Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure is available for pre-order through UNC Press.
Buy before June 30th and receive a 40% discount (code 01DAH40).
Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure is available for pre-order through UNC Press.
Buy before June 30th and receive a 40% discount (code 01DAH40).
All of my chatting and workshopping and tweeting and editing came together last week when I went to the University of California-Merced to talk about the anthology. At least that was the invitation—to talk about the book, and talk about it I did. I talked about how I came to add diversity work to an already fully and satisfying research agenda, I talked about why I wanted to pay attention to narrative instead of data, and I talked about each of the 12 essays in the book and shared moments from them that reflect the experiences of faculty of color around the country.
More than this, however, I listened and took notes…a lot of notes. There was just so much to take note of—listening to deans and faculty in dialogue with one another about the best ways to increase diversity in their candidate pools, listening to tenured faculty (most of whom were white) offer practical and applicable advice to their junior colleagues of color, listening to the way the staff, faculty, and deans work together to make the campus safe for all of their students.
As I was preparing my talk, I knew the thing I needed to make clear was that all the good thoughts and feelings about diversity are mostly useless without leadership and institutional willpower. I also wanted to offer small things that could be done without money and without too much time. Mostly I wanted to make as clear as possible to the faculty of color in attendance that the struggles they might be facing are happening elsewhere. The preface to Written/Unwritten is titled “It’s not just us. This is happening everywhere,” and my goal was to make clear what the “this” is that so many of us face.
My host was Tanya Golash-Boza, who you probably already know because of her work on immigration, Latin America, and human rights but who you should also know because she is working out how to build diversity into the fabric of her institution instead of just including it as an afterthought. Within minutes of meeting, our conversation was about the work of diversity:
It was exciting (and daunting because Tanya is NO JOKE) to wrestle with ideas that came to me as I was preparing for the visit. This was not a conversation with someone who has a vague sense that diversity is important and that microaggressions make things hard; rather, it was a dialogue with a colleague who is deeply engaged in the nitty-gritty work of diversity at an institutional level. That’s a rare thing for me.
Over the course of my visit a few key things stayed with me that I’ll be mulling over as I visit more campuses:
Listening and talking nonstop about diversity (even with my host at the irresistible Bear Creek Inn, or, as I shall call it going forward, Downton Abbey West), I’m more aware of the following than I was when I started this project:
I’ve been invited to conduct workshops and give a talk or two, but I’m still relatively new to this part of being an academic. You hear horror stories of poorly planned trips and overbooked schedules, so I’m especially thankful for how easy Merced made my visit in every single way with easy travel, lovely lodging, and a schedule that was engaging but still left me time to reflect on what I was hearing. The deans I met—deans who took time out of overbooked schedules—were both gracious and wise and the faculty and students were incredibly open. I learned a great deal, and I’ll be adding their perspective to my work going forward. If you ever get the chance to visit, do so. The energy there is great. Put more than two faculty members together in almost any setting and you’ll hear talk about department politics, but here the talk was about research projects, community engagement, and teaching. I love that most about being an academic—the work, the teaching, and the service—and it was good to see that on full display for my entire visit.
For those who pay attention to such things, my introduction to Tanya was via twitter, and Tressie McMillan Cottom recommended me. I’m quickly losing track of the number of inquiries and invites I get that begin or end with “Tressie McMillan Cottom recommended you…” When I wanted to be her friend it was because I could see were both irritated by the same things and people, and I was hoping to have a short sociologist to chat with while watching “Scandal.” We don’t watch “Scandal” together anymore (apparently Cookie Monster holds more appeal than Fitz and Olivia), but I’m thankful for her generosity.
Hit me up if you want to see the power point (firstname.lastname@example.org) but please be respectful of my work and my time.
In case you missed the news, the anthology is coming out Fall 2016 and it has a new and improved title:
Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.
It works, right? Some of those hidden truths are depressing but other truths offer hope and promise.
We have a Facebook* page. I hope you’ll join us over there for diversity news, ideas, and strategies.
*Many thanks to contributor Wilson Santos for our Facebook logo.
It’s the time of year when I’m grading finals and wondering if I’ll be teaching my summer course (this year on British Romanticism and the abolitionist movement).
And I’m wrestling with this essay I’ve been writing since January about little kids and Citizen and Kara Walker’s “Subtlety.”
And I have book revisions due in a few months to one of those dream editors who is so supportive and smart that he makes you want to work ten times harder and twenty times faster.
And I need to see my New York family before they totally disown me (my goddaughter is about to finish her first year of college; attention must be paid).
All of this is to say that all I can do right here is share the storify of some thoughts I had yesterday on twitter in reaction to two stories about diversity at Brown and Columbia: “Does Faculty Diversity Need Targets?” and Leaks in the Pipeline
Here is how the story about Brown begins:
“Brown University made a bold promise at its inaugural National Diversity Summit last month: to double its proportion of underrepresented minority faculty by 2025. The announcement, to which the faculty was already privy, drew praise on campus and off, but also questions about how Brown would achieve such a goal. It sparked a larger discussion about the best way for institutions to aggressively diversify faculties, too, especially at elite institutions, when candidate pools remain relatively small.”
And I’m intrigued by these compelling figures from Columbia:
Fall 2014 numbers, which are the most recent figures available, show that out of the University’s 3,806 total faculty members, only 921 are minorities, and 1,572 are women. These numbers continue to tick downward on the tenure track. Columbia has 1,096 tenured faculty members, but only 199 are minorities, and only 282 are women.
I’ll be critical (and maybe even scathing) later, but it’s worth noting the complete candor in this Columbia piece. It depicts a university having the right kind of struggle about developing and maintaining meaningful diversity. And it’s bracing and inspiring to see a scholar like Alondra Nelson shaping this conversation.
So here’s the storify:
People rarely post comments on either of my blogs, but if you have questions, ask them, and I’ll explore them at some point when I can see the sky again.
If you’re like me, an academic with a blog or a website or some other public space where you write things that are intellectual and bookish without exactly being scholarly or academic, this post is for you. It can’t really be prescriptive because every institution has its own quirks, but it might also be helpful for readers of this blog to see how I approached my most recent personnel process.
My Calculated Risk
It never occurred to me when I joined twitter that I would discuss it when I went up for promotion. I’m a traditional scholar. The most radical thing I do is insist that considerations of the Romantic era include more than just the Big Six (#OccupyRomanticism!). I’ve published in print and on-line publications, but there is nothing digital about my humanities. In the middle of writing my promotion narrative, however, when I discussed the anthology I edited about the experiences of faculty of color on the tenure track, I realized I needed to explain how I was disseminating the ideas of a book that is not yet in print. Pointing to the blog attached to the project seemed like I was only telling part of the story, so I found myself typing @triciamatthew as I explained how I was using social media to share my work. I didn’t know whether or not it would be a good idea, but given how much time I spend being @triciamatthew and its role in my work on diversity and higher education, it seemed strange not to at least mention it.
I should pause here and say that I don’t know what choice I would have made if I were going up for tenure (they are entirely separate processes at my institution). I have no idea how I would manage social media as a graduate student or an untenured assistant professor. It’s nice to think I would manage things exactly the way I have, that I would have enough confidence in my file and in my understanding of the value of social media to discuss it in a tenure narrative, but I’ve experienced and seen how pre-tenure culture binds academics up (and I’ve seen how those bonds can stay in place even after people get that brass ring), so I don’t know what I might have done at some earlier point in my career.
I approached my promotion, especially assembling my file, with a spirit of celebration—not empty swagger but with real joy about all I’ve gotten to do since I finished my PhD in 2003. I realize how treacly this must sound, but I took to heart the final question this department chair asks when he reflects on how to judge an academic’s dossier and whether or not they’ve been successful:
First, there is the elusive definition of success. On whose terms do we define this? If success is not on our own terms, if our lives do not reflect what we value, then can we be successful? Make no mistake: I am for rigor and setting high expectations; but I wonder if too often we approach our work and the evaluation of our colleagues asking the wrong question, “How successful is this person?” when we might do better to ask: “How has this person been successful?” *
I took this approach to heart when considering how successful I’ve been in my academic career. It helped keep me centered throughout a process that was even more grueling than I anticipated. And when it truly looked as if I wasn’t going to get promoted this year, when I listened to Jill Scott’s “Hate on Me” for six hours straight as I rage-cleaned my apartment (NB: I live alone), I returned to that last question (“How has this person been successful?”) and still felt very good about the answer. I always wish I had more out in the world, but I knew my file showed showed a consistent, active research agenda.
Beyond joy and pride, I used common sense and had a friend I trust (a dean at another institution) look at my c.v. This is the friend I turn to when I need to make sure my lofty sense of things is grounded in reality. She is kind but unafraid to tell me the truth, regardless of whether or not it’s convenient. She pointed out areas I needed to clarify and we discussed how I could approach my particular situation as someone who specializes in two unrelated fields. I was hired when the department was looking for a Romanticist, but in the years since i got tenure I’d added writing about diversity in higher education to my research agenda. I wasn’t sure if or how it would count. I’m lucky to work at an institution where the right people think reading and writing about diversity is important and still necessary, but valuing an idea and recognizing the work as important enough to warrant promotion to associate professor are two different things. If I had gone up for promotion as a specialist in British Romanticism who also published in a related field (a literary period before or after mine, for example), I would have felt entirely confident about how my file would be viewed. But my race and diversity research was prompted by my own tenure case (be sure to read the preface to the anthology when it comes out), and I’ve grumbled that the higher ups would probably think they hired me to be a Romanticist not to be Black (and angry and female all at once). In addition to being uncertain about how this work would be received during a review process, I was talking about the race and tenure work in the context of social media, twitter to be exact.
Although we don’t have a formal external review process, everyone I know includes letters from senior faculty in their files, so I did so too. I made sure to include letters from scholars with expertise in both areas I work in, explaining to the Romanticists that they didn’t need to worry about the diversity part of my c.v. and making clear to those writing about my race and tenure work that they didn’t need to pay attention to my essays on Romantic-era fiction. I included data (site statistics for all of my on-line publications) and tried to explain how my publications were making an impact in their respective fields. I also completely reorganized my cv so that it would be easier to keep track of the different kinds of work I’ve been doing in the last ten years.
A Thumbnail Sketch
I’m at an institution with a 4/4 teaching load, though most faculty carry a 3/3 load through a program that gives us release time to focus on our research. We are eligible to apply for a sabbatical once every seven years (full pay for one semester and some sort of pay cut that puts a full-year out of my reach). I haven’t bothered to average out how many students I teach per semester, but I think it’s somewhere between 55 and 80 students. I often teach a January course and, from time to time, a summer course. My student evaluations are good (maybe even very good; I am, after all, the shit). I have a respectable service record, though I should probably move beyond my department more, and I supervise our English Education majors during their student-teaching semester (on average, five a year with three site visits per student). Working with future teachers is probably the most important work I do, so, even though I’ve moved to Brooklyn, I still drive to New Jersey public schools to work with them.
I joined the faculty right out of graduate school with a few essays in the pipeline. When I went up for my promotion, I had co-edited a special issue of Romantic Pedagogy Commons, published half a dozen peer-reviewed essays (a combination of essays on nineteenth-century British literature, pedagogy, and a piece on the job market), and two book reviews. I had a book manuscript under review, another manuscript in progress (drafts of all the major chapters, though some of those chapter drafts are way too drafty), and an essay and book reviews in progress with firm commitments for publication. I don’t attend conferences every year, but it’s easy to see a pattern that shows I attend them steadily.
Before I submitted my file, I met with my dean, my department chair, and the chair of the personnel committee. My last full personnel review was in 2007 when I went up for tenure, and, though I had served as the chair of the department’s personnel committee since then, I wanted to make sure I understood the ins and outs of the process. Of course no one could guarantee anything, but the clear message was that I was ready to be promoted to associate professor.
Portrait of a Tweeter as an Assistant Professor
I think I’m what’s called a late adapter. I don’t have many Facebook friends, and the majority of them are family members, friends, and the very few colleagues I like to keep in touch with outside of school. I don’t use it as a networking tool and rarely post anything related to the academy, or even my own personal blog. I joined twitter because a guy in my building told me it could help me promote my work (to be fair, the “guy” works at N+1, so I was more inclined to follow his advice). I started my first blog during the first Obama election. I was recently tenured and my friend and I decided that when we weren’t talking on the phone non-stop or having television marathons (we once watched a season finale of “Heroes” at dawn as I drove him from New Jersey to LaGuardia) we should write. We blogged about politics, pop culture, race, gender and the usual stuff young lefties feel the need to comment on. When that relationship ended, I started my own blog called “new musings” and I recently changed the name to my own. That blog has shifted away from the political (there are people much smarter and faster than I am in that arena) and more towards writing about my what I’m trying out in my classes, what I’m reading and watching, and posts that might end up in a memoir someday.
I’m not all that social media savvy, and I’ve sort of felt my way through the more intellectual corners of twitter. On the one hand, although I publish as Patricia A. Matthew, my twitter handle is my nickname. On the other hand, my profile picture is the same photo I use for my department’s website. I’m pretty open with my colleagues and students about the fact that I am on twitter, but I don’t use it in any official capacity. I’m mindful that I should avoid tweeting things that might be professionally distracting but also don’t fret too much about what that means. My only iron clad rule is that I don’t make fun of or complain about my students in any public space. If I mention them at all, it’s usually to poke fun at myself or to show how clever and resourceful they are. In addition to wanting to protect their privacy, I would not want to say anything on social media that might make future students feel uncomfortable about working with me. I also don’t want to cultivate an environment in my classes that makes students feel as if they need to think about some larger audience as we do the messy work of literary analysis and critical writing. I also try to keep my blog and twitter account as free from distractions as possible, so you won’t find me criticizing my colleagues (even in subtweets or shade).
The posts on the race and tenure blog, the one I mentioned in my promotion narrative, are meant to be accessible and to provide an overview of larger issues that I (or someone else) might take further. They are, on one level, aphoristic but also point to patterns worth noting. I don’t offer much by way of analysis, though that might change after the book is out. Most of those posts could be fleshed out into traditional essays. I’ve tried as much as possible not to dwell on the personal unless it serves a very specific purpose (this is most clear in the “Teaching While Black” posts). The goal of the blog is to promote the ideas that didn’t make it into the collection and to collect stories about diversity and tenure that I heard about after I’d finished planning the project. When I started the blog, I didn’t really know what I had in mind, and you can see this by the odd categories I listed. I had some vague idea that I wanted it to be more resourceful than confessional (a lot of crap happens to me and academics of color I know that I don’t write about publicly) and I expected that it wouldn’t really be useful until after the book came out. I didn’t understand twitter when I signed up, and it has been the most pleasant of surprises to find that it has allowed the research I undertook to edit the anthology to do a different kind of work than I expected. It has made an impact and it has made the kind of impact that my institution considers valuable.
The Case for Academic Blogging with Social Media
I’m using the term institution very deliberately here because I suspect that individuals in my department and university don’t take the race and tenure blog very seriously. I don’t talk about it with too many people, but it’s clear that colleagues know it exist and it’s likely that some of them see it as some pet project—like a blog about recipes or cats but with colored folks instead. The general sense is that “diversity” is “important” and I have been supported in very concrete ways to get this work done, but individuals will probably only take the work seriously when the brick and mortar book comes out. Institutionally, I believe, it has some weight because it has lead to the kind of work scholars are supposed to, and I was eventually able to make the case that the only reason I’ve had these opportunities is because of this blog.
After consulting with a few institutional folks, I added a new section to my c.v., called it “Public Writing” and listed my race and tenure blog, its stats the most relevant cross-postings. I also listed publications in non-academic venues and where they are cross posted. I want to be very clear here: I don’t believe that blogging of the kind that I do will prop up a weak file or distract from the absence of peer-reviewed publications that are still the gold standard in my discipline. In fact, I can easily imagine a scenario where a skeptical personnel committee or administrator might see blogging as a distraction from the “real” work of traditional, peer-reviewed scholarship. Although I didn’t plan for this to happen, the blogging I do leads to the kind of work most institutions value—publishing in peer-reviewed venues, conference presentations, and service beyond my department.
Here they are:
• The editors at Signs invited me to review Presumed Incompetent.
• I was invited to review Mentoring Faculty of Color and that review will come out in The Western Journal of Black Studies.
• The New Inquiry asked for a more personal reflection based on the “Teaching While Black” series and the publication of that piece along with this post on my personal blog has lead to an invitation to conduct a workshop on the challenges on diversity in the classroom with graduate students.
• I received an invitation from two (remarkable) graduate students to participate on a panel at the College Language Association that included some serious heavy hitters and we are now working on turning that panel discussion into a publication for the organization’s primary journal.
I bet you’re noting a pattern here. With the exception of submitting a proposal panel to THATCamp, all of the work I list here has been by invitation. People have found my work, read it, and figured out how they think it will be useful. It’s all happened in the last year or so. I’m not sure what will happen going forward. I know I’m thrilled at the idea of conducting workshops that will be of use to graduate students from marginalized groups as they learn how to think of themselves in the different pedagogical roles they will be required to occupy in and out of the classroom. I’ve daydreamed with friends about a summer workshop for new faculty from underrepresented groups to help them get over that first big publishing hurdle. I’ve started ending e-mails in response to those asking for advice with “The Black Professor is In.” It’s a joke, but there’s truth there too.
I’ve often wondered how the impact of the work I did for a traditional book project has taken on a different life because of social media. I feel I’ve done it backwards. This work (book reviews, conferences, and workshops) is supposed to come after the book is out. I’ve been careful to write on the race and tenure blog about things that are not in the anthology, but the conclusion is called “Tweeting Diversity: Race and Tenure in the Age of Social Media,” and I’m keenly aware of the fact that by the time the book comes out Twitter could actually be dead.
Despite an initial denial (the one that lead to Jill Scott on at full blast), I ended up getting promoted. It turned out that about 20 pages of support documentation (letters of invitation for the list above and thank you letters, correspondence showing visits to my on-line publications, my google scholar data) did not go forward with my file (thank God I had a back-up of my entire file on my laptop). My decision not to include the draft of my book in progress for fear that people would think I was padding my file (again, see the preface to the anthology) was not the right choice.
In that period between the denial and the final positive recommendation (yay!), I wondered if I had undermined my case by mentioning twitter. I wondered if my social media work seemed a waste of time (I do talk a lot about scrabble and there’s a long stretch of “Scandal” tweets when I still believed in Liv and whatshisname…seriously, I can’t remember his name). I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Those 20 pages were key. I’ve been encouraged to keep at this work, in this space. It won’t replace my more traditional writing and publications, and I wouldn’t want it to. But it does make me feel a different sense of responsibility about maintaining this blog as a resource. It also has me realizing just how important it is that those of us who use social media for our work make the case for its importance in our research whenever and wherever we can. I’m a big fan of thank you notes, and so when someone I meet via social media helps me (or my students) with my work, I write a fairly formal thank you note detailing what they’ve done in case it will help them show their institution that their work matters beyond 140 characters or a blog post. I risk sounding silly be explaining when I’ve met someone whose work interests me via social media. Right now I realize that it might sound rather odd to most to say that I’ve met “Academic Person A” in the same space that valorizes Justin Bieber, but eventually I think it won’t.
On “being” @triciamatthew
There is, of course, a performative quality to social media. We perform our best lives on Facebook with vacation pictures and descriptions of our accomplishments. Twitter rewards sharp, witty, withering critiques. It feeds on snark and outrage. I’m pretty well adept in all of those things, but I decided that I would try to be on twitter what I can’t always be in real life—helpful and thoughtful. I try to be more reflective in that space. You will rarely find me in a twitter argument, and I try to keep destructive, snarky tweets to a minimum. I’m not always successful. For a hot minute I fantasized about taking Tim Wise DOWN, and even started composing tweets to do it. And then I wondered what I would really be doing, what good it would actually do for the causes I believe in, and how it might make other people with good intentions feel about their work.
That last part is most important. I don’t shy away from tough critiques if I think they’ll be helpful, but tweeting my ideas, especially those about race and gender, has shifted since I signed up for twitter. It happened right around the Zimmerman verdict. Michelle and I had an opportunity to do a workshop together. We talked about schedules and whether or not this was something I wanted to do on my own (in the end, scheduling made the decision). I loved co-facilitating with her and hope we’ll do it again, but I was also curious to see how it would be to work with a small group of women on my own. In the days before the workshop, George Zimmerman was found not guilty and I went on a twitter tear and called the Zimmerman verdict a failure of white feminism (or modern feminism or white modern feminists). I was throwing rhetorical thunderbolts (and gaining followers, I’m sure). It didn’t really hit me until later that I would be in a room of women, most of whom would be white, leading them through a series of discussions about race and feminism. How, I asked myself, could I expect them to trust me if they worried I would walk in with a knapsack full of rhetorical rage? What good could I do in that space if my justified rage made it impossible for an open conversation? I think it all worked out for the best. In person, I’m actually as friendly and open as I think I am on twitter. I also started the first session asking us all to think about privilege and laid my own out on the table. But I decided after the Zimmerman verdict to choose my hashtagging and ranting more carefully and mostly opted out of the #solidraityisforwhitewomen discussion. In the first place, after that workshop I simply could not think of “white women” in broad terms. The women I met there were too different (and beautifully human) for me to think broadly about white women as a group in 140 characters. I understood what was behind that hashtag and, to some qualified degree, agreed with it, but most of my participation in that moment was to note what I was learning from feminists from Middle-Eastern countries. It was an area where I had a lot of blindspots, and I decided I needed to read more than I needed to chime in with my own critiques.
I wish I could translate the diversity social media experience with my work in British literary studies, but it’s not working. I suspect it’s because in that arena I’m totally old school and the arguments I make can’t really be distilled into anything less than a conference paper. It also doesn’t have the same political efficacy as work on diversity in higher education. Those dead writers have been ignored for so long that a few more years won’t matter. The world may be better for my writing on medical discourse and the history of the novel, but it’s doing just fine without it. I’m also not in touch with my peers in this field via social media. I wonder if the fact that my work is not more theoretically oriented limits its audience; a close reading of Valperga will not draw as wide an audience as a careful consideration of Barthes. I wish I could write my book in public like Michelle is doing, and perhaps I will post a chapter or two as I revise this draft. I’m not sure it will be the best use of my time, especially at this stage. I suspect that my third book, which is rooted in the blog posts about the tensions between mainstream feminists an women of color, will be written in a more public way.
* “DemandsofTenure:OneProfessional’sStory fromThreePerspectives”
April L. Few, Fred P. Piercy, and Andrew Stremmel. Feminist Formations. 19 (3) Fall 2007: 47-66.
“It is the nature of privilege to find ever deeper places to hide.”
I was in New Orleans last weekend to participate on a panel at the College Language Association’s annual conference. It was magnificent in so many ways. I heard great papers and talks, met academic pioneers, sighed during Edwidge Danticat’s keynote, and ate my weight in fried shrimp. I danced to someone named Trombone Black at a juke joint in the 7th Ward and wandered around the French Quarter in the rain. There were beignets.
CLA is not a conference I normally attend. You’re more likely to find me at the British Women Writers Conference, the annual Narrative conference or, from time to time, NASSR. But when Janeen Price and Jenice Hudson, two doctoral candidates at Florida State University, asked me to participate on a panel about how women of color navigate the academy (Creolizing the Academic Space: A Roundtable), I said yes. I wanted the opportunity to put my posts and conversations about what I’ve come to think of as “Women’s Studies Culture” into a more useful context and I wanted to talk about my ideas with a diverse group of women of color from different corners of the academy. We were charged with sharing our experiences as a way to offer perspectives and strategies for other women of color. I chose to focus on gender and diversity.
In my thinking about the challenges women of color face when working with white women in the academy, I’ve shifted away from talking about “white women” as a monolithic group and towards discussing Women’s Studies Culture. Not only is this phrase a more precise description of the struggle, it points to a larger systemic problem—one that Jane Chin Davidson and Deepa S. Reddy discuss in their essay “Performative Testimony and the Practice of Dismissal” in Written/Unwritten. It allows for the fact that this struggle goes at least as far back as the eighteenth century when white women like Mary Wollstonecraft appropriated the abolitionist movement to forward their own causes. My brief comments focused on the larger cultural shifts outside the academy that trouble the waters within it. I titled my contribution to the panel “The Minefield(s) of Sisterhood: Women’s Studies Culture and Diversity in the Academy” and framed my thoughts with a question from Audre Lorde and an exhortation from bell hooks.
Lorde’s question is one I’ve been carrying around with me for the last year or so. She posed it to the attendees of the 1981 National Women’s Association Conference in a talk titled “On the Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” After recounting the various ways that white women place themselves and their feelings at the center of conversations about racism, she asks her sisters at the NWSA:
What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?
I offered my advice, my exhortation from bell hooks in her essay, “Choosing the Margins as a Space of Radical Openness”–an idea I’ve written about here and am exploring more fully in an essay for PMLA:
Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation; in fact…it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance. It was this marginality that I was naming as a central location for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. As such, I was not speaking of marginality one wishes to lose—to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center—but rather of a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.
Between Lorde and hooks, I laid out four shifts we need to think about in order to understand what is happening at what feels like a a particularly tense time for women of color and Women’s Studies Culture in the academy:
If you haven’t attended CLA, you might not know that it was founded 77 years ago when the MLA excluded black faculty (in practice if not in policy) from its membership. This is one of the reasons why it’s a conference that matches the kind of papers, talks, and discussions we seek at these kinds of gatherings with an air of celebration. It is a conference that turned marginalization into a radical and creative act. Our panel include: Karla Holloway (Duke University), Judy Jackson (University of Kentucky), Theri A. Pickens (Bates College), Rhea Lathan (Florida State University). The room was pretty full. Every speaker, from the untenured assistant professors to the mid-career faculty to senior colleagues, shared experiences that resonated with others on the panel and those who spoke during the Q&A. Well, it wasn’t actually a Q&A session. It was something else entirely. As the panel participants shared their thoughts, people moved beyond the academic knowing nod (you know what I’m talking) to actual exclamations and sighs. This spilled over into the Q&A in ways that surprised me and gave me concrete reminders about how important it is to articulate these challenges within institutionalized academic spaces.
I think that if you were to walk up to anyone in that room and asked them if racism and sexism was shaping how they moved through the academy, they would say yes and then inform you that water is still wet. But it’s one thing to know a truth, to know that microaggression and systemic discrimination are real, and it’s another thing to have your individual experience affirmed. I think it was that specific kind of affirmation that made this more than an academic, theoretical discussion. After the panel ended, some people came up to ask the panelists for advice. Most just wanted to hug us and tell us their stories. There are so many, too many.
I wanted to give folks a bibliography they could take back to their home institutions, either to read on their own or to read with whatever trusted colleagues they can find. Here it is:
Gender, Race, and Feminism
A Short Bibliography
Accapadi, Motwani Mamta. “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color.” The College Student Affairs Journal. 2007 (26:2): 208-215.
Daniels, Jessie.“The Trouble with White Women.”
hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margins as a Space of Radical Openness” in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. South End Press (1990).
Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” Keynote: National Women’s Studies Association (1981).
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press (2003).
Ortega, Marina. “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color.” Hypatia 21:3 (Summer 2006): 56-74.
Palmer, Phyllis. Marynick. “White Women/Black Women: The Dualism of Female Identity and Experience in the United States.” Feminist Studies 9:1(Spring, 1983): 151-170.
Sandoval, Chela. “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World.” Genders: Journal of Social Theory, Representation, Race, Gender, Sex (1991): 1-24.*
Spelman, Elizabeth. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Beacon Press (1988).
Williams, Patricia. The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Mad Law Professor. Harvard University Press (1991).
*I’m grateful to Annick T.R Wibben for pointing me to this essay.
The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanism of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy”—from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Chris Hayes)
My favorite non-fiction book of 2012 was Twilight of the Elites. I liked it enough to brave the crowds at the Brooklyn Book Festival to see Hayes talk about it with a few other people. When I read Hard Times with my students, I urged/begged/challenged them to spend time thinking about the second chapter (“Meritocracy and its Discontents”). Just my summary of the chapter got them all worked up. Its arguments come to mind on a fairly regular basis (it’s too soon to know yet, but it might eventually rival The Alchemy of Race and Rights in the space it occupies in my brain), so when I tweeted this last week:
and then this
I had it in mind. And I had it in mind when I read“The Tenure Code” a post about a tenure case that fell apart because the word “solid” was used by an external reviewer to describe the candidate’s scholarship. Written by the ultimate insider, a 20-year veteran of an elite private school, the post both discusses and exemplifies the problems with twenty-first century notions of merit and shows just how absurd and arbitrary the tenure process, steeped as it is in the hocus pocus of meritocratic fantasy, can be. Ilan Stavans uses this tenure case to point out what is wrong with the process at Amherst College, and I would posit that what ails Amherst trickles down on the rest of us.
I’m particularly interested in a few claims Stavans makes.
He describes the campus committee (the C6) that reviews tenure files:
To be elected to the C6 they must have spent about a decade making themselves known in the community, which in turn makes them electable. By this time, the demands for tenure have changed from when they went for tenure. So they often demand of a candidate’s record more—much more—than their own records are able to display. This means that by their own implausible standards they wouldn’t receive tenure themselves.
Let’s pause for a minute to unpack this. It takes about ten years to build the credibility required for election to the committee. On the one hand, this could be a positive. Having a sense of an institution’s history and goals and a stake in its success is why tenure and faculty governance should matter. But the problem is that too many academics seek only to affirm their own experiences and ideas rather than judging the file in front of them. Stavan quips “Everyone knows the formula: Academics + power = mendacity” and he’s right, but what I want to understand is how this formula stays in place.
I know how it was put in place. Those who devise the systems of evaluation in higher education are suspicious of their own notions of merit and so develop ever-absurd hoops for faculty to jump through. And jump you must. There’s no use wringing your hands or shaking your fists at the system. You can, but they’ll fire you and fill your place with an equally qualified adjunct,and then with a visiting assistant professor in a position that might eventually turn into a tenure-track position that will lead to a national search where there is little or no chance of the adjunct or the visiting assistant professor making the shortlist. Fighting pre-tenure is not a plan. But there are those who can fix. They have power.
By “they” I ultimately mean the upper administration, but it’s also those committees like the C6 at Amherst. This is a committee comprised of tenured faculty from different disciplines who have no real understanding of fields outside of their own. The tenure track pushes new professors to hew to a fixed path, so part of being successful is not just maintaining an active research agenda but maintaining one approved by the institution. Straying from that can lead to problems and the strategy developed to gain tenure too often solidifies into practice.”Academic freedom” becomes a banner to fly to protect speech and ideas instead of as a tool to dismantle unfair review processes.
In theory, the review process is supposed to protect a file from the benign ignorance of a committee like the C6 and external letters are a key part of that process, but as Stavans explains they can be used in ways their writers never intended, especially at places with an odd sense of what excellent looks like:
Exceptionalism at Amherst is such that the C6 expects—and the college community expects the C6 to expect—outside reviewers to use only exceptional language in tenure letters. If a candidate isn’t “superb,” “extraordinary,” “unparalleled,” “remarkable,” and “at the top of her field,” then the assessment is coded with mediocrity: Good isn’t good enough.
Even when exceptionalism isn’t the goal, tenure files can be torpedoed by poorly worded letters.
I shudder to think about what happens when the candidate works in a marginalized field that might not be taken seriously by her own department never mind a campus-wide committee like the C6. And, if you’re thinking, “well clearly we need to put some people of color on the C6 committee, Tricia” I would answer that those committees need more than “some” people of color—more specifically they need people of color who have managed to gain institutional credibility–the kind that comes not just with tenure but with tenure in departments that have a firm footholds at their colleges and universities. So when UT Austin fires faculty working in ethnic studies, and UCLA has a program instead of a department of Afro-American Studies and Princeton offers certificates but not degrees in African Studies, Latino Studies, Latin American Studies, South Asian Studies** it is difficult and perhaps even impossible to build a coalition of faculty who have the credibility to make substantive contributions to personnel processes.
External letters are supposed to be part of a tenure file, but being a scholar in ethnic studies means that the pool for external reviewers (faculty who are senior enough to have credibility with the candidate’s home institution) is not particularly deep and everyone in it that pool is overworked. I suspect many of them are doing the work of building majors, programs, and departments in fields that are largely undervalued. I would be curious to know how their request for external review stacks up with Stavans’
Personally, I get an average of between six and eight tenure-evaluation requests a semester. Such is the volume, let alone my other commitments, that I regularly decline, often to all, unless the candidate is a former student of mine.
12 to 16 is a lot, so managing the flow is required, but I am particularly interested in who gets a yes from him, specifically his academic kin. To use Hayes as a hammer, perhaps more bluntly than he might want me to, even as Stavan is critiquing a system he is perpetuating it by only helping out his own. And who can blame him? He is right when he discusses the amount of work that goes into these reviews, though I’m hearing that letters from former professors are falling out of favor (I suspect that what happens is that external reviewers engage in some sort of you-write-about-my student/friend/ally-and-I’ll-write-about-yours).
Near the end, he explains one strategy he and others use in the face of some requests for review letters:
I’m told that in some institutions, declining such invitations amounts to a rejection ending up in the candidate’s files. For that reason, I do what I most dislike but others have suggested as the pertinent approach: I don’t respond.
The reason I decided to title the anthology written/unwritten is precisely because of these silences, the gap between what is said explicitly and what is deliberately left unsaid, those unwritten moments that may speak more than anyone intends. In this case, silence does not mean lack of support for a candidate’s work but lack of time to support a specific candidate (or perhaps it means both things at once). The unwritten goes beyond damning with faint praise. And when what is written includes words like “solid” in a place where everyone is exceptional and, (even though this is actually impossible), everyoneis above average there is no room for even the mythology of merit.
**To be fair to Princeton, they offer a lot of certificates in fields that some might find surprising. It’s also worth noting that, at some point, someone thought it odd that Princeton is the only Ivy League University that doesn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies
If you want a laugh or a giggle, check out my 2013 Diversity To Do List. I did exactly ONE thing from that list. Just the one thing. And it took me forever.
I’m not letting that stop me from making another one. Because, apparently, my super power is that I am disgustingly resilient.
(NB:This facts means that at any given time at least one person in my circle of friends loves me deeply and would fight to the death for me but also wants to stab me in the neck and/or push me down the stairs because who the hell can be so perky so damn much of the time!)
So even though I did very little that I planned to do last year, I’m going to make another list for 2014:
I’ll be reading Mentoring Faculty of Color.
I’m also participating on a panel at the College Language Association’s Annual Conference about how women of color can successfully navigate the minefield that is the academy.
An essay about Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist movements, and complicated abolitionist politics is in the works—a project I’ve been mulling over ever since I wrote about the tensions between white feminists and women of color.
Based on this from bell hooks, I’ll be writing an essay tentatively titled “Diversity from the Margins” for a fancy-pants brick and mortar publication. It will be a reflection on my shifting subject positions in higher education and the different—productive and unproductive—ways I’ve been angry over the years.
I can’t wait to respond to this blost post about what Dionne Bensonsmith calls soft service. I had such a visceral response to it that I ranted on twitter for a little while. But it’s an issue that I should pay more attention to, and I need to say something more productive than “THIS! THIS! THIS” and “boo white academics!”
For all that I didn’t do this year, I am glad about the work I managed to get through because it meant I got to finally meet Kim Hall and Brittney Cooper and work with Michelle Moravec (and have a THATCamp pajama party with her!)
It brought smart new readers and writers to my twitter community and to the blog. According to WordPress, folks from 74 countries visited this blog, including at least one person who is in Russia (Snowden, you sly dog you*).
And it meant that I got to sit down with Tressie McMillan Cottom in the middle of Manhattan to talk with her about diversity and social media and everything else under the sun.
I’m enormously grateful to everyone who reads the blog, tweets about it, and shares the posts via Facebook.
My promise to myself when I finished my PhD and started on the tenure track was to make sure that I didn’t let my quest for tenure keep me from doing what was right and ethical, even if it was inconvenient or professionally unwise. And when I got tenure I wanted to make sure that I put the privileges that come with it to good practical use, to use whatever institutional power I had to hold the academy to account for how it fails those who exist on its margins while also offering ideas about how it might improve. I’m looking forward to continuing that work in 2014.
*just kidding NSA! I love America. Pinky swear!
I think we all know that it’s not enough to be “smart” and “hardworking” and a “good student” to succeed as an academic. There’s a skill set that is almost invisible and accrues over time, perhaps over generations. I see this when I talk to second-generation academics, folks who grew up around professors or parents who have advanced degrees. They know the ins and outs of how things in academia work without fully realizing that there actually are ins and outs. A word like “polished” comes to mind, but it’s more than that; it is understanding the invisible rituals that makes the classroom a second home and advanced research seem natural. Even if they are socially awkward, they have an ease about them when it comes to moving around ideas that can be foreign to those who are first-generation college students.
Well-intentioned faculty can spot talent in students who have the skills to succeed in graduate school, but they can’t always offer the view of graduate school that students need to make informed choices about when, or even if, they should go. Raw talent isn’t enough, and there is less and less time in graduate school to learn how the whole thing works.
That’s where programs like the ones organized by the Group for Underrepresented Students in Humanities Education and Research (GUSHER) come in. They offer underrepresented students an opportunity to have a hands-on experience with graduate faculty and advanced graduate students doing the work of graduate school. These programs provide housing and meals and offer a stipend so that students can afford to take time away from work to participate in them. In as much as graduate school wrecks almost everyone’s self-esteem in some way, it can be more terrifying if the processes of it are completely mystifying.
Several students of color I know have participated in some of the programs below, and they have all returned transformed. I’m not being hyperbolic. I see it not only in the quality of their writing but also in how they approach their research and how they understand the challenges of graduate school. This does not mean that they’ve all run off to get their doctorates. In fact, I was most encouraged to hear that the programs help students make informed choices about whether or not a career in the academy is the best thing for them.
For now at least, SILC at Wheaton has been discontinued, and this is truly unfortunate, but there are several other programs that are still running:
One of the benefits of encouraging promising students to apply is that it allows for a dialogue about graduate school that happens outside of the pressure cooker of the graduate application process. I’ve taken to sending links to these programs to students who express an interest in graduate school, and even reading about the programs helps them think carefully about what it is that they actually want. Since the deadlines for these programs are in February and March, I send the links out to promising students just before they head off for winter break.
If you are a dean or a department chair, if you are on a diversity committee or work in a development office, I urge you to do the work of developing a program like this at your institution. They can be a powerful contribution to the work of developing and sustaining meaningful diversity in the academy. Good intentions and progressive ideas are great, but programs like this are even better.
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