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Coming to Radford
Dr. Bakhitah Abdul-Ra'uf, Criminal Justice Department
Submitted on the occasion of her retirement in Winter 2021
In 1993, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s job announcement for Radford University’s assistant professor position in the Department of Criminal Justice appeared to be written for me. I submitted my application to the department, noting my external research in Police Subculture, Race and Ethnicity, and full participation in a police academy and on the street. I was invited to campus for an interview.
I had interviewed with Temple University’s Department of Africana Studies Center for Ethnographic Studies and Southern Illinois University’s Department of African Studies with a joint appointment in Anthropology. Both universities were great and punctilious in their academic curriculums. However, in 1993, the location of Southern Illinois (Carbondale) did not offer me the area I wanted for my teenage children and me. On the other hand, Temple had terrific amenities for my children, including full tuition on campus or at another state university, or 80% tuition remission at an out-of-state university. Some would say that the prestige of being at Temple was better than the salary. Having moved from Philadelphia to Florida in 1984, I knew that I could not have the lifestyle I had before I left Philadelphia; therefore, I declined the offer. Instead, I accepted the invitation for an interview at Radford.
As the plane landed in Roanoke for my interview at Radford, I gasped. It wasn’t because of a bumpy landing but the view. It appeared that everyone had a view of the mountains. It was truly breathtaking. Every breath I took for 10 minutes was coming in gasps.
Dr. Paul Lang, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, met me at the airport. He was very friendly, which made it easy to converse.
We went to dinner and talked mainly on a social level. Dr. Lang asked me about the classes that I would want to teach. He mentioned that the department was looking to add to the required courses, issues of race, and gender. Dr. Lang told me that a class offered through the Department of Psychology is entitled the Psychology of Minority Groups. He asked if I would be offended if he asked me to teach a course entitled Race and Gender. I replied that I would be offended if he did not ask.
The interview with the faculty went well with all four of them, Dr. Jack Call, Dr. Catherine Whitaker, Dr. Michael Kaune, and Ms. Chloe Tischler. In addition, Dr. Mary Atwell, who had served as the Associate Dean of Students, was also joining the department.
I presented to a class for 45 minutes. Although the interview was scheduled simultaneously as their final exam and anxiously awaiting it, they were also attentive and polite.
The campus was beautiful. The President was Dr. Dedmon. At that time, the Dean of “Arts and Sciences” was Dr. Pontius. He was friendly and gracious.
After all interviews were over, I was offered the position, and I accepted.
Teaching at Radford
The required courses assigned to me were Issues of Race and Gender, Comparative Criminal Justice Systems, and Research Methods. I taught these classes for several years and enjoyed the privilege of teaching seminars during summers. Dr. Atwell and I taught Issues of Race and Gender. I taught Race and Gender through an anthropological and criminal justice lens. Most of my students loved Issues of Race and Gender and Research Methods; however, Comparative Criminal Justice was not their favorite. Therefore, I searched for different ways to make the course enjoyable.
I found that most students were not interested in learning about the criminal justice system in other countries. There was more student interest when I had the opportunity to teach a study abroad course. However, the enrollment wasn’t as high as the on-campus classes because the cost was not affordable to most students.
For most of my tenure at Radford, teaching Issues in Race and Gender was highly challenging and rewarding. I used innovative approaches to continue to enhance students’ cultural awareness.
Many students bring preconceived ideas about diverse groups and often find it somewhat difficult to accept new challenges and ideas. Many times that unacceptance was reflected during the Student Evaluation of Faculty process.
One year I decided to do something different with the Issues of Race and Gender course. I took the opportunity to attend a workshop sponsored by the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) at Howard University’s International Center in Washington, DC. Radford is very supportive of faculty and encourages faculty development efforts. The workshop was offered to faculty from various universities in the U.S. The workshop covered how to run a Model United Nations simulation. Disciplines represented included Political Science, Criminal Justice, and Anthropology.
My focus was to use the Model United Nations simulation to focus on the issue of women and violence/domestic/rape. Each student participated, representing a delegate of the Security Council body of the United Nations. After discussions and written assignments, this exercise allowed/encouraged students to demonstrate their knowledge of the material covered on women and violence and information covered generally and specifically about the United Nations and its bodies. I used the model in class for several semesters. I believed that this simulation was important for students as it was an activity that allowed students to base the subject matter on the UN agenda while following UN procedure.
Participation in programs to enhance teaching was also crucial to Radford University when I arrived and continues to be necessary. Radford provides many opportunities to succeed, and I took every opportunity to do so. Although the examples of Oral Communication, Writing Across the Curriculum is essential, I participated in other ways to enhance faculty development that I believed were just as important. For example, in addition to teaching the systems of justice in other countries, with an emphasis on policing, I took the opportunity to visit Scotland Yard in England.
While our system evolved from the British, our process is very different. In fact, we call it our system because the components connect as a system. England has the same components, but they do not connect as a system; therefore, England uses The Criminal Justice Process. It was fascinating to cover these issues with students. The main reason for my visit to Scotland Yard was an attempt to develop an international internship program between the Criminal Justice Department at Scotland Yard (a division and office of Scotland Yard) and The Criminal Justice Department at Radford University.
Research Methods was the most individual engaging course I have ever taught at Radford. I taught this course using a qualitative method with an ethnographic emphasis. Students were up for the challenge after introducing the notion of qualitative research, a method not commonly used in criminal justice, and many hours of lectures, discussions, and examples of ethnographic research.
Students were always encouraged to use criminal justice agencies, when possible, in conducting this research. Some found agencies that supported the coursework and were happy to accommodate those efforts. Those efforts included participant observations. Of course, the favorites were policing/law enforcement and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. Those were all exciting for the students. Students using policing to conduct ethnographic research got to do extended ride-a-longs.
The most exciting ethnography that two students had ever conducted was with the DeVilbiss Funeral Home. Long story short, yes, the participant observation included them being allowed to participate in the embalming process. Each week students had to give a discussion of their field notes. So naturally, each week, we were eager to hear their conversation.
The ethnographies were excellent and ranged vastly in the page number. One ethnography was as long as 150 pages, excluding the appendices. I get excited about positive accomplishments and always find myself doing a little dance. There was a lot of dancing in this class, especially reading the field notes of the ethnography of a funeral home. It may sound a bit morbid to some, and that was not the part that got me dancing. The courage of the two students (one female and one male) impressed me. I will refrain from classic clichés like, “Those were the good ole days.” Still, students appeared more dedicated to the coursework in their classes. Perhaps less distracting stimuli, like social media.
I created a summer seminar on, Policing in African American Communities because the more things change, the more they stay the same. I taught this course in the department’s 2+2 program at Virginia Western Community College. Before teaching this course, I introduced the Race and Gender course at Virginia Western alternating semesters with other classes taught in the 2+2 program.
In the Race and Gender course, I had a Roanoke Police officer (Tom) enroll in the class. I was excited because I had gone through a police academy as a recruit and rode with officers on the street in Tampa, Florida for 18 months as part of my dissertation research. So I assumed that we had some things in common and was excited to have him in class. But, unfortunately, we didn’t have the kind of dialogue that I had expected, and he disagreed with almost everything in the required textbook. So I told my Chair, Dr. Lang, that I did not think this person liked me very much.
Dr. Lang informed me that the student liked me very much and enjoyed the class. Tom shared with the Police Chief that I offered the course on Policing in African American Communities. He made and posted flyers advertising my course throughout the department. On the first day of class, I had seven lieutenants/administrators enroll at the requirement of the Police Chief. An emphasis was placed on many of the problems that commonly occur between some African American communities and the police today. For example, the socially defined role of the police toward the African American community, how the training process is related to the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of many of the officers assigned to African American communities. The class went well, and on the final day, some of the lieutenants stood up and spoke briefly about their appreciation of the course offering. I was surprised because they had to do homework, and they got it done.
As The World Turns: Y2K
As we all braced for some phenomenon that would change how we functioned in society, the department had filled two full-time tenure track positions. Our Chair, Dr. Lang, had taken a job at Northern Michigan University. So there were now eight of us.
One significant change in our department was offering a study abroad program. Naturally, as an Anthropologist, I was very interested in the program. Teaching Comparative Criminal Justice Systems made the idea of leading a program more attractive. My first program took us to Venezuela in 2000. This program included 32 students and two faculty. It was a four-week program with one class taught in the morning and one in the afternoon. In addition, educational field excursions were arranged for our program. The program was successful.
From 2000 to 2017, I conducted study abroad programs in England, Ireland, New Zealand, and Finland. Those were valuable experiences for my students and for me. My most memorable study abroad program took us to Auckland, hosted by the University of Auckland. It was the only year that we did Homestays. I requested to stay with a Maori family for four weeks. My students stayed with New Zealanders. I had become familiar with the Maori through Anthropology and wanted to experience their culture first hand. I included indigenous people's general law in my comparative course. I took my students to an indigenous court where they got to see the indigenous court process for the Maori. The next day in class, we discussed and compared their method to the Tribal Justice System in the U.S.
The Auckland Prosecutor’s Office hosted a reception for my class as lavish as hosting a reception for visiting lawyers. It was difficult for my students to believe that such an event had been arranged for them. Everyone was gracious and accommodating during the reception. The prosecutor allowed my students to try on barrister and Judge's wigs and robes. I had covered the Common Law in England. They were familiar with the regalia worn during court hearings, but to see the regalia first hand and being allowed to try them on was amusing.
Travel to international conferences became available in the department. I took the opportunity to present in Sophia, Bulgaria and Barcelona, Spain. I also worked on a summer (2013) grant with a colleague at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. During that time, I made arrangements to present the findings of my ethnographic study in Blacksburg, and they made a presentation to me. I also presented a paper at the Police College of Finland in Tempere. I was allowed to ride with the police for a couple of hours, which does not exist in Finland. They do not allow citizen ride-a-longs.
In 2013 I received a grant from Radford to conduct a study of the Blacksburg Police. I was accepted as a researcher and comrade because of my experience at a police academy and working on the streets years before. I met all 62 officers because I chose to work and ride with them on all shifts. The department accommodated any request that I had in working with them and trusted and accepted me enough to share confidential information. For this, I am forever grateful to the Blacksburg Police Officers.
There were some turbulent times at Radford, but I overcame the odds mentally and remained a part of the Radford family. Perhaps it was because I had good experiences while overcoming the odds, or maybe because I hate moving. I’m sure that the latter played a big part in my remaining decision.
By 2014, I prepared myself to teach asynchronous online courses. I started with one class a semester and enrolled in Quality Matters workshops. That was a good decision for me. By 2017 I was teaching all of my classes online. I have mixed emotions about not being in the classroom. I enjoyed teaching face- to-face when students were attentive and appreciative of the information and the social awareness, but I’m not a disciplinarian; therefore, distractions became more challenging. I continue to teach graduate seminars using the face-to-face format, and I enjoy doing so very much. I find the asynchronous design rewarding. I have non-traditional students who always appear eager to learn. Their discussions, critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis are sophisticated. The discourse on the discussion board helps the traditional undergraduate student become more conscious of the subject matter in their replies.
On Being an Advisor, a Role Model and a Friend
When I was approached about becoming an advisor for the African Student Association and the Chi Epsilon Sigma Latina Sorority, Inc. I accepted both. I enjoyed every minute of that experience, and the students made me proud.
The African Student Association held many events to help with fundraising. For example, it had an annual fashion show accompanied by creative dancers. They were hard-working, great students who were serious about their education.
Chi Epsilon Sigma is the greatest sorority I have ever seen. They center their activities around fundraising for donating. They have never had a party, a rarity for sororities and fraternities. A lot gets accomplished in their informational meetings with little or no socializing.
I am very proud of these two organizations and proud to have served as their Advisor.
Social Justice as a Force Immutable in Nature
In 2020, during the shutdown due to the coronavirus, I began writing and compiling literature to publish an Anthology. I had the time and felt the freedom to work on the manuscript. The preliminary edition was published this fall (2021), and I am using it in my CRJU 365.Diversity: Issues in Criminal Justice class. I will work on editing and include any feedback from my students to prepare for the first edition's publication.
For the last 35 years, my entire adult life has been taken up with the desire to bring equality and social justice within the U.S. criminal justice system. I believe that I have worked assiduously to make a difference. Though I was not working alone, I have seen a positive change towards equal protection and justice. However, I often believe that we take several steps back for steps we take forward. Our social, political, and economic institutions will continue to evolve, and our virtues will strengthen. In a 2016 article entitled, Social Justice, I wrote that, in part, the concept of social justice in practice is a process of adjusting conflicts and assigning rewards or punishments impartially. Establishing social justice is a crucial aspect of the work of interdisciplinary scholarship and justice practitioners. It should focus on humanitarian concerns, social, political, economic welfare, and justice. This focus is primarily motivated by adherence to societal morals and norms.
Before social justice can be realized, certain principles of society must be acknowledged that transcend ethnicity, race, or religion but do not sacrifice one’s cultural identity. For example, as Americans we acknowledge the Declaration of Independence principles, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all humans are created equal and are endowed by a Creator with certain unalienable rights” (Declaration of Independence.)
It must be clear that the principles of unalienable rights endowed by a Creator bears no resemblance to man’s laws. It is not a rule, prohibition, or regulation prescribed to govern man's behavior.
It is a principle that explains the nature and interaction the forces and principles that influence human life- his/her thinking, feeling, actions, and destiny – yet we hold that governments are instituted to protect those rights. This principle then should encourage practitioners to be proactive in promoting ideal conduct as one element in establishing a just society.
Suppose we suggest that social justice is the fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law. All are to be treated equally. We contend that this holds true in American society. In that case, we simply are deceptive, or at least not recognizing that this is symbolic and has little to do with reality.
A just society starts with common goals, removing social ills and economic barriers that impede protection and safety for all its citizens. However, shared goals cannot be established if they are only recognized as symbolic representations. Nor can shared beliefs be symbolic. From a social perspective, bringing order into a situation is the first prerequisite for correcting ills. For example, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws are presently in place, but many are still symbolic.
The goals and concerns of social justice lie in creating a just and equitable society, free of oppression in the reduction of conflict and the establishment of stable communities. Becoming an advocate for the manifestation of justice in society is not a matter of the left or the right or executive, judicial or legislative powers; it is a matter of observing the natural law, what is derived from that which is imperceptible.
Currently a Faculty Associate with the Center for Police Practice, Policy, and Research, Dr. Abdul-Ra'uf will continue providing her qualitative research, ethnography, diversity, police subculture, and community-oriented policing knowledge and expertise to the Center's needs.