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 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.

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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.