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.

A Black Feminist Critique of Bourgeois Professional Organizations…. 40 Years after the Combahee River Collective

Like all academics, I regularly attend conferences that presumably catalyze my politics and research.  Though I have presented 100s of papers now at dozens of conferences, I have spent the most time and money at two in particular: NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and CCCC/4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). I won’t be attending either this year or any time soon for that matter.   I am enraged by the politically-compromised way NCTE and 4Cs have addressed the conference’s Missouri location this year where Senate Bill 43 was signed on June 20, 2017, essentially (re)legalizing discrimination.
I was once excited to participate in these conferences at this 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective’s statement alongside our current Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). But not anymore.  I have always had issues with NCTE/4Cs and the often unmitigated co-existence with the corporatization of (higher) education. Just look at the way the conference headquarters are organized: diversity consultants, NDAs, closed meetings, agenda styles, executive committees, hierarchy of roles, budget discourses, etc.  My point here is merely to state a fact: it is a corporate ethos.  That ethos goes all around so if your contribution in the field/at the conference can be displayed on a CV/career profile/tenure packet, it ain’t activism or community organizing.  It is bourgeois professionalism.  Let’s just call a thing what it is.
The Movement for Black Lives that has shaped every part of my current teaching life and every aspect of my Black and Latinx students’ current literacies is fundamentally a Black Queer Feminist framework… and there is nothing in these organizations that complements such a framework (and if that is not clear, a basic knowledge of BLM will suffice after you have divested from the misogynist, heteropatriarchal core in the field’s relationship to race and African American culture).  Yeah, I said it… cuz that’s what a Black feminist does!
When I think of an “activist conference” or a BLM/BlackQueerFeminist framing, I mean something entirely different from the usual paradigm of “including” a few endarkened sessions in the program and/or parading a few willingly-tokenized celebrity scholars of color who NCTE/4Cs can sponsor as supposed signs of progress. My teaching-scholarly life runs deeper than that. I am packed 36 deep in my undergraduate classrooms with students who commute to campus and work sometimes two jobs.  In the first week of classes this semester, multiple students shared coming out stories, often relaying horrific stories of their treatment as Black and Brown queer people and how they managed to survive. 10% of my students are undocumented (many of whom were not in class for the NYC protests in the second week of classes this semester). As with every semester, I am checking in regularly with at least one young mother of color, most times living in a shelter, who has recently exited and/or is in the process of exiting a relationship hinged on intimate partner violence.  And, of course, I can count on young Black, Arab, and Latinx men arriving late to class after being detained by an NYPD hell-bent on profiling them as if to deliberately remind them that every obstacle imaginable will be erected along their path to a college degree. And my graduate students ain’t playin either. They are the fiercest, queerest, most in-yo-face calling-out-neoliberalism, most activist graduate students who I have ever met.  They ain’t down for the okey-doke either. Despite all of this (or maybe because of it), these are the most gracious, energetic and intellectually alive young people who I know. There is very little at NCTE/CCCC that centers this racialized everydayness in the college literacy and creative power of racially subjugated young people. So on the bright side:  I won’t be missing much by not attending. 

Far too many of the folk of color in the organization are so wedded to their own career advancement, name recognition, bourgeois credentialing, and upward university mobilities (that often gets conflated in white liberal tropes as leadership and voice) that their critiques are, at best, muffled. Yeah, I said it and will gladly say it to folks’ face too.  White folk have never been the ONLY problem.  We write statements… but we do not seem to MAKE statements.  The ways in which these willing tokens on NCTE’s/4Cs’ celebrity red carpet have particularly marginalized and “managed” dissent about the 2017 NCTE and 2018 4Cs have been nothing short of violent: 1) accusing boycotters of representing a do-nothing activism as if the Black Radical Tradition of a Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott was about doing “nothing”; 2) suggesting that folk who leave the organization are “merely” or “irresponsibly” running away as if maroonage, fugitivity, and Harriet Tubman legacies are not deeply-rooted radical actions; 3) asking for more clarity and detail as if I have not been consistent or shy about an INTELLECTUAL critique of a field and its practitioners that have never included me (again, I mean white folk and folk of color).  These people, especially the young wanna-be chic-radical graduate students and the newly anointed/nepotistic heirs to the KINGdom, will be out here quoting folk like Fred Moten and Robin Kelley all day long and yet enact none of their ideas (or maybe don’t have the political integrity to understand those ideas).  I could go on and on.  Like I said, I am disgusted.   

The fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs participation is rather expensive, especially for those of us who are not at privileged universities that allot significant professional expenditures for faculty travel (and who rarely see students of color in their classrooms since their university wealth is intimately attached to the exclusion of Brown and Black peoples, not to their education).  The other fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs, as an organization, financially sustains itself with its conventions.  I simply won’t pay them to keep excluding the Black Queer Feminist frameworks that are literally giving our current social movements and my classrooms life; I won’t pay them for their piss-poor silence about the violence of Missouri’s SB 43, despite the assurance that “we” will do something “local” at the convention (as if anyone should trust the activism outside the venue of a conference program that is lily white); I won’t pay for the promise of some 1990s-style “task force” as a solution for 21st century racism and racial violence;  and I won’t pay them for their pre-arranged co-signing by the small set of NAACP leaders who stopped being progressive many, many decades ago.  And I won’t use the money from my institution that services mostly Brown and Black students or from my salary based on teaching those students to attend a conference that ignores us in a state that newly violates/targets us. That means I would be allowing NCTE/4Cs and Missouri to profit off the backs of the young people of color I teach. I won’t be that kind of accomplice.  Not today. Not ever.

Notes on Racial Realism by One of the “Problem People”

Today, I am with my wonderful colleagues— Steven Alvarez, April Baker-Bell, and Eric Darnell Pritchard— at the Conference on Community Writing where we are facilitating a deep think tank on “Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Critical Literacies: A Teach-In and Work-In.”  In our opening, we will each do a short framing and then start our first day of discussions (day two will feature organizing).  This webpage collects the frame that I will offer about RACIAL REALISM. 

I decided to write out my thoughts today in the hopes that would be easier to follow. I am placing these notes on a website— so you can follow along. Or, you can just listen. (I make a sincere effort to do what most ENG teachers tell vernacular black intellectuals NOT to do— write the way I talk. As it ends up, that is the most difficult thing to do… so please bear with me here.)

I am hoping that we can frame ourselves pragmatically and theoretically as racial realists— as coined by critical race theorists and afro-pessimists. Racial realism, put quite simply, rejects any notion that we have made racial progress. That’s a fantasy of white comfort and white fragility rather than any kind of proximation to the lived experiences of black peoples. Progress is always politically conflicted, contingent on whiteness/white approval, and reversible via white supremacy… one step forward, and then sometimes two steps back.

Some of my favorite racial realists are my undergraduate students (though they do not use this language unless I am explicitly teaching CRT). In my undergraduate classes this semester, I often have weeks where students can choose any one of 50-60 essays and videos about the theme we are studying.  Since everyone has read something different, they are each asked to create a discussion question inspired by their unique reading. From our unit on feminisms of color this year, here were some of my favorite discussion questions that students created, none of which have easy answers:

  1. Given how many Puerto Rican and Mexican women the U.S. sterilized in the 1900s, what is the historical consequence of this for women of color today?  What’s the message that we still receive?
  2. Black girls are suspended from schools at much higher rates than white kids, even for lesser infractions.  What is the point of this? How do schools and colleges benefit from shutting out black girls/black students? … How do we protect black girls from schools?
  3. Given all that we have learned of racism, sexism, and inequality, why were you surprised that Trump won the election?

For me, you just can’t answer these questions without racial realism… in fact, you wouldn’t even think to ask them.

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Black Language Matters: Black Languaging/ Black Mentoring of Young Black Faculty

I saw a job ad recently for an assistant professor and lecturer in my field.  I shook my head as I read it, feeling sorry for the early career scholar who might read that ad and not understand the coded meanings.  The ad asks for someone to help design/run a (failing) program, publish in the field, work closely with the entire department, AND make a strong commitment to the college. No, those are NOT reasonable requests.  It’s all just code for: we gon exploit the hell outta you and question your integrity and commitment if/when you refuse to let us get over on you and use you up til there is nuthin left.  And I am crystal clear here too: if the new hire is Black, that person will get exploited even more with these kind of community service expectations since it is not imaginable that Black college faculty are— first and foremost— critical scholars and researchers.  Because I know the context of this college, I know three things about this job: 1) the salary and package do not match the administrative requirements and are not commiserate with national norms; 2) there is no mentoring, available role model, or support for research and scholarship in the department that you’re expected to get so close to (publication is STILL the only thing that matters for tenure/promotion); 3) the organization and infrastructure of the college are so unstable with such constant shifts and changes in leadership that it is strange to expect NEW faculty to be the ones to bring longevity and consistency.  I am able to read and understand these signs in that job ad because of the kind of mentoring I had in graduate school.

Mentoring of young Black faculty (and graduate students) who work at colleges across the country usually hinges on teaching young Black professors the rules of college life as it pertains to tenure and promotion.  You can find all kinds of empirical research on the best strategies for mentoring young Black faculty so that they secure that golden fleece in the end.  This research is also really clear about the importance of Black mentors for these early career professionals. But there’s always been something missing from these discussions for me.  It’s not just about teaching young Black faculty the rules of the academy.  It’s about centering Black thought and Black life in people’s lives at the academy.  That’s where Black Language comes in for me.

When I have become obsessed with yet another dysfunctional episode at the colleges where I have worked, the words of my graduate mentor, Suzanne Carothers, always ring in my head: do not confuse the WORK with the JOB.  Those words have kept me sane and grounded …and those words have helped me move onwards and higher when the limited horizons of other folk have attempted to confine me. I locate this mantra— and its many offshoots— squarely within Black culture.  I see this as a kind of cultural memory and hence language for a social group who has had to continually invent dignity and identities that run against the menial “jobs” and “positions” they have been relegated to.  It ain’t difficult to feel good about your job when the people who look like you/live with you are the ones always chosen as the CEOs, CFOs, COOs, et al (I include college administrators in these titles given the corporate nature of higher education today).  It takes more imagination and humanity to carve out a communal sense of worth when your labor exists solely in terms of some kind of subservience to whiteness: slave, domestic, factory worker, janitor… you name it.  In my own family, the J.O.B. did not dictate the limits of one’s worth, no matter how little you were paid.  As we usedta say in the 90s: It’s a Black Thing… Plain and Simple.

My mentor’s reminder to never confuse the WORK with the job gives me a framework for surviving hostile environments based on the cultural memory and history of my own people.  That’s so much more than simply telling me the rules of publication for tenure.  Suzanne’s mentoring and example have helped me shift the political, linguistic, and aesthetic center of gravity in my own self-actualization in spaces that work directly opposite of that.  For so many of my colleagues, the work that they do is confined to the physical building that houses their job.  For Suzanne, the WORK is always much bigger and much more meaningful than that. That’s why I could never support a job ad like the one I described in my opening.  If you don’t know the difference between the WORK you have chosen to do/that has chosen you and the JOB that employs you at this one moment in time, you will fall for any ole kind of okey doke that exploits you rather than transforms/challenges/ understands the world around you.  Black language teaches us to do/think/be better than that.