Paying it Back

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Mar. 27, 2013

Paying it Back

Trinity University English professor Michael Soto guides students on a path he once traveled

Trinity University English professor Michael Soto guides students on a path he once traveled

By Susie P. Gonzalez

SAN ANTONIO - Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, Michael Soto's parents, who didn't go to college, never asked "if" he would go to college but "where." Although Trinity University was the only Texas college to which he applied, Soto made stops at Stanford and Harvard Universities to earn degrees before circling back as an associate professor of English and director of the McNair Scholars Program.

Soto expresses gratitude for the faculty he encountered as an undergraduate who recognized his abilities and talents and nudged him toward a life in academia. While completing an honors thesis for a degree in Modern Thought & Literature, he enjoyed discussions of ideas that led to his intellectual development through courses such as German philosophy and comparative literature. When it came time for graduate school, he considered anthropology until he realized the type of fieldwork that would be required.

"The field I prefer if I'm going to do fieldwork is a good library," Soto said. That view led to a degree in English and American literature and an interest in literary modernism. He has studied the Harlem Renaissance at length, and is considered an expert on the cultural movement of the 1920s.

Taking a socio-historical approach

Soto is completing a new book on the Harlem Renaissance using a socio-historical approach in which he sifts through large amounts of data from the Census Bureau or health districts to identify social trends that were reflected in literature from the era. He says the project has been daunting but incredibly fun. For example, he has learned that women writers of the Harlem Renaissance were keenly interested in professional and romantic opportunities that were opened or closed by demography. Soto also discovered that the so-called Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North was far more complex, demographically and culturally, than previously understood. Such dynamics led to a revolution in literature and language use. Harlem was, and still remains, a place where Spanish is spoken by Afro-Latino natives of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other Hispanic regions. "That role (of the Spanish language in Harlem) has been too often overlooked, and I'm plowing new ground," he said.

Role as McNair Scholars Program director

Soto is in the sixth year as the first and only director of the McNair Scholars Program at Trinity. He and a small staff guide about 30 first generation college students through intense programs that prepare them for success as undergraduates and in graduate study. "My life has changed profoundly and for the better because faculty looked out for me when I was a college student," he said, adding that the McNair program enables him to "pay it back" to students who are on a path he once traveled. His involvement as a mentor not only has been intellectually energizing but has helped him learn about disciplines outside his own. "It's really great to see the Scholars imaging themselves going into academic careers," he said, adding that he is planning an exit strategy as director to focus on other pursuits.

Term on the State Board of Education

He knows where he will not go, and that's into elective politics on the Texas State Board of Education, where he served from January 2011 to December 2012. Soto's motivation for running for office was to temper the climate for discussions of textbook adoptions and educational policy. He does say it was invigorating to be able to stroll across the Trinity campus to hold routine conversations with leading subject area experts when facing a key vote, but he does not miss the lengthy preparation needed to decide matters in ways that would promote the changes he envisioned. Now, he is happy to return to a sustained research program.

Having recently completed the instructor's manual for an anthology of American literature and the new Harlem Renaissance book, he might write a history of the State Board of Education, explaining how Texas public schools have been and will be guided in the coming years.

What he likes best, however, is teaching students, who always show him "something new" and help him understand his work in new ways. "I am always thrilled when former students get back in touch with me, talk about how something that they are doing in their professional lives reminds them of an experience they had in class, even if the two had no obvious connection. It's always a nice reminder that the courses that I teach are not about me but about preparing students for challenges that they might never have anticipated."

Courses Taught

  • American Literature: New Realism through the Moderns

  • American Novel

  • Beat Generation

  • Harlem Renaissance

  • Modernism

  • Postmodern Literature

Selected Publications

"Museo Without Walls." American Quarterly 55 (2003).

The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth-Century American Literature. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Teaching the Harlem Renaissance: Course Design and Classroom Strategies. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

"Please, No More State Board of Embarrassment." Texas Tribune (6 June 2011): online.

"The Harlem Renaissance and the Americas." Blackwell Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2013.

Rethinking the Harlem Renaissance. Forthcoming.

Susie P. Gonzalez is assistant director of University Communications and can be reached at