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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1 Comment

Filed under Race, Race and Tenure Op-Ed, Resources

One response to “Lessons from the Collection I: The Missing Cohort

  1. Jen

    This is so true. I’m really fortunate to have carried my cohort with me in a sense. I have three really wonderful friends and colleagues I met in graduate school who still mentor and are mentored by me, talk me off the ledge, hang out, whatever.

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