Academia as a Hustle; Or, How Everything I Know about Academia, I Learned from Rick Ross (Part II)

Thank you so much to all who have supported my ideas and work at this website, especially with my last two posts.  Women of color have had my back in ways that make me so, so proud to be included amongst you!!!  I had so much traffic last week that this site crashed TWICE and forced me to reread/relearn the code on my webFTP when plugins went haywire.  And to the trolls: GET. OFF. MY. WEBSITE.  If you hate me so much, then why you here?  I will delete every one of your vicious comments …and remain completely confident and undeterred by all of you.

So back to the bus’ness at hand: the academy and its ways of doing.  I started this train of thought, “Academia as a Hustle,” arguing that Rick Ross’s “Everyday I’m Hustlin” is the best way to understand publishing expectations and rules in the academy.  I was so annoyed that my critique of a set of culturally irrelevant and culturally non-sustaining bourgeois professional conferences meant that I was somehow ignoring or hurting untenured faculty…. as if I am asking folk to jeopardize their careers as opposed to corporate managers’ requests to attend a conference that is doin nuthin for anyone but corporate managers.  I’m about knowing the rules of the hustle, staying committed to the real work and real solidarity, and seeing very clearly what spaces engage real activism and/or critical theory and which do not. I got so sick and tired of hearing WRONG advice (which I consider quite dangerous) related to the tenure hustle that I had to describe what I have seen and what I have come to know as honestly as possible. Now I want to talk about teaching in the academy where the truth gets even murkier… and the hustle is still on!

People will tell you all the time that teaching doesn’t matter, especially at research universities.  It’s more complicated than that so don’t get fooled.  I think of my family when I hear these quips about teaching. Anytime someone would do or say something so foolish that it deserved no reply other than shaking your head, someone in my family would just say: a brand-new fool wakes up ev’ryday.  That expression alone was a warning to stop doing/saying/believing whatever it was you were up to. When it comes to academics explaining the difference between a teaching college and a research university and/or the role of teaching in one’s tenure at the academy, we got so many brand-new fools out here that it’s difficult to even count them.

Folk love to tell you all the time not to focus on your teaching because it has nothing to do with tenure.  Folk will tell you that if you want to focus on pedagogy, go to a teaching college.  Folk will tell you that all people do at research universities is research, as if all they do is walk around like movie stars and engrave their names on the sidewalk.  It’s just not this simple.  More importantly, this is a very dangerous discursive arena for faculty who are queer/ women of color.  I see departments that deliberately profit off the backs of queer/women of color faculty whose courses are always full and whose office hours are always busy. Yet you are told teaching doesn’t count when departments only stay afloat because you are attracting students to them.  All of your department’s street cred and relevance in the larger university system come from your full classes and deep mentoring.  Guess who’s doing most of that work? The flipside to this is just as bad.  Queer/ women of color faculty are also targeted most deliberately and aggressively in conservative students’ negative evaluations.  If teaching doesn’t matter, then why do the most petty and racist of negative student evaluations get taken up so seriously in them closed-door tenure meetings (i.e., I know of a Black professor whose students regularly wrote things like she belonged back in the kitchen, not at a college podium, and had a HARD time with tenure)?  All of this can be going on with you and because of the teaching-not-mattering discourse, no one has to really pay attention.

If teaching doesn’t matter, then why are you asked about the courses you will design and how you will help build out a new major/department in your interview?  And why are you then expected to do just that?  You will need to get the details of these kinds of expectations right away.  These colleges know well and good that when they want a new program or a new department, they need to hire a director from outside who is compensated for that work with release time and salary. If they can get a fool to do that work for nuthin more than the standard base already provided, that’s what they will do. Don’t be that fool (yes, you can help with new programs so you can write yourself in but do not carry the full weight without compensation). I have seen these colleges turn around and deny tenure/promotion because you put your priorities on program design (that they asked you to do) rather than on publishing.  YES. I. HAVE. SEEN. THIS. These spaces will also relegate you to the 100-level general education courses, especially new/younger/edgier faculty, because that’s where the retention issues are often most critical. The problem with this is that you are not building up your CV and your teaching profile when you only do these classes (or reading a wide enough range of scholarship that comes from teaching different kinds of class).  On top of that, almost every university interviewer now wants to see sample syllabi and the like.  In an honest space, these possible-future colleagues just want to make sure you can teach because no one has the time to mentor you on pedagogy.  In a foul space, those possible-future colleagues are just tryna jack your stuff, something academics do all too well…. and keep doing for as long as you are around.  Meanwhile, everyone around you is saying that your teaching is irrelevant. You will be teaching your butt off no matter where you go, often needing to protect yourself from vultures who have nothing positive in store for you.  None of this will count in the tenure file but you CAN intervene in the narrative constructed about you in them close-door meetings if you know the game.

Because there is no real structured system that evaluates teaching in a tenure file (and this has been as true for me at research universities as at only teaching colleges), teaching does not count in the official structure.  However, you still have to TIGHTLY control the narrative about your teaching at each step of the way.  The only way to do that is to connect it back to RESEARCH AND SCHOLARSHIP, the only stuff that matters in the academy. This is where the writing of your tenure narrative comes in.  Depending on your college, your tenure narrative will be a singular text or a form with multiple places to insert prose. In a singular text, discussion of your teaching needs to be at a minimum, especially at a research institution.  In a form, you will get a special area to discuss teaching where you can write more.  I have encountered both formats. In both cases, I never talked about teaching or my classrooms unless in relation to my publications.  I have never taught anywhere, not even teaching colleges, that even know how to evaluate teaching so I stick with the research lens, the thing these spaces understand.

There are two scenarios here. The first is when your classes are poppin and you feel like you are doing all the extra work, carrying too much extra weight, holdin down your department… with no recognition whatsoever. Ima call the kind of narrative you have to write here THE COME UP.  The second scenario is when the conservative students are gunning for you and you gotta flex back real good.  Ima call this kind of narrative THE COME BACK.

FOR THE COME UP . . .  You gotta let em know that you KNOW what’s really goin down.  Presidents, provosts, deans and department chairs get all kindsa analytics: they know who has the highest productivity rankings each year; they know how their department’s productivity stands against others; they know who’s classes are filling and who has the lowest and highest evals; they know the departments with the worst retention and the best, and on and on.  They KNOW!  They look at you in the hallways and see your scores in their heads; they just act like they don’t know who is holdin it all down.  Don’t play the fool back with them.  Spell out your teaching value in your tenure narrative. Take your most prestigious or most well-cited publication and explain how that piece takes on a material form in one of your classes. If your classes are popular, discuss their popularity and present this accomplishment as an issue related to one of your publications. Be specific about each class and each research piece that you are choosing to compare.  Do not talk about your teaching in general— that’s a gloss and not rigorous enough to hold attention. Pick specific classes, especially classes that you have designed or that the major, department, or college really needs.  Talk up the public presentations and publications that you have done with students as part of your pedagogy (if you didn’t do that in a research statement already).

The master’s theses and doctoral dissertation committees that you have chaired and led are also part of your teaching file (not for me in my current job but I’m going to talk about that here anyway).  Research universities will take that very seriously.  The most important thing to remember here is to    NEVER    EVER    do someone else’s work for them when it comes to graduate mentoring.  Graduate students who are pressed and/or who do not know the rules of the game (and who have chosen grimy or useless chairs/advisors) will use the hell out of you, but ONLY if you let them.  At a previous university, I was not allowed to teach graduate classes or serve on committees until tenure was in the bag (after 3rd year review in my case).  Everyone knew this but that did not stop the older tenured faculty from sending their graduate students to me all day long (I mean this literally), especially graduate students of color who needed a lot of mentoring. Don’t be a fool!  Every single time you work with a graduate student when you are not on their committee (or some other formal process) is a time you have helped ANOTHER professor beef up their tenure/promotion files.  These forms do not ask HOW you mentored graduate students; they just want to know when they walk across the finish line and who the official advisor was. Some of yall out here so busy tryna be Uncle Ben/Aunt Jemima Helpers that you do more to help other folks’s with their tenure/promotion than you do your own.  If it is not YOUR student/advisee/co-author, then you do not have enough time or energy to read drafts, counsel folk, answer long emails, go out for coffee, etc.  No one is going to protect or save you but yourself so stop all this foolishness of allowing yourself to be exploited.  Take back your teaching time . . . and your teaching narrative!

FOR THE COME BACK . . . If conservative students are going buckwild all over your teaching evaluations, you MUST offset them. If your money is right, you can slide by (I had a colleague who brought in a few million dollars in grant money each year and no one ever discussed her teaching evaluations which were not good).  You can also do some kind of major service project directly with students on campus to offset these evaluations too. No matter what, you need to address teaching but in a way that does not sound defensive.  Just state the facts of your pedagogy in relation to your specific publication(s).

Look, let’s just get real here. You cannot have a subpar or even mediocre publication record if you teaching evals are weak, even if the students are just sayin stupid stuff.  If your scholarship record is too thin or thinner than your colleagues (and by publication, I mean the 15 rules that I laid out in the previous post), negative teaching evaluations will work against you and sustain the bulk of the conversation in them closed-door meetings… whether it is a research university or a teaching college.  If you have hostile students and you are not tenured, I don’t know how to say this other than to just say it: go to a college where students vibe with you, knock the grants and publication out the park to offset the negativity, OR get yo’self a good lawyer.  I have never seen an administration side with a professor who was queer/of color over conservative students so make sure you are clear about this.  No one ever has your back in these spaces so there’s no need to still be believing in fairy tales.

There are some things you can do.  I would advise young/untenured faculty, especially those queer/of color, to avoid teaching that class that everyone is required to take where you have the only section.  If the students in your school are conservative and hostile, they will come for you… HARD… and you will get no support with that.  You don’t need that stress, so let the senior faculty do that work.  Make sure your class is not required and/or has multiple iterations/sections.  You also need to be UPFRONT on the first day, in the syllabus, on your digital course management system, real UPFRONT, about the nature of the conversations about race, class, and gender that you will be forwarding and in the rigor of your assignments (for more about this, click here).  In my case, the most conservative and hostile students have dropped my classes as soon as they see my course materials at every college where I have taught.  Learn how to clear your classroom of symbolic violence and center the spirit of exchange and debate that you are looking for.   That is about HOW to teach and you gon need to learn that art well, despite being in an environment where everyone is telling you that it doesn’t matter but will sabotage you in the moments when teaching does mater.

For myself, I am currently building out an ePortfolio right now with all of my publications and after these publications, I am including my syllabus zines and course websites.  More and more colleges are expecting you to build an online space for tenure rather than a paper file, especially for tenure letter writers. I choose to make my files public rather than password-protected since these grimy academics will pass around your password anyway.  I am choosing to place my teaching in that mix to steer that narrative using digital tools. More on that in my next post… I’m tired again.

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