Q&A With Dr. Grace Gipson

August 10, 2020

Grace D. Gipson, Ph.D., is a Black future feminist/pop culture scholar whose area of research interest centers on black popular culture, digital humanities, representations of race and gender within comic books, Afrofuturism, and race and new media. Gipson's work has been featured in various publications and book chapters in such outlets as Huffington Post, NPR.org and BlackPerspectives. Outside the classroom, you can find Gipson collecting comic books and stamps on her international travel discoveries, participating as part of the #BlackComicsChat podcast crew and giving back to the community through a myriad of projects and organizations.

Q&A with Dr. Gipson

Where did you grow up? Can you tell us a little about your educational journey?

My educational journey has taken me all over the United States and even internationally. Growing up in Champaign, Ill., a major Midwest college-town, with my mother and grandmother I had the opportunity to have a diverse K-12 education. In many ways, I was constantly inspired and surrounded by the college experience. This inspiration would come to fruition once I ventured south and attended Clark Atlanta University (CAU), a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Those four years were some of the most memorable and served as a foundation for my eventual career as a professor. After CAU, I would attend Georgia State University (GSU) to obtain my master's in African American studies. Going to GSU would re-invigorate my interest in comics and where I officially began my academic research on representation in comics. And I would round out my educational journey, by heading out west to attend the University of California at Berkeley to pursue and complete my Ph.D. in African American studies and a certificate in new media.

In between each of these academic pursuits, I was able to participate in various fellowships and institutes across the U.S. as well as in South Africa, the Netherlands and France. My educational journey can be likened to a quote from the late Malcolm X, "Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today." Each degree of my journey serves as a stamp toward my educational passport and a mark towards future greatness. All in all, this journey has been exciting, diverse and filled with challenging experiences, which have contributed to who I am today as a scholar and a professor.

When did you first fall in love with your field of study? What made you decide to work in academia?

When I was four or five years old my passion for comics emerged. I remember watching my grandmother read the newspaper and wanted to read the paper as well, so she would give me the 'funny papers.' Even though I was reading the comic strips, I felt like I was reading something special. The more I read, the more I was able to escape reality, temporarily, and also look for myself in these stories. And that is when the match was lit, so to speak. I began questioning the lack of Black characters, more specifically Black female characters, and their problematic storylines in the comic books. These were regular thoughts that I would have with friends and teachers, as I continue to read and buy comic books, never really thinking it would go towards an academic pursuit. It was not until I began pursuing my master's degree in African American studies that I was encouraged to formalize and document those thoughts into an academic venture. For me, I only thought comics was a hobby and not something that I could turn into an academic passion, let alone write a dissertation about it. Now as it relates to an overall interest in pop culture that materialized once I got to high school. My family and friends would always come to me to get my opinion on TV shows and hear my critiques and reviews of films that it transitioned from being these fun conversations to an educational commentary pursuit.

My decision to work in academia is a very interesting one, considering I used to run from the idea of working in the classroom. But, many of my teachers (8-12) and professors in college saw a gift that they did not want me to lose. Also, I found myself always circling back to some type of classroom, and enjoying it more and more. Additionally, another reason why I decided to pursue a career in academia was to creatively “keep the flame of scholarship alive,” while inspiring and guiding future generations of scholars. Plus, having the opportunity to bring comics to academia is like an ultimate dream. Blending two different worlds and making change is the way to go! Working in academia also allows for a firsthand chance to see growth and the potential greatness of future generations.

Can you explain the focus of your research?

My research focus centers on representations of Blackness in popular culture, race and new media, Afrofuturism, and the role of race and gender in comic books. More specifically, my focus is two-fold in that I am: 1) exploring Black female identities as personified in comics and fandom culture, while also 2) examining how online Black female academic and popular networks produce cultural and technical capital, which act as safe spaces that showcase, interrogate and celebrate the blending of popular culture and the academy.

What attracted you to VCU? What are you most excited about in regards to VCU and Richmond?

What attracted me to VCU is the spirited student body, the urban campus setting and the Department of African American Studies. As someone who is very much invested in the discipline, it is refreshing to see what they have done to maintain the discipline's legacy. Their activism, diverse course offerings and programs, and the longstanding connections and commitment to the community is what Black studies/African American studies is all about!

Overall, I am excited about how I can and will contribute to the growth of VCU and the overall Richmond community. I look forward to diving in and doing the work of guiding future generations, while planting and cultivating seeds that will uplift the city of Richmond. My hope is to plant roots and build networks at VCU and Richmond that will last for a lifetime.

Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy? What do you most like about teaching?

For me, education is filled with countless possibilities, thus I like to think that the act of teaching can be read in the same vein. As a professor who is wide-ranging and resists a neat traditional classification, I believe in blended teaching approaches rather than trying to fit the material into one pedagogical box. Ideally, I aim for my teaching to hinge on the balance between teaching content and teaching skills. As a professor, there are a number of things I try to accomplish for my students. First, a positive atmosphere. Students are called upon to discuss questions, and mistakes are treated as opportunities to explore misconceptions, not as a reflection of a student's abilities. Next, empowerment. I believe that anyone can succeed if they are willing to spend the time at it. If I provide any value it is in encouraging all my students to be interested enough in the subject to invest more time. Lastly, respect. Students work hard, earn their grades and are allowed their thoughts. Ultimately, my task is to facilitate their learning process. Promoting creative, independent thinking, whether in an introductory or advanced course, is essential so that students can take what they have learned and apply it in and outside of the classroom. Therefore, I endeavor to make my classroom an arena for students to learn skills and demonstrate outcomes.

As it relates to teaching, let me just say ... I love my students! Having the opportunity to share what I know, but at the same learn something from the students is an awesome opportunity. For me teaching is life-changing work. If I am able to change a student's thinking, open their minds, provide another perspective and/or make any amount of an impact, I feel like I have done my job. Hearing a student tell me I made a difference or provided them with a different outlook, is very important, because that same care was given to me; I feel it is my duty to continue to pay it forward.

Can you tell us either a quirky fact about yourself or some of your hobbies?

Some fun facts about me include: I love going to movies on opening night, traveling and experiencing different wineries/vineyards, and building my comic book and toy collection.