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'The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure -- Without Losing Your Soul'

August 8, 2008

In The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure -- Without Losing Your Soul (Lynne Rienner), Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy offer both empathy and "to do" lists for African American scholars seeking tenure -- as well as some advice on what not to do. The book speaks particularly to black scholars who may be the only non-white professor in a department, or who are in a very small minority. The authors are Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy, who are the co-founders of BlackAcademic.com, a Web site that provides advice and forums. Rockquemore is an associate professor of sociology and African American studies and founder of the Under-Represented Faculty Mentoring Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Laszloffy is a coach and therapist for black and Latino faculty at predominantly white institutions. Rockquemore recently answered e-mail questions about the book.

Q: What are the main ways that the quest for tenure for black professors differs from the quest for other professors?

A: In a word: racism. While we may wish we lived in a post-racial world, race shapes every aspect of the tenure-track experience. Whether it’s in the classroom, in the lab, or in faculty meetings, the stories I hear from black faculty have recurring themes about the stress of having to prove yourself and not belonging. In addition to individual insults, black faculty describe not being given the benefit of the doubt, not being invited into networks and opportunities, being repeatedly mistaken for service employees or strangers on their campuses, and receiving a disproportionately high number of service requests because they are so few in number. Despite these challenges, black faculty must teach effectively, publish their research, and be good departmental citizens. The basic premise of this book is that racism exists and you have to succeed anyway.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes you see when you are advising black scholars who are talented, but having difficulty preparing for tenure reviews?

A: The biggest mistakes I see boil down to how people respond to the pressures of being under-represented in their department. First and foremost, taking a reactive (instead of proactive) stance to establishing professional relationships and networks of support. Black faculty cannot wait for others to welcome, mentor, or assist them because it may never happen. I encourage new faculty to figure out what their social and professional needs are and work aggressively towards getting them met. The second mistake I see is when faculty fail to align how they spend their time with the criteria by which they will be evaluated for promotion and tenure. All new faculty are vulnerable to spending too much time on teaching at the expense of research productivity. But because black faculty are under-represented they must be extra vigilant about formal and informal service demands that can cripple their ability to become productive researchers and count little towards their promotion. The third mistake I see frequently is an inability to engage in healthy conflict. We devote an entire chapter to this issue because avoiding conflict can quickly lead to isolation while engaging in repeated unhealthy conflicts can lead to being labeled as “hostile,” “angry” or “threatening.”

Q: You have a chapter about issues of "fit," which seems especially timely given the criticism many faculty members make of "collegiality" requirements. How should black junior professors approach these issues?

A: All junior faculty should be aware that collegiality is a critical component of how they are perceived by their senior colleagues. Whether or not people “like” you can serve as a filter for the evaluation of your scholarship, teaching, and service. Black junior faculty will be highly visible in their departments, so it’s important that they know the explicit rules of how the institution is organized and how the promotion and tenure process works, as well as the unwritten rules of engagement which range from department-specific norms about working in your campus office to whether (or not) race can be explicitly discussed. Once new faculty understand the dynamics of their department, and consider how it fits with their own sense of what is “normal,” they are free to choose whether or not to work within those norms as long as they understand that there will be consequences when they violate them.

Q: You offer readers a list of good ways to say "No" when asked to take on new tasks. Why is this important?

A: It’s important for all junior faculty to learn to say “no” for the purpose of protecting their writing and research time but it’s critically important for black faculty because they will receive a disproportionately high number of service requests from all around their campus. Whether it’s starring in an admissions video, serving on a campus-wide diversity planning committee, or just having to BE the diversity on various committees -- black faculty will be asked to participate in things that their white junior colleagues will never have to consider. Additionally, black faculty have to learn to negotiate the onslaught of minority students that will come to their office seeking support, mentoring, and a role model. For many, this ends up being an invisible layer of labor that will not be recognized or rewarded when they are evaluated for promotion and takes time away from the activities that truly matter (research and teaching). This can be the hardest area to set clear boundaries, but again is part of the structural problem of being “the only black professor” in a department.

Q: I'm intrigued with the second part of your book's title -- "Without Losing Your Soul." The implication could be that some black academics think they can advance only by selling out. Do you see a lot of that? Why did you frame title in this way?

A: “Selling out” is a negative judgment made by others, so I don’t use that term. Instead, “losing your soul” refers to a person’s integrity and ability to hold on to their core self throughout the difficult years on the tenure-track. Because black faculty don’t fit the traditional professorial mold, they don’t receive the benefit of the doubt, and often feel they must do twice as much to be considered equal. This can create a vulnerablity to internalizing departmental values as their own, evaluating their self-worth according to those values, and losing integrity in the desperate attempt to prove they are good enough and deserve to receive permanent membership to the club. I know far too many black faculty who have sacrificed everything -- their relationships, their voice, their integrity -- in the process of pursuing promotion and tenure. They may win tenure but have become so alienated from their self, their politics, and their community in the process that they can no longer connect to who they are and why they entered the academy in the first place. In other words, they have so deeply internalized the expectations, attitudes and judgments of those around them, that they are unable to evaluate their own self worth beyond their next grant, publication or award. This is even more tragic for those who lose their soul in the process, and still don’t win tenure because at that point, they require both a personal and professional resurrection. The point of this book is help black faculty better understand the system in which they are embedded, recognize the racialized dynamics of it, clarify their strengths, and learn how to locate their own sources of power to navigate their way to promotion with integrity. I constantly remind junior faculty that being on the tenure track doesn’t mean that you are powerless. By understanding who you are and where you are located, you can avoid being passively controlled and devalued by developing a mental framework of independence, a personal definition of success, a clear plan for achieving it, and real support systems to lean on in difficult times. But none of these things will happen without conscious effort.

Q: Your book is addressed to black academics, but do you have advice for professors in largely white departments about the biggest mistakes such departments tend to make in treating black faculty members and how to instead help black faculty members thrive?

A: The biggest mistake departments make is failing to diversify their faculties. Most of the problems I’ve discussed are a result of having only one black faculty member in a department. Department chairs and concerned senior faculty can also work toward understanding the organizational pressures of “solo” faculty by reading the relevant faculty development literature, working with consultants who specialize in this area (like Joann Moody), and/or attending conferences to learn about innovative practices at peer institutions (such as the Keeping Our Faculties of Color Symposium). It’s also helpful to put yourself in situations where you are the only white person in order to develop an experiential understanding of how it feels to be “solo.” Ultimately, all junior faculty need meaningful support, accountability and professional development opportunities to help them make the successful transition from graduate student to new faculty member. For black faculty, there’s no silver bullet, magic policy, or perfect program. Instead, senior faculty must ask: Why there are so few black faculty on my campus? and What pressures do black faculty in my department face? The answer to those two questions can guide them towards constructing the support that black junior faculty need to thrive.

 

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