Professor Roberts on Office Hours

When his students visit him during office hours, Assistant Professor of English Frank Leon Roberts gives them books to read and keep. [Related reading: “Keep This Book for the Rest of Your Life”]

“I approach my office hours the way that I approach my grandmother’s kitchen table: as a gathering place where all are welcomed and where all who come are affirmed and valued. Office hours are a unique part of the liberal arts experience insofar as they often allow for more casual sites of knowledge exchange between student and teacher.

“In my pedagogy, I am influenced by education studies scholar Joseph Nelson’s discussion about the importance of building what he calls ‘relational gestures’ with students: those small side conversations/interactions that remind students that professors have more in common with them than simply an interest in books.

“An example: I’ll sometimes begin my classes (or my office hours) by mentioning what songs I’m listening to on Beyoncé’s latest album (I’m currently addicted to ‘Pure Honey’ and ‘Cuff It’) or debating with them over who should hold the rightful title for ‘best hip-hop artist ever’ (I’m inclined to say Biggie Smalls; they’re inclined to say Kendrick Lamar).

“These small, seemingly superficial gestures actually hold great pedagogical value: they help ease the rigid boundary between student and teacher and help remind students that their professors are everyday people with quirky interests just like them.”

Frank Leon Roberts, Assistant Professor of English, holds office hours with Jocelyn Nichols '25.

Frank Leon Roberts, assistant professor of English, meets with Jocelyn Nichols ’25, a student in his “Foundations of African American Literature” course.

Professor Roberts writes a note for Jocely Nichols inside Toni Morrison's Novel Love, a book that was banner in Nichols' school.

Nichols receives a copy of Toni Morrison’s often-banned book Love. Roberts gives novels, nonfiction and poetry to his students when they visit him during office hours. 

Professor Roberts searches a bookcase in his office.

Roberts searches his collection for a book to give to a student. Many of the books in his collection are donated by members of the public who read about his gift-giving mission on Twitter.

Daniel Mallory '25 receives two books from Professor Roberts.

Daniel Mallory ’25, a student in “Foundations of African American Literature,” contemplates Roberts’ collection.

Daniel Mallory '25 receives is gifted several books from his professor during office hours.

Mallory settles on Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, by Matthew F. Delmont, and African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, an anthology edited by Kevin Young. 

Frank Leon Roberts gives Julian Brown '23 Tina Chang's book of poetry, Hybrida.

Professor Roberts gives Tina Chang’s poetry collection Hybrida to Julian Brown ’22, a student in his course “The Revolution Will Be Dramatized: Contemporary African American Drama.”

Anna-Blanca Leake '23 selects a book from the stack of books in Professor Roberts' office.

Anna Leake ’23, another student in Roberts’ “Contemporary African American Drama” course, selects L.A. Rebellion: Creating A New Black Cinema.

 Luke Herzog '24 during Professor Roberts' office hours.

Luke Herzog ’23 receives a copy of Cadwell Turnbull’s novel No Gods, No Monsters

Roberts on Teaching:

“My approach to teaching is informed by my experiences as a working-class, Black, first-generation college graduate raised in inner-city New York as the son of two parents who were formerly incarcerated. Influenced by the writings of radical decolonial theorists such as Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire, as well as the critical insights of Black feminist intellectuals such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks, my work as a teacher is rooted in the assumption that critical thinking is a counter-hegemonic activity. In other words, in an age of rising anti-intellectualism (with its ongoing attack on science, reason and empirically verifiable truths), critical thinking is in and of itself a countercultural move.”

Frank Leon Roberts teaching a course at Amherst College.

Roberts teaching “The Revolution Will Be Dramatized: Contemporary African American Drama.”

Students in Roberts class pair off for in-class discussions.

Dustin Copeland ’25 (top left) in conversation with a classmate. In this exercise, students paired up to tell each other the stories of their names. Victoria Thomas ’25 (bottom left) listens as a classmate explains his name.

Students listen intently to the professor during a class.

Students listen intently to Professor Roberts during a session of “The Revolution Will be Dramatized: Contemporary African American Drama.”

Roberts On Bo’s Barbershop and Books:

“Bo’s Barbershop and Books is a collaborative project I am working on with Amherst College senior Bo Oranye ’23, a pre-med student who is known on campus for his incredible work as an informal barber. The project emerged out of a very practical question and small dilemma I had when I arrived in Amherst from Harlem in the Fall 2022 semester: Where do men of color go in Amherst to get a haircut? ... 

“Immediately I began thinking about how what Bo is doing on his campus (check out his Instagram page BipsbyBo) constitutes important cultural labor, and I wanted to look for ways to offer him a safe space to continue this practice—but in an environment that could cultivate even greater intellectual exchange. ...

“Each week ... he transforms my office in Johnson Chapel into a makeshift free barbershop for anyone on campus who needs to get their hair done. In the tradition of the Black barbershop as a site of cultural dialogue ... we will turn my office into an intellectual salon where students can come, eat snacks, and receive a free book from off of my office shelves. Each week we have a different ‘spotlight’ book—our inaugural text is Toni Morrison’s Jazz. We also plan to invite selected faculty members to drop in to discuss their favorite books with students. ... It allows students to think about the ways that knowledge production can happen in more informal, casual spaces.”

Bo Oranye ’23 giving a haircut to another student during Bo's Barbershop and Books.

Ben Bell ’24 visits Bo’s Barbershop and Books, a community-building initiative that takes place weekly in Johnson Chapel Room 004. Organized and facilitated by Bo Oranye ’23 and Professor Roberts, it is rooted in the rich cultural tradition of Black barbershops as sites of intergenerational community dialogue.

Prof. Roberts reads from a book while one student gives another a haircut as a second student waits for his turn

On a recent Thursday, Ben Bell ’24 stopped by Bo’s Barbershop and Books.