Monthly Archives: May 2011

Vassar

*************Update:  Kiese Laymon was awarded tenure*************

Vassar: A Question of Documentation and Process

Kiese Laymon is an assistant professor at Vassar who has written a post on his blog Cold Drank about his tenure review. Colleges and universities have tenure processes developed by the administration in consultation with the faculty and, when applicable, through negotiations with the union. Each institution handles the process in slightly different ways. At Vassar, candidates are reviewed twice before a final tenure review. According to Laymon’s blog post, his department voted 15 to 1 to award him tenure. The next stage of the review with the Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee (FASC) is where things get complicated…

A few weeks ago, Vassar’s Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee (FASC) recused itself from my tenure case. As rumors of my “bullying President Hill to get FASC off of my tenure case” limp around campus, I figured I should make it clear what my responses to FASC have been.

In February, FASC (The Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee) made the unprecedented request of asking for “documentation” on one of my unredacted book contracts, though they had proof of a contract. After giving them the contract, I wrote the following email…

The details he shares are troubling, and a few things about his post set off my “unwritten” alarm. Why would the committee request additional information when a candidate has provided documented evidence that he has fulfilled all of the terms of the contract? Is this common practice? Why was the evidence that was acceptable in his fourth-year review not sufficient for his tenure review?

What happened between the fourth-year review and the moment he recounts in his blog?

I don’t want to put Laymon on trial, and no one else who is not part of his tenure process should either. I also don’t want to put Vassar on trial (as if such a thing were even possible), but my alarm bells are ringing. I’ve heard versions of the “documentation request” too many times.

To be clear, I think institutions are right to confirm the claims of faculty members, but the question I’ve been asking myself for the last two weeks is whether or not Laymon is being subject to additional scrutiny because he’s African-American and/or because he works in a field that is not yet comfortably within the academic tradition. When challenged by Laymon, the FASC recused itself from his tenure review. I’m curious to know if it is common practice for a committee comprised of faculty members to opt out of the tenure review process.

So, I’ll be following this case (I hear it may end well for him). The institution has put teeth behind it’s diversity goals by hiring a significant number of faculty of color, but, as everyone in the academy knows, hiring and tenuring are two very different things.

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Lessons from the Collection I: The Missing Cohort

As I edit the stories and interviews for the collection and talk to people about their own experiences seeking tenure in the humanities, I’ve noticed patterns that I think we’d all be wise to pay attention to. I’ve been thinking of them as “Lessons from the Collection.”

Lesson I: The Missing Cohort

In story after story, in conversation after conversation I’ve heard some version of this sentiment: “I can’t believe how backwards my colleagues/department/school is/are about race.”

While I’m sure there are colleagues, departments, and schools that are astonishingly backwards about issues of race, I suspect the exceptionally advanced view that faculty of color have about the topic makes it difficult to judge what “backwards” really is; or, to put it another way, it’s all relative. Maddening and disturbing but relative.

Perhaps the most jarring part of the transition from graduate school to full-time employment is that we’ve left behind people (of all hues) who share, on a deep level, our attitudes about race, diversity, and ethnicity. The dry, gallows humor that bounced around conversations over drinks in graduate school as we coped with racism in all its forms can hit a false note with new colleagues who may or may not share our sensibilities about an issue that is more controversial than we realize.

Over the time it takes to finish the doctorate, we are drawn to people who “get it” and shy away from those whose colorblindness make them annoying or downright difficult. Our search for people who share our ideas and sensibilities about issues related to race often moves us outside of our departments and colleges. We develop a shorthand to talk about the realities of racism and our cultural quirks. Yes, we know that there are racial minefields to be navigated, but we have a built support group to help us step carefully and to comfort us when things blow up.

We choose our dissertation advisors and committee members. We attend conferences and share our work with largely sympathetic audiences. We narrow our world to those scholars, professors, and friends who reflect our worldview back to us.

And while we know that the academy is not some rainbow-colored love fest, we don’t always realize how much we’ve shaped the world to suit us. This is especially the case once we move out of our course work and can, generally speaking, choose who we spend our time with 90% of the time. We choose our dissertation advisors and committee members. We attend conferences and share our work with largely sympathetic audiences. We narrow our world to those scholars, professors, and friends who reflect our worldview back to us. When we encounter people who disagree with us, especially about our research, it can be jarring but there is still some common ground underneath that intellectual tension.

I don’t mean to portray this period as idyllic. Sexism, homophobia, and good old fashioned, universal jealousy are ever present. But we know who we know, who our friends are, who we should avoid, and where to turn when things go pearshaped.

All of that fades away when we join a department. Perhaps there are other people of color in the department, and, if you’re lucky, you can connect. But this isn’t always the case. And while you might find allies among white colleagues, it’s a long process to know who really gets it, and, in the common parlance, who will have your back. Every new faculty member has to make this transition, but there’s an added layer of personal vetting that goes both ways for faculty of color. When moments of casual racism occur, it’s not entirely clear whom we can turn to for comfort, guidance, or just a bit of a rant. Your colleagues are trying to figure out how you will move as a person of color in their professional world, and you are trying to suss out whom among your colleagues you can trust.

In some instances, we’re not only called upon to justify our specific research agendas but see our whole fields (especially those who work in ethnic studies) subject to skepticism. In practical terms, this can be the difference between courses that are required and courses that are considered electives.

I think that things are better now, perhaps. All of the ways we have of keeping in better touch with one another means that we don’t have to leave our grad school cohorts behind, but the hallways of a new department can be incredibly isolating and the stakes are unbelievably high.

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