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Africana Studies' Toyo Aboderin on Her Research, Road to Academia, and More

February 6, 2024
Toyo Aboderin standing in the Cloisters

Toyo Aboderin is a first-generation Nigerian from South Jersey, and she is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Africana Studies. Last semester, she taught Race, Gender, and Media, and this semester she is teaching Black History in American Cinema.

Can you tell us about your research?

My dissertation research critically examined the relationships and gender ideologies present in popular television shows with Black female leads like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Insecure, and Green Leaf. I examined these shows to determine if Black relationships, whether they be familial, platonic, romantic, or sexual, are depicted as more positive or negative within the top-watched Black female lead dramas in America.

How did you decide to get into academia and teach?

I grew up attending a PWI (pre-dominantly white institution) in middle school and high school where I was the only Black girl in my class for years. I experienced racism and microaggressions — it was a really troubling experience. I didn’t have the knowledge or the background to fully understand and contextualize what I was going through. That was until I got to college, and I took my first Intro to Africana Studies class, which changed my life. The content, the readings, and the professor (Dr. Donnetrice Allison, who is my mentor today), all gave me the language and grounding that I needed to confidently step into this world as a Black woman.

So, I took all the Africana studies classes I could and I ended up getting a minor.  I was also studying communications and public relations at the time, and in my senior year, I had to make a decision on whether or not I wanted to go to grad school for communications or Africana Studies. I ended up choosing Africana Studies, but I didn’t want to completely abandon my communications background. So, I merged both worlds together and commited to Afrocentric research within the intersections of Africana Studies, gender, and media. I also ended up interning and working for different PR and social media firms, which led to me starting my own social media management and cultural consulting business, which I’m still doing today.

I always knew I had a gift for teaching, but after doing my master's, I knew I needed to pursue teaching in higher education full time. Even if I had just one student who was able to take something away from my class, that would be enough. As evidenced in my own life, one professor can have incredible impact.  Seeing a face that looks like theirs can change a student’s life forever. I started teaching after getting my master's and haven’t stopped since.

What is it like teaching Bryn Mawr students?

Bryn Mawr students are just so special. They genuinely have this appetite for learning. I even have students who come to me after class who’ve asked for more readings beyond what I’ve provided on the syllabus. The conversations we have in the classroom are so rich, to where I’m blown away, and I, too, am learning from their experiences and backgrounds. I’ve visited multiple universities, and these students have been the most rewarding part of my postdoc here.

What’s the kind of classroom environment you strive to create?

I always start my classes off with check-ins, and this is where I let my students pick any number from one to ten to let me know how they’re feeling. They don’t have to go into depth of why, but this is just for me to get the pulse of the room and recognize them as humans, not just students.

I love a classroom where people feel free to express their opinions and also be exposed to different perspectives. I strive to provide a space for my students to challenge why they believe what they believe, build a stronger argument for that belief, or be exposed to something different. The students do not always have to agree in my classes, but I believe it is crucial for them to listen to each other. I believe that with this skill, we will be better humans overall.

What brings you joy outside of work?

I’m a typical Taurus, so when I am not trying new restaurants and napping, I am traveling and exploring the world. As my research implies, I also love discovering new television shows and movies.