunnally recalls how she has learned from her own mentors the importance of identifying her students’ talents to encourage them to pursue professional opportunities. “This has been one of my major commitments, and I have attempted to build learning bridges across members of the university community (as a past president of the African American Faculty and Staff Association at UConn) and connect faculty of different ranks and graduate and undergraduate students with learning and professional opportunities in collaboration with the American Political Science Association when I was the President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS).”
But in addition to understanding the power of a university’s interconnected web of knowledge and networks, Dr. Nunnally also firmly believes that “learning can (and should) occur outside the context of the university by connecting scholars with communities that may find topics of interest about which to learn. This, too, promotes learning accessibility.”
In short, Dr. Nunnally feels as though she is guided by a teaching philosophy that seemed to be broadly embraced at her undergraduate alma mater, NCCU, which was a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). It is what she has come to understand as a mantra of “Come as you are but leave even better than you came. And strive for excellence.” Assisting students to become excellent and independent scholars (the best that they can be) and find their unique interests is one of Dr. Nunnally’s major teaching goals, and excellence can be widespread if students also believe in themselves. “It is very important to me that they do believe in themselves,” she emphasizes, “and the strength of their talents and strive to enhance them as much as they can. As much as possible, I try to provide feedback to assist my students with thinking about additional considerations and the larger implications of their work.”
Dr. Nunnally also has a deep passion for exposing students to broad ranges of information for them to be able to analyze critically. “Very importantly, I have worked with some amazing students, some of whom I have been able to mentor from their freshman years to graduate school to productive members in their profession.” But this is not the only area where she has seen the powerful impact of her philosophy of teaching on her students. When asked to share a few other instances where she has been able to see this philosophy positively impacting her students’ lives, she generously shared with us what she calls her “most amazing experiences that I have had in the classroom”:
“I had a moment where I got to witness the power of diversity in the learning environment and how we can learn from the diverse experiences of others. I announced in my class that we would have a ‘pop quiz.’ One of my students, who was an international student, raised his hand, shyly but inquisitively, and asked, ‘Dr. Nunnally, excuse me. But, what is a pop quiz?’
“In that moment, I learned the importance of not assuming that everyone understood concepts that, at times, seem mundane. In addition, having a comfortable and welcoming classroom can promote student learning by creating an accessible learning environment, wherein students feel comfortable being vulnerable, asking questions, and learning. Accessibility is an important goal for me to achieve in the educational experiences of my students or audiences with which I share information. As far as moments of pride, I am amazed to see some of my former students be professional political scientists themselves, and have published their own books and even have opened their own public opinion consulting firms.”
It’s moments like these when Dr. Nunnally can see her hard work pay off and continue to inspire her to push for more of these experiences full of inclusiveness and curiosity. They also continue to shape where she believes education is heading. In the future, Dr. Nunnally believes that “educators increasingly will need to assist students with determining the best resources to consult for their scholarly references. In addition, with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), educators will need to decipher human creativity and production from artificial production, and they also will need to consider ethics related to this issue.” Hopefully, as we progress in our technology, our classrooms will, too. And we all strive to meet our students wherever they are in their journey with enthusiasm, excitement, curiosity, and experiences that will shape their learning journeys as well as our own.