The Temple of My Unfamiliar: Faculty of Color at Predominantly White InstitutionsThe following commentary highlights common themes uncovered not only through my discussions with other African American tenure-track faculty members in predominantly White institutions, but also from my own experiences as a tenure-track faculty member of color within these institutions.
“The Proof Is in the Pudding”: This is a phrase I extracted from the many words of wisdom shared by my grandmother. This refrain served as a means to encourage the connoisseur of whatever culinary delight she had prepared to reserve judgment regarding the overall quality of the dish until after the initial taste.
Much like my grandmother’s experience, African American tenure-track faculty often found the connoisseurs (students) of their dishes (content area knowledge) to hold their assessments in abeyance until the initial tasting. One faculty member commented, “I always feel as if they (students) are looking at me with a jaundiced eye, as if my credentials should be questioned.”
“So When Do I Get the “Hook-Up?”: Success as a faculty member in higher education, especially as a tenure-track faculty member, is predicated upon the identification of key contacts and the establishment of critical professional as well as social networks — essentially, to remain viable, faculty must be “hooked up.” Unfortunately, for many tenure-track African American faculty members, getting the hook-up is at best difficult and at worst impossible.
African American tenure-track faculty members invariably reported the absence of a mentor or support person to assist them in gaining entry into important networks. An African American male tenure-track faculty member provided the richest commentary supporting this point: “You know we didn’t get the same hook-ups the White boys got [sic]. And guess what? The same … is happening on this side of the fence (experience as a faculty member).”
“It’s Only My Stream of Double Consciousness”: Regardless of the moniker chosen to conceptualize their experiences, minorities in general, and African American tenure-track faculty in particular, express the ever-present burden of negotiating life in two different realities.
Many faculty members talked at length about the cultural shift they had to engage in. The shift they are referring to is the change they must make in their actions, behaviors, language, person and even cognitive schema to be viewed as competent. According to one respondent, “I turn down my R&B music when I pull into the parking lot … I have to get myself in the proper mindset to switch on the ‘academic me.’ “
“Don’t You Think It’s ‘Chilly’ in Here”: Acclimating to the higher-education environment has proven to be a formidable task for many faculty members. Particularly among the ranks of certain subcultures — women, cultural and ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian — their experiences with these environments have been described in the literature as “chilly.” Therefore, developing necessary survival skills and cultural adaptations to negotiate these frigid academic climates has become the means by which these faculty members learn to “survive.” Hence the statement provided by a faculty member, “I have to be prepared for this place; I don’t think chilly is the best description for this environment, I think it is actually subzero.”
To truly tap into the knowledge stores and intellectual reserves maintained by African American scholars, academe must first meet their most basic needs: Establish a safe and inclusive environment to successfully engage in critical discourse, create a forum to bond with peers, develop a means to foster viable connections with students and increase opportunities to interface with the institution. By attempting to meet the needs of these African American tenure-track scholars, academe can convert the unfamiliar temple into a familiar shrine.
— Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is an associate professor of adult and higher education at The University of Texas at San Antonio. The piece is excerpted from a larger article.
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