James Williams (PhD), associate professor in the Retail, Hospitality and Tourism Management department, says he “is just a person that fell in love with learning.” He draws parallels from a quote from Albert Einstein, “He said he wasn’t born with a lot of talent. He was just born passionately curious. And for me, I think that curiosity has continued to allow me or enabled me to have a strong desire to be a lifelong learner.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Williams never really considered pursuing education let alone working in the field. His involvement with drugs, gangs and violence from an early age led him down a path that ultimately ended in a pivotal moment. At age 19, he decided to remove “the mask” he had been wearing to placate others and began to change his life for the better. He began attending a university in North Carolina after committing to play football for its team, but left the institution before completing his degree to join the military. Under the leadership of his sergeants, it was there that he really started excelling – receiving awards like Airman of the Year and learning the value of education.
Williams says his sergeants encouraged him to return to higher education, and over the course of his four years in the military, he received two associate degrees and his bachelor’s degree, becoming the first of his family to graduate from college.
After retiring from the military, with his G.I. Bill in hand, Williams began pursuing his master’s degree in general administration (business management) at Central Michigan University. Despite being intimidated at first, he gained confidence through each class he took and became “hungry for more” going on to receive his doctorate in management/organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix in 2010, and later, his PhD in hospitality management/leadership from Iowa State University in 2012.
After working eight years in public grade schools and other universities across the country, Williams came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2014.
A professor of four undergraduate courses and one graduate course, he says his teaching approach is wanting to make sure his students can master the content. “I challenge my students saying, ‘When you come into class try to learn seven things that you can use personally and professionally for the rest of your life,’” says Williams. “Which also challenges me to try to find ways to relate the material to what they do in their daily life.”
To kick off his classes, Williams says he starts every session with a quick meditation. “I want to give them an opportunity to detach from being on the phone or any conversations they had prior to coming into class,” he explains. Then, the learning begins.
“Statistically, students retain about 70% of what you discuss, but they retain about 95% of what they teach, so I try to give them that opportunity,” he says. “I’ll put something up on the board and say, ‘Finish the sentence with what you know.’ So I’m challenging them to use all the concepts we discussed up to this point, to come up with their own story.”
In addition to his work in the classroom, Williams currently acts as co-chair of athletics in the Faculty Senate. In this role, he acts as a liaison between student athletes and faculty and staff trying to bridge the gap and build trust between the two. “We try to focus on what is the wellness of the student athlete – mentally, physically, spiritually. How are we making sure that these student athletes are getting a holistic experience while at the University, but at the same time trying to make sure that we voiced any concerns that faculty and staff may be having with student athletes, so we can continue to foster positive and productive relationships,” he explains.
Williams also serves at the Chair for the Commission for Blacks. He elaborates on his role, “We make sure that we highlight any accomplishments for Blacks – staff, faculty, and students, but at the same time, make sure that we’re voicing concerns that may come from that particular group as well. We advise the Chancellor on different programs or implementation of programs that need to be done on behalf of the Black faculty, staff, and students on campus, as well.”
Williams’ accolades go beyond the military, too. In 2018, he was awarded Faculty Member of the Year at UT, Knoxville’s NAACP Vol Image Awards, and in 2019, he was named by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education as one of the Top Emerging Scholars following a nomination from Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Engagement Tyvi Small. Most recently, he was named the 2020 Non-Fiction Winner of the Best Indie Book Awards for his self-help/spiritual book, Check Your Life: Be Limitless.
While a humbling experience, he does not dwell on them, but instead incorporates them into his teaching. When reflecting on his students, he comments, “I want us to create global citizens that really see their neighbor or the person beside them and love them and be willing to share the information or the knowledge that they have acquired and that wisdom, but be able to see beyond the identities and the labels that we create and really say, ‘I see you as a person I want to lend a helping hand to.’”
“I really hope that the University of Tennessee is creating people that are more inclusive in thought, that’re more critically and creative in thought. When it comes to what are some things that we can do to serve our mankind from a more loving and more righteous perspective?,” he adds.
Williams also says it is important for instructors to remember that the classroom starts before you even meet the student. “Take for example your syllabus or the announcements you’re posting to Canvas. If my students read this, do they know how much I care about them?,” he asks. “Am I doing things with unconditional love? Once you start there, I think then you start figuring out what’s the best way to go.”
Instructors should consider all the other things that students deal with on a day-to-day basis. “Their emotional stress, their physical stress,” he elaborates. “Yes, we’re dealing with adults, but they’re young adults that are trying to figure things out.” In closing, he wishes for universities and instructors to really consider the relational side of the classroom instead of just the transactional side.