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.

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.

Continue reading

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.