Race and Careers

English and language professors consider how who they are affects their jobs -- and who gets hired for which positions.
December 28, 2006

It was just a quick aside, but it was one that speakers and audience members returned to:

Lisa Outar, an assistant professor of English at St. John's University, in New York, mentioned she had seen how many departments want to hire people who "embody what you teach." Her "visible Indianness" wasn't what she was thinking about as her top issue when she did her job search -- she was more focused on finding a university with a diverse student body, where people would be excited by her interest in Caribbean literature.

But she noticed that her friends in graduate school with similar research interests, but who were white, had a much more difficult time getting interviews.

Others on the panel were not surprised by the comment, which came in a discussion at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association about the role of race and ethnicity in academic careers. A theme of all of the speakers was that while there are many good opportunities for minority scholars or people who study minority cultures, their careers have a number of tensions that don't typically get enough consideration.

Outer's comment prompted several questions about whether graduate students should be considering whether their ethnicity and research subjects match. Initially, all members of the panel -- while acknowledging that race is a key factor for many hires to teach ethnic studies -- said that students should follow their academic interests, and not worry about whether a white scholar of black studies can get a job.

But one of the speakers then modified his position slightly. Michael Awkward, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, said that when he started his career -- as a black scholar studying African-American literature -- he had the firm idea that "race didn't matter" with graduate students' areas of specialization. But after a few years, he said, he noticed that his white graduate students "ended up not getting jobs."

"It got to the point that I started to suggest to white students that they market themselves as Americanists," he said. It's a matter of presentation more than what they study, Awkward said, but their job prospects improved.

A black female graduate student then asked how this issue would play out for her if she wanted to study an ethnic literature that was not her own -- for example Latin American literature.

Ben. Sifuentes-Jáuregui, associate professor of American studies at Rutgers University, said that the issue was tricky. He said that many language programs (at other universities, he stressed, not his own) have certain "levels of fetishism" about these things. Scholars of Spain are presumed white and scholars of Latin America are presumed to be from Latin America. When programs get larger, a black person may be hired with a focus on Afro-Hispanic cultures.

Of course, as panelists noted, the issues aren't necessarily much easier for minority scholars who do end up studying their own groups.

Oatar of St. John's said she was surprised by the "invisible expectations" that she be available to minority students -- even those who are not her advisees or students. Oatar said she welcomes the work, but worries about the impact on tenure, since this mentoring time does not fit in one of the boxes on which she must report what she accomplished each semester. (Some senior colleagues are helping her find ways to record her contributions, she said, and that minimizes her concern.)

Awkward spoke about the impact on graduate enrollments of shifts in policies that go well beyond any one department or its commitment to diversifying the field. For example, he said that many English departments have tried to keep the total number of students in graduate programs below their top levels, in part to be sure that new Ph.D.'s have a better shot at getting jobs. This may be a reasonable idea, he said, but when a department is down to admitting 8 or 10 students, what does that do to efforts to reach out to more minority graduate students?

He also noted the impact of Michigan's recent ban on affirmative action -- something that the good will of his department can't undo.

Anne Cheng, a professor of English at Princeton University, said she was struck by the "double bind" in which minority scholars find themselves: "the tension between politicized scholarship and scholarship that is political."

Identity was the basis by which many ethnic studies programs were created, she said. But the same identity can be the source of stereotype in minimizing the role of ethnic studies, she said.

Likewise, she said that questions of institutional recognition are not as straightforward as one might think. With recognition and support, scholars can hope for "the possibility of a community" in the way that a single professor can never have. But there is also fear, she said, that the "codification" of ethnic studies by universities can lead to the "strangulation" of its creativity and its role as an "outside," reflective observer.

These dilemmas, she said, appear unlikely to be worked out any time soon. "They are timeless."


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