A prolific and impactful scholar whose work has risen to the pinnacle of African American Studies has been named Florida State University’s 2022-2023 Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor.
Maxine Montgomery, a professor in the English Department since 1988, has earned the highest honor FSU’s faculty can bestow on a colleague.
“Professor Montgomery is a fantastic representative of our faculty,” said President Richard McCullough. “Her contributions to Florida State University — from her scholarship to her impact on students and faculty to serving as a role model and mentor for so many people — make her an outstanding choice for this year’s Lawton honor.”
One of the premier scholars of African American literature in the country, Montgomery has won five university teaching awards, published eight books and created 11 new courses in the English Department — all with a focus on African American literature.
She also has set forth programmatic efforts in support of diversity, equity and inclusion, and in 2020-21, she served as chair of the FSU President’s Task Force on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion.
Montgomery describes herself as a “behind-the-scenes” person who doesn’t like a lot of attention or notoriety. Still, she said the recognition is gratifying.
“It’s rewarding for me to be at this point in my career and to have an experience where other people have acknowledged my work over the course of three-plus decades,” Montgomery said.
Provost Jim Clark hailed Montgomery as “personification of excellence at Florida State University, and I’m thrilled she’s our new Lawton Professor.”
Clark noted Montgomery’s leadership in scholarship; effectiveness as a teacher; work to assist the university’s efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion; and “commitment to seeing literature as a crucial way to understanding American history … and in many ways our sociology and psychology and our cultural heritage.”
“The thing that I think is extraordinary about her is she does this with a real gravitas but lightness of touch that I think attracts people to her and makes her a very listened-to voice on the national and campus scene.”
Montgomery has published widely on the works of Black women authors Gloria Naylor, Edwidge Danticat and especially Toni Morrison. A two-time alumna of Florida State, Montgomery discovered her passion while she was a student in the English Department where she now teaches.
As a student, Montgomery found herself frustrated by the absence of Black faculty members teaching courses on African American literature. This inspired her to pursue a doctorate in African American literature with the intention of eventually returning to FSU to fill that void and develop a curriculum in African American literature, which she did.
She also specializes in African diaspora literature and culture, plus Black apocalyptic and postapocalyptic literature and expressive culture, among other interests.
Montgomery earned her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in 1986 landed a tenure-track position at the University of Nebraska. She found her way back to Florida State and joined the English Department faculty in the fall of 1988.
Since then, Montgomery has been fulfilling her vision from her work as a tireless faculty member. She has served on 71 Ph.D. committees and 40 M.A. committees.
“There’s something about the richness of Florida State University, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the ways in which FSU has been able to attract scholars and teachers and students from all across the globe in ways that enrich the intellectual environment for everybody,” she said.
“There’s something about the richness of Florida State University, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the ways in which FSU has been able to attract scholars and teachers and students from all across the globe in ways that enrich the intellectual environment for everybody.” — Maxine Montgomery
For 30 years, Montgomery also has worked as an adjunct professor with FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE), providing her generous mentorship to first-generation college students.
As the chair for Undergraduate Studies in English from 2015-2018, she assisted with efforts to significantly increase enrollment in the Sigma Tau Delta honor society. She also partnered with the College of Law to increase the number of English students who enrolled in law school.
From her work on the University Panel on Buildings, Names, and Statues (2017-2018) to her ongoing appointment as co-chair of the President’s Council on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (2021-present), Montgomery has deepened Florida State’s understanding of actions needed to address critically important topics.
Montgomery’s work on Morrison, who died in 2019, includes many refereed journal articles, a book of critical essays that she co-edited, a recent invited book chapter and three invitations to lectures at international conferences in Brazil, Norway and the Netherlands.
Gary Taylor, chair of the English Department, earned the title of Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor last year. He refers to Montgomery as a “quintessential all-rounder” and points out that her peer-reviewed work on Morrison was published before Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993.
“Distinguished research professors are, almost always, people who redefine what should be the topic of distinguished research. Montgomery has done that,” Taylor said.
Montgomery is also the preeminent scholar of the late award-winning American novelist Gloria Naylor, whom she knew personally and professionally. Her decades-long studies and analyses of Naylor have culminated in two books, plus numerous articles and essays in scholarly journals and edited collections.
Montgomery invited Naylor to FSU in 2005. While here, Naylor delivered two public addresses in which she discussed her fictionalized memoir, “1996.”
Most recently, Montgomery received a three-year, $100,000 collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize Naylor’s work and develop a model for engaging Black women’s literary archives.
While the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professorship salutes Montgomery’s achievements over multiple decades, she considers it to be a call to further service.
“It’s a moment in time that allows me to look back on the things that I have accomplished and envision ways of building on that foundation to keep doing the important work that makes the English Department at Florida State University and the profession at large a better place,” she said.