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Faculty Life 101: a survival guide – Recruitment & Retention: The Last Word

Three years ago, we joined the ranks of academe. Diplomas in hand, fresh out of graduate school, we held illusions of a life full of professional growth and intellectual challenges. Little did we realize that the challenges we would face would have little to do with our intellectual abilities. Rather, the challenges would have more to do with developing survival techniques in order to negotiate the perilous currents against which we had to navigate as new Black faculty at a white institution.

As colleagues, coming out of graduate programs from opposite parts of the country (Far North and Deep South), we would often bemoan the fact that our graduate programs did not include a course titled, “Faculty Life 101: How To Survive Your First Years As a Minority Faculty Member on a White Campus.”

In reflecting on our first few months as new faculty members, we reminisced about how we would often come away from various meetings, social gatherings and chance encounters and mirror each other with looks of utter consternation printed clearly across our faces as if to say, “Did you hear what I heard?” or “Did you see what I saw?” Fortunately, we had each other to confirm that we were not paranoid, and that what we thought we heard or saw was actually what was said or done. Fate, however, does not always provide a mirror “brother” or “sister” and we are left to fend for ourselves. It is this realization, combined with the void in our graduate programs, that led us to develop what we consider a “Survival Guide” for new minority faculty.

Whom do you trust? There is an old saying which goes, “Love all and trust none.” You will find that sometimes, whether out of joy or sheer desperation, you will feel the need to confide in others. Be careful whom you trust, for, as we were told by a wiser initiate, “There are lots of snakes in the grass and some of them may even look like you.” We have discovered that in the beginning the most prudent method is to keep your mouth shut and observe. With time, you will begin to know your environment and then will be able to distinguish friends from foes.

Keep your personal business your personal business. Perhaps as a result of the paucity, and hence the novelty, of minority faculty members, there seems to be a curiosity factor regarding everything about you, especially your personal life. We suggest that whenever faced with probing inquiries, smile and respond, “Life is just great!” This is one way to avoid having your personal affairs become an agenda item or tasty tidbit at the next meeting, social gathering or chance encounter.

Do not expect all colleagues to laud your accomplishments. You need to become empowered so that when others do not celebrate your achievements, there will be no resulting sense of disillusionment. Find individuals for whom your success is as important as their own. A word to the wise: do not limit your circle of supporters to your peers at your institution. Share your accomplishments with your family, friends and even associates from other institutions.

Do not always expect to be provided with information about research opportunities or other vital issues. Be prepared to ferret out information on your own. There appears to be a process by which information is selectively dispensed, and you may not always find yourself in the loop. In this case, it is important to establish mentor relationships in and out of your department and with colleagues at other institutions.

Beware the “Crabs in the Barrel” syndrome. Keep in mind that your successes may serve to highlight someone else’s failures and can lead to what has been coined the “Crabs in the Barrel” syndrome. You will find that the closer you get toward accomplishing your goals, the harder others will try to pull you back to the bottom of the heap. We suggest that you be careful with whom you share your accomplishments and in whom you confide.

Provide more than is expected. You are always expected to give 100 percent and you should give 100 percent more. As a Black faculty member on a white campus, expect to be constantly under a microscope. Your performance will constantly be scrutinized. Always give others and yourself the opportunity to walk away from your work saying, “Job well done.”

We acknowledge that our Survival Guide does not provide a cure-all for the various issues and crises that you will encounter. We do hope, however, that it will serve as a mirror during those times when you may ask yourself, “Did I hear what I thought I heard?” or “Did I see what I thought I saw?”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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