For the past few years, Marcus Johnson has been thinking about how he could contribute his knowledge as a professor in educational psychology and educational research and evaluation to the conversation about diversity and social justice. This summer, he’s found a way to do that.

Johnson’s primary areas of research involve the role of motivation in educational spaces for both students and educators, and STEM education. However, there’s something else he loves researching — misconceptions.

“What motivates me is finding out things that really surprise me, especially when I think I know something well and I discover something that makes me realize I actually still have so much to learn about it,” he said.

When the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences solicited proposals for its Juneteenth Scholars program earlier this year, Johnson already had an idea percolating.

“That's where things started to really fall into place,” Johnson explained. “I started to invest my time into how I could come up with a viable product that integrated my interests in studying misconceptions, advancing diversity and social justice, and teaching difficult histories. They really paired well with each other.”

The death of George Floyd in 2020 and the recent upswing in book bans and restrictions on curricula highlighted for Johnson the importance of teaching difficult histories.

“What we’ve been seeing nationally, politically, is the banning of diversity books and diversity curriculum as well as the dismissal of African-American-related AP courses,” Johnson said. “That suggested to me that there are misconceptions not just in science, but in history, social studies, and civics education.”

With the help of Alberto Garcia, a historian at San José State University, and Johnson’s best friend of over 20 years,  as well as Tameka Grimes, an assistant professor of counselor education in Virginia Tech’s School of Education, and former Juneteenth Scholar, Johnson came up with the idea of a digital humanities collection featuring essays from historians on the history of racial and ethnic violence. These essays will be complemented by interviews with these authors, as well as interviews with K-12 and collegiate teachers and students on their reactions to the essays.

Johnson collected the first round of interviews this month and hopes to publish the resulting essays online this fall. He also plans to make this an ongoing project that is regularly updated with new essays and interviews.

When asked about what he hopes readers gain from this digital humanities collection, Johnson had this to say: “I hope people are able to take away civil approaches to covering sensitive topics and difficult histories. I also hope that as people read these essays, they find historical accounts important enough to educate others on those difficult histories, and secondly, when they do want to educate others, they learn strategies to do so in a civil and appropriate way.”

Johnson intends to spend this Juneteenth reflecting on what emancipation means to him and his identity as a multi-ethnic man.

“I'll be reflecting on that question of what does emancipation mean, what should it or could it mean,” Johnson said. “I encourage others to reflect on the meaning of that day.”

To learn about Virginia Tech’s other Juneteenth Scholars, click here.

To participate in Johnson’s project, The Longevity of Historical Racial Traumas: Teaching their Histories, you can email him directly at:

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Written by Alexandra Krens