Signposts Detours and Exits of a Military Wife Who Happens to be a Tenured Professor
As I was leaving campus on April 24, 1995, I received a memorandum informing me of the decision regarding my application for promotion to full professor in the Department of History at Michigan State University (MSU). I became lost in thought as I drove off the campus. The pink sliver of paper on the car seat rekindled memories of my early days in academia.
I wondered how my experiences as a married African-American woman with a family differed from my contemporaries. In short, I asked to what extent had race, class and gender influenced the progression of my career.
Armed with a recently acquired master’s degree in American history from Indiana University in the fall of 1965, I accepted a position in North Carolina where I taught traditional courses spread over a fifteen-hour week. Following marriage and the birth of a child, I left university teaching for several years. This phase of my life could be appropriately termed the “mommy track.”
We moved to Florida where my husband, an administrative officer in the U.S. Air Force, received an assignment on short notice deploying him to MEAFSA — the acronym for the Middle East and Africa South of the Sahara. As always, his luggage, updated immunization record and passport were packed and ready.
On the Road
This should not be construed as a complaint. I learned early on that compromise was essential in a two-career family — especially when the professions were strikingly dissimilar. I could not find gainful employment, except as an adjunct at the University of Tampa — since the wives of military personnel (in the eyes of many employers) were unreliable. In fact, there was “evidence” (of a dubious nature)to show that they moved often and upon short notice. Other “facts” showed that when spouses mobilized, women with children often reduced work hours and spent more time at home. I was pigeon-holed into the second category.
After extended TDYs (temporary duty assignments) and one year in Vietnam, my husband was sent to Hampton, VA, in December 1972. Due to fortuitous circumstances, I gained an appointment at Hampton Institute (now University) where I taught American and African-American history — a new field for me — twelve hours per week. My contract specified that I could work no more than five years without additional graduate study.
After three years on the Hampton faculty, I was admitted to a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. I requested and received a leave of absence without pay to continue graduate study. This meant that I would lose all time accumulated toward tenure and a sabbatical. Fully aware of all the ramifications, I took the leave, completed the course work, depleted my life’s savings and returned to work at Hampton in the fall of 1978.
I found it impossible to finish the dissertation, teach full time and care for our daughter alone. By then, my husband was at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam — some 12,000 miles away. As a result, in 1981, I requested and received a second leave of absence without pay. As always, I understood the consequences of such a decision. I completed the degree; however, the tenure and sabbatical clock reverted to zero, again.
Nestled in Foothills
By 1985, my husband had retired from the Air Force and our daughter was college-bound. We had invested in real estate, thinking that it would pay for her college education. The plan was reasonable; however, we never thought it would be as difficult as it was to convert the properties to cash.
Faced with this situation, I resigned from Hampton University in 1985, the year I received tenure and promotion to associate professor, to accept a position at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). My salary increased, but the university’s collective bargaining agreement prohibited the acceptance of my tenure. I believed that if I had earned tenure after my 12-year association with Hampton, I could do it again.
Nestled in the foothills of western Pennsylvania, my research interest shifted and I received one book contract and completed research for another manuscript while teaching twelve hours with dual preparations. My scholarship and teaching, along with strong recommendations from the department and school, catapulted me into the rank of full professor without tenure in 1988. Two years later, I received tenure anew.
I was now secure professionally and the university was above reproach in terms of support, but the heavy teaching responsibilities and committee assignments left little time for anything else. There were scholarly interests that I wanted to pursue; therefore, when MSU advertised a position in its history department, I applied. There was less teaching, along with an opportunity to work with graduate courses in the newly developed comparative Black history program. On the obverse side, MSU would not accept my rank since I had not yet received a contract for my second book manuscript.
Moving Beyond Provincialism
Fortified with the confidence that if I had earned the rank of full professor once, I could do it again, I resigned from IUP and joined the faculty at MSU.
This was a second major move in less than ten years.
Professionally, each relocation took a great toll. Yet, to accept the appointment at IUP just as it initiated the women’s studies program had added a new and rewarding dimension to my intellectual growth and scholarly productivity. Additionally, MSU’s comparative history program gave me a greater appreciation in knowing that comparisons force us to move beyond the provincialism that results from studying a single culture.
Personally, moves can be very costly and disruptive. But who follows whom is of little consequence — as long as there is an anchor. We minimized the stress of dislocation by maintaining a permanent home in Virginia. For example, our daughter attended kindergarten in the same city where she graduated from high school, started college and spent her holidays and summer vacations. This is unusual, not only for military dependents, but for children of corporate executives and academicians as well. To be sure, telephone bills and airplane fares were often very expensive, but essential.
During my first year at MSU, I received positive responses about my second manuscript and began the revisions. Shortly afterward, my spouse suffered a life-threatening health condition which caused me to lose interest in regaining my rank. Book contracts, along with the revised manuscript, sat on my desk for nearly two years. I lost my bearings, but we survived as a family.
Reflecting upon my professional career seemed tantamount to taking one step forward and another backward. Or was it? Was this unique? How many others have had similar experiences? Was such a pattern peculiar to women? To African Americans? On another level, I thought of differences in university standards regarding tenure and promotion. How much of this was related to employment in a small, private historically Black college, a predominately white unionized state institution or a diverse major comprehensive university? The “carrot-and-club” approach gives pause to the intent of university bylaws which encourage faculty development but penalize its execution.
I also wondered if all of my colleagues — male, female, Black and white — had fulfilled the same guidelines to which I was subjected. In this swirl of questions, I concluded that the options I faced and the choices made were defined as much by gender and class as by race.
I suddenly realized that I had missed my exit. I glanced at the “pink slip” which fell onto the floor as I made a U-turn. I thought aloud, “I will never take this road again.” I merged into the flow of traffic and hurried home to tell my family what the memo confirmed. I was a tenured, full professor, again.
Wilma King, a tenured professor at Michigan State University, is a visiting professor at the University of Houston on a one-year research fellowship.
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