Jeanette Davidson was scrolling through emails as usual. Delete, delete, save, delete. Suddenly, she saw something strange — an email from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine.
Davidson had just been informed that Diverse was recognizing her as one of its top 25 women in higher education.
Davidson, a professor and former director of OU’s Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies, said she was surprised and pleased to see her name in the March 22 edition of Diverse among the likes of Joy-Ann Reid, one of Davidson’s favorite television hosts, and other talented women who are making a difference in higher education.
Hundreds of people reached out when the university publicized her recognition.
“Lots of my former students and friends and people that’d been on faculty posted it on Facebook,” Davidson said. “You know, people I hadn’t heard from in years, or suddenly a student from somewhere.”
Davidson said she even heard from students that she had taught at military bases across the world in places like Germany and Belgium.
For those who know her, it’s no surprise that so many would reach out. Vincent Winston, a 2010 OU graduate and former student of Davidson, said Davidson’s passion for teaching, for her research and especially for her students is evident to anyone who meets her.
“For me, Dr. Davidson has been not just a professor and a mentor, but she has become a really good friend and somebody I feel I can really call on if I need help, both personally and professionally,” Winston said.
Originally from Scotland, Davidson met her husband while he was working on his doctoral degree there. She had already completed her bachelor’s in social work at the University of Strathclyde, and she completed her graduate education in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Davidson was a professor at the University of North Texas and Columbia University in New York before coming to OU, where she first taught in social work before transitioning to African and African-American Studies.
Devoted to teaching, Davidson said she had always avoided getting into administration. But when she was asked to step in as interim chair of African and African-American Studies, she said she fell in love with the position and the area of study.
Sohail Shehada, an assistant professor in the College of Fine Arts and an adjunct in the Department of African and African-American Studies, said Davidson helped him flourish in his time working with her.
Shehada said that as the director — a position Davidson held for 15 years before stepping back to focus on writing and teaching — Davidson encouraged him to follow his passion for teaching and learning about African masks, working with him to organize a class on African masks and even providing some help with his research.
“On my research paper that I presented to NCBS — National Council for Black Studies — or whenever I come up with a research topic, I’m usually in touch with her because I’ll need feedback from somebody whom I know is knowledgeable in that art field,” Shehada said. “That is Dr. Davidson.”
Davidson said her drive stems from what she sees as the importance of her subject matter.
“There’s a lot of history not contained in history books,” Davidson said. “I’m motivated because I’m teaching something that I know the students are really hungry for and that they haven’t been taught elsewhere.”
Winston said his experiences learning from Davidson and others in the department were influential, and that his time in the department and his degree in African and African-American Studies have been instrumental in his professional success.
“All those things helped me to become a better leader and be able to empathize better with people that I work with, that work for me and that I work under — just because I had a clearer understanding of how people interact.”
In addition to stepping back from her administrative duties, Davidson has taken a leave from teaching the past year in order to spend more time on two books that she is working on. One is a deep dive into the stories and perspectives of people of color in Scotland.
“You hear voices of all kinds of people: people that have status in the community and people that have got absolutely no status in the community. You’ve got the whole range, and I think that everybody’s voice needs to be heard,” Davidson said. “I’m excited about that.”
Davidson said the book has been a passion project for her.
“That kind of research fits within Africana studies, and it incorporates my literary self, incorporates my social scientist side, my social work side, my social policy side, my history side, and so it all kind of comes together,” Davidson said.
She said the wide-ranging nature of her project is indicative of the discipline as a whole.
“I think that’s the beauty of Africana studies,” Davidson said. “We can be very inclusive, and we can be very holistic in how we’re examining whatever the matter at hand is.”
The other book Davidson is working on, a second edition of a textbook she edited that is called "African American Studies," will bring work from Davidson and other scholars to students worldwide.
Davidson said while she has loved getting to spend more time on research and writing during her leave, she will be back to teaching in the summer and fall.
“I love teaching the content because you’ve got all these students, and they’re full of energy and full of questions and wanting to learn,” Davidson said.