The tenure labyrinth – teachers in Afro-American studies

My first academic job interview resulted in a job offer. My
doctorate is in American Studies, but the job offer was in
Afro-American Studies. Because I am actually interested in
Afro-American Studies, this was not a great hardship for me. However, a
light did go on in my head. I remembered hearing – more than once –
that for Black scholars, all roads tend to lead to Black Studies.

Because there are so few actual departments of Afro-American
Studies, job appointments tend to be “joint” appointments – which means
at least twice as many professional obligations as faculty members
hired by one department. It also means that tenure, which is granted by
a department and not a program, has just become exponentially more
difficult to achieve.

Many junior faculty members have no idea what is involved in
attaining tenure since mentors may gloss over the obstacles that most
of us will face. Thus, we emerge from the challenges of graduate school
triumphant and ready to embark upon our new careers as scholars. The
tenure track is a surprise – like a sudden splash of cold water.

Even so-called seasoned academics sometimes pursue what might seem
to be rather bizarre strategies for obtaining tenure. Those strategies
include: negotiating with, or even accepting an offer from, a competing
institution in order to hasten the tenure process at one’s own college
or university; writing a “cross-over” book, because despite the disdain
that academics profess for the masses of “lay” readers, a spot on the
“Today” show (or even C-Span’s “Booknotes”) would be duly recognized
and rewarded; or reincarnation as a “public” intellectual, because, as
previously mentioned, a spot as a panelist on a show like the PBS
Lehrer NewsHour gets recognition.

Exactly what are the requirements for tenure? First and foremost, of course, is the Ph.D.

The next most important requirement is publication. This may
include, though not necessarily, publication of a revised doctoral
dissertation. And publications should be restricted to one’s narrowly
prescribed niche, which is determined by the dissertation – ruling out
most work that is truly interdisciplinary (remember those joint
appointments?) or original and iconoclastic. The current constriction
of the university presses and their markets, however, has a negative
impact on the possibility of doing this.

After a book, the most respected publications are articles for
academic journals, most of which are cranked out specifically for
tenure review reports and are so dense and dull as to be unreadable.

At some research institutions, teaching ability is not a particular
consideration, although student evaluations of teaching performance are
still used to deny tenure. However, the evaluations of one’s “peers” is
a consideration. Those evaluations usually involve a tenured colleague
assigned to oversee the progress of junior faculty members, which
includes observations of lectures or of discussion sessions with

What is referred to as “service” to the academic community may
include serving on peer boards, holding professional organization
memberships and serving as officers in them, refereeing papers,
delivering papers at conferences, and serving as a panelist to critique
papers at a conference. Committee work is less essential if one has an
“in” with someone who is both tenured and politically well-placed – a
description that may well resonate with redundancy.

Hurdles to tenure that I have witnessed or experienced include the
actual sabotage of job opportunities by professor”mentors” by methods
as Machiavellian as deliberately starting a rumor on the gossip
grapevine or inserting career-damaging asides in so-called letters of

Ultimately, actual decisions about who does or does not get tenure
have as much to do with fiscal stability – or instability of a given
institution as with supply and demand. Thus, the analogies of the
academic job market to a slave auction are not farfetched. Besides
which, woe to the one caught in a political crossfire between an
administration and a beleaguered department. Again, think about those
joint appointments. How much leverage do you really think a “program”
has when it comes to the internal machinations of a “department” making
a tenure decision?

Black academics with tenure seem to hesitate to provide Black junior
faculty with a leg up, such as: providing insight into what they have
found to be important considerations in tenure decisions; acting as
mediators in the sometimes highly charged political atmosphere of
American colleges and universities; and, in short, creating the kind of
network that is apparently essential for navigating tenure.

While some of these tenured folk may believe that there is only a
small territory to parcel out, it is more likely – and indeed, history
supports the conclusion that opportunities expand with expanded
interest and participation.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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