Professor dies after bout with brain cancer

Haley Herfurth

After a four-year battle with brain cancer, Robert Young, an English associate professor at the University, passed away on Jan. 31 at 42.

Young, who specialized in contemporary black literary and cultural theory, contemporary social theory and materialism, arrived at UA in 1997. He taught both undergraduate classes and graduate seminars in black literature and literary theory.

Young suffered from a glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. When Young was first diagnosed, he was given only six to nine months to live, but he lived four more years.

His wife of 13 years, Nirmala Erevelles, who also works as an associate professor of social foundations of education in the UA College of Education, said while he underwent three separate surgeries, Young was adamant not to give up his job as a professor.

“He said to me one time that he was determined to teach until he could no longer stand,” Erevelles said.

She said Young’s biggest fear was having a seizure while teaching. It never happened, but Young suffered problems from his illness that interfered with his teaching.

“He was a brilliant teacher,” Erevelles said. “I think in the last few weeks, when he knew that his teaching was going to have to stop sometime, he kind of lost his will.”

Students and colleagues alike respected him for his intelligence and his teaching ability. Yolanda Manora, an assistant English professor, remembers Young as “an extraordinary teacher, exceptional colleague and brilliant mind.” Young was her mentor when she arrived.

“He was a very kind person and extraordinarily smart, and really one of the smartest theoretical minds I have ever encountered,” Manora said. “However, he was able to bring that complexity to students in a way that they were able to understand and grow as critical thinkers themselves.”

Norman Golar, a former graduate student who studied under Young, said the classes Young taught were initially intimidating but rewarding in the end.

“He exemplified the image I needed of a young, successful, intelligent, knowledgeable and approachable African American graduate professor,” Golar said. “He allowed space for us to interact with him – a feat many professors are unable to accomplish or choose not to accomplish.”

Erevelles said many of his undergraduate students would stay after class to talk to him. She said that despite the University being a more conservative campus, Young taught Marxism without pressuring his students to give in to his beliefs.

“The one thing he always told me about his passion for teaching was, ‘I’m not a pastor.’ He wasn’t there to convince or convert people. He didn’t think you had to make ‘followers’ – he was more determined to make people ‘thinkers.’” Erevelles said.

Throughout his years at the University, Young gained the respect and admiration of his coworkers and students, ultimately being selected by the college of arts and sciences to serve as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow from 2004 to 2007. He was also honored by UA with receiving an Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award.

The English department plans to sponsor an annual lecture called “The Robert Milton Young Memorial Lecture in African-American Literacy and Cultural Theory.”

In his free time, Young loved to read books by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, spend time with his wife and 5-year old daughter, Maya, and watch basketball. However, Erevelles said his passion was teaching and encouraging students to think more deeply about things.

Golar said a part of all students diminishes with the loss of a positive role model like Young.

“The good thing about the events that have taken place concerning his health for the last four or five years is that he was able to leave in all of our minds – those of us who really spent time with him – an image of perseverance and humility,” Golar said.