Generally speaking, gaining tenure in the humanities is a mysterious process. For all that the phrase “Publish or Perish” is tossed around to summarize what a professor must do to gain the privileges that come with a life-time appointment, it’s unclear how the different evaluating groups at colleges and universities (from departmental committees to university committees to provosts) that review tenure portfolios reach their conclusions. When the candidate for tenure is a person of color, issues related to “diversity” and the range of feelings academics have about affirmative action come into play making the process all the more difficult to understand. Thus, while the academy, particularly its humanities-based departments, may have a reputation for seeking diversity in its professoriate, reports from faculty of color from around the country make clear that departments and administrators are engaging in discriminatory practices that range from the unintentional to the malignant.
Almost every scholar of color has a racially-tinged story about reappointment, tenure, and promotion—either their own or someone else’s. Stories abound of scholars fired from colleges and universities despite impressive records of publication, superlative teaching evaluations, and histories of expansive service to the university through work on committees and with students as advisors and mentors. Any number of essays written for the journals of professional organizations like the Modern Language Association, the Association of English Departments, and publications like Blacks in Higher Education explain how, when faculty of color are hired, they are expected to accomplish different things than their white counterparts: to “diversify” institutions with their very presence, to serve as role models for students of color in particular and for the student population in general, to provide a “diverse” perspective on matters ranging from curriculum development to faculty governance by serving on an array of committees, and to represent the concerns, habits, and histories of whatever ethnic group to which they happen to belong.
At the same time, if, as is often the case, faculty of color work in new or emerging fields of scholarship like ethnic studies, Latino/a history, Afro-American literary studies, or urban studies, their colleagues in more traditional fields may often lack the basic understanding necessary to accurately and fairly evaluate the quality of their scholarship. When these elements are part of evaluative processes that are largely invisible, vagueness rather than clarity reigns. In other words, while faculty of color often, rightly, feel they are being held to different standards than their white counterparts, the language of evaluation is so opaque as to leave these professors and their allies confused, frustrated, and, at worst, paralyzed. This collection makes more transparent the practices and attitudes that remain hidden by offering a series of portraits of the academy and its processes.
Written/Unwritten: Tenure and Race in the Humanities is a collection of interviews and first-person essays by and about scholars of color about their experiences in tenure track systems at colleges and universities. It represents people of color at all different stages of their academic careers—faculty in contingency positions, untenured assistant professors, associate professors, full professors, and administrators who have evaluated tenure applications—from a variety of institutions: liberal arts colleges, regional state institutions, and research universities.