Achieving Career Satisfaction in the Academy
Today’s headlines are full of stories about the most vexing of problems in education. How to provide a good education to all students? How to close the achievement gap between Black and White students? How to prepare educators to teach students of color? What’s going to happen now that court-ordered busing and desegregation plans are ending? If affirmative action is no longer available, how will schools achieve the level of diversity the future demands on their campuses?
What the headlines don’t address is the career satisfaction of the scholars of color who already are on the nation’s campuses. Sure, there are stories about superstar faculty and their high-flying careers, but what about the rank-and-file scholars who have beaten the odds and now are helping to transform the canon in their respective disciplines while also grooming the next generation of critical thinkers? And what about the particular challenges facing scholars whose work primarily addresses issues and concerns affecting people of color? Can they too achieve career satisfaction?
“I’m not sure there is a recipe,” says Dr. William T. Trent, a professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “For me, [Urbana-Champaign] has been a real good land.”
Trent attributes his satisfaction with a 17-year stint at Urbana-Champaign to a supportive department and colleagues. An expert on school desegregation in large school districts, Trent says that when he was first considering the university’s offer, he became convinced that his ideas would be welcomed in the department.
“The idea of working left of center,” wasn’t foreign to the department, Trent says. “There’s a rich tradition of it being a place that is very hospitable to the sort of research that I do.”
A sense of belonging is important or, before long, scholars will feel disenchanted , Trent says.
“It’s not about the money. You invest so much in your ideas that if there’s no appreciation, the money won’t fix it,” he says.
Support is critical, agrees Dr. Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, the Charles Howard Chandler professor of Urban Education at Emory University. Irvine has spent her entire 20-year career in higher education at the Atlanta institution. She says she didn’t feel any need to leave because she felt supported and valued by her department. Of equal importance, she says, is that her deans limited the demands on her time so that she could pursue her research. So many times, she says, Black scholars are so drained from being on a host of committees, they have little time for scholarship.
“My department chair kept people from pulling on me in so many directions to be on this committee and that committee because simply because I was a Black woman.” she says. “I had colleagues who critiqued my work and gave me release time and time to do my work, which is very unusual.”
Trent and Jordan Irvine say they recognize that their situations are the exception. Many Black professors complain of the isolation they feel in their departments. Those whose scholarship focuses on African American issues say their work is neither considered serious nor rigorous academic work.
“Often departments are reluctant to see how [scholarship on Blacks] impacts the core of the field,” Trent says. “You have to work to make your colleagues see that the linkages are not folly or trivial, but a necessary aspect of mainstream work.”
Trent says his colleagues at Illinois supported him at each level of promotion, giving him monetary and other forms of support.
But even Black faculty who have enjoyed a hospitable relationship with their institutions say that is not always the case for other scholars of color on their campuses. That is what Dr. Arethea Johnson Pigford found when she became president of the Black faculty association at the University of South Carolina.
For years, Pigford says, she felt the university’s school of education supported her career. But when she began to talk with Black faculty in other departments, she found her experiences were not shared by others.
Pigford says one mistake universities make is treating all faculty alike. All new faculty members deserve a lot of support from their departments, but a newly minted Ph.D. needs a different kind of support than a seasoned professor.
Disenchanted with her experience at Southern Cal, Pigford left and now heads Florida A&M University’s new doctoral program in educational leadership.
“At FAMU, we’ve got excellence with caring. At my old school we had excellence but not the caring,” Pigford says.
Scholars say departments that value scholars of color are those that have a diverse group of faculty and that are preparing students of color to be professors. At Emory, four of the 12 professors in the education department are Black and 40 percent of the doctoral students are minority.
“This is not rocket science,” says Jordan Irvine. “Some college administrators try to make you believe it is. They’re always throwing their hands up saying they don’t know what to do. They know what to do. They know how to make things happen that you value. Put people in charge who value what you’re trying to get done and provide money and resources to get it done.”
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