Derek Roberts seems to be a natural fit as the new sociology professor.
Roberts arrived in the United States shortly before taking the post, having previously lived in Zambia. However, he’s no stranger to Michigan.
“I grew up in different parts of Macomb County,” he says, “so it’s good to be back home. That’s one of the things that was definitely appealing about Monroe, that I could get back to Michigan.”
Roberts, who’s 34, was born in Germany while his mother was traveling the world. He attributes his own wanderlust to that. Indeed, after high school, he went to an out-of-state college – Arkansas Tech.
Sociology, however, was not his first field of study.
“Well, originally, I was a German major,” he says, “and that’s what my bachelor’s degree is in.
“But what happened is… a bunch of friends and I wanted to take a class together. The sociology class fit at the time that we could all take it.”
Roberts found himself becoming a big fan of the class’s professor and went on to take five classes with him. The fact both he and the professor were not natives of the state also resonated with Roberts.
“He had some interesting points of view of what it was like living in Arkansas as an outsider,” Roberts says. “I was hearing things from him that were really different from what my friends and the other people that were around me were saying.
“He had a different perspective, and I really appreciated that.”
Initially, the plan was that Roberts was going to have a dual Ph.D. – German and sociology. However, things didn’t pan out that way.
“One of the things was that the German studies program was just not really a good fit for me in terms of the culture that surrounded it,” he says.
The studies were what Roberts loved, not the “ivory tower” academia culture that hung in the air around them – at least at Michigan State, he clarifies.
“It was sort of ‘high-society academia,’” he says. “Then you go to sociology and all the grad students are wearing sweatpants and t-shirts. You’re going to class dressed like that. For me, it was comfortable being in sociology – it was more my cup of tea.
“And I’m not talking about just the clothes. It was that the atmosphere was much more welcoming. It was much more welcoming of people like me.”
Of course, being slim, tattooed, and sporting an impressive beard, Roberts does not look like the traditional academic. Perhaps the only article he has that harkens back to that archetype are his spectacles.
That’s not to say Roberts is any slouch in his field, however.
Roberts has been published in “Sociology”, the leading magazine on the subject in the United Kingdom, and the UK’s Royal Town Planning Institute. He’s also been featured on NPR. His articles and a recording of his NPR interview can be found on his website, derekroberts.net.
“I like that sociology is a field that’s not so much about what could be or should be but what is,” he says. “Not everybody within the field agrees about it, but as a whole, it’s a field that says there is a social reality.
“There is a truth to what’s happening in society. Whether it be the truth about how people interact with one another or the truth of the criminal justice system and whether or not it’s unfair to people of certain races or certain social classes. There’s truth there, we want to find out what it is and let it speak for itself.”
In short, sociology is a field that mostly deals with the practical, not the conceptual.
He also notes that, like most other fields, sociology has endless variation from large concepts like the fairness in the justice system – or lack thereof – and racial tensions in America to small concepts like what people think when they stand in line. Sociologists can examine a vast array of things and make something interesting from it.
Roberts also speaks of his time in Zambia. His wife is originally from the country and he lived there for a number of years.
“Zambia is one of those places that you got to have kind of a love-hate relationship with,” he says. “I love it. I wanted to apply for citizenship there. I’ve been going there for 14 years now, back and forth.”
Roberts’s 21st birthday celebration occurred in the middle of nowhere, deep in Zambian bush. He and his friends drank warm beers delivered by bike.
Located south of the equator, Zambia is a landlocked country in central Africa shaped rather like a flexed arm. It cups the bottom of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The capital, Lusaka, lies an hour and 42 minutes north of the Zambezi River, which forms the border with neighboring Zimbabwe, among other nations.
“They like to advertise themselves as ‘the Real Africa,’” Roberts says.
South Africa, for comparison, comports itself much more like a western nation. Which is unsurprising, given the country’s history of Dutch and British invasion, apartheid, and more.
One thing that did bother Roberts about Zambia, however, was the weather.
“I’m a true Michigander, so I love winter,” he says. “Summer is my least favorite time of year, and Zambia is year-round summer.”
Currently, it’s a relatively mild period in Zambia, being their springtime. Roberts describes the temperatures as being “summer on the lake” for Michiganders.
Try to imagine Zambia in summer if their springtime is in the 70s and 80s. Doesn’t sound appealing, does it?
“It took a while to get adjusted to that,” Roberts says.
Other sources of irritation for Roberts were the corruption and the constant rolling blackouts.
“The corruption is just… accepted and it’s everywhere,” he says.
Edgar Lungu has been president of Zambia since January of 2015, and Roberts notes that people have called him “a dictator in the making.”
“He has tried to get more powers recently, so Zambia is going through tough times,” he says.
He also adds that for a year-and-a-half after arriving, he and his family had to deal with power outages every single day.
When he was returning from Zambia, the only job he applied for was at MCCC.
Edmund La Clair, professor of history, was on Roberts’s hiring committee. The other 54 candidates were excellent, La Clair says, but Roberts brought a lot to the table.
“Doctor Roberts is an extremely well-rounded academician,” he says. “He has an excellent record of scholarship, experience with assessment of learning programs at universities, an international education and teaching experience, and he has a very strong focus on involving students in the actual process of sociology that really made him stand out.”
The chairman of the hiring committee was, of course, Paul Hedeen, the dean of the Humanities Division. When asked what made him inclined to hire Roberts, he simply refers to his recommendation letter.
“It was believed by a majority of the people involved in the search that he was the strongest sociologist in years of service and breadth of his sociological research,” Hedeen says.
His prior work at other institutions also played a factor.
“He brings a steadying presence to the sociology curriculum because he is our only full-time sociologist. He’s our lead faculty member there,” Hedeen says.
Hedeen also notes that Roberts is the first dedicated sociologist the college has employed in a number of years.
Roberts’s interest in teaching followed from his studies and his enjoyment of school.
“I knew for a long time I wanted to pursue a Ph.D.,” he says. “To me, being a professor – even at a community college – isn’t just about teaching. It’s about being a scholar.”
One important figure, he says, was his professor of urban sociology, Alesia Montgomery.
“She had the most brilliant mind that I’ve ever experienced up close,” he says. “She is just brilliant! And she was like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you here at Michigan State pursuing a graduate degree? What is it you want? Me, I’m a scholar. Do you want to be a scholar?’
“And so, to me, teaching is part of being a scholar.”
Of course, Roberts’s experience outside of academia no doubt helped him become the right man for the job.
“I worked different jobs all over the country,” he says. “I’ve been a bus driver on the east coast, worked out in California, and I worked at a home for special needs adults down in Arkansas.”
The feeling around Roberts seems to be one of optimism.
“He will absolutely be an asset to the college,” says La Clair. “Both as an instructor, as someone who’s going to involve students, and particularly as sociology is focused on improving society, he’s going to be an asset to the community.”
This semester’s sociology students certainly think so.
“I like the class,” student Autumn Bressler says. “He’s very interesting and interactive with us. He brings many points up with his life and his experiences.”
Brooke Woodward, Bressler’s classmate, agrees.
“I like how he engages in conversation with all of the class,” she says. “He calls on everybody to make sure we’re all up on our readings. He also talks a lot about his life and his time in Zambia.
“I like that a lot because it’s not just talking about things happening in America, but more in other countries as well.”
“I think he’s very interested in the topic that he teaches,” says student Olivia Przeniczny. “He presents them in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand. I also like how everyone gets to state their opinions without having to worry about being criticized.”