The Two-Body Problem

N. Fadeke Castor and Bertin M. Louis Jr. discuss navigating the challenges of a joint position in Africana studies.

January 25, 2019
 
 

Africana studies programs contribute significantly to academic life at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) across the nation, but positions in the field have been only partially institutionalized and are historically underfunded at those institutions. As a result, those program’s faculty openings are often filled by affiliated and joint positions. In such positions, a faculty member often offers research, teaching and service to both Africana studies and a traditional academic discipline like political science or sociology. And that can create difficulties for the academics who are navigating those faculty appointments -- especially as Africana studies programs have been centered in a tradition of speaking truth to power and are often marginalized at PWIs.

In this essay and a follow-up one, we will discuss some of the pitfalls of these distinct positions and offer advice about how to negotiate your existence if you are in a joint Africana studies position or considering applying to or accepting a joint position. (We are also keeping in mind that all of this is occurring within a framework of the neoliberal university that often asks faculty members -- especially women, black, Latinx, indigenous, queer and other marginalized people -- to donate labor to the university without additional compensation.)

One of the more challenging negotiations of an academic’s early career is to build a professional profile made up of publishing, grant and teaching accomplishments. That negotiation will often be with your hiring unit and/or dean’s office, depending upon the institution. The labor you perform in a joint position is split between Africana studies and another department, creating a two-body problem -- one person performing the labor of two people. If your teaching load is two courses per semester then you most likely will teach one course for a department and one course for the Africana studies program. The department and the program both expect you to contribute service. The bifurcation of your academic labor, in some cases, extends to your research, with expectations that you will publish in both a departmental discipline and in Africana studies.

A conflict between the two units often becomes evident during reviews, whether annual or for tenure, in which the units judge your “impact.” This highly subjective term reveals the invisible architecture undergirding disciplinary values and the marginalization of Africana studies in relation to the larger PWI structure. Publishing criteria often differ among units, and it is hard for people to judge what counts as “quality” across them (such as what is a top-tier journal). With criteria and measures varying across disciplines, it is no surprise that two units often have difficulty coming to agreement on what constitutes “impact” in your publishing and research. Accordingly, you may receive contradictory messages and evaluations. Our advice? Align your goals with the unit that holds the majority of your tenure line (another reason to avoid 50-50 splits).

Below, we will answer some of the more common questions that arise concerning such circumstances and others involving the two-body problem.

What do you do when you are hired to be two people?

First, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate! If you have not accepted the offer, try to negotiate a balance between the department and the program. Before you take the job, read the bylaws of both units, if available, to inform your negotiations and anticipate the research, teaching and service expectations for promotion and tenure of both units.

Second, it would be reasonable for you to hesitate when faced with an offer of a tenure-track line solely in an Africana studies program or department that has never granted tenure. Be wary, as you do not want to be the experiment or pioneer. If you are negotiating your tenure line 100 percent in a department, you can always have an affiliation with Africana studies. Other arrangements include 75-25 or 25-75 splits between the units.

We both advise avoiding positions that are a 50-50 split for tenure -- where you submit a tenure dossier to each unit and both vote separately on your promotion. That effectively doubles your tenure process. Although your teaching and service may be divided between Africana studies and the tenure-granting department, try not to split your tenure line. If you must do so, ask for very clear guidelines, such as a memo of understanding, and make sure one unit has the majority vote.

How do you negotiate two sets of research, teaching and service demands?

In the best of worlds, you will have already negotiated -- in writing -- how you are going to contribute research, teaching and service. You will have met with the leadership in both of your units to ascertain that they’re on the same page. And you will have identified someone in a senior administrative leadership position, such as a dean or provost, who is willing and able to advocate on your behalf.

But if you haven’t done all this, and you are already in a joint position that needs some adjusting, perform a careful self-inventory. Ask yourself:

  • How much of your research honestly applies to both units, and how much applies only to one?
  • How many of your classes naturally cross-list to both units, and how many apply to one?
  • And how service-hungry is your institution?

Adjust your activities to institution expectations. Remember the caveat that if, in your institution, tenure expectations are 50 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 10 percent service, then that means you should in fact devote only 10 percent of your time to service.

Once you are very clear where you will be directing your time and energy, you should put together a picture that serves your goals for tenure and promotion. Use this road map as a basis for discussions with your supervisors and see if you can come to a mutual agreement. Again, make sure to get everything in writing.

How do you as just one person manage to satisfy the demands of two separate units?

It’s never satisfied because you’re constantly serving two masters, and within the structure of PWIs, the black one is always the lesser master. Indeed, those uneven power relations are the crux of the matter.

Many times as an Africana hire, you will be charged with building the Africana studies program. That requires sustained administrative service that exceeds the suggested service load for junior faculty. (Or, as one of us wants to say, junior tenure-track faculty should not take on program building.) This expectation can create conflict with the amount of service that you have to commit to for your tenure-line department. Our experience in Africana studies joint positions is that we are doing twice as much service as our colleagues in traditional faculty positions but are perceived as doing half as much. This is because you are only visible where you are in the moment, or out of sight, out of mind!

In next week’s essay, we will discuss strategies to navigate the toll that being in an Africana studies joint position takes on your body, mind and spirit and conclude with some additional tips.

Bio

N. Fadeke Castor is a black feminist, critical ethnographer and scholar of religion, race and politics. She is the author of Spiritual Citizenship: Transnational Pathways From Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad, winner of the 2018 Society for the Anthropology of Religion Clifford Geertz Prize. Bertin M. Louis Jr. is an associate professor of anthropology and Africana studies and serves as vice chair of the Africana studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He studies the growth of Protestant forms of Christianity among Haitians transnationally, as featured in his book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (2015).

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