Bothered But “Unbossed”: An Open Letter to LRA (Literacy Research Association)

I have been suspicious of the exclusionary and anti-justice impulses of academic/professional conferences for a long time now.  Here is my most recent lesson/letter about the violences that whiteness commits in these spaces. 

Dear Members of the Executive Committee of the Literacy Research Association,

We write to publicly express our deep dissatisfaction with the LRA board’s handling of our invitation to the LRA conference and the events that led to the eventual cancellation of the panel.

To review: We were each initially invited to participate by Dr. Haddix in late 2017 and we gladly accepted, in large part due to our respect for her leadership, vision, and integrity. On February 26 of 2018, we were each provided contracts that offered a stipend, registration fees, accommodation for the duration of the entire conference, roundtrip airfare, and travel related expenses. We each signed and dated these contracts. Up to this point the process was fairly typical as most of us book speaking engagements about a year in advance. At least one of us accepted this invitation over others (with higher rates of compensation) given the quality and promise of the LRA panel.

On October 23rd, we received the following email informing us that our contracts had been “revised”:

I hope this note finds you well.  I wanted to reach out to you with an important change regarding your participation as a speaker in the 2018 LRA Integrative Research Review session that is scheduled for Saturday, December 1st from 10:15 – 11:45 AM in Palm Springs, California.  

Attached you will find a letter on behalf of the Conference Planning Committee detailing the change. Feel free to let us know if you have any questions. Additionally, please confirm receipt of the email by Wednesday, October 24th, 2018. 

Since there was no mention in the subject line or body of the email that there had been a significant change in compensation, not all of us were immediately aware of the  degree of “change”or responded right away. The new contracts informed us that only one night of accommodation would be covered. In other words, no flight, hotel, or general travel fees and no stipend. The reason provided was that the original contracts were found to be in contradiction with an LRA bylaw.  

If the new contract had been the original terms, we would have had opportunities to apply for funding from our institutions to help shoulder the cost. Moreover, since the conference was barely a month away, early registration was no longer possible, the hotel was nearly booked, and plane fares were exorbitant (at and over $1000 per speaker, sometimes with multiple stops requiring anywhere from 14-24 hours of travel for just one leg of the trip). As such, each of us experienced this “revision” as an effective dis-invitation and we independently sent emails expressing our disappointment and dismay regarding the new contracts and with being forced to withdraw from the panel.

In addition to the material costs of this cancellation (and lost opportunities to accept other invitations) we each registered concern about how the actions of the board not only undermined our professional lives and commitments but also Dr. Haddix’s vision for the panel and the conference. As we understand it, Dr. Haddix’s work, along and in communion with many other BIPOC  leaders in LRA, has affected important discursive and material shifts in the policies, culture, and impact of LRA to something that prioritizes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and responds critically to nonbinary ideas and embodiments of gender and sexuality. This has been long needed in LRA, and it is beginning to take shape, form, and space.

All of us are women of color who employ radical and critical scholarship and, as such, this is not the first time we have been disinvited. We are not mollified by the explanation of a just-discovered bylaw as we are quite familiar with how the dismissals and erasures of whiteness happen. For example, even though we framed our responses in terms of structural, policy and material costs, this was the response that one of us received:

“I can certainly understand your concerns and why you feel so hurt by the last minute change…it was definitely not (the) intent to harm you or make you feel unwelcome”

The move to frame what is structural critique into an issue of “hurt feelings” is a classic mode of white resistance; to psychologize what is fundamentally structural. This mischaracterization of our experience partly inspires this response – we want to be sure that the intellectual work we put into our decisions to withdraw was registered publicly and in our own words. Although we imagine our absence spoke loudly, we felt it important to add nuance and analysis – and to come together as a collective – to address the situation with the hope that it might be broadly instructive.

While we hesitated to bow to an unprofessional withdrawal of material support, we also knew that we could not, with integrity, pastiche together a space that was envisioned to truly be integrative, rigorous, and generative under such unreliable board leadership. We regret any impact that our withdrawal may have had on Dr. Haddix, the STAR program, and the many sessions that involved us, particularly Dr. Kynard’s several sessions. Since LRA, we have seen only further leadership, grace, honesty, and vision from Dr. Haddix and we continue to support her work.

To put it plainly, we are disappointed, bothered but “unbossed” (Shirley Chisholm), by the actions of the board. We hope our words add to the call for this association to be in right relationship to its discourse of “community.”

Professor Sandy Grande

Professor Carmen Kynard

Associate Dean Leigh Patel

The Power of BlackWomenTalk When Due Process Just Don’t Do (Misogyny & Academic Culture)

When I was a little girl, I loved listening to grown Black women talk to one another.  Now granted, I was not supposed to be in earshot but I learned early on that if you played very, very quietly close by, pretended to be asleep, or hid underneath or behind something (porch, sofa, cupboard), you could be blessed with all of the details.  It was absolutely fantastic. They would talk about ev’rything AND ev’rybody: white folk, men, recipes, white folk, men, school, white folk, men, jobs, white folk, men, health, white folk, men, government, and the list goes on.  At least, that’s what my ears heard. My favorite women were the ones who cussed every sentence.  If they were outside, that’s when it was worth it to even hide in the carriage of a nearby truck to hear that stuff.  I’m surprised I never got caught but I was determined. Today, I am a grown Black woman and I get to join the talkin.  Life is good.

Academics sometimes like to think of these kinds of exchanges as informal. I’m thinking of a Black male scholar who thinks that when he adds statistics and NYTimes references to a conversation that is already in progress that he is elevating the discourse to the level of the intellectual and sociological. In reality, he’s just a nuisance who wasn’t invited into the conversation in the first place and so everyone is just waiting for him to leave so we can get back to the real talkin again. Blackwomentalk is NOT informal, it is NOT gossip, and it is NOT trivial.  It is a life-skill and if you are not part of it, your world will be all the more difficult to navigate.  Not all Black women are active participants since some are more interested in finding a position for themselves within white supremacy rather than really challenging and speaking against it.  But most of us get our BlackWomenTalk in.

Blackwomentalk is especially on my mind right now in the context of the sexual violence that has been legislatively and socially approved within the terms of toxic white/wealthy male culture.  Last week, I watched Bill Cosby‘s crusty butt be walked off in handcuffs while white men were not.  I also had to listen to Black men express more anger at Cosby’s persecution than his sexual assaults of women, though BlackWomenTalk had spoken for DECADES about the FACT that Cosby was always a flagrant womanizer who was NEVER faithful to Faithful Camille (we just didn’t realize how much he liked his women drugged and non-consenting).  Yes, I agree that Black men’s hyper-crimininalization goes hand-in-hand with their hyper-sexualization.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in history to know that. But the (implicit) argument that if white men can sexually assault women with legal impunity (which they can), men of color should be able to do so as well ain’t the kind of equality or justice I’m looking for. I am still enraged that a white man in Anchorage who choked an Alaska Native woman and then masturbated over her unconscious body was given no jail time. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find very many white man at any time in the history of the United States forced to serve time for sexually assaulting an Indigenous woman… or a Black woman. Men of color don’t serve time for assaulting Indigenous and Black women either, only when they assault white women. Somehow, these racialized facts around sexual violence and white settlerism have escaped most men’s of color discussions right now.  I then watched Christine Blasey Ford have to relive and retell her story of sexual violence with a level of respect for words, truth, carefulness, ethics, evidence, detail, and composure that was never performed by or even expected of her perpetrator, Brett Kavanaugh. I feel like I am back in college watching everyone (including Black folk) denigrate Anita Hill in favor of Clarence Thomas, even though Thomas (emphasis on the TOM and the ASS parts) has never done anything for Black folk.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s toxic white masculinity— which has run the gamut of multiple allegations of sexual assault at Yale University and Georgetown Preparatory School to the performance he gave in his unbelievable (and unhinged) testimony— was cultivated by none other than SCHOOLING. In the midst of all of this, I was wading my way through allegations of sexual assault and other criminal activities here in New York City where yet again, schooling has maintained white male culture at all costs.  And even with all of these allegations of sexual assault, the response that I hear most often from male-professor-colleagues is a critique of the writing quality of the articles which broke the news, as if that is the most pressing issue right now. I’m amazed at how much violence this fall semester has already witnessed.  Now I am left reflecting on the ways BlackWomenTalk helps me to process and survive times like this… because these incidents are not new and this shit ain’t over.

When you can’t count on any institution to protect you, believe you, or even grant you full humanity, you have to work amongst yourselves. The very foundation of Black women’s labor in the United States— as in slave labor— is founded upon sexual violence as ENDEMIC to laboring.  It is no coincidence or historical accident that (sexual) assault against Black women is still illegible today to the very institutions that classified them solely as property with no rights to their own bodies.  This is why BlackWomenTalk is so important. We warn one another of impending danger because due process will rarely work in our favor.  The warnings that we give one another are rooted in an embodied, historical understanding that no one will rescue you.  This means, in REAL terms here, that I have never worked at an institution and NOT known which men were sleeping with their female students AND pushing up on the women faculty.  Never.  I even know who got caught in their offices with their pants down (I mean this literally) and which older white men have a penchant for the young women of color on campus.  I know white men who “coincidentally” publish DETAILED erotica about doppelgänger white male professors who sleep with undergraduate students (who look “coincidentally” just like our students). I have known Black women graduate students who were appalled at the way their male peers in graduate school took sexual advantage of the undergraduate first year women of color in their classes; no one— not even other women of color faculty— cared when those undergraduate women fell apart.  I can name the schools, the programs, and the admin because all still look and act the same today. That’s BlackWomenTalk. We know who to watch out for.  This won’t 100% protect you from predators, nothing can, but your story will always be told and HEARD. I also know who has sexual harassment complaints against them, pending & old, women & men, young & old, white & of color. I know which departments have holiday parties, free alcohol flowing freely, where undergraduates and masters’ students are invited to partake in the festivities and where the most “accommodating” of these young people get adjunct positions later. I can name those schools, those programs, and those admin TOO.  I can tell you about male faculty who bring their dates— sex workers— to campus with them for various events (I ain’t knocking the sex workers here and even suggest that they charge TRIPLE for the likes of these male faculty). I know the male faculty who regularly hook up with, stalk, and/or marry their female graduate students, sometimes before their deceased wives are even cold in the grave.  I can name the faculty and administrators who co-signed  these kinds of violences— which oftentimes includes women looking to rise up in the ranks; in all of these instances, many people knew what was going on, never did a thing, never said a word (in public), and actually propelled these perpetrators into higher positions of power. I could go on with this listing FOREVER.  These are just the regular routines of academic culture.  Only BlackWomenTalk has taught me that these things are not normal, not acceptable, not ethical… and that I don’t have to co-sign ANY OF IT!

I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have been dismissed, mostly by male scholars, for addressing the issues that I listed in the previous paragraph with that same ol, tired argument about these being private, non-intellectual matters.  The argument usually goes something like this: who you sleep with has nothing to do with the politics and quality of your intellectual work.  It’s a lie. None of these men offer us anti-misogynist, anti-misogynoirist, anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal theory and scholarship.  NONE!   But if you are complicit in maintaining and ignoring misogyny, misogynoir, sexism, and western heteropatriarchy, then you won’t see anything wrong with scholarship that does the same.

While none of my stories here are “admissible” in “legal proceedings,” they are the only things that tell me how to protect myself and from whom.  As Audre Lorde reminded us years ago:

Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive.

BlackWomenTalk teaches me about the institutions that employ and surround me.  And now that I am grown, I am a full participant and I STAY on my job when it comes to talkin this BlackWomenTalk.  Due process may never bring us our due… but we have never been silent or complacent about the everyday realities of misogyny and sexual violence in our lives.

My August Ode to the #DifficultBlackProfessor

DIFFICULT. I have heard this word consistently in the past five years.  Obviously, it is not a new word within my vocabulary but its use in these past years has been unprecedented.  It’s an adjective that is used to target Black professors, not ALL Black professors, just some of them. I have never witnessed so many Black professors labelled “difficult” as I have at one particular institution where I have worked and it’s been a real eye-opener.

The slur always comes from White faculty and administrators in reference to Black professors (and sometimes activist Black students) and it has nothing to do with teaching.  I never hear students use this word to describe Black faculty (for them, it only references quantity of homework and applies to all faculty). I have heard it so much from White faculty and administrators that I started to catalog its multiple, racial iterations.

Here is what the #DifficultBlackProfessor looks and sounds like:

  1. The #DifficultBlackProfessor interrupts the flow of discussion, offline and online, reminding a predominantly White audience that they are, in fact, predominantly White. Institutions and their appointed, central actors (this includes folk of color) automatically act in the interests of White privilege, misogynoir, anti-Blackness, racial violence, and/or White faculty-student-staff dominance. The #DifficultBlackProfessor’s reminder will always slow down and sometimes outrightly thwart conversations about hiring practices, policies, elections, programs, panels, finances, public statements, curricula, and courses and she* will be resented even though she is dead-right on everything she is critiquing. While it would seem like the Black FULL professors, endowed chairs, distinguished professors, and the like would interrupt the most, that is not always the case since some of these folk really believe in their own brand and only come alive when something benefits them individually. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will do selflessness when they step up though. At these moments, the #DifficultBlackProfessor will be called non-collegial, non-team-playing, or bullying but that won’t stop her. She knows that’s just code for White discomfort and White fragility. #WhiteSupremacyIsNotMyTeam
  2. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will often get tone-policed.  He will be told that if his words and/or his tone were just a little bit different, it would be easier to digest his points.  He will be told this to his face and he will be talked about behind his back in public settings, using his full name, as a kind of warning to other faculty on what not to do and say (and who not to hang with). This White bourgeois etiquette lesson will be delivered offline and online, really just anywhere that language gets used. Make no mistake about it: these are lies.  The #DifficultBlackProfessor will not be heard any differently if he says things in a fake-nice, warm-and-fuzzy-feel-good way because the #DifficultBlackProfessor is not supposed to be heard.  This tone policing is really about White control of racial affect, racial emotion, and racialized counter-publics.  The #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t fazed by this either and keeps talkin that talk the way he talks it. #YouAintReadyForNoRealTone
  3. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will say NO to you.  And OFTEN. She ain’t here for your endless requests of uncompensated, intensive labor doing things that do not benefit her or Black people in any way that will then be plagiarized as the idea of someone else.  She will see the irony of having her research and teaching marginalized in every way and yet constantly asked to do marginalizers’ heavy labor. This will stir up all kindsa controversy. White men may be allowed to offer little or no uncompensated service/time/work to a college but Black folk are not entitled to their time, money, and bodies this way. The #DifficultBlackProfessor refuses this kind of super-exploitation and will preserve herself since no one else will.  She does not suffer from the kind of low self-esteem where she covets the attention of White authority and she refuses to perform the perfunctory mammy role where she caters to White needs before her own. #YoMammyDoneBeenGoneWithTheWind
  4. The #DifficultBlackProfessor is not here to psychologically assuage White guilt.  This is especially true for Black women and women of color whose nurturing will be in constant demand. When White professors have a resistant student of color, they will come to you for advice.  When White professors need to infuse “race” or a “Black author” into their scholarship or syllabus, they will come to you for ideas.  When White professors need Blackface on their panel, committee, edited book, grant/program proposal, meeting, etc they will come to you with the request.  When White faculty need to better understand Black resistance, they will come to you for sociological analyses. When White faculty have a question or curiosity about another faculty member of color, they will come to you expecting you to give up any secrets that you have. When White professors get caught sayin dumb racist stuff, they will come to you to tell them that it’s okay.  These are, sometimes, signs of collaboration but when it’s time to have YOUR back or publicly speak back to White violences, many of these same White professors will be nowhere in sight. Many Black faculty will perform these menial race-help tasks without even being asked but if you dare ask the #DifficultBlackProfessor for any of this mess without the prospect of real, anti-racist solidarity, expect to be ignored… or told about yourself, sometimes nicely, sometimes not.   #NotYourQuotaOrYourRaceCoach
  5. The #DifficultBlackProfessor doesn’t do silence and acquiescence, not in their research and scholarship and not in the way they live their scholarly lives.  Institutions are really, really, really bad at legally training their mid-level managers/administrators who are, for the most part, walking-talking law suits with the things they say and do and the hostile climates they create.  How universities can afford to keep their doors open with the blatant illegalities that I have experienced and witnessed has been truly mind-boggling!!  The #DifficultBlackProfessor will make one of two choices: 1) keep the best lawyers, lawsuits, and official complaints on rotation so that egregious racism and incompetence can be exposed to the tip-top decision-makers of the institution and state; 2) deal with administrators’ racial hostilities as an ethnography to be seriously analyzed in scholarship and exposed to the tip-top of intellectual and political discussions.  They will ALWAYS say/do something rather than choke their voices into compliance and passivity.  #DontComeForFolkWhoWillReschoolYou
  6. The #DifficultBlackProfessor handles their biz’ness at all times and never forgets that they work at institutions that have historically designed and benefitted from racist, social hierarchies.  When you have to work harder than everyone else because you are Black, a strange thing happens: you develop some real high standards and get your research and scholarship all the way done. You are not trying to trick, smooth-talk, lie, cheat, or weasel your way to the top, to the next gig, or to celebrity status, because you don’t need to. This means that the #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t all that pressed by the foolishness around them. They know that the buildings and organizations where they do their work are not the alpha and omega of their aesthetic, intellectual, professional, or political life’s work and accomplishments.  They belong to larger histories, traditions, achievements, mentors, and communities that guide and motivate them onwards to real success.  They know the difference between their work and the job  . . . and superficiality.  #RealWorkIsAlwaysBiggerThanThis
  7. The #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t worried or afraid of being called “difficult,” of being called “un-collegial” by racists, of being seen with other faculty/students/staff of color considered “difficult,” or being disliked.  They are not so desperate for White favor and upward mobility that they will sacrifice Black Radical Traditions and choke out their public complaints of institutions that continually do harm to Black lives, minds, and spirits. The academy’s attempts at racialized traffic control do not shape their sense of direction.  #NeverTurntAround

Each of my lines above was written with very specific events in mind, all together representing instances that have been repeated over and over again across multiple semesters. Before the school year ends, I am sure that I will be able to add more to my list.  As I watched a specific institution, I began to notice these same practices at previous places where I have worked, in attitudes of other faculty across the country, and in the vibe I have always gotten at many national conferences. Strangely enough, these seven attributes are supposed to be negative, where “difficult” is almost like the academy’s version of a racial slur.  I can’t think of anyone more noble or worthy in the academy than a #DifficultBlackProfessor. Now that we are in the full swing of August and I begin planning and thinking about my #NewBlackAcademicSchoolYear, I will remind myself of this list as my #ProfessorGoals.

Starting a new school year takes more than renewed energy to meet your new students.  You also need a renewed vision of who you truly are. I hope with all my mind and heart that I too will have the wisdom, dignity, and strength of my most radical colleagues, mentors, and ancestors to be and always become a #DifficultBlackProfessor.  Welcome to the 2018-2019 school year!

 

*Pronouns shift throughout this piece from: she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/their.

A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Days Five & Six

It’s never just about the “microaggressions.”  Daily aggressions derive their political and emotional meanings and are legitimized inside of the larger contexts of dehumanization. When the white male professor down the hall accused me of stealing his little measly stuff, that happened at the same time that I watched, over and over again, Eric Garner tell NYPD that he couldn’t breathe.  They killed Garner anyway, for standing on the corner with some loosies.  Though the inability to even walk down the hall at the college where you work without being perceived as a thief is not the same as Garner’s murder, a singular social system justifies both.  When I was questioned by a hyper-privileged white administrator about my academic credentials, as if I didn’t have them, that happened at the same time that the initial jury wouldn’t convict Michael Dunn of first-degree murder of Jordan Davis. It took TWO TRIALS to rule against Dunn, a white man shooting at a vehicle with 17-year old Black boys in it. Again, my experience is not similar to Davis’s murder but the trial made the aggressions I faced all the more unbearable. The microaggressions that are sure to come as soon as school starts will be happening alongside countless other incidents: like white people, mostly white women, calling the cops when they see a Black child mowing someone’s lawn or selling bottled water . . . when they see Black folks having a BBQ in the park . . . when they see Black folk _____.  When school starts, we will be fighting today’s current fascist regime to get Brown children out of cages at detention camps.  When school starts, we will still be marching against more theft of Indigenous land and more police shootings of unarmed Black men and women.  There’s only one thing you can do in the midst of all of this when you are a college professor and work in the academy.  GET. OUT.

You’ve got to take your mind back. The microaggressions that you face everyday on campus and living your life in light of what is going on in the world will mess with your mind.  And that’s what Fridays are for in a week in the life of a black feminist pedagogy.  Honestly, you gotta take your mind back everyday, but by Friday, it gets real official for me.

Though we don’t always talk this way: as academics, we are also fundamentally scholars … writers … and researchers.  You need inspiration to maintain that.  I am talking about something different from self-care.  I mean something IN ADDITION to self-care.  Yes, you will need to know how to protect yourself from endless requests on your time and energy, long lines of folk who need something from you yet again and give nothing back, and just the general, never-ending drains on your time and energy.  You have to learn how to replenish, rejuvenate, meditate, and calm your spirit for the work that you do.  But you also need some intellectual inspiration and when it comes to radical theory and praxis where it relates to race, gender, etc, I have never found that at any university where I have worked.  Like I said, you have to GET OUT or your ideas will be as compromised as the folk who tout justice and perpetrate microaggressions like in the campus examples that I opened with.  While my students certainly inspire me, I still need to get away from the classroom at times.  When the weekend comes, I’m out.  It’s a struggle with errands and family but it’s hard to come back to work on Monday to more meaningless, inane, or violent situations unless you refilled your mind with something worthy of your people and your history beforehand.

You need intellectual inspiration in droves if you want to think new things, write in new ways, and research unexplored corners about anti-Blackness and radical futures.  And so when T.G.I.F. comes, I hit the road and get far, far away from my college.  I have even arranged my teaching schedule to accommodate my T.G.I. Intellectual Fridays and weekends.

Many colleges are lenient when faculty cancel classes, especially for professional travel. Unlike every other college where I have worked, my current institution does not play when it comes to canceling classes though.  You better have that cancelled day of class on your syllabus with a detailed assignment that students can do and understand on their own.  All kinds of other mess slides for college-level expectation at my college, but cancelling class does not, at least not in my department. I appreciate this vigilance on the part of my unit.  My students are not busting their behinds for a college degree to have professors who do not bother to show up or just let TAs do the job.  This means that I only teach on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and get the service work done by Thursday.  I front-load the week so that come Friday, I can be out.  This way I don’t have to cancel classes and disrupt the flow of my teaching.  Allowing Thursday-Friday-Saturday for travel and other intellectual excursions is a lifesaver for my thinking.  Even when I don’t travel, I try to attend some kind of event in New York City to get my mind out of the mess my institution makes of it during the week.  It seems simple but I need to be vigilant with my time and energy too ….otherwise, I will hand over entire weekends to meetings, emails, or phone conversations coddling grown folks who dominate your time because they refuse to figure out meaningful lives for themselves.  You have to fight for the time and space to think and be.

Faculty colleagues of color are not something you can count on either.  There are either too few of them or the ones who are there are too busy soothing white egos and catering to white comfort.  I have no patience for them and am REAL CLEAR that this does not belong to the Black Intellectual Traditions of our ancestors . One of my colleagues of color told me that they were warned not to fraternize too closely with other Brown and Black faculty (i.e., sitting next to one another in a department meeting).  I’m not shocked that senior white faculty and administrators would articulate and execute these kinds of slave codes to Brown and Black professors (reminder: slave codes prohibited the enslaved from assembling without a white person present).  However, I AM surprised by how many faculty of color comply so willingly with these campus-plantation rules.  You won’t miss out on any real conversation or interaction of political depth with these Sambo types though.  This is why you need to always fellowship with the radical Brown and Black academics across the country and form a circle that extends well beyond your campus.  Like I already said, I front-load the week so that come Friday, I can be out.

I attend many conferences, but only those that theoretically and politically inspire me and that have folk of color in large attendance.  I refuse to be mesmerized by attending an intellectually-mediocre conference because, like so many academics that I see, it is the only place that makes me feel famous and important.  I also give many talks where I get to meet graduate students and faculty and hear more intimately about their work.  This also lets me see what other universities are doing and keeps me from the provincialism that would suggest that the way my university does something is the only or most contemporary way. Other times, I am just reading a set of articles or a book that pushes me to see, think, or write something in a different way.  I resist the academic rule that you need to read solely or mainly in your discipline.  You won’t grow intellectually that way— you just join the old boys’ club.  And if you are of color, you don’t have the luxury to be so closely wedded to any one field or discipline anyway since none have your people in mind (even ethnic studies often looks for its legitimation today from neoliberalism).  So on T.G.I. Intellectual Fridays, I am reading and learning.  It seems like working at a college, learning would automatically fill my days.  Strangely, it’s not that way.  You have to plan your week around thinking/ learning in order to take your mind back.

A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Day Four

People often ask me about my experiences teaching a 3/3 and 3/4 load as a tenure-track, full-time college professor.  It should come as no surprise that teaching fewer (and smaller classes) makes it much easier to publish, the holy grail of the academy.  But the 3/3 load and large class sizes are not what dominates my time at a teaching college. I wish it was all about the classroom. It’s not.  It’s all about the service.

In the past two months, here is what my service (committees, meetings, and such) has looked liked:

  1. A graduate admissions committee where I read thousands of pages of personal statements, sample essays, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc
  2. A classroom observation for my department
  3. Attendance and participation at five different candidate talks for a new tenure-track position (this meant hours of meetings beforehand to determine the candidates and hours of meetings afterwards to discuss/select the candidates)
  4. Participation on a departmental curriculum committee (no meetings yet but plenty of time needed to read an enrollment agreement for state accreditation issues, a new course proposal, a revision of a minor, etc)
  5. Participation on a college-wide curriculum committee (which meets 3X-4X per month with heavy reading beforehand)
  6. Participation on a committee to select undergraduate essay award winners
  7. Participation in meetings and email exchanges to discuss/assess undergraduate capstone courses
  8. Participation in meetings, email exchanges, and assessment design of my own undergraduate capstone course
  9. Attendance at multiple department/program meetings
  10. Participation in a site visit for external review of a program
  11. Participation on a committee to select undergraduate ePortfolio award winners
  12. Participation in a day-long outcomes assessment meeting as part of the writing program

I do not hold any administrative positions at my college and do not aspire to.  And yet service takes up as much of my time as when I was an actual administrator.  This list does not include service to the professional and community organizations I am part of since those are the things that I want to do.  On Thursdays, day four of a Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy, I try to do the prep work required of my campus service obligations. I also mentally map out the next week’s meetings so I know when I will get some space and time to myself in an upcoming week. Many times, I am on campus, not teaching, but doing service.

I am sure I have forgotten some stuff from numbers 1-12 above.  The list would be even longer if I had not outright said NO to many other requests.  Every week brings me another email solicitation to perform yet another mundane task. There is no real recognition for any of this work and certainly no extra pay or course release.  This is the nature of service at a teaching college in a moment shaped by the logics of austerity and neoliberalism: adjuncts teach almost all of the classes while the main role of full-time faculty seems to be the performance of bureaucratic tasks, bottomless meetings, and infinite committee appointments.  Programs are so severely under-resourced that only a Herculean effort on the service work of faculty can keep them afloat, an exploitative cycle that admin will expect and naturalize if you let them.

To be sure, I see some of this work as necessary: the opportunity to select a faculty person of color as your new colleague; an opening to challenge the uber-traditionalist instructional model of a college; the chance to ensure that graduate students of color get a fair shake and recognition; the occasion to bear witness to the endless machinations that determine the look and color of a college curriculum, its assessments, and its awards.  The procedures to do these things are, nevertheless, utterly ridiculous.

Necessary or not, I won’t be serving on most of these committees in the future.  I can now say: yeah, been there, done that, it was a waste of time and I ain’t doin it again (I mean this very earnestly… this IS exactly what I will say).  I have more to say about service as part of my hustle in academia but I will do that later as part of my ongoing Academia as a Hustle posts.  For now, I will just say that service also has a Black Feminist ethos in my week’s pedagogy.  On some level, many of my colleagues think they are doing socially transformative work in these uber-western, bureaucratic processes and can lose sight of their political center or the very meanings of radical transformation.  Riddled with insecurities in an academy that makes you feel like you have to always prove your worth, many of my colleagues want to feel involved and important and they think this college service stuff is the way.  Some of these folks act like these committees are the equivalent of planting a tree or working with disaster victims!  Get a grip!  What Tiffany King calls “Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism,” what I have been referencing across this series of posts, requires you to have a much more critical lens on the ways you are challenging or co-signing service and the logics of austerity and neoliberalism in higher education. This is especially true since it is women of color who will be most expected to do all this free labor. If you let them, folk will run your body, mind, and spirit into the ground by: 1) over-tasking/over-taxing you; or 2) wasting your energy and time in meetings and committees where progress is slow, where your input is miles higher than what the structure will allow as output.  It’s always worth it to peek behind the emperor’s curtain and see how the shenanigans back there really work but you don’t need to keep visiting.  One time is all you need.  Skepticism and refusal are important services too.