Miscellaneous writings from my adventures in academia capin’ for all. black. everything.
My unconventional journey along the tenure track has inevitably led me back to the arduous task of juggling a job search in addition to research and teaching. I admit, I have been an avid reader of advice columns and blogs about the academic market in recent years. I have had my share of horror stories and interviews from hell as well as experiences with the increasingly popular Skype interview. Needless to say, the job search has definitely changed since I first got my feet wet as a doctoral candidate with an “in-progress” dissertation. I feel impelled to share some thoughts—not to be mistaken for advice—on my particular experiences. Consider them things I’ve learned along the way.
My graduate mentoring about the job market focus solely on scoring the coveted Modern Language Association interview. Well, if you wanted a tenure-track job with benefits and your own office that is. That certainly is not the case nowadays. There are actually more jobs being advertised post-MLA than ever before. In fact, some of the jobs in American and African American literature at Research I institutes were advertised in late December and through January with little thought to adhering to the MLA job search schedule. That doesn’t include the number of tenure track jobs announced at smaller, 4-year institutions or liberal arts colleges. Indeed, it can no longer be said that the job search has no life after MLA.
Apparently, the new hot thing is the academic job wikis. For all the web heads, this is THE space for up to the minute news/gossip on any particular job search for the current academic year. I only pursued the searches in the Humanities disciplines, most of which have their own dedicated following. It was great to know what moves the search committee was making—interview requests, requests for additional information, when job talks were scheduled. The wikis really helped to level the playing field and have a one-up on the elusive search committees. I did more information seeking on the wikis than information sharing, but it was still a great tool to have. It just seemed a bit much to register an account and participate when I needed any and all extra energy to be focused elsewhere. Shame on me. Maybe.
“Fit” applies to both the hiring department and the job-seeking candidate. With the “shortage” of jobs—or maybe the over abundance of PhDs in the Humanities, it would seem foolish for any candidate to turn down a job offer, right? I’m not so convinced about this one. We job-seekers can probably fill a bathtub with emails and letters of kind rejection about how we were not the right “fit” or how some other candidate most closely “fit” the needs of the department. I can dig it. But what I have discovered is that sometimes, the candidate may just need to return that sentiment to the hiring institution. Depending on your career path, how desperately you need job placement, or how far along you are on the tenure track I would tell anyone to consider how great a fit any department is for their needs as much as the department is considering you.
I mean, jobs are not a dime a dozen these days but I do think job seekers still have some room to be choosy. That is, weigh all your options and if, in fact, you have several options be sure to completely evaluate all of them. And in the words of a good colleague of mine, while one offer might not be the best fit for your long term goals it still may be a “great place to leave”—a stepping stone for achieving the career goals you have set out for yourself. But if it is absolutely just not a place you can stomach…then, it maybe kinder to leave the job for someone who actually wants it and pursue those other options. Think of it as job search karma.
Lastly, I suppose I will direct my thoughts on another “new” turn in the job search for me. In my early days (I have to chuckle at that), it was standard to receive a phone call requesting an interview with a particular department. Out of about 8 interview requests, all but two of them arrived via email. I actually prefer the email request for time management reasons and to have a written record of the language, but I did find the phone conversations welcoming and more personal. As a self-declared introvert and shy-guy, I am likely more uncomfortable on the phone than others but I was still a bit surprised at how hands-off the whole process has become.
It is mid-March and I am still actively engaged in the job search with promising options to consider. I am hopeful that the academic gods will have mercy on my time and teaching and bring this sucker to a swift close. It has been an eye-opening experience just in the way that the process has changed in a few short years. I’m actually glad that I decided to get my feet wet again as I feel I am in a much better position to mentor my students on the realities they will inevitably face. Times, they are a-changing.
My recent junket on the job market has brought forth many reflections on why I chose to pursue a career in academia in the first place. I think back to the moments in my education when I made conscious choices about what I would and would not do with my graduate training and career. I distinctly recall the eureka moment when I discovered that I could specialize my research and teaching on the African American literary tradition. I was just an undergrad, but the realization that I wouldn’t have to spend my graduate years studying dead white men with penchants for ravens or molesting young boys or their female counterparts was life altering.
I knew I would have to learn the American literature canon to some extent, but I called myself circumventing that reality by pursuing my Master of Arts in African American Studies rather than English. In my Ph.D program, I managed to take only two courses in American literature—one a directed reading course in which I selected the readings and the other a seminar on the history of Jim Crow and Black Face Minstrelsy. That seminar focused a great deal on issues of race, so it wasn’t as painful. The rest of my course work focused entirely on the literature of the African diaspora, save the required course on the History of the English language and a Brit Lit sequence. My comprehensive exams where thoughtfully focused on my primary area, African American Literature and my secondary field, Folklore Studies. I was pleased with myself at having escaped graduate school without being weighed down with training and courses in a tradition I had relatively little interest in teaching.
My graduate path was indicative of the course I wanted to pursue on the job market. I was and remain dedicated to the choice not to specialize in the American literary canon. I sought no training in the field and feel no shame or guilt in my lack of expertise. Sure, I can teach an American literature survey with the best of them—the works have been crammed down my throat for the majority of my formative education. But I can’t help to think about all the scholars, educators, professors, and so on who can declare expertise in British or American literature without ever having studied Hurston, Wright, Ellison, least of all Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Arthur Flowers, or Henry Dumas. They all seem to function just fine in the academy without that knowledge. So, too can I. Ya feel me?
No one castigates them for any lack or whole in their training. My conscious choice not to dabble in American literature or to list it as an area of specialty on my CV is both purposeful and political. I don’t want anyone to wrongly assume that African American literature is a sub-field or that it comes secondary to the normative, default position of white, American literature. I want any and all interested parties to recognize that African American literature and culture is the only literary tradition in which I carry expertise. I want them to be absolutely clear about what it is that I have to offer and for what purpose.
I strategically designed my graduate program around the history, culture, literature and folklore of people of African descent. It was my prerogative to do so and I have been and continue to be extremely happy with that choice. I make no apologies for it as it grants me the privilege of doing work that is at once personally and professionally satisfying. Besides, isn’t there an over abundance of professors who focus their teaching and scholarship on the American tradition—a tradition that for way too long excluded any writers of non-white origin? It just does not appeal to me and I think life—especially the academic life—is much too arduous to spin one’s wheel studying in an area simply because it is the default model.
A few weeks ago, I received a call from my sister in spirit Daaiyah Salaam. Daaiyah and I attended college together at Georgia Southern University (the real GSU) and were engaged in a number of social and cultural organizations. At the top of the list was the Black Student Alliance. Daaiyah served as President of the organization while I was content to deal in the more creative endeavors—like hosting the bi-weekly spoken word sessions we called “Esoteric”. Dig it.
The nature of sista Daaiyah’s phone call was one of nostalgia. She said she wanted to read something to me. She began reciting this poem that seemed vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until about two stanzas in that I realized she was reading my words!!!! We got a great laugh as we reminisced about Esoteric and our coming into consciousness about our femininity, sexuality, and identities as black women. The poem was a manifesto of that consciousness.
I recalled the moment that inspired the poem. I was 21, a college graduate, and preparing for my sojourn to attend grad school at UCLA. It was summer. I arrived at a family gathering wearing hip hugging bell-bottom jeans that had come back in style. This was a change from the big, baggy, TLC-inspired wardrobe that had become my signature when I left for college. My adult cousin Joy spotted me first. “Daaaaang, girl. Look at you! Coke Bottle,” she taunted.
I was well aware of my full hips and up until that point, I had been severely self-conscious of them. But something changed while I was at GSU. I had discovered Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Ego-Tripping” and had also discovered that these hips weren’t going any where. I had also discovered what my mother meant when she said, “Nobody wants a bone but a dog,” to my 14 year old self to assure me that my curvy figure was nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, I wrote about it.
Hearing the words of my twenty-something self reminded me how important it is to have a healthy self-image and to love all of one’s self. Celebrate it, even! I share this poem, inspired by and dedicated to Nikki G. and Joy S. Jones, as a reminder to us all that we can and should create our own aesthetics.
Coke Bottle (9.8.2001)
Please excuse the conceit
I have a body that’s bangin’ and I want you
To dance to my beat
Never tall and skinny
Enough thigh bone to fill out that mini
Round brown thang
So much sexy I make the sweetest man sang
Mama passed down everything she had
But, she was modest . . . me? I know I’m bad!
All the men stare in awe
Such a lovely sight, even with my many flaws
Among the sistas, I’m an object of envy
Not to worry girls, we all have plenty
Full, silky, soup-coolin’ lips
Jalapeno-pepper, collard green and cornbread hips
Skin dipped in honey so you know I’m delicious
So much booty you can chew it up and blow like bubblicious
Check out my coke bottle figure and Miss America smile
I walk in a room and brothers ask me to have they chile
Slender, shapely legs that will work the hell outta a pair of heels
28 inch waist and a stomach so flat you’d swear I skip meals
Almond joy eyes and licorice lashes
Only a handful of “tatas” but enough to keep my man off those other girls asses
Fly girl supreme
Giving adolescent boys wet dreams
Luscious, succulent brown sugar thighs
Light me up and I guarantee the contact will make you high
All eyes on me like that chic Carmen Jones
Gotta have junk in the trunk because only a dog wants a bone
I’m fine like your grand-daddy’s sweet aged wine
You may choose to disagree — that’s perfectly alright because I still look good to me
Don’t need Cosmo’s, Allure’s or Seventeen’s approval
It’s those societal norms and standards of beauty that need urgent removal
So again I ask that you please forgive my vanity
I’m in love with myself because trying to look like Barbie would drive me to insanity
Kameelah L. Martin
This week I completed reviewing my page proofs and creating the index. I have approved of the jacket copy and blush at the strong endorsements provided by scholars in the field. All that is left is for the manuscript to go to press!! I’m dreaming of the UPS man delivering my advanced copies in December—a great birthday present if you ask me! Conjuring Moments in African American Literature will be released commercially in January. I have completed my first monograph!
The journey to publication has been a learning experience. I didn’t have many issues with losing an editor or fighting for the cover art—all of which I’ve heard horror stories about. I even decided to go ahead and create the index myself rather than contract a freelancer to do it on my behalf. If you’ll remember, I was torn about that decision in a previous blog.
As it turns out, if you prepare in advance putting the index together isn’t all that troublesome. It is a tedious process, but at the advice of my colleague Elizabeth West, I did the work of creating the index terms well in advance. When I received the page proofs is was a simply matter of using the appropriate software to do a search for the terms.
In all, it took me two full days of work to complete it to my satisfaction. I’m not sure whether I’d be willing to entrust that kind of detail and thoroughness to someone who is less familiar with my work. After all, I’ve invested some years in developing my scholarship and the index is as much a reflection of that as anything else. Who knows? Maybe for the next project I’ll be more flexible since I am now initiated into the process.
I am very happy and excited to see this project come to a close in terms of the writing, revising, and other minutia of publication. I do hope, however, that the life of Conjuring Moments does not end here. The next phase is promoting and marketing my work—another area in which I’m a novice. There are no manuals or guides for how one should go about the work of promoting his or her scholarship. I will have to lean on my great circle of mentors and colleagues to assist with that one. I am looking forward to the critical response to my scholarship as well as the awkward dance of self-promotion!
As I have continued to make my rounds at professional conferences, summer institutes, and various university campuses I have been overjoyed to learn of all the other thirty-something black female PhDs who are making waves in the academy! It’s always great to see a friendly face, but to make contact with a friendly face that is reflective of your own experience is exceptionally exciting! My professional “elder” T. Harris once told me to seek out the best and brightest in my field and to make them my professional support network. She advised me to lean on this circle for reading those raggedy drafts, for emotional support when the academy gets to be enough, and for collaboration on other professional projects. It was a great piece of advice and although she didn’t point to other black women in particular, my black female mind was directed that way by default. That is not to suggest that I am opposed to black male scholars in my circle or even white men and women. I lean on more than a few, but this one is for my ladies.
I knew some folks in my age range or a bit older with whom I shared similar interests, but the task of building the type of bond T. Harris speaks of has been grounded in more theory than practice. That is, until recently. As I have encountered black female academics who are still in the early stages of their careers, as am I, I have made a special effort to lend my support and build professional and personal links to these women. It is a work in progress. I am a very shy and introverted individual—don’t judge me. Nonetheless, I am happily moving forward with building my network of thirty-somethings. I am so proud to share the academic stage with such fierce and innovative thinkers. Here are just a few of the amazing scholars with whom I have connected or intend to connect. Look out for us:
Therí A. Pickens, Assistant Professor of English (Bates College)
Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. Check out her blog: The Rogue Vogue Professor. Did I mention she isn’t even 30??? Do the math.
Folashade Alao, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies (University of South Carolina)
Her scholarship examines the construction of the Sea Islands as a significant cultural landscape in the black feminist imagination and historicizes the Sea Islands’ contemporary emergence as a site of memory.You can find her profile here.
Ayesha Hardison, Assistant Professor of English (Ohio University)
Ford Fellow, MLA Executive Committee Member of the Black American Literature and Culture Division, NEH Summer Scholar. Look forward to her monograph Writing Through Jane Crow: Race, Gender, and Genre, 1940-1954.
Koritha Mitchell, Associate Professor of English (Ohio State University)
She is most well known for her work on the depiction of lynching and racial violence in African American Literature and Drama, Living with Lynching. I can’t wait to see what is next from this scholar.
Aisha Lockridge, Assistant Professor of English (St. Joseph’s University)
A Diva in her own right, Professor Lockridge has crafted an innovative read of the the Diva in African American literature in her recently released book, Tipping on a Tightrope. Her next project will contend with the “magical negress” in popular culture. Read all about her research and teaching here.
Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
The phrase she coined to describe her scholarship says it all: “Haute Couture Intellectualism.” I haven’t met this scholar yet, but her work on black women, respectability, and adornment sounds like a project that is well over due.
I will admit, with many of these women I do have a professional relationship and I am unabashedly promoting their work just for the sake of exposing others to the scholarship of other black female PhDs of a certain age. Isn’t that, after all, also part of the professional life? Get to know them and support their work!!!
As part of the amazing and generative energy cultivated during the NEH Summer Institute, I signed on to contribute to a project on urban fiction in visual and popular forms. As the title probably informs you, I have committed to tackling Beyoncé Knowles and the “urban fiction” that has been created by her performance persona, music videos, and so forth. It’s a bit of a daunting task, but I was inspired to think of Beyoncé critically during Eve Dunbar’s lecture and discussion of hip hop, pornography, and black women.
We read an essay that attempted to position my girl B as an agent of post-Katrina feminist activism. As I began reading the essay, I kept an open mind. I thought, “Okay. Maybe this will work. Let’s see how she will lay out the argument”. The essay left me unconvinced. I did walk away, however, thinking that Beyoncé was saying and doing something important for young black women. I just wasn’t sure what exactly.
We chopped up the usual criticisms of Beyoncé as narcissist, her overt consciousness of her body as visually pleasing, playing up her French “creole” roots, and of course, there were lengthy comments about her playing the role of prostitute—supplying her viewers with whatever fantasy (usually sexual) they desire.
As our conversation parsed out the holes in the essay and we placed our critical gaze upon B’s video for “Déjà vu;” I was struck by the metaphor of the prostitute and how that has all sorts of implications for black female sexuality. I began to consider her body of work and what, if anything, Beyoncé is telling us about black female sexuality—or even her own. What narrative of sexuality does Beyoncé weave when considering her various performances—both entertainment performances and the performance of her public persona–as hood rat (think, Destiny’s child “Solider”), whore (“Déjà vu”), and wholesome (wife, mother)??
This is the question that is at the center of my burgeoning project. Now, I will be the first to confess I am a fan. I know the lyrics, I know the choreography, and I know her story. I have paid to see her perform a time or two. You don’t know Beyoncé until you have seen her stage show. I am still thinking through my ideas and what I ultimately think of Beyoncé’s urban fiction. I want to believe and argue that there is something powerful at play in the Beyoncé imaginary. I think that she just may surprise us by offering a transformative view of black female sexuality that is neither confined by social standards nor bearing the weight of the slave experience. How active an agent she is in constructing such a narrative is another question altogether.
What I saw in the “Déjà vu” video was an invocation of another black female icon that disrupts binaries—particularly as it relates to Africana women’s sexual experience during slavery. I will save the rest of my thoughts for the book chapter, but know that I am anxious to work through this project and to center Beyoncé as a black feminist subject.
I have heard much discussion about and have even experienced some of the difficulties of being a career-oriented woman. The balance of work and quality of life—which often means family—is not always easy to maintain. One has to consider if and at what point marriage and child-bearing (and the thankless task of childrearing) will enter into the equation. Before of after tenure? Are you being justly compensated for the same work as your male counterpart? And maintaining the boundaries between the personal and the professional lives is always at the forefront—at least these are many of the concerns I have shared in my young career. I’m sure many of my female colleagues would agree that this is pretty normal stuff for us. It’s part of the social inheritance of being a working woman. We just have to charge it to the game and work it out to the best of our abilities. Most of us fare pretty well.
What I have heard less discussion about is the murkier waters of the career woman who has made it past many of the initial hurdles of securing a job, finding a partner, publishing, and procreating only to discover that the universe had something else in mind. For whatever reason, career woman is now a single parent. Now, the everyday tasks of raising a child aren’t really the challenge. There is certainly some adjustments to be made but we’re talking about Ph.Ds—career woman doesn’t miss a beat in that arena. But single parenthood creates all sorts of other interesting challenges for Lady PhD that I’m just dying to know about.
You see, I have found myself in this very predicament. The issue? How does one continue on with the business of academia as a single, black female mother? In my previous life, I maintained an active presence with my professional organizations. Usually I attend a minimum of two conferences a year. Now that I am sans spouse, that seems like an impossibility. Sure, I hear of parents who bring their children to conferences and expose them to the academic life. They make all the claims that it is great for the child’s development. I’m sure it is.
But you see, my current institution doesn’t pay me enough to incur the cost of flying my child to the conference site. And to be fair, I don’t see my son sitting quietly in the audience as I present. I’m just saying, you have to know your children and little man is much too….shall we say inquisitive for that. And further more, when I’m conference hopping, I’m always “at work” and I’m just not of the mind to bring my 4 year old into the work space. It’s cute and totally acceptable for other folks. I love to see kids in those spaces, but for the record—I’m just not that person. I prefer not to mix the two. Call it a personality quirk. Rather than polling for answers to my unique situation, I am much more interested in how other single parents—and I am not privileging mothers—who are also academics maneuver through the minefield.
Conference attendance is just one issue—but it is pretty important to a young, burgeoning scholar such as myself. Conference attendance is one of the forums through which I stay current in my field. It is a very important part of my professional development. What about others? I anticipate going on the job market this year—how on earth will I navigate invitations for a campus interview when I have no childcare solution for pre-school age kid? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill or are there other professionals who have had to alter their professional paths due to unforeseen life changes? And if so (as I just can’t imagine there hasn’t been) why aren’t people talking about it!!!???? I am all about making the necessary adjustments to make life livable and work doable—I just don’t know what they are.
I don’t have any answers. I am navigating each situation as it reveals itself. But I am seeking community—others with shared experience who might provide some insight. After all, that is how we do things around here….right?
So, it has finally happened. I am faced with the task of teaching a literary course online. I knew one day it would come to this, but I never imagined it would come so soon.
Now, I know there are plenty of instructors who do this everyday. I know composition course are regularly taught online or in hybrid classrooms. I know many of the for-profit institutions offer online degrees. I think its wonderful for those seeking access to education. My course on Voodoo and Visual Culture had low enrollment this term and thus, it was canceled. The alternative I have been given, however, is to teach the course online in the spring. I was a bit hesitant to accept, but after a meeting with the instructional technology team I am excited more than ever to try this out!
With all the technology that is available to colleges and universities, it isn’t surprising that online courses are being offered more and more. I can narrate my power point slides, hold live chat sessions with voice integration, still make use of course reserves at the university library, and employ a plagiarism fail safe for all the written assignments. Best of all, I can do all of the above without showing up to a half empty classroom twice a week (that is a definite plus!). I am excited about jumping into this new arena and figuring out if this is really something that works for me. I mean, there are certainly some pedagogical challenges that present themselves when considering my approach to teaching a literature course.
For instance, how will I shift from a discussion-based teaching style to one that is more lecture oriented to accommodate and make use of the available technology? Will something get lost in translation as I lecture to my laptop microphone about the oral and folk elements of the introduction to Mama Day? How can I be sure to cover topics that I may not find interesting or important about a text, but which my students are dying to investigate? How can I have an interactive discussion about a single passage from Praisesong for the Widow in an online forum? I’m not sure how I will navigate these obstacles, but I do have plenty of time to develop a strategy.
The truth of the matter is that students of all shapes, sizes, learning styles, and colors are demanding online learning to accommodate their lifestyles. Many students are working one or more part time jobs to make ends meet. Online courses simply work better for them. If I am going to stay current in the profession, then that means trying out and integrating new learning tools into my teaching repertoire. There aren’t many institutions that have not gotten on board the online teaching wagon. I’m not at all sure how this will work, but I am up for the challenge and ready to expand my teaching arsenal. The future is present.
This week I received the copy edited version of my first book manuscript. I was exuberantly happy and excited to reach this point in the production process. I jumped right in to review the copy editor’s suggestions and queries—wondering if I was as good a writer and proofreader as I imagined. I mean, I have spent ***number of years perfecting my dissertation into an awesomely, publishable piece of scholarship worthy of being called such. It’s been a labor of love—and hate. You know its hard out here for a….p—uh, a person who is trying to publish. Still, I am happy to finally be in this place.
It reminded me, however, that I still know very little about the publishing process. It seems I am learning as a go, unsure of what questions to ask and to whom to direct them. And what is this about creating my own index???? It is a lonely, scary world for the first time author. I feel totally inept at managing the process. I have tackled everything from securing copyright clearance for decades old blues songs, to negotiating permission from an artist to use his work as cover art, to then having to professionally scan the original art work that is in my possession, to contracting an indexer only to realize that I am, in fact, the best person to do the job. That’s not to mention actually formatting the manuscript according the publisher’s guidelines and all that that entails.
It has been a learning process filled with anxiety, excitement, and the thrill of learning something new. I’m am feeling real insecure about the index project. I’ve convinced myself that I can, in fact, do the job, but I am not confident about final product. I have no clue about the details and formatting that makes a really good index. It seems time consuming and the publisher has assured me that time is not on my side. It can all be overwhelming at times and my stuff isn’t even in press yet! I am constantly asking myself, how could I have better prepared myself for this? How could I have clued myself in to the process in a real, informed sort of way?
Don’t misunderstand me. I read books on publishing and polled colleagues and mentors about the process. Most gave honest, though vague answers: the contract is pretty basic, pay someone to do your index, and it will take about a year from contract offer to book release. Very few mentioned any of the leg work of securing permissions, cover art, or the possibility of creating your own index.
The process has not been overly burdensome, but when you are behind the learning curve one may find themselves spending more time playing catch-up. Now that I am (almost) fully initiated into the club of published scholars, I do not feel so anxious or uninformed about the process. I have faced the gauntlet and survived another day. Future monographs will certainly not provoke the cold sweats and nervous jitters as this very first one. I will keep you informed about the index—who knows how that will turn out? But it is my first and there is something inspiring about taking the time to learn the process the first go ‘round.
I suppose it makes my entry into the profession official—almost the equivalent to dissertating and defending for the young professional. I can dig it. I just hope the next batch of newbie scholars can crack the code and know what they are in for prior to taking the leap. I imagine it makes the process much more seamless.
Conjuring Moments in African American Literature: Women, Spirit Work and Other Such Hoodoo will be available from Palgrave Macmillan Press in January 2013.