Underrepresented faculty members face many challenges that differ from those majority faculty experience -- challenges that are escalated, not alleviated, after winning tenure, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.
I have been in higher education for 25 years, teaching at high-ranking and elite predominantly white universities. In my role as a tenured professor, often the only black or one of few blacks with tenure, I have had the privilege and responsibility of sitting on hiring and promotion and tenure committees. That is a tough position to be in, as one must be proactive, on guard and diligent about advocating for professors of color. One must be fearless in supporting those under review and in taking the heat for doing so.
To advance in academe in this era, scholars must publish in high-impact journals. Yet scholarly work by faculty members of color is usually shut out of those journals. They are predominantly mainstream outlets, not necessarily because of rigor but because of readership. The majority (white) journal editors and authors are catering to the majority (white) people in the ranks of academe. Supply and demand. I get that. Publishing is a business, and the competition is fierce. But in an increasingly diverse nation, we cannot discount scholars and readers of color. The work we do must reach the mainstream in order to have the greatest impact.
Meanwhile, the minority journals that do publish our work are devalued, not valued and/or viewed as not scholarly. I have had the unfortunate experiences of seeing highly published faculty of color not “earn” promotion and tenure because their work in minority journals was deemed subpar to mainstream journals. I have seen how too many predominantly white colleges and universities relegate scholarship published in “minority” journals to second-class status. The probability of promotion and tenure is diminished. The hands of scholars of color are tied. Perish or publish comes full force as decision makers evaluate our work.
I have fought this pervasive and entrenched mind-set. Our journals are more than excellent; they are viable and rigorous scholarly outlets. They allow us to add another refereed publication to our highly scrutinized vitae. And sometimes, they may be only publication option. We want to reach all audiences, but we find that some do not want to hear from us.
Even with some 200 publications in urban education and gifted education, I have personally experienced my own work being rejected in mainstream journals but accepted in minority journals. Seldom were the criticisms from the editors and reviewers of the mainstream publication about quality or rigor; they were more about denial, silencing and color blindness. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, that was tantamount to not wanting to talk about race, racism and difficult topics. It should be clear why minority journals are vital to the professional lives of scholars of color.
Had I not been on promotion and tenure committees to share such views and realities, the applicants of color might not have gotten promotion and tenure, which was earned. Some might have not gotten an interview. Publications in minority journals would have gone discounted or uncounted -- and thus dismissed from consideration.
I’m certain that the same situation exists at many, if not most, other higher education institutions. With that in mind, I offer a few suggestions.
First, it behooves faculty of color to educate and enlighten other people at higher education institutions. Our colleagues must know how and why some or much of what we write may not be accepted in mainstream journals. We must not allow fear to prevent us from supporting minority journals and readers, as that will ultimately diminish our true reach and impact.
Second, administrators must provide training to hiring as well as promotion and tenure committee members on the aforementioned problems. For such committees to be held accountable, a designated member must be assigned to evaluate policies and meetings, to review discussions and decisions, and to make sure that decision makers are informed and proactive. As part of those responsibilities, this person should advocate for faculty of color.
Third, in the recruitment and retention process, administrators must not penalize faculty of color for writing in minority journals, which may have lower impact factors and rankings. Such journals are a viable outlet -- sometimes the only outlet -- for faculty of color, many of whom are challenged to get their work published in mainstream journals as a result of persistent biases and a lack of receptivity to the topics they study. Minority journals are legitimate and must be valued in the recruitment, retention and promotion/tenure process. Once minority journals are valued more highly, their numerical impact factor will increase, along with their readership. Minority journals must be read by nonminority scholars, as we often have solutions to issues plaguing people of color.
The bottom line is that colleges and universities must not penalize faculty of color for their work in such publications. Rather, they should support and applaud those faculty members for reaching a variety of audiences and readers. If higher education institutions are truly committed to recruiting and retaining more faculty of color, as they profess they do, minority journals, brimming with rigor and relevance, must not be discounted.
Donna Y. Ford is a professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University.
“One of the most profoundly exciting moments of my life,” Gertrude Stein recalled in a lecture at Columbia University in the mid-1930s, “was when at about 16 I suddenly concluded that I would not make all knowledge my province.” It is one of her more readily intelligible sentences, but I have never been able to imagine the sentiment it expresses. Why “profoundly exciting”? To me it sounds profoundly depressing, but then we’re all wired differently.
Umberto Eco, who died last week at the age of 84, once defined the polymath as someone “interested in everything, and nothing else.” (Now that’s more like it!) The formulation is paradoxical, or almost: the twist comes from taking “nothing else” to mean “nothing more.” It would be clearer to say that polymaths are “interested in everything, and nothing less,” but also duller. Besides, the slight flavor of contradiction is appropriate -- for Eco is describing an attitude of mind condemned to tireless curiosity and endless dissatisfaction, first of all with its own limits.
Eco’s work has been a model and an inspiration for this column for almost 30 years now, which is about 20 more than I’ve been writing it. The seed was planted by Travels in Hyperreality, the first volume of his newspaper and magazine writings to appear in English. Last year “Intellectual Affairs” celebrated the long-overdue translation of Eco’s book of sage advice on writing a thesis. An earlier essay considered the public dialogues that he and Jürgen Habermas were carrying on with figures from the Vatican. And now -- as if to make a trilogy of it -- saying farewell to Eco seems like an occasion to discuss perhaps the most characteristic quality of Eco’s mind: its rare and distinctive omnivorousness.
Eco himself evidently restricted his own comments on polymathy to that one terse definition. I must be garrulous by contrast but will try to make only two fairly brief points.
(1) As his exchange of open letters with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, indicated, Eco was a lapsed but not entirely ex-Catholic: one who no longer believed but -- for reasons of personal background and of scholarly expertise as a medievalist -- still carried much of the church’s cultural legacy inside himself. His first book, published in 1956, was a study of St. Thomas Aquinas’s aesthetics that began as a thesis written “in the spirit of the religious worldview” of its subject. And the encyclopedic range and dialectical intricacies of the Angelic Doctor’s Summa Theologica never lost their hold on Eco’s imagination.
“Within Thomas's theological architecture,” Eco wrote in an essay in 1986, “you understand why man knows things, why his body is made in a certain way, why he has to examine facts and opinions to make a decision, and resolve contradictions without concealing them, trying to reconcile them openly …. He aligned the divergent opinions [of established philosophers and theologians], clarified the meaning of each, questioned everything, even the revealed datum, enumerated the possible objections, and essayed the final mediation.”
Eco regarded the Summa’s transformation into an authoritative statement of religious doctrine as nothing less than a disaster. In the hands of his successors, “Thomas's constructive eagerness for a new system” degenerated into “the conservative vigilance of an untouchable system.” Eco was -- like Étienne Gilson and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others -- part of the 20th-century rediscovery of Aquinas as the builder of a dynamo rather than the framer of a dogma. And there’s no question but that the medieval theologian exemplified “an interest in everything, and nothing else.”
(2) In the early 1960s, Eco was invited to participate in an interdisciplinary symposium on “demythicization and image” in Rome, along with an impressive array of philosophers, theologians, historians and classical scholars. Among them would be Jesuit and Dominican monks. He felt an understandable twinge of anxiety. “What was I going to say to them?” he recalled thinking. Remembering his enormous collection of comic books, Eco had a flash of inspiration:
“Basically [Superman] is a myth of our time, the expression not of a religion but of an ideology …. So I arrive in Rome and began my paper with a pile of Superman comics on the table in front of me. What will they do, throw me out? No sirree, half the comic books disappeared; would you believe it, with all the air of wishing to examine them, the monks with their wide sleeves spirited them away ….”
The anecdote might be used as an example of Eco’s interest in semiotics: the direction his work took after establishing himself as a medievalist. Comic books, Leonardo da Vinci paintings, treatises in Latin on demonology …. all collections of signs in systems, and all potentially analyzable. Nor was his conference presentation on Superman the end of it. Not much later, Eco published an essay about the world of Charlie Brown called "On 'Krazy Kat' and 'Peanuts.'"
But in fact those two papers were written before Eco’s turn to semiotics -- or semiology, if you prefer -- in the late 1960s. (The one on Peanuts reads as being influenced by Sartre, as much as anyone else.) Eco’s attitude towards mass media and popular culture was never one either of slumming or of populist celebration. Nor was it a matter of showing off the power and sharpness of cool new theoretical tools by carving up otherwise neglected specimens. He took it as a given that cartoons, movies and the crappy books issued by Italy’s vanity-publishing racket were -- like theological speculation or political conflict -- things that merited analysis and critique or that could become so, given interesting questions about them.
At the end of his remarks on Aquinas 30 years ago, Eco tried to imagine how the author might conduct himself if suddenly returned to life. Of course there’s no way to judge the accuracy of such a thought experiment’s results, but Eco’s conclusion seems like a personal creed: “He would realize that one cannot and must not work out a definitive, concluded system, like a piece of architecture, but a sort of mobile system, a loose-leaf Summa, because in his encyclopedia of the sciences the notion of historical temporariness would have entered …. I know for sure that he would take part in celebrations of his work only to remind us that it is not a question of deciding how still to use what he thought, but to think new things.”
And, Eco might have added, how to avoid settling for less than everything your mind might drive itself to understand.
The shift from a subordinate learner as a grad student to a would-be peer on the job market is one of the most predictable traumas in an academic's life, inducing professional and emotional distress in almost everyone who encounters it, writes Tim Cassedy.
Let’s face it: no one likes grading student essays, because student essays, in general, aren’t very good. When you’re halfway through a pile of essays that seem rote and devoid of thought, it’s easy to feel your soul shriveling. Students don’t usually enjoy the experience, either -- for them it’s hard, time-consuming and anxiety producing. And, as several writers have recently pointed out, academic essays don’t play much of a role outside academe.
But does that mean we should stop seeing essays as the baseline work college students do? A rash of articles in recent years have suggested exactly that.
Canadian teacher Jon David Groff, for instance, writes that essays don’t prepare students for the real-world work. They are, he says, “a highly inauthentic form of writing.” Rebecca Schuman, in an article that got a fair bit of attention in Slate, also claims that writing essays isn’t worth the time and trouble. Schuman focuses on three issues: “bad” essays, the careless students who produce them and the labor involved in teaching and grading essays. Schuman concludes by saying that essays should be reserved for advanced humanities majors and that everyone else should just take exams. After all, she says, “you cannot bullshit a line-ID.”
It’s true that the prevalent essay form -- the five-paragraph essay -- is usually awful to read and boring to write. Karen Harris’s recent piece for TimesHigher Education focuses, quite reasonably, on how formulaic that kind of essay is. (A typical five-paragraph essay starts with a big, overarching thesis statement, backs it up with three interchangeable examples, then restates the thesis). Harris blames fusty academics wed to an out-of-date and restrictive form for the essay’s failures. She would prefer that students have more options: perhaps, she suggests, a student might create “a dialogue, a series of letters, an animation or a documentary.”
Options aren’t a bad thing, of course, but while animations and documentaries may feel more contemporary, they don’t actually offer students the learning opportunities inherent in essay writing. If our goal is to teach students to think hard, then the essay remains a crucial feature of a college education and trashing it is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Teaching writing may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. And though it’s tempting to imagine a world without lousy papers to grade, the let’s-get-rid-of-the-essay movement has many problems.
First, it’s mistaken in its understanding of what we’re setting out to teach students. If our goal is to instruct them in who Renoir or Freud was and what they did or said, then a line-ID or animation works fine. But if our goal is to teach students to read critically, ask questions, perform meaningful analysis, marshal arguments, draw conclusions and communicate complex ideas -- the most “real-world” skills of all -- then there’s no replacing the essay. You may not be able to “bullshit a line-ID,” but you also can’t fake the skills essay writing requires. Those habits of mind are hard to learn and hard to teach -- but they’re the most important approaches that students acquire in college.
A second, related problem is the old story of academic labor and the question of what academe values. When student papers are terrible, we tend, in our frustration, to blame the students. But students who are “bad writers” are actually the victims of a system rigged against them. As anyone who has taught a composition course knows, the profession tends to view the teaching of writing as a “service” or “skills” activity. It’s scut work, and it’s usually foisted on the least powerful and most overworked people in the system: adjuncts, contract instructors and pretenure instructors. Some unfortunates have to teach writing -- and spend countless hours grading papers, at very low pay -- while others can focus on teaching the exciting big ideas they went to grad school to study. Unsurprisingly, given this system, writing pedagogy receives short shrift in graduate programs and professional development -- so most professors never learn how to teach writing. We’ve met plenty of eager, dedicated teachers doing their best with virtually no training in the work they’ve been asked to do.
As a result of this lack of preparation and downplaying of writing pedagogy as a meaningful activity, professors tend to see writing as a more or less “natural” activity, one that some people are born to do and others are not. But that is a confusion of student preparation and student ability. When we assume that some students just “can’t” write, we overlook inequities in resources and preparation. It’s easy to laud those who “can” write while overlooking the fact that they tend to be privileged graduates of elite public and private schools, clustered in colleges and universities that value the liberal arts. And when professors suggest that some students aren’t served by the essay, they’re signing off on a tiered class system where some students get the good stuff while others are spared the task of having to think hard.
The third, related issue that affects students’ writing and learning is affinity. Students who resemble their professors -- who think in narrative, have read widely, understand writing as a persuasive act -- are rewarded and valued. Those who don’t think like their instructors are not. But often students who “can’t write” can write quite well if they’re taught in ways that make sense to them. At the Cooper Union, where we’ve done most of our teaching, our students are art, engineering and architecture students. And they often tell us that they don’t think in narrative but in numbers and equations, or in 3-D, or in images. They don’t necessarily learn by listening to a lecture on writing. They learn by doing, and they learn better -- and produce better work -- when they understand the point of essay writing. That means understanding essay writing as an analytical act that involves starting with something in a text that they don’t already understand or know, taking apart the text to try to figure out what’s going on, coming to some conclusions, and then sharing their discoveries with readers.
Teaching students who aren’t “instinctive” (or privileged or well-prepared) writers isn’t easy, because it requires us as teachers to approach writing in new ways. But as we’ve learned over the years, the payoff is considerable: when writing makes sense to students, they produce work they care about and find interesting and challenging -- as well as work that is much more engaging for their instructors.
If we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for all of us -- not just the small world of composition and rhetoric studies, but academe as a whole -- to put time and resources into the project of better writing instruction. “Bad” writers aren’t the problem; bad assignments and ill-trained and underpaid teachers are. And this means that the essay isn’t the problem and that throwing it out won’t fix anything. Instead, what’s needed is a reassessment of how the essay is defined and taught. And that isn’t our students’ responsibility: it’s ours.
Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman are the co-authors of Thinking on the Page: A College Student's Guide to Effective Writing (Writers' Digest, 2015). Hyman is past director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union and founder of Workshop Teaching. Schulman is director of the Cooper Union Summer Writing Program and adjunct instructor of humanities at Cooper Union.