On Thriving In A Small Department

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College. She is a regular contributor for Conditionally Accepted.

—–

WhitakerI’m from a family of four — just me, my brother, my mom, and my dad. Growing up, we each had a role we played in the family and, importantly, those roles complemented one another. If Dad was the free-spirited one who always needed to be happy, Mom was the hard worker whose happiness came second to the family’s needs. My brother was the sensitive, gentle soul, so of course I was the tough-skinned, ready-to-battle little sister. It worked.

When I left my graduate-school family — made up of 60 doctoral students in psychology and more faculty than I likely ever met — I went west to a small private liberal-arts college and joined its education department. My arrival meant the department grew from two tenure-track faculty to three.

Counting a lecturer, we now have four full-time faculty in a department that offers a major, a minor, undergraduate licensure, a ninth-semester program, and a master’s in teaching. We are the only department on campus with a graduate program, thus, we are the only department that operates at full capacity 12 months out of the year.

With only three other faculty, two staff assistants, and an educational coordinator to meet, I quickly settled into our “department” (it’s actually in a house with a full kitchen, living room, dining-room-turned classroom, and bathroom). I moved into my office and easily fell into the groove of the department. We rarely close our doors so we can stop by each other’s offices to chat, and when we need something, we yell down the hall. Even though our only male faculty member — who is also an introvert — gets a bit annoyed with our sometimes rowdy conversations, it works for us. We are productive and we love our “hallway conversations.”

But it’s not easy to be in such close quarters with the same people. Every. Single. Day. Like any group of people sharing a house, we argue and get on each other’s nerves. With so few of us — and so many responsibilities — we’ve had to figure out our roles in our departmental family. Turns out, my professional role involves more than just being the outgoing little sister.

So for those of you who are (or may soon be) newcomers in a similarly cozy professional family, here is my advice for how to thrive in a small department.

Listen and observe. You have to figure out the family dynamics before you can carve out your place. It became clear within a month of my arrival that — as the most junior person, who also happened to be under age 30 — I was tasked with freshening the department. In other words, I was supposed to be the “Arbiter of Innovation” who brought the department into a contemporary educational landscape. Having just received my Ph.D. months prior, and being engrossed in the literature and still excited to attend conferences, I was happy to assume that role.

Don’t get stuck. Once I’d helped the department revise the curriculum, craft a new position for a teacher-preparation director, and create a new major, I was fresh out of innovation. So I changed my role. In fact, this time I created my role. After assessing the needs of the department I became the “urban education expert.” The point is: Don’t be stagnant in your professional development. Become who you need to be to be professionally successful. As your department grows and changes, so should you.

Create strong relationships. In a small department there’s going to be a lot of interaction because there are so few people among whom to spread social niceties. There is no point closing your door and trying to be invisible so you might as well get to know the people with whom you work. Strong personal relationships can even help resolve professional conflicts when they inevitably arise. People who feel respected and valued can more easily distinguish between personal and professional issues.

Be active. Every decision made in a small department will affect you in some way because, again, there is nowhere to hide. Even mundane things — like hiring a student worker — require everyone’s input since that hire will be doing work that affects you. If your department, like mine, has only four people, you are 25 percent of the vote. So however overworked you are, you have to participate during department meetings instead of zoning out and grading papers.

Be an ambassador. One of the most difficult things about being in a tiny department is that people around campus don’t necessarily know you exist. If they do, they may erroneously assume that such a small department can’t possibly be integral to the institution, so they are dismissive of the work you and your department do. That is dangerous, particularly during periods of economic crises or when you are up for tenure or promotion. People need to understand your department’s — and, thus, your — contribution to the campus.

Be your own advocate. Administrators at small institutions wear multiple hats. Your department chair may also be dean of the graduate school and teach a full course load. It is inevitable that they will drop the ball on some things. Don’t let one of those things be your professional advancement. Take it upon yourself to become familiar with tenure-and-promotion guidelines in your department and institution. Go to the dean and request a mentoring committee who — in the absence of senior faculty in your own department — can offer guidance. Invite colleagues to watch you teach and then take them to lunch and get their feedback. Form a research and writing group with faculty from other departments. Make sure you take your annual review seriously. Prepare your documents, meet with your chair, and ask for advice on ways to improve. When a department’s workload is spread across just four people, it’s not always realistic to expect the same type of mentorship that’s available in larger departments.

Don’t do too much. Despite what I said about being active, you have to know when enough is enough. I chose my current position because I value teaching over research. I love interacting with students, creating new courses, and basically anything related to pedagogy. In my first three years I created 17 different courses. That’s an example of doing too much. Another example: I taught every summer my first five years, sometimes two to three classes a summer because, frankly, my department needed me to. I only recently figured out how to stand up for myself and say No — knowing that my refusal to teach a 6th summer in a row means that someone else in the department will have to do it. I was worried my colleagues would be upset or angry, but they’ve been supportive and understanding of my need to prioritize myself over the students for at least one summer.

Those are the strategies that have worked for me. I have strong relationships with my colleagues, I miss them on breaks, and am proud of the work we accomplish together. Every member of my department wrote strong letters in support of my third-year review and were of great comfort when I experienced a death during my busiest teaching summer. Each of them occupy a role in my life that’s something like family.

Academia can be cutthroat and isolating. It helps to have two families with whom to share the struggle, even if I don’t always get to be the bossy little sister.

Teaching While Black

kc-williamsNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  KC Williams taught sociology at a small Southern community college but is now the director of African-American student affairs at the University of Arizona. A proud #ChocolateCardinal, KC earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Stanford University. She has begun a new career in public speaking and writing on feminism and race. KC tweets @ProfKCW, blogs at Amplify Voices and manages several Facebook pages including Blackademia, Welcome to My Post-Racial Life, and Fight the Tower.

——

For any black faculty member who has ever felt imposed upon or discriminated against for reasons having nothing to do with your abilities, you may have been discovered to be TWB — Teaching While Black.

Even for black folk who think they share MFB (most favored black) status at their college, the rules of Teaching While Black still apply. Let one of your white students get their feelings hurt during a lecture on race — a lecture that you have been hired to deliver — then you will see how treacherous TWB can be and how quickly your most favored black status changes. Exhibits A through E: Melissa Harris-Perry, Shannon Gibney, Ersula Ore, Saida Grundy and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (just to name a few).

Somewhere along the way, we got it twisted. Many academic institutions were happy with your blackness only as long as it was propping up their sad diversity numbers. As long as you conform and stay in the shadows of their achievements, you are good to go, but if you are going to be one of “those blacks” — the troublemakers, activists, uppity black folk — now that’s another story.

When you lose that most favored black status, you will know. There will be an air of hostility from your colleagues in meetings. People you do not even know will begin to ignore you.

Secretaries will tattle on you, even if you have never done anything but support them. Some may go as far as to record their conversations with you, type them up and proclaim that they will testify in court to the comments made. Male maintenance workers will burst in the faculty restroom door, walk right in and ignore your presence, brushing by you with not so much as an “excuse me.” A vice president might call you “sassy” or “elitist” and demand that you take your prestigious alma mater out of your syllabus because it intimidates your (white) students. Yet they will also advise that you take people “out of their comfort zones.”

The college newsletter may publish your credentials incompletely, because to write them up properly — inclusive of the “with departmental honors” addendum — “might make others feel bad.” You will wonder if they actually realize how difficult it is to graduate with honors from a program like that. The very same tools required to get hired will suddenly become a barrier to full participation in that job.

Colleagues will take their disdain to the next level by sending problematic students your way or by actively dissuading them from taking your classes. Some of those students may disobey and take your course anyway. Later, they will come to you and report the negative, racist comments made while they were registering, and will put it in writing. The others? They let you know who they are on the first day of class as they sit with their arms crossed and faces torn up before you have even introduced yourself. Nearly all will soften as the semester goes on, because after all, you are not actually a monster, but you have been caught TWB.

Staff members who are paid to advocate for your role of leadership in the classroom will actively undermine your authority by empowering students to misbehave. They will encourage those students to skip the chain of command and write memos directly to the college president or vice presidents for any and all perceived rebuffs. Worst of all, when students misbehave in ways that most would consider beyond the pale, even criminally, those same staffers will stand around the water cooler discussing why you just can’t be nicer to students.

Some students will refuse to address you respectfully, but they will do so with a smile. They may even attempt to call you by your first name after you have introduced yourself to them professionally with the expected “Dr.” or “Professor” preceding your last name — on the first day of class, writing it on the board and in the syllabus.

When you’re Teaching While Black, your colleagues will also join in the fray. They will pull the office visit drive-by, wherein they will come by to ask you some basic question about some abstract theory, just to see if they can catch you off guard. And suddenly, all of them have a cousin or a neighbor who attended your alma mater; they want you to know that you are not that special. One may bring you an article explaining how they, as a Jewish person, benefit from inherent intelligence, while black people do not. They will wonder aloud to others why you kicked them out of your office. Little did they know a staffer was bragging about keeping down costs on a student fair by noting that they had “Jewed them down.”

You may see your college president around town, and despite the fact that there are rarely more than four or five black faculty (out of nearly 150), he will ask you where you work. Every time. He might do so in front of his administrators at a statewide conference, asking, “Where did we get you from?” as if you were acquired from a street corner, orphanage or auction block.

But you will fully realize you are TWB when the most atrocious things happen. When a student leaves a racist message on your office door display, or boldly tells you they do not believe you went to your university because they googled you and could not find you anywhere, or they bring a fully formed noose to the classroom to threaten you. Criminal.

Time and again, in even only the last three years, we have seen administrations handle these situations fecklessly. They have engaged in victim blaming and shaming, fired or written up the faculty member, failed to act in any meaningful way against perpetrators, and smeared the names and reputations of the victims. When you confront them head-on with the reality that you expect to be treated with respect and fairness, the Jim Crow claws come out. “How dare you not know your place, black person!” “Who do you think you are, elitist black person?” “You seem to think you deserve more than anyone else!”

This is the formula. It seems very few institutions take inclusion and equity seriously. Even those that do still handle racism and anti-blackness like it was something you were supposed to prevent — that it is an inconvenience that makes them look bad, and that is your fault.

So what can you do? Do you. Resist being lulled into the false comfort of respectability politics. Don’t think that you can “coon” your way into fair treatment — because if that is your plan, you have already lost. You know better and can sense that there is a problem if you ever find yourself thinking you have to be nicer, less bold, let it “roll off your shoulders” or hold back critique.

Don’t dull your shine for their comfort. Use the system to forward your professional goals and those of your students. Pay attention to students of color and inspire them by being fully black. Stand in your blackness because you stand on the shoulders of those who were not allowed to do so.

I came across this poem by Andria Nacina Cole, and I can’t stop thinking about how apropos it is.

They will come for your throat, Black girl. They will kill themselves trying to keep you in your place. Buck. Write pretty speeches in their language. Use their own words against them. Remember the community from which you come. And chip, chip, chip away at their systems. Forever. Until they come crashing down at their motherfucking feet.

There’s no alternative — you are black, while engaging in a noble profession within a hostile society that sees your blackness as a threat. So let it. As you work to dismantle the system, change how you respond to it. Be professional. Be committed. Be engaged.

But be you. Beautiful, powerful, wonderful black you.

On The Burden Of Having To Recruit “Your Own Kind”

Note: this was originally published on Inside Higher Ed columnLauren Michele Jackson is a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Chicago.

Program Recruitment From the Margins

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

lauren-m-jackson

Lauren Michele Jackson

Graduate students are hardly privy to ins and outs of application season, even from the other side of the curtain, but we feel the tremors nonetheless. Even before the acceptances roll out, faculty members and administrators depend on current students to recruit the prospective students they want most. As walking representatives of our programs’ successes and intellectual culture, it’s an implicit agreement upon matriculation that we fortify the reputation of our academic homes to the best of our ability, admissions efforts included.

Even if not for this arrangement, the fact that potential students would reach out to us and we divulge in turn just makes sense. Senior and midcareer faculty members toiled over their studies in an era so different as to be unintelligible. Meanwhile, junior faculty, although perhaps close in spirit, are removed by departmental philosophy — they most likely didn’t even go here.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

So, now it is routine. Between summer and spring the question is expected. A little less vague, maybe, filled with consequential details like the college’s name and area specialty. Unwritten is anything that might, on its face, appeal to what many people around here would snidely call identity politics. I am never given the rhyming cute-ism assumed by Dear White People about faces and places. I am never asked what it is like to be a student who is — only one who does, and how that doing looks in the light of day to a campus like this. Prospective students never ask me what it’s like to be academic while black and a woman.

And yet I can feel another thing, the more pressing question that simmers underneath the labyrinthian negotiations and exchanges and codes of respectability that haunt the entire process of even getting to the point of daring to declare interest in something like formalized higher learning — while black. That question does not care that I am an Americanist, maybe does not even know that I work with black texts — “African-American literature” does not appear anywhere on my department profile. My photo is enough: I am merely and not so merely evidence that existence is possible. I am a touchstone.

The visible question “how do you do” is genuine, but so are the ones unspoken: How are you breathing?

Will I be able to breathe?

For its uncomfortable relationship with the public and the state, the academy is pretty content to mirror the enmities of the “real world” when it comes to people. It does not take an insider or an expert to see the diversity of ways academe is openly hostile to individuals it calls “diverse,” the humanities (god bless ’em) included. The instructors are white. The committees are white. The faculty is white. The history is white. The theory is white. The administration is white. The students are white — mostly. Some might say it is a little more complicated than that, but time for nuance is a fantastic luxury afforded if you are, well, white. If undergraduate education belongs to the order Lagomorpha, and M.F.A.s practice eugenics, a literature Ph.D. is like skipping dinner for a party that only serves hors d’oeuvres.

The sympathetic portrait for the overworked, undercompensated grad-student-cum-employee-but-kinda-still-not is a sallow thing: the owl-eyed pixie sustained by JSTOR and carrot sticks or the reedy, inert genius whose underappreciation manifests in depressive episodes soothed by Hemingway plus a Hemingway-approved beverage. Whiteness is the hypervisible champion of grad school apathy, the image implied when the subject is someone whose chosen career includes thinking for money. And as academe revels in its own romanticism, real students are drowning.

From where I sit: grad life is OK. Incredible people doing incredible things who are enthusiastic about blackness — or at very least, enthusiastic about my enthusiasm — surround me in personal and professional networks curated in real time over the course of my time here. There are colleagues who make me feel loved and necessary in an atmosphere that drives even the most privileged into isolation. Even greater is the virtual nucleus of smart-as-hell folks whose tweets and messages sustain me. I am all right. I am breathing. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some more black folks in this bitch, just sayin’.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

That question rubs. As I walk on campus and see blocks brimming with private police, guns holstered, that question rubs. When fraternities and sororities — coalitions for white supremacy — do what they do best, the friction is almost too much to bear. When they are shielded further by administrative dialect, I am white-hot.

The academy is a pyramid scheme, as the old joke goes. Aging scholars coax bright young minds to work tirelessly for jobs they never intended on abdicating anyway. Pro-diversity campaigns in higher education look pyramid scheme-y in their own way: the already marginalized, further minorized in their respective departments, are responsible for recruiting “their own.” We are the one rainbow welcome wagon for the place that already demonstrates a lack of welcome for having to initiate such a campaign at all. More insidious, the directive is seductive and, shucking notwithstanding, feels mutually beneficial. They — the administration and affiliates — get brownie points, we get allies.

What is our responsibility to undermine our responsibility?

If we choose selfishness, the desire to see (more) “black faces in white spaces” outweighs concern for what happens when they get there. Selfishness hoses down the nitty-gritty and makes way for glowing reports on the institutions that would rather we did not exist. If we choose selfish, we do not have to look for allies in the abstract. But who am I to recruit the student with a bull’s-eye on their back from day one.

I continue to believe that nobody looks out for us like we look out for us. If not inborn, endangerment since birth draws black folks — black femmes especially — tighter together. Whiteness pushes out, but we (can) extend a hand, give a heads-up, keep folks in the know. For example, I think about the cumulonimbus-headed brotha who pulled me aside during a campus visit to a choice university years ago. He warned me of the friction between the two departments I would have dearly needed to work in tandem to complete my studies.

No (wo)man, person of color should be an island, nor can we lure our family under false pretenses. The negotiation is not easy. We cannot hide the dirt, we cannot unwrite the damages, but we can still extend the invitation. Honestly. There is work to do here, a lot of it. I will be here for you, but I cannot do it alone.

Advice For Minority Scholars On “Unfriending Friends”

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Dr. Manya Whitaker (@IvyLeagueLady) is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

——

Manya WhitakerI, like many other fresh-out-of-grad school professors of color, entered academe with the naïve idea that other people of color on college campuses would be natural allies and perhaps even friends. I’m aware of the statistics and know that I am among a privileged few who have the fortune to land a tenure-track position. I also know that the presence of diverse bodies does not negate the presence of racism. If anything, racism is more prevalent in a space where the majority has become so used to being the only that they have never had to think about how their words, body language, values or even methods of intellectual inquiry can be derivative of white supremacy. Of full-time professors, the 16 percent who are of color bear the burden of educating not only the students but also their colleagues about systemic inequities.

For those reasons it is incredibly important that faculty and staff members of color find allies. At the most basic level, we need the numbers. We need the numbers to recruit more people of color. We need the numbers so that when issues of diversity emerge, more than 12 voices will be arguing on behalf of all marginalized and underrepresented groups. We need the numbers to show our white colleagues that yes, black and brown people can and do earn advanced degrees.

Beyond allyship, it’s important for faculty of color to cultivate friendships because we need the community. We need the emotional support on the days when we’ve had to deal with just one too many microaggressions. We need the ability to talk about things of cultural importance and not have to explain why we can’t just go to any hair salon. We need to be able to wear what we want, relax our shoulders and not monitor our language. We need the space to be ourselves — our individual selves instead of our professional selves.

Yet with that said, not all people of color are interested in getting to know your real self. It took me a while but I’ve figured out how to recognize when someone is not my ally or my friend. I share these insights with you.

You have to accept the truth. It is easy to dismiss ignored emails, absence from social events and even silence during contentious meetings as minor. You can devise reasons why your so-called friends avoid eye contact, arrive late and leave early, and basically do everything in their power to avoid conversation with you. And when they are forced into conversation, you can act as though fake smiles and surface-level banter are simply an attempt to maintain professionalism at work.

But what you can’t dismiss or reason away are when “friends” actively work against you. These actions are not always explicit, but are nonetheless hurtful and impactful. Their silence when they should be speaking with you is indicative of their indifference to issues of importance to you. Their absence when they should be standing beside you speaks to their lack of courage. Most of all, when they consistently find a way to co-opt conversations that are not about them and their problems, they are not interested in building community. Your pain or happiness should not be fodder for their narrative.

It took me so long to identify and interpret such behavioral patterns because I didn’t want to see them. I wanted to believe that people with whom I interact daily were not so egocentric and selfish that they would throw away a relationship with one of the few people who shares their day-to-day lived experiences. I overlooked their consistent disrespect because I might not find other people of color whom I could befriend for a very long time. I ignored the annoyance, hurt and sometimes anger that I felt in response to the ever-increasing negativity they brought into my life for the sake of the larger group, in the name of community. In any other circumstance in which I would have ended a negative or unfruitful relationship with a person, I stuck to it because hey … we all we got.

This has been a mistake. Too often I’ve allowed myself to dwell in relationships with people who do not add to my life. They may not necessarily detract, but they are not pushing me to grow. Being a minority, any kind of minority, in academe is extremely difficult. It took four years for me to realize that I was making it harder on myself by forcing relationships with people whom I am not naturally inclined to befriend, with people who were more interested in using me to reify their worldview than they were in constructing a new worldview.

I have to forgive myself for that. I wanted so badly to build community that I overlooked moments when those with whom I wanted to build were instead tearing me down.

Most impactful were the group hangouts-turned-grief sessions. Complaints dominated our conversations. Complaints about the institution, complaints about the city, complaints about personal lives, complaints about colleagues, ad nauseam. At first I cosigned. I wanted to be supportive and show my understanding of how difficult it is to do the jobs we do in the circumstances in which we do them. I, too, am sick of being The Only. I, too, want to live in a thriving metropolis with an abundance of available singles. I, too, want students to respect what I offer the institution without having to cite my pedigree.

But I also want to be happy. I want to make the best of this opportunity, because it is an opportunity. I am in a tenure-track position at a well-paying institution with amazing benefits. I am given agency to teach the courses I want to teach when I want to teach them, how I want to teach them. I look forward to going to work on Monday. I love chatting with students in my office. I like the challenge of writing grant applications while teaching a new course and finishing a book manuscript. I love my job. I want to be able to love my job without feeling guilty about it.

My “friends” weren’t allowing me that space. I didn’t feel as though I could express my joy at being able to do exactly what I wanted to do in my career. It felt as though my happiness made me a traitor in this politically correct revolutionary world of academe in which I am either with you or against you.

This was unfair.

This was not support or allyship. This was not community. Being in a community doesn’t feel lonely. Being in a community isn’t emotionally taxing. Being in a community does not mean biting your tongue and setting aside your emotional experiences in order to validate those of others.

So I made difficult decisions to end relationships with people whom I once considered friends, and I advise you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be hostile or aggressive. It doesn’t even have to be a thing. When they don’t return emails, stop emailing them. When they don’t show up to events you’ve organized, stop inviting them. When they talk incessantly about themselves, don’t listen. When they dwell on negativity, counteract it with positivity.

Give voice to what you love about yourself and your life. While empathy can affirm that you are not the only one enduring difficult times, trapping pain within a tight circle ensures it is never released. Instead, you need to find ways to release the hurt and begin healing journeys.

And after you’ve stopped investing in undeserving people, find the people who are willing to help you heal — regardless of their identity characteristics. In my experiences, my white colleagues are those most willing to explore self-care strategies in the face of racial battle fatigue. Just because someone looks different than you doesn’t mean they can’t understand your struggle.

But you first have to identify who is helping you overcome your struggle and who is capitalizing from it.

Black Feminism Will Save My Life

13320393_10101344503336483_7741098906905455756_o

Note: this blog post was originally published on The Feminist Wire (TFW).

Like most Black folks, I have a Black woman to thank for my existence (my mother) who, in turn, has another Black woman to thank for her existence (my grandmother), and so on. I have them, and my aunts and older cousins to thank for my survival in this oftentimes-hostile world. Black women babysitters, neighbors, friends, teachers, mentors, and colleagues have educated me, protected me, supported me, advised me, and loved me in childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood. Now, as I fumble through my academic career, simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of grad school, survive the tenure-track, and thrive as a scholar-activist, I have Black women researchers, theorists, and writers to lean on during my journey. Indeed, Black feminism will save my life.

The Gifts of Black Feminism

I was introduced to the framework of intersectionality and Black feminist theory more generally, as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). In one assignment from my upper-level Women and the Media course, taught by Elizabeth Salisbury (a white anti-racist feminist instructor), I reflected on my intersecting sex, gender, sexual, and racial identities. I still remember being blown away by all that I learned in my Women’s History and Black Women’s History courses, taught by Dr. Michelle Scott (a Black woman history professor); I was shocked by how little I knew about Black women’s involvement in the abolition, suffrage, feminist, Civil Rights, and Black Power movements. Although Black feminism was not treated as a central theoretical framework in most of my graduate school courses, it has remained a focal point in my own research, teaching, and service.

Graduate school – MA and PhD in sociology from Indiana University – is where I first discovered the toxic, soul-crushing nature of academe. This training was not a period of self-discovery and consciousness-raising; if anything, grad school was set to “beat the activist” out of me, to de-radicalize me as a scholar-activist and to sever my ties with my communities. With only one Black woman professor on faculty and very little support of critical intersectional work, my graduate department was not a place that was a welcome home for Black feminists and womanists. These years were soul-crushing – even traumatizing; now three years later, I am seeing a trauma-certified therapist and taking Lexapro for the ongoing generalized anxiety disorder. I was knocked out of my metaphorical Black feminism life raft and nearly drowned as a result.

The Gift of Self-Definition

Late in my last year of graduate school, and subsequently in my tenure-track position at the University of Richmond, I rediscovered the life-giving force of Black feminism. In a blog post, I wrote about Dr. Patricia Hill Collins’s 2012 book, On Intellectual Activism; I devoured every word of her book as it named the kind of work I aspired to do (intellectual activism) and made such work seem like a natural extension of the career of Black feminist scholars. Her book reintroduced me to the core components of Black feminist theory, which she articulated in her book, Black Feminist Thought – in particular, the intersections among systems of oppression and the importance of self-definition for Black women. I took up her notion of self-definition in declaring that I am pursuing my career in sociology on my own terms – inherently activist, or nothing at all.

Unfortunately, self-definition has not been a smooth process. I regularly burn the candle at both ends trying to exceed the expectations of mainstream academe (to keep my job) and subverting the academic status quo. At any given moment, I waver between fear of my grad school advisors’ warning that I will be irrelevant (to mainstream sociology) and smugness as I intentionally buck the system. It is an unfair burden to have to weigh between keeping my job and liberating my communities.

The Gift of Liberation from Oppressive Institutions

But, Black feminism has somewhat eased this ambivalence. The good Lorde – Audre Lorde – once wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Though telling myself that I am simply working within the system to enact change has helped me to sleep at night, I realize that playing by the rules of the Ivory Tower serves to perpetuate the status quo in academe and society more generally. How can I expect to challenge academic injustice by reinforcing unjust practices? Lorde once said that “your silence will not protect you” – a powerful phrase prominently displayed on a bumper sticker on the very laptop I am using now to write this essay. Lorde has shattered any naïve notion that playing it “safe” in academe will ever ensure my safety, livelihood, and status. To be a good little mainstream sociologist is to be complicit in the discipline’s racism.

Yet, contemporary Black feminists have been incredible role models for avoiding the seduction of letting the academy validate my existence. Oh, and have I been seduced, even to the point of internalizing the view that I am only valuable as a member of society so long as I publish and that leisure and relaxation are tools of the devil. I am thankful that a friend, Dr. Abigail A. Sewell, introduced me to The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure – Without Losing Your Soul as we were finishing up our respective dissertations. A couple of years later, I found myself having a phone conversation with the book’s lead author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, to ask for advice about moving my blog, ConditionallyAcepted.com, to InsideHigherEd.com, which also features her biweekly academic advice column, “Dear Kerry Ann.” Through a series of conversations with her, as well as various resources produced by her organization (National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity),I have been inspired to let my big dreams and goals guide me, rather than being driven (or coerced) by external validation like tenure and promotion.

Similarly, I was inspired by Dr. Zandria F. Robinson who, when under a national conservative media attack on her online writing (and character, politics, appearance, and menstrual cycle), had the last laugh as she maintained her value and integrity no matter the institution that employed her. Academic institutions, as with any social institution, were overwhelmingly built by and for wealthy white cishet men without disabilities, and they continue to systematically exclude and exploit everyone else. I will never be free if I live my life defined by institutions that hate me and people like me. Perhaps because of the simultaneity of and intersections among racism, sexism, and classism, many Black women have never been under the illusion that an institution will value, liberate, and uplift them; instead, some have taken to carving out safe spaces in these hostile institutions or creating their own institutions and organizations outside of them.

The Gift of Positionality

Black feminists’ emphasis on positionality – that is, recognizing how one’s intersectional social position shapes one’s view of the world – has allowed me to embrace the influence of my personal biography on my scholarship. Through my graduate training, I was taught that legitimate sociological scholarship focuses on social institutions (e.g., medicine), not social groups – especially not marginalized groups. I was encouraged to embrace a professional identity as a medical sociologist who just happens to study Black and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, and women; I was discouraged from being a sociologist of sexualities, of gender, or of race. The greatest suspicion of all was of sociologists who were not simply experts on some group, but were a member of the group: Black sociologists, queer sociologists, feminist sociologists, disabled sociologists, fat sociologists. Having expertise “of” some sociological topic creates enough distance between the presumably objective sociologist and her research. But, to be your topic threatens the appearance of objectivity.

It has taken me a few years to actually embrace my positionality in my scholarship. Yes, I am Black, and queer, and non-binary, and fat, and a feminist. And, my work as an activist – to advance these causes and liberate these communities – is the primary motivation behind my research on sexualities, gender, race and ethnicity, and weight. I have Black feminists to thank for taking objectivity to task and for celebrating positionality rather than pretending to be objective. My work has become easier now that I allow myself to say I am a Black queer sociologist (who happens to study health), rather than forcing the label “medical sociologist” (who happens to study race, ethnicity, gender, and sexualities).

The Gift of Self-Care as a Political Act

Black feminist writing about self-care will save my life. This self care is different from the neoliberal “life hack” and yoga-and-mindfulness-fad stuff that fills my Facebook feed. As Lorde argued, self-care is a political act; the audacity of self-preservation within institutions and a national context that is set on eliminating Black women is a far cry from white middle-class folks’ efforts to make their privileged lives just a little bit calmer. When racial organizations slant toward the plight of Black cishet men, when feminist organizations champion the causes of middle-class white cishet women, when the rest of the country doesn’t give a damn either way – Black women are left on their own to simply survive from day to day. Self-care as a counter to others’ efforts to eliminate you is nothing short of an act of warfare.

Black feminism’s emphasis on self-care has forced me to rethink how own efforts to survive and thrive – how I approach and conceptualize them. It convinced me to critically analyze the features of graduate school and the academy more generally that left me with a PhD, generalized anxiety disorder, and complex trauma at the end of my graduate training. Had I been aware of the oppressive structure and culture of mainstream academe from the start – the pervasive micro-aggressions, the devaluing of scholarship on my own communities, the elitist emphasis on Research I careers, and the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me – I may have been better prepared with ways to preserve myself. Hindsight is 20-20; now, I am better armed as I take on the rough road of the tenure-track. I have sought out mental health care, I have looked for supportive critical communities, I have taken on new ways to embrace authenticity in my scholarship, and so forth. Thanks to Black feminists, I am aware that my survival falls in my hands alone; I could find myself dead or near-death on the other side of tenure if I continue to naively assume my department and university cares about my well-being beyond my CV.

The Gift of Entrepreneurship

Beyond simply surviving, I am grateful to Black feminist friends and colleagues who have modeled for me bravery in the face of vulnerability, invisibility, exploitation, and extinction. Since starting Conditionally Accepted, I have become connected with a wide network of smart, critical, and creative people. And, I have noticed an interesting pattern: most of the scholars who are successful public intellectuals and academic entrepreneurs are Black women. Dr. Manya Whitaker started her own educational consulting business, Blueprint Educational Strategies. Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro runs her own business to help academics develop alternative careers (“alt-ac”) – Beyond the Tenure Track. Dr. Michelle Boyd started and runs Inkwell Academic Writing Retreats. Dr. Chavella Pittman runs workshops on bias and incivility in the classroom through her business, Effective & Efficient Faculty. Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming is just beginning to offer professional development workshops. And, of course, there is the Oprah of professional development, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder and CEO of NCFDD.

Giving Back

I would be remiss to devote this essay solely to the gifts I have received from Black feminist scholarship and activism. To me, Black feminism is not simply an ideology and movement from which others (including me) passively benefit. To be a Black feminist is to be committed to advancing intersectionality, positionality, and self-definition and to liberating all Black women. And, to be an ally to Black feminists, I feel a sense of obligation to use my generally privileged status as an individual often perceived as a cisgender man to live into this commitment.

I am still figuring out what that means for the long-haul and on a day-to-day basis. At the baseline, I regularly draw upon a principle of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (for which I sometimes volunteer) to ask, “How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include people and communities of color?” – tailored to ask specifically about Black women.

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black girls, women, and femmes?

Failing to regularly prioritize the inclusion, support, and advancement of Black women means that white cishet masculinity pervades as a norm, as the default; attention to Black women comes up only when they demand it or when the dominant group bothers to attend to diversity (which usually fails to consider intersectionality). When I plan events on campus, I aim to center the voices of women of color, especially when the topic at hand disproportionately affects them and/or affects them in unique ways. For example, I have begun organizing workshops at academic conferences on supporting intellectual activists and protecting them from professional harm and public backlash; since women of color have been the most vulnerable to these attacks, I have centered their experiences. When Black women panelists are available, I center their voices; when they are not, I cite their work and refer to their writing for further information.

Perhaps my biggest commitment to Black feminism to date, at least as a scholar, is the co-editing of an anthology that will celebrate academic bravery among women of color scholars. With my colleague and friend, Dr. Manya Whitaker, I am currently collecting narratives and creative works from women of color academics that reflect upon times that they spoke up, took risks, reconceptualized what it means to be a scholar, advocated for change, overcame adversity, etc. The inspiration from this work came from a comment that Dr. Brittney Cooper casually made as a fellow panelist at the Parren-Mitchell Symposium on Intellectual Activism at the University of Maryland in April 2015. She remarked that there was too much cowardice in academy, and that what we need to best support intellectual activists is more academic bravery. As far as I have seen, no one else is talking about this, despite the widespread culture of fear and risk-aversion in academia. But, from my observations, some of the most innovative, entrepreneurial, creative, and all-around badass scholars today are women of color. I am incredibly moved by their individual and collective bravery and want to document and celebrate it; I want to put it into a single book (for now) so future women of color scholars will already have a manual for being brave, hopefully forgoing years of floundering, fear, isolation, self-doubt.

This is just the beginning. I owe my life to Black women and Black feminism. They gave me life. They have sustained my life. They inspire me. They care for me and love me. Black women rule the world – I’m just doing my part to see that the rest of the world wakes up to that reality!

PhDs Of Color, Don’t Accept The Initial Job Offer!

sylvanna_0Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Sylvanna Falcón (@profe_falcon) is an associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and affiliated faculty of feminist studies and sociology. She is the author of Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations (U. Washington Press, 2016). She has recently discovered the wonders of yoga and meditation.

You Deserve Better

Over the past few years, I have started mentoring junior scholars, primarily women of color, about how to negotiate tenure-track job offers. This kind of mentoring came about rather organically, as I do not pitch myself as some kind of expert negotiator. But over time I became increasingly passionate about helping others secure better job offers as it started to align with my politics as a brown, Latina, middle-class, antiracist, feminist sociologist.

I became deeply troubled hearing time and time again that academics of color were advised against negotiating beyond the initial offer, to just be grateful about getting a job. Sometimes that advice is coming from other academics of color! Even though resources exist online about how to negotiate job offers, too many people, and recent Ph.D.s in particular, are getting the misguided advice to accept the initial offer, even in cases when they have competing offers from different institutions.

Increasingly, negotiating an offer is seen as a risk that could end in losing the job altogether or that we are being ungracious — or worse, ungrateful. This shift is particularly salient since the Great Recession of 2008, when the academic job market radically declined. Rather than having a plethora of tenure-track jobs to which to apply, such jobs have become scarce and intensely competitive, and many of us are simply unable or unwilling to live just anywhere in the country.

I remember a time in the early 2000s, when advanced graduate student cohorts in sociology would apply for 50 or more jobs; this job mecca was not my experience at all. I went on the academic job market four times, moving from positions as a lecturer to an assistant professor at a liberal arts college on the East Coast and then to a postdoc and an assistant professorship at a research-1 institution on the West Coast.

I would like to posit that our mind-set when negotiating academic job offers has to shift from being grateful that we have received an offer to knowing that we bring value to an academic institution — even in this new job climate. This shift in mind-set directly undermines the gratitude discourse prevalent at neoliberal universities. Why should we be grateful (and hence indebted) to labor for an institution? After all, we worked hard to earn that Ph.D. and receive that offer — facts we quickly forget when we are repeatedly told that we should be relieved to be offered an academic job at all these days. That is not to deny the very real and good fortune many of us have in landing a tenure-track job when too many Ph.D.s are unemployed, in severe debt and/or living the adjunct life. It is always sobering to hear the latest statistic about only 60 percent of Ph.D.s getting tenuretrack jobs in the social sciences and humanities, yet this new normal should not somehow circumvent our legitimate desire to enter a new job feeling happy and respected.

As academic job seekers enter into the negotiation phase for a tenure-track position, I encourage them to embrace three points.

Understand the value that you bring to the institution and your future department, even if you are a newly minted Ph.D. If you accept the job offer, you plan to work at this particular academic institution for the foreseeable future. The students and your future colleagues are going to benefit from your outlook, energy, research, recent graduate school training and knowledge. You will bring renewed enthusiasm to your teaching and research. They extended the offer to you so your future colleagues see your value. Now you should, too.

The offer is yours to accept … or not. I have yet to hear firsthand of a case where someone asked for an increase in salary and it resulted in the offer getting pulled, but there are stories. You are going to hear “no” a lot in academe (so, develop thick skin now), but in order to even get to that stage, you actually have to ask for something. If the offer is not to your liking, then you can walk away. Yes, you can actually walk away! Why should you accept an offer that has not met your standards and expectations? You have a bargaining position that you need to finesse to your advantage rather than be taken advantage of.

However, you have to be an effective and strategic negotiator, meaning that you request reasonable considerations typical of that particular institutional structure. Asking for things typical of a research-1 job offer at a liberal arts institution is not in your strategic interest. It is in your interest to consult widely — online and with multiple mentors — and to give serious thought to what you need in place to excel at that particular institution.

Do not pre-emptively sabotage yourself by not asking for anything. Ignore the advice and reaction from your mentors or other supporters to just sign the initial offer. I have helped women of color negotiate increases in salaries, research funds and course releases after people they trust told them not to ask for anything. I have literally lost count of how many people of color I have helped to negotiate better packages against the advice of their academic mentors. This help has translated to larger salaries for senior positions (by $20,000), substantial increases in research funds (by $15,000) and modest increases in salaries for assistant professors (ranging from $2,000 to $5,000).

Now, you will not get everything for which you ask; negotiations means compromises. But even I have been stunned at some of the aforementioned successes when people of color get serious about negotiations. That is not because I have some inside secret or deft negotiation skills to pass on, but because, with some close mentoring, people of color began to think concretely about what they needed to thrive. The key, I believe, is that they offered an effective explanation as to why they merited these items. Your salary has a chance to increase if you can provide a clear and compelling rationale for the increase based on the value you bring, not because you have a lot of debt. This same logic applies to your research funds, summer salaries and course releases. If you ask for it, you must be able to explain why you deserve it.

With a tight and scarce job market and the trend toward neoliberalizing universities, people of color — especially women — seem scared, literally, to ask for anything beyond the initial offer. You do not want to start a new job from a place of fear or misplaced gratitude. The content of the job offer sets you on a career trajectory. Change your mind-set about the purpose of job negotiations away from indebtedness to an institution and academe. Nurture an understanding of what you need for your well-being and to thrive professionally.

Faculty Of Color And The Changing University

adia-harvey-wingfieldNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Her most recent book is No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work (Temple University Press, 2012).

—–

It is no secret that the structure of higher education today is different than in previous generations. The university of the past was primarily comprised of tenured or tenure-track faculty members, who were then tapped for administrative ranks. Public universities typically offered free or low-cost tuition to residents of the states where they were situated and could count on subsidies from state Legislatures that allowed them to provide high-quality education at a reasonable cost.

Lest we overidealize this time period, however, it is also important to point out that these faculty were primarily white and male, with white women largely relegated to adjunct faculty roles and men and women of racial minorities entirely excluded or employed at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Many think pieces and research studies have documented the ways that this university is now a thing of the past. The fastest growing trend today: faculty members who are employed as contingent workers, not on the tenure track, and who teach several classes for low pay with no job security or guarantee of long-term employment. Concurrently, the demographic makeup of the American faculty is slowly changing. Although academe overall and many disciplines in particular remain predominantly white and male, the professoriate now has more racial and ethnic diversity than it has in years past.

Unfortunately, however, this diversity mimics broader labor patterns in the larger society, where occupational segregation persists despite government prohibitions. In academe, that means that while there are more racial minority professors, faculty of color are largely concentrated at the lowest ranks of the academic hierarchy. And given how the university has shifted from a model that offered faculty crucial support structures to one that largely treats faculty labor as disposable, such shifting structural patterns and demographics matter.

What impact does the changing university have on faculty of color? This is a question that has not really been answered by empirical research. We do know, however, that faculty of color are overrepresented in contingent positions that have less economic stability and job security than those on the tenure track. Of course, tenure-track positions are not bastions of academic stability, either. Either way, minority faculty remain a small percentage of those on the tenure track in college and university settings, and their numbers only get thinner the higher the rank. That means that as tenure-track positions have become increasingly scarce, the numbers of faculty of color in those jobs remain few and far between.

At the same time, many colleges and universities are openly advertising a commitment to diversity. The recent protests at Yale University, Emory University, the University of Missouri and other institutions have drawn attention to the ways that predominantly white universities may not necessarily be as receptive to the needs of their minority students — as well as to the racial hostilities and issues these students encounter in the form of violence, social exclusion and expectations of failure. As a result, colleges and universities are calling upon faculty of color to do much of the service work of helping them become more attuned and responsive to the needs of students of all races.

That creates a problematic dilemma faculty of color. On the one hand, many colleges and universities publicly declare a commitment to increasing diversity and making college campuses more welcoming spaces for students and faculty of color. Yet, on the other, a commitment to hiring is often lacking, such that minority faculty remain underrepresented in the most secure, highest-paying and most influential tenured and upper-administrative positions — those that have the potential for changing institutional norms and cultures. They are instead more likely to be found among the least secure, lowest-paying ranks of contingent faculty workers. Institutions look to faculty of color to be key partners in improving campus climates. But as they invest less and less in the faculty members who might have the resources and security to do that, the results they say they want are, unsurprisingly, often slow to materialize.

For colleges and universities to change fundamentally, they must revise their structural processes first. When they concentrate instructional responsibilities on low-paid adjunct faculty with no job security or long-term investment in the institution, it minimizes those workers’ freedom of speech, adds to worsening economic inequality, compromises undergraduate instruction and ultimately undermines the mission of higher education. It is absolutely vital to reverse the current pattern of diminishing investment in tenure-track faculty.

At the same time, institutional commitment to diversity must go beyond lip service and translate into an increased representation of faculty of color in the tenure-track, tenured, full professor and upper administrative ranks. Despite the excuses that administrators often give, that is not impossible. Broadening the specialty areas taught in various departments, institutionalizing a commitment to diversity and offering strong retention packages to faculty of color are all ways that colleges and universities can actually increase diversity rather than just talk about it.

Critics of diversity often complain that making changes weakens the organizational structure. In the course of my career, I have heard the argument that committing to diversity undermines quality more times than I care to remember. Of course, that argument assumes that incorporating faculty of color into the professoriate inherently means that such faculty members are of lesser quality than their white peers.

But I think a more effective way of thinking is that more diversity is, in and of itself, a benefit to the university — just like adequate research support, infrastructure for teaching and student services. Rather than compromising intellectual quality, a diverse faculty introduces various points of view, provides multifaceted role models and exposes students to new ways of thinking. Those goals should be paramount in higher education — and should be buttressed by institutional support for its workers.