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Retaining master jugglers – junior faculty must learn to prioritize their schedules

Last week I got an e-mail from a young sister who is in her first
year of university teaching. Curiously, the e-mail was time-stamped 2
a.m. Poignantly, it was a shout for help and advice.

“How do I handle all of the demands on my time?” sister asked.

Her note described a schedule that brimmed over with
responsibilities — three classes a semester, preparation and research,
faculty advising, community service. Active in her church and in civic
organizations, and one of only three Black faculty females on her
campus, she says she finds herself stretched in too many directions.

“Black students from all disciplines come to see me with issues,
problems, and concerns. My department wants me to serve on campus
committees. I’m from this community, so I get lots of requests to speak
at events and meetings. And I am determined to publish, determined to
get tenure. Where do I find the time?”

I’m not noted for having an abundance of balance in my own space.
I’ve spent much of my time burning the candle at both ends, and being
stretched between deadlines. So I’m hardly qualified to offer advice
about balance — except to say, read Iyanla Vanzant, take a deep
breath, prioritize.

Still, the e-mail reminded me of a conversation I had with a
student who was bitterly critical of an African American faculty member
who had not taken the time to meet with her.

“I can’t meet during his office hours, and you would think he would make another time,” the testy student told me.

In a few minutes, I was able to determine that the student simply
wanted to know the famous Black man whose presence on her campus was an
affirmation that she too could make it in academe. She was taking none
of his classes, and wasn’t even in the same field. Still, she felt he
ought to make time for her simply because they were both African

I have sympathy for the student. But I have sympathy for the
faculty member, as well. Too many of the 26,000 African Americans who
teach on our nation’s college campuses are masterful juggles who are
often required to meet the many expectations of their various
constituencies. Their first allegiance, of course, is to the students
they teach each semester, and to their past students who tug with
requests for recommendations and advice. After that, though, how is one
to prioritize requests from departments, campus, and community? How
responsible is one to be a role model for every African American on
campus? How much help can a burnt-out faculty member offer anyone? And
if one doesn’t publish at the expected level, how much help can an
out-of-work faculty member offer?

The juggling act is one that nonminority faculty have difficulty
understanding. But then, they aren’t viewed as representatives and role
models for their race — although women are sometimes placed in a
similar gender position, especially when they are in nontraditional
fields. Even if seen as representatives, there are simply more
nontraditional faculty to go around. The ratio of Black faculty to
Black students is one of fifty-six, while the overall ratio of faculty
to students is one to thirty-one.

This gap understates the true size of the faculty gap — especially
at large research universities where African American faculty are
hardest to find. There are campuses where there are hundreds of faculty
members, with just one or two of them being African American. These
master jugglers are essentially chameleons who have to be all things to
all people — an impossible task. No wonder a sister was sending e-mail
to a stranger in the middle of the night.

What can junior faculty do? The main thing is to keep an eye on the
prize, which is tenure. It sounds cold to suggest that the struggle for
tenure must supersede human interaction, and many find it difficult to
so strictly prioritize that research takes precedence over everything.
At the same time, if survival is a goal, then the wise faculty member
makes it a priority to survive.

The second things junior faculty must do is to identify a faculty
mentor to help them through the tenure maze. That’s often more easier
said than done. Some departments see tenure as a competitive process,
not a cooperative process. Some professors would rather ignore than
assist their colleagues. But mentors come in all sizes, shapes, races,
and departments. Often a mentor will be outside one’s department, even
outside the university. He or she may play the role of ear, or sounding
board — someone to help navigate the subtly nuanced language of

The third thing junior faculty should do is network, network,
network. Academic conferences and meetings reinforce the notion that
you are not alone. Seek out African American professional
organizations, as well as majority ones. Through these organizations,
you may pick up survival tips from other African American faculty

The matter of master jugglers ought to be a concern for departments
and universities which say they are interested in faculty retention.
Interest needs to be translated into assistance — research funds,
travel grants, and the opportunity to network. Interest also needs to
be translated into understanding that minority faculty are neither
novelties nor pets to be trotted out at every occasion. University
presidents and department chairs who make a commitment not to
overburden minority faculty by putting them on several committees make
a major contribution to keeping those faculty members around.

African American faculty members are used to being all things to
all people — master jugglers who are both bilingual and multicultural.
They are juggling expectations, identities, and responsibilities in
communities that have little tolerance for folks who drop the ball.
Yet, this juggling is a retention issue that needs to be explored —
both by the faculty members who are keeping the balls in the air, and
by their colleagues who add to their burden.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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