A Conscious Choice

 

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.      

Promotion and Tenure–The Long Sojourn

 

This August marks my sixth year in the professoriate.  It has been six years since I defended my dissertation and was hooded by my esteemed advisor Darryl Dickson-Carr.  Six years beyond the Ph.D. signifies another milestone in the academic career, particularly for the tenure track appointed, depending on which one of us takes a mind to it. In the strictest circles if one is not anxiously aspiring toward promotion and tenure, then the perception is that said person just isn’t intellectually productive and sharp enough to make the cut.

We all know the story. The hushed tone of voice when speaking of that colleague.  The sideways glance when someone asks when how long you have been out of graduate school and at so and so institution and your answer moves beyond that six year mark.  You explain, between nervous laughter and intimidation that you are still at the assistant professor rank, or, god forbid, relegated to a lower rank—adjunct, visiting, instructor. The conversation takes on a new direction—either one of pity or unsolicited mentoring.   You grin and bear it, feeling vulnerable to the whims of academic decorum.

Not only have I heard the story, I am living it.  I made a choice to leave, yes leave a perfectly good tenure-track position after putting in five years on the job. I cannot begin to even tell you what type of academic snubbing I have witnessed as a result of meeting other academics—usually of the tenured variety.  They offer their pity and heart-felt advice on how I should tighten up on my scholarship and wish me insincere luck on my next job search. None of these encounters last more than five minutes and no one cares to even inquire further into my circumstances. It operates like a type of academic bullying with all of the condescension and posturing.  

Spare me. I am neither an academic charity case, nor am I such a novice as not to understand the decision I made or build a strategy behind that decision. Obviously, the job was not “perfectly good” if I deemed it necessary to leave of my own accord and not because I wanted to avoid the tenure process—which is nine time out of ten always the unspoken assumption.

I admit, my transition was a bit unnerving.  I felt a little uneasy and quite insecure about how I would be perceived by my peers.  I did the nervous laughter dance and allowed the condescension to fly, believing it was just part of the hustle.   But now I have my academic weight up and I have met and had meaningful conversations with other people in the field who have opted to take the unconventional route to promotion and tenure. I am not an anomaly. I am not always already blacklisted. There will be no more bullying around this camp. 

Leaving tenure-land has meant churning out a manuscript or two, sharpening my grant writing skills, and hours upon hours of research and writing time. The University of Houston’s Visiting Scholar Initiative in African American Studies has allowed me to grant priority to my research in the early, budding period of my career—though very much off the tenure track—in a way my previous position would not (and I did give them an opportunity to match the deal in order for me to stay). Is not that the whole point of being among the  junior faculty in a research-oriented institution?  If veering off the track to pursue one’s research is not a worthy endeavor, then please explain to me what is?

Each path toward professional success (if that means tenure, great. If not, that’s great, too!) is a varied and winding road.  While I’m sure the sixth year rule shan’t be over turned in the near future, I am hopeful that the younger folk (and mid-career) realize that there are in fact many paths to tenure and it does not have to be the scary, gut-wrenching journey so many have trudged before us.  As I prepare for my second year as Visiting Scholar, I am empowered by my decision. I am free to sketch out my own plan and strategically place myself in a slightly more competitive position when I enter the job market.

The time I will have spent pursuing my research agenda, honing my craft, and expanding my network is invaluable to the goals I have set for myself. So please save the side eye and half-hearted inspirational speeches. I’ll get to tenure in my way and in my own right. I make no apologies for deviating from the script. It was the best thing that could have happened to my career.