Towards a Black Composition Studies: BLACK AS GRAVITAS (PART I)

Thank you to Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal for publishing the earliest version of this reflective essay in their Volume 2 dedicated to Black Studies edited by Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega. I will be building on this essay throughout this year as part of a new project. This year is a crossroads for composition-rhetoric so I am listening and looking closely at those who really step up to the plate or miss the moment as has happened at every past Black Protest moment for this field. In the coming weeks, I am especially working towards framing composition studies as a place that does dynamic, on-the-ground work to transform the what, how, and why of university curriculum and instruction towards radical, anti-racist, intersected, Black feminist, fugitive goals.

I am a professor in the academy today because young Black people burnt off all of somebody’s edges to get me here.  Once upon a time, I was out there edge-snatching as a Black college student too.  It’s a Black intellectual inheritance.

Black studies and an ongoing radical Black presence in the academy are not the result of a conscientious and interested hiring committee, a department’s desire to represent African American content, a university’s commitment to a multiracial university, or a profession’s/professional organization’s vision of radical democratic relevance.  None of that truly exists in the academy.  Only the adoption of a bourgeois, white, cishetero, masculinist individualism would cause a Black scholar to think that they are here because of the quality of their work or their uncanny skills at navigating white supremacist institutions.  We are here because young Black people and their radical allies demanded it in cities and hamlets everywhere, burning it down when they had to. I am certainly talking about current contexts but I am also historicizing this all way back to the activism related to new visions of schooling in post-emancipation, ongoing into the early 1900s with the New Negro Movement. The Black college student protesters of the 1970s are legendary in how they heralded the multiracial diversity that we see at places like the City University Of New York and other universities today with racially/ethnically diverse student bodies.  These student protesters were the political heirs to Black students at HBCUs who designed their own practices in the Civil Rights Movement decades before.  These 1950s HBCU students can trace themselves back to the major wave of Black student protests at the HBCUs in the 1920s when their colleges’ administration and faculty were mostly white. These historical lessons have been well documented now by many scholars across the K-16 education spectrum, including myself, so I won’t delve deeper.  The point is this: If any aspect of what we do is not in alignment with this foundation on Black youth, then it ain’t Black studies.

As I reflect on the role of Black students in the academy here, I interrupt my own alphabetic text with Black undergraduate students’ visual work in my most recent classroom, Introduction to African American Rhetoric.  The class was interrupted by the Spring 2020 school shutdown under the Coronavirus resulting in a revised syllabus that I called The Spring 2020 Corona Remix. Many mainstream white students across the college were complaining that they wanted more synchronous access to everything and everyone, despite the fact that their socially marginalized peers were self-proclaiming that they were having issues around income, health, housing, food security, wifi access, and disability and so needed alternative accommodations.  Meanwhile, my own Black students were mailing visual projects to my home (an option rather than just digital assignments) that marked the Blackness of an engagement with COVID-19 in ways that will always stay with me.  Their work is centered here visually so that I can see them as I reflect forwards.  Visual work is always critical for me because Black Visuality is more than multimodality; it is an affective and spiritually redemptive space that continually re-processes the dignity of Black Life in a world that insists upon Black Death.  Such student work in my classrooms guides my visions of a Black Composition Studies for an anti-racist university.

Every university assignment that I have ever had is the direct result of these students’ Black insurgency which is always visible for me on the paper, canvas, and screen. Each of my tenure track jobs has given me a valuable lesson about the role of this Black insurrection and white colonization, lessons that form not only my intellectual and political relation to Black Studies and Black youth but also my daily reality. I relay these lessons here as a foundation to realizing a Black Composition Studies. Composition studies in the university today is fraught with a colonial history on so many levels. We are most often housed in English departments that overshadow our labor and intellectual work. We still most often function as the illegitimate stepchildren of literary theory which often imagines itself as the only critical space that only rethinks the world and as the only frontrunner of English studies. With literary studies lost in in its own elitist self-delusions of bourgeois grandeur, composition studies inherits the daily legacy of what English departments actually do: maintain the colonial legacy of the English language. I could write books on the white settler colonial logic that I hear daily in English department to describe teaching (or rather, lecturing), students’ abilities, language variation, writing assignments, etc. Put most simply, composition studies is the space that focuses on language, particularly the teaching of writing while our cousins in communication studies (who left English departments long ago) focus in on speaking. Together, we and our cousins confront the dailyness of communication systems in the western world that have annihilated non-white languages and therefore ways of being that do not conform to whiteness. We and our cousins therefore always sit at the crossroad: automate colonization as an institutional pedagogy and rhetorical apparatus… or overthrow it. Black composition studies goes for the latter and, as such, our close proximity to the non-compliant racial protests of Black students has to always stay central.

These are notecards that I received in the mail last spring as a reading response to the course assignment.

When I first began writing about insurgent Black students, I distinctly remember essay reviewers, especially men, arguing that my ideas of Black college students were romantic and essentialist.  In their minds (and ostensibly pedagogies), only they seemed to possess the answers to and practices of a radical protest and scholarly vision in the university.  This ongoing imagination of a university without Black students’ presence (or where they are merely the passive receptacles of the “expert” scholars of Black Studies and/or Composition-Rhetoric Studies) is an egregious form of white supremacist education.  Black students stay at the center of my presence in the academy and in the theoretical work that I do here, not as metaphor or cross to bear, but as the purveyor of a radical, literate/language alternative to who and what count here.

Here’s my first story that gets at more of what I mean. My first, tenure track job was at a Colonized State University in 2005.  They needed someone who could bridge what they called “developmental” writing, urban schools, the distrust of the surrounding Black community, low enrollments of students of color in the major, and attitudinal Black graduate students who were, at best, bored.  Them white folk at that college had been dragged so bad that they had to do something and so they hired me. I learned there that white racist resistance in universities takes the form of really slow or non-moving processes.  White faculty were always: scheduling meetings for discussions on how they feel, scheduling meetings to gauge their collective “temperature,” scheduling meetings to read the agenda out loud, reading the bylaws (most often out loud in meetings), revising the bylaws (read out loud all over again), thinking things over, looking into things, talking to you about your ideas and concerns, and planning to get back to you about your questions (which usually resulted in apologies for non-information and/or more unforeseen delays).  Every process took forever and ultimately went nowhere because white supremacy always takes up a whole lot of time, effort, and policy to stand still and stay the same.  These are not processes that are driven by Black folx or a vision for hiring them; it is Black protest that speeds up time and resets the energy in the academy. None of them meetings and discussions produced change and worked to stall Black freedom more than anything else. All of them folk at the Colonized State University are out here somewhere today, still meeting, revising them same bylaws (and probably still reading them out loud), discussing, thinking, looking into stuff, talking— yup, still doing all of that, and still accomplishing nothing of value for Black lives.  It’s not an accident. Black composition studies always recognizes the micro and yet overdetermined white supremacist processing of our schools and programs and imagines time, space, and possibility differently.

My next tenure track job was at a Colonized Religious University.  Before my arrival in 2008, the Black graduate students had showed all the way out, especially on online discussion boards I see you, Jessica Barros and Todd Craig, then and now Them white folk didn’t know what to do there either, except to hire me.  I learned about the racism of writing program administration there.  I also learned that I would walk alone in my field because I didn’t know a single professor in my profession who I would have truly called an ally or even friend back then.  It was a hard and lonely lesson, at first, but one that I am forever grateful for because it sharpened my lens on whiteness in my discipline.  The levels of anti-Blackness that I witnessed at the hands of my fellow writing program administrators (WPAs) were disgusting and no one— and I mean no one— was willing to even notice it, much less talk about it.  Anti-Black faculty were rewarded, awarded, buddied up, and promoted to next levels without hesitation. No one in my department—especially not the self-righteous, self-proclaimed-radical literature faculty, the dean’s office, or the provost’s quarters would address any of it.   And no one in the field was even acting like anti-Black racism was part of WPA.  It ain’t a coincidence that the WPA-Listserv remained so white and so racist for so long.  There is actually a whole stain of scholarship that suggests that WPAs are activists because they act in defiance against university systems that oppress student learning.  I read that stuff and can only ask: whatchu talmbout Willis? I have never witnessed such a WPA when it comes to anti-Black classrooms and the writers of those very same theories are as anti-Black as anyone else in the racist institutions that permeate the U.S.  Racist WPA work is not the kind of programming that is relevant to Black youth literacies or the work of Black education; this is not a space that prioritizes the hiring of folk like me either.  WPAs are only now getting called out and still today you simply need something labeled an anti-racist grading system or rubric and you too can continue to mete out anti-Blackness with your WPA work. It’s not like any of this is hidden from view or political dispositions, unless, of course, you refuse to see. Black composition studies is about a disruptive kind of vision and envisioning for schooling.

My next position was in 2013 at a Colonized City University with a student population that was 75% Black and Latinx.  It remains the whitest department I have ever worked in, with an incredibly self-righteously empty rhetoric of diversity and justice, often administered by a supra-white-wealthy elite.  They catch the heat, every once in a while, for all that whiteness given the history of Black and Latinx student protest in that system. And so they hired me.  I saw colonization most thoroughly there: a predominantly Black and Latinx student population with an abysmally low percentage of Black and Latinx tenure-track faculty.  It was a complete cocoon of whiteness.  Black presence was the pen-ultimate evidence of an awe-inspiring progress for which you were required to feel grateful, no matter how you were treated or marginalized.  When you were asked to do something by white administration, you were simply supposed to obey and sacrifice your own well-being because “these communities” needed you (never mind the fact that you and your family are “these communities”).  In my first year, the department even held an end-of-semester party to celebrate the retirement of two white women who study long-dead white people in Europe. The faculty came together in corresponding costumes and presented a well-rehearsed flashmob dance (that is what they called it).  There I was, in the middle of the city with the largest Black+Latinx population in the country, with the largest Latinx college student population in that area of the country (predominantly Dominican), with non-Black/non-Latinx folk dancing their hearts out in recognition of two white professors while dressed as Old English wenches, royalty, and fairies.  I’m not suggesting here that this event was evil.  Ridiculous?  Yes.  Harmful?  No.  The purpose of the event was certainly playfulness and jest, however, the spirit and politics of the mean-white-sorority-girl ethos from which this event was framed permeated the college. If nothing else, whiteness was quite steadfast.  These are not the bodies that centered my universe of being in the academy, not even for casual socializing or humorous encounters; it was the history of an alternative Black student universe that got me here.  At Colonized City University, whiteness remained centered (and often ludicrously so) no matter what else was going on around it. Black composition studies knows that white affect in schools is not neutral, safe, or accidental and so centers alternative embodiments and enfleshments.

And now?  As of 2019, I am at a Colonized Southern University where I see all of my previous colonial experiences cross-pollinating. Young Black women, both undergraduate and graduate, have been slicing and dicing white power everywhere they go on this campus. The penultimate expression is a lawsuit today that names all the names, insists on a trial, and will make history in ways the campus does not foresee.  The Black graduate women in the lawsuit are from my department and so, yup, they hired me (before the lawsuit, that is).  I don’t know exactly what is to come here, but I can certainly guess. I only know that I have learned the following rules about whiteness in the academy:

It will always put Black lives, urgency, and compensation on extended pause.

It will always be awarded, tenured, promoted, praised, compensated, elevated.

It will always present itself as right, just, and progressing forward (and sometimes even call itself critical and allied) for which Black folk are supposed to show gratefulness and awe.

It will always remain steadfast in how it centers itself everywhere all the time.

It will always ignore the deep damage and social deaths it causes.

It will always be contested.

It will always be unwritten.

It will never stop us.

I have yet to see anything different here. Black Composition Studies gives me this lens and critique but it also gives me the audacity to speak, fight back, and imagine an alternative way of thinking, being, and acting in the academy, in my classrooms, and especially in my field.

I am not suggesting that Black Composition Studies is only for Black folx. However, it ain’t for appropriation by folx in my field who continue to do stuff like write a Statement for Black Lives Matter in their departments and programs and not reference a single Black compositionist. Yall ain’t nowhere near ready yet and Black composition studies is here to let you know it. Black composition studies is not exclusive… but it is rigorous in the mechanisms and politics of its inclusions. 

Stay tuned for PART TWO…

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: 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.

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

I have never been a fan of the rapper, Rick Ross. And yet his cut, “Everyday I’m Hustlin,” is my work anthem.  Katt Williams’ skit didn’t help matters and made the opening hook go viral in my head for years.  Today, I have folders, notebooks, mugs, and all other manner of appropriated paraphernalia to remind myself that this academic game is just that: A HUSTLE.  I even have a file folder that says “#keephustlin” so I can label and be clear on the things that are the hustle. These reminders help me remember and get through the week, day, semester, and year.   Since Rick Ross’s misogynoir, misogyny, and disingenuousness match up quite nicely with life in academia, I don’t even feel bad as a feminist claiming his definition of a hustle in my work life. “Everyday I’m hustlin/Hustle, hustlin hustlin/Hustle, hustlin hustlin/Hustle, hustlin hustlin.”

I should have written this post when the song first dropped circa 2006 but I couldn’t have articulated the nature of my grind in the academy then.  And it’s only been the questions I have received about my stance on 4Cs/NCTE and the academic job market that has compelled me to sit down and write all of this now.

I have been on the market four times now, was successful in each round, and got the job that I liked best at that moment.  I have explored all kinds of institutions, never committed to any one kind, and plan to maintain my stealth, always-on-the-move style until I meet an institution that treats me fairly.  I have seen the insides of search committees, hiring committees, national award committees, and tenure committees and it ain’t never been pretty.  I have walked out of some of those meetings traumatized and exhausted for what/who I had to argue and fight for. I have learned and seen a lot, most of which I can’t even (legally) disclose.  I’ve learned the rules all on my own because no one ever told me, many don’t seem to even see what is right in front of them, and others purposely conceal the strings behind the puppetry.

I am calling this post “Part I,” because I am sure that I will remember more stuff later and will build on this.  Think of this as the raw, uncut, de-bourgeois-professionalized version of what you get on those websites about the hows and whys of the academic market.

I love the WORK that I do as a college educator teaching first-generation, racially marginalized, urban young people of color.  I enjoy fighting for my own language, narrative, geographies, epistemologies, and styles in my research and scholarship.  That’s the WORK… surviving the academy as a job is a whole other game though (see my previous post here on the difference between the work and the job). I call this job a hustle, quite deliberately pushing against the snobbery and tomfoolery that would suggest what we do and what we are about is any different from corporate America.

Let’s start this series talking about publishing: with the research and scholarship.  For the sake of clarity, I will also say that I am talking explicitly here about former or current historically white 4-year universities and colleges. At the end of the day, publishing is still what counts most.  It’s how you get tenure, promotion, or merit pay; it’s how you get the next job; it’s how people know your name and ideas.  I have worked at the first tier of research, the second tier, and now at a teaching college… with “remedial,” undergraduate, master’s degree and Ph.D. students.  The expectations for publishing have not been different for me in any single one of these spaces.  I teach a 3/4 load now with big classes and have to publish as rigorously as when I taught a 2/2 with small classes if I want to ever be full professor.  That means at least one more monograph and 6-12 articles.  All of that is on top of what I did for tenure (a monograph and 10+ articles).  Yeah, do the math.  Don’t get fooled.  If your university wants to be “prestigious,” this is what it’s gon be, regardless if the institution actually even has any prestige. I have colleagues who tell me that publishing at a community college is less “rigorous.”  I have never worked at a community college (only a comprehensive college) but I will say here that I seldom believe these kinds of flat statements since publishing looks very different today than what it did decades ago.

Here is what I have learned now from MULTIPLE PLACES:

  1. Book chapters do not count.  This is a good strategy when you are in graduate school (as well as book reviews).  What you publish in graduate school cannot be used for tenure; you are only making yourself more “marketable” with chapters in graduate school but you are not building a tenure profile. You gon need to publish to get an academic job these days so chapter it up.
  2. If you are on the tenure track and a book editor comes at you sideways with an inordinate amount of revisions, bow out. You are doing the book editor a favor, not the other way around.  Don’t get this stuff twisted. Publish the piece as a journal article elsewhere. It will count that way.  And show that uppity editor your bare behind (I truly believe this can relieve stress).
  3. Humanities folks will insist that book chapters count (and BTW: book reviews and encyclopedia entries do not count either so don’t do them after graduate school).   If the university is forced to concede, your book chapters might get counted but know that other disciplines at your college think you are a joke and say it out loud every chance they get. Wait and see how that pans out for you when the new dean/provost/president are not humanities scholars.  Good luck with that.
  4. Collaborative publishing does not count unless you have MANY, MANY of these joints and/or your name comes first.  As faculty, collaborative pubs with graduate students are always the best: you get credit for publication AS mentoring that way (many “top-tiered” PhD programs expect faculty to publish with graduate students now). You might get a concession and get through tenure with collab pubs but know that your campus colleagues think you are a joke. Good luck with that.
  5. Publishing with your Ph.D. advisor/diss committee does not count when you are on the tenure track.  You can do this in graduate school but know you are only making yourself more “marketable.”  You gon need to publish to get an academic job these days so go ‘head and roll with your advisor now cuz that’s gotta stop soon.
  6. Publishing a piece in the journal and/or book you are editing does not count.  If you publish in a special issue journal, be ready to argue in your tenure statement that you do not know the editors (make sure that is true).  Special issue journal publications are taken less seriously because it is now commonplace that your friends bypassed a real peer review process for you (even if the editors aren’t your friends, the review process is still not considered as rigorous with special issue journals today).
  7. Publishing in a journal or book series that your colleague down the hall edits does not count.  See #6 above about “commonplace.”
  8. Presentations at local and/or campus conferences do not count.  You will be laughed at if you include these in your tenure narrative unless you force the issue that these presentations were related to your research.  It still won’t count, but you won’t be laughed at.  Don’t let your tenure be Comedy Central. Let the laughs happen somewhere else.
  9. You need to attend conferences but you better be smart and choose wisely.  Time is ticking, money is scarce, and conferences cost way too much.  One or more of three things needs to happen at a conference to make it worth re-attending: a) you get REALLY good feedback that will propel publication; b) you get a REAL offer for publication from an editor of a journal or book series; c) you team with a group of colleagues and work on a new, publishable article (remember #4 above though).  If these three things ain’t happening, you wasted your money and time.  Don’t be a fool listening to folks who act like a conference is a center of gravity for tenure in academia today.
  10. Habitual conference attendance at a single venue is for those who intend to hold HIGH leadership positions at that conference.  Otherwise, if there is a conference that you must attend pre-tenure, then do what I did: swoop in, do your thing, and be out.  Put the line on the CV and be clear that’s all you got from the experience and find another space to sustain you intellectually.  The point for a tenure/promotion committee is to see that you can get regularly accepted to a peer-reviewed national and INTERNATIONAL (you must always stay connected to international scholars) conference, not stay wedded to an organization. if you can swing it, do not pay for the conference hotel— why keep a conference afloat if it is not doing much for you?  If your department chair (or wanna-be chair) demands that you attend a certain conference, make sure that he pays for it (do not use your start-up funds or travel money for their personal edicts).  This ain’t the 1990s.  No one gets tenure or promotion anymore because they have micro-celebrity status at these venues.  You can get that from Twitter, Facebook, or the Gram.  In fact, my account has done more work bringing real bodies to my research and scholarship than any conference I have ever attended. If you are a scholar of color, especially a woman of color, you need to know better than to rely on traditional means of knowledge dissemination in the 21st century anyway.
  11. One book is no longer enough for tenure at most places, especially if that book was your dissertation (and only university presses and Routledge count).  You will be regarded as someone who has not done any serious research and scholarship since graduate school.  You might get a concession and get through tenure with only that one dissertation-turned-book but know that your colleagues think you are a joke. Good luck with that. (Oh, and make sure you are really clear whether your particular institution will accept galleys of your book at tenure/promotion or if they only want hardcopy.)
  12. Citations, citations, citations!  This is the order of the day.  It’s not just about publishing but about who is reading you… yes, even at teaching colleges now.  Stay amongst like-minded scholars who are thinking with you.  If you are marginalized in your field, find a new home.  If folk in your field are not reading and citing you in their research, you are wasting your time with them.  Move on and drop the dead weight.  You might get a concession and get through tenure without the citations but know that your colleagues think you are irrelevant. Good luck with that.
  13. Grants count as a publication but only the big ones.  Be clear that a grant is the equivalent of running a program so it’s a lot of work… but just like a publication.  If you don’t have grants (especially since there is little money in the humanities), publish more articles.  No way around this anymore.  In the humanities, post-doc work will weigh as nicely as grants so pursue that!
  14. Internal grants do not count but you need to apply for every single one of them that comes across your desk/screen (since they usually come from deans, provosts, etc).  You need to make sure that you keep your name and the topics of your research in folks’s mouth.
  15. Accept only the speaking engagements that are meaningful. They take a lot of time away from your research, family, and sleep cycles.  If you like the people, are getting paid, can connect intellectually/professionally with like-minded folk, can introduce your work to a new audience (see #12 above), get to work directly with young folk, and/or can add a line to your CV, do it.  Otherwise, keep it movin and work on #1-14 above.

Every single item that I listed above is almost a direct quote. D.I.R.E.C.T. These are NOT my interpretations.  If anyone tells you differently,  they are lying or do not know what time it is in the academy today. These same people will turn around and smile in your face and tell you everything is okay with your tenure packet. When you do book chapters, large-scale anthologies (which are the equivalent of textbooks— which also do not count), articles in friends’ journals, and/or publications with advisors, it is for name recognition in that topic, bigger record/concert sales (oops, I mean books), solidarity with your peeples, and/or how-to statements that will make people want to pay you to come give workshops. These are their own legitimate reasons… it won’t count for your tenure/promotion or stature at the university though. KNOW THAT! These rules will likely change 5-10 years from now but I suspect stuff will escalate, not de-escalate.  I can promise you that #1-15 are how it goes down TODAY.

No one fights for or defends you or your field in these closed-door meetings; your record alone has to do all of the work so you need clarity on what has value in that record.  I have witnessed a case where the room did not think a woman deserved to even make it to her mid-tenure review because she only had two articles in print that, combined, had only been cited 5 times.  This was at a teaching college with a heavy teaching load.  Her chairperson gave her NO mentoring whatsoever (and may have even sabotaged her) and since that department still only has an interim chair today, she still has not received any sustained mentoring. Only one person (a senior male scholar of color) in that room argued on her behalf about the absurdity of dropping her.  No one else said a word in her defense. I have no idea what has happened to her.  So yeah, it gets REALLY REAL out here.

I have fought on behalf of colleagues in many of these instances. When I won those battles in those closed-door meetings, it was never a full victory.  People just conceded my point but regarded the scholar in question as a good teacher, a good administrator, or as a good person who works really hard.  These too are direct quotes and these are not compliments.

In between #1-15 above, you will have to fight to do the work that you love, the work that means something to you, the work that transforms your social circumstances.   You will notice that there is nothing INTELLECTUAL, ACTIVIST, or SOCIALLY TRANSFORMATIVE in #1-15.  It’s a pecking order and ranking system only (hence, my overuse of the word COUNT).  It’s… a… hustle… and like I said at the beginning of this post: “Everyday I’m hustlin/Hustle, hustlin hustlin/Hustle, hustlin hustlin/Hustle, hustlin hustlin.”  

I am exhausted just thinking back and chronicling all of these lessons … but I ain’t done yet.  The next posts will tackle service, teaching, and digitation.  I hope to get even blunter with it.