Returning to Transylvania’s campus is a homecoming of sorts for C. Shawn McGuffey. The Kenan Distinguished Visiting Professor began his educational journey as an undergraduate at Transylvania in the 1990s. Upon matriculation, McGuffey planned to study political science in order to eventually practice civil or family law, but after shadowing local lawyers, he didn’t feel like the career quite suited him. Deciding to take advantage of Transy’s liberal arts curriculum, McGuffey signed up for a sociology class taught by professor Brian Rich, which ultimately opened up a new career path for the Lexington native.
McGuffey had long been interested in issues of race and gender, and knew he wanted to study people, making sociology an ideal fit. “The way that sociologists think about the world, the concepts and methods, fit together in a way that spoke to me,” McGuffey remembered. “Dr. Rich also suggested anthropology, which I loved as well.”
He also cites Rich as the reason he is a professor, noting that the local and national conferences they attended together were “when I realized that being a professor wasn’t just something I could do, but something I would enjoy. He showed me a possibility that I didn’t even imagine was possible.”
An associate professor of sociology and past director of African and African diaspora studies at Boston College, McGuffey sees the classroom as a “spiritual place where you learn not just about how the world works sociologically, but also where you see yourself in the world and how you can best make an impact in a positive way.”
One of his favorite parts of teaching takes place outside of the classroom, in the personal growth that students experience after allowing the ideas and concepts they have learned in class to percolate. “When I’m teaching well, people are starting to think about their personal philosophies and how they may evolve based on what they’ve learned,” he said. “What I enjoy most usually comes after the course has ended, when I meet them the next semester and they say, ‘Based on what I learned in that class, I am acting in the world differently.’”
As a professor, McGuffey seeks to ensure that his students are also learning from pluralistic perspectives. He cites the courses that he has co-taught with colleagues from different disciplines as some of his favorites, like Where #BlackLivesMatter Meets #MeToo. The course, which combined a community engagement component with nonprofit involvement and art creation, encouraged students to move beyond the bubble of college and make real-world change in their local community.
Co-instructing with a professor from the Romance languages, McGuffey noted that “two people addressing racialized and sexualized violence from two completely different academic disciplines painted a much more holistic picture.” It also gave McGuffey an opportunity to learn alongside his students. “I’m learning with them, because I don’t know what the other professor knows,” he explained, adding, “I took as many notes as my students.”
This interest in a wide range of seemingly disparate topics was encouraged during McGuffey’s undergraduate years by Transylvania’s broad liberal arts curriculum. His favorite undergraduate course was a two-part general education requirement called Foundations of the Liberal Arts. “If you could major in that, I would have,” he laughed, noting that the interdisciplinary class was deeply transformative.
During his time at Transylvania, McGuffey focused his research interests on middle childhood, co-authoring an article with Rich on childhood and the construction of identity. After graduating in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology, he initially planned to continue this work during his doctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but a personal encounter changed his focus.
While volunteering as a Big Brother with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, McGuffey was paired with a Little Brother who had been sexually abused. “As I took him to therapy, I found it interesting to see this person go through the process of becoming,” McGuffey said. “That’s how I became a trauma sociologist — my lived experience in the world.”
For the past 25 years, McGuffey has focused his research on race, gender, sexuality and trauma in the U.S. and throughout the African diaspora, winning multiple awards for his work, which has been published in Gender & Society, Social Problems, The Du Bois Review and the Journal of Black Psychology. As he looks toward the future, he plans to expand his scope into other areas of sociology, including some that “might surprise people.”
As part of his growing interest in political sociology, McGuffey is currently thinking about the impact of presidential administrations on Black LGBT political participation, citing the lack of intersection between sexual and gender identities and race in most existing literature and research. He also recently submitted a paper to a geography journal and is currently working with Transylvania students on a project about the geography of Lexington. A dog-lover, he wants to learn more about the sociology of human-canine interactions, noting that “while we teach dogs through training, we learn so much about ourselves as well.”
While he collaborates with students on supervised research, he is careful to encourage his students to individuate and pursue the topics that spark their interest instead of simply following in his footsteps. “My goal is that you don’t see me in a student’s research,” he said. “I don’t like to tell students what they should do; I like to present the possibilities so they can make informed choices. I want to figure out what they are interested in … to help them be the scholar that they want to be.”
Even McGuffey’s hobbies reveal a deep desire to learn and connect with the world around him. A competitive eater since 2000, McGuffey, who has a self-proclaimed “huge appetite,” initially competed at a county fair as a joke and quickly realized there was more to the competition than he had previously considered. Afterward, he approached the winner to ask for tips and began to learn the technique and strategy for competitive eating. “I wanted to learn more about this community I didn’t know existed,” he said. With help from the winner, McGuffey put forth the time and effort to develop the skill of competitive eating and currently competes in the sweets category, noting that pies and cupcakes are where he shines.
A proud pet parent, McGuffey, who grew up with many different dog breeds and has adopted multiple rescue dogs, also likes to bond with his animals through shared hobbies. He spends time uncovering each canine’s particular skills and then looks for an activity that will highlight their abilities. Most recently, he began participating in search and rescue training with his German shepherd, Sarabi, whose combination of incredible intelligence and hyperactivity made the sport an ideal fit. This shared activity also helps others; as McGuffey said, “She gets something out of it, and society gets something out of it.” While Sarabi has found her niche, McGuffey is still working to determine the right activity for his pitbull mix, Pumbaa. “I’ve had him for less than a year, and we’re still trying to figure out what he’s good at,” he laughed.
McGuffey’s return to Transylvania allows him to give back to an institution that he says prepared him well for life, both professionally and spiritually. He sees the visiting professorship as an opportunity to “grow as a professor, teacher and mentor,” noting that he still appreciates the interdisciplinary overlap at Transylvania. At a liberal arts institution, “you’re learning to think about the world and your place in it,” he said. “Transy prepared me to adapt and be able to have difficult conversations with people who think very differently than I do.”