If you’re like me, an academic with a blog or a website or some other public space where you write things that are intellectual and bookish without exactly being scholarly or academic, this post is for you. It can’t really be prescriptive because every institution has its own quirks, but it might also be helpful for readers of this blog to see how I approached my most recent personnel process.
My Calculated Risk
It never occurred to me when I joined twitter that I would discuss it when I went up for promotion. I’m a traditional scholar. The most radical thing I do is insist that considerations of the Romantic era include more than just the Big Six (#OccupyRomanticism!). I’ve published in print and on-line publications, but there is nothing digital about my humanities. In the middle of writing my promotion narrative, however, when I discussed the anthology I edited about the experiences of faculty of color on the tenure track, I realized I needed to explain how I was disseminating the ideas of a book that is not yet in print. Pointing to the blog attached to the project seemed like I was only telling part of the story, so I found myself typing @triciamatthew as I explained how I was using social media to share my work. I didn’t know whether or not it would be a good idea, but given how much time I spend being @triciamatthew and its role in my work on diversity and higher education, it seemed strange not to at least mention it.
I should pause here and say that I don’t know what choice I would have made if I were going up for tenure (they are entirely separate processes at my institution). I have no idea how I would manage social media as a graduate student or an untenured assistant professor. It’s nice to think I would manage things exactly the way I have, that I would have enough confidence in my file and in my understanding of the value of social media to discuss it in a tenure narrative, but I’ve experienced and seen how pre-tenure culture binds academics up (and I’ve seen how those bonds can stay in place even after people get that brass ring), so I don’t know what I might have done at some earlier point in my career.
I approached my promotion, especially assembling my file, with a spirit of celebration—not empty swagger but with real joy about all I’ve gotten to do since I finished my PhD in 2003. I realize how treacly this must sound, but I took to heart the final question this department chair asks when he reflects on how to judge an academic’s dossier and whether or not they’ve been successful:
First, there is the elusive definition of success. On whose terms do we define this? If success is not on our own terms, if our lives do not reflect what we value, then can we be successful? Make no mistake: I am for rigor and setting high expectations; but I wonder if too often we approach our work and the evaluation of our colleagues asking the wrong question, “How successful is this person?” when we might do better to ask: “How has this person been successful?” *
I took this approach to heart when considering how successful I’ve been in my academic career. It helped keep me centered throughout a process that was even more grueling than I anticipated. And when it truly looked as if I wasn’t going to get promoted this year, when I listened to Jill Scott’s “Hate on Me” for six hours straight as I rage-cleaned my apartment (NB: I live alone), I returned to that last question (“How has this person been successful?”) and still felt very good about the answer. I always wish I had more out in the world, but I knew my file showed showed a consistent, active research agenda.
Beyond joy and pride, I used common sense and had a friend I trust (a dean at another institution) look at my c.v. This is the friend I turn to when I need to make sure my lofty sense of things is grounded in reality. She is kind but unafraid to tell me the truth, regardless of whether or not it’s convenient. She pointed out areas I needed to clarify and we discussed how I could approach my particular situation as someone who specializes in two unrelated fields. I was hired when the department was looking for a Romanticist, but in the years since i got tenure I’d added writing about diversity in higher education to my research agenda. I wasn’t sure if or how it would count. I’m lucky to work at an institution where the right people think reading and writing about diversity is important and still necessary, but valuing an idea and recognizing the work as important enough to warrant promotion to associate professor are two different things. If I had gone up for promotion as a specialist in British Romanticism who also published in a related field (a literary period before or after mine, for example), I would have felt entirely confident about how my file would be viewed. But my race and diversity research was prompted by my own tenure case (be sure to read the preface to the anthology when it comes out), and I’ve grumbled that the higher ups would probably think they hired me to be a Romanticist not to be Black (and angry and female all at once). In addition to being uncertain about how this work would be received during a review process, I was talking about the race and tenure work in the context of social media, twitter to be exact.
Although we don’t have a formal external review process, everyone I know includes letters from senior faculty in their files, so I did so too. I made sure to include letters from scholars with expertise in both areas I work in, explaining to the Romanticists that they didn’t need to worry about the diversity part of my c.v. and making clear to those writing about my race and tenure work that they didn’t need to pay attention to my essays on Romantic-era fiction. I included data (site statistics for all of my on-line publications) and tried to explain how my publications were making an impact in their respective fields. I also completely reorganized my cv so that it would be easier to keep track of the different kinds of work I’ve been doing in the last ten years.
A Thumbnail Sketch
I’m at an institution with a 4/4 teaching load, though most faculty carry a 3/3 load through a program that gives us release time to focus on our research. We are eligible to apply for a sabbatical once every seven years (full pay for one semester and some sort of pay cut that puts a full-year out of my reach). I haven’t bothered to average out how many students I teach per semester, but I think it’s somewhere between 55 and 80 students. I often teach a January course and, from time to time, a summer course. My student evaluations are good (maybe even very good; I am, after all, the shit). I have a respectable service record, though I should probably move beyond my department more, and I supervise our English Education majors during their student-teaching semester (on average, five a year with three site visits per student). Working with future teachers is probably the most important work I do, so, even though I’ve moved to Brooklyn, I still drive to New Jersey public schools to work with them.
I joined the faculty right out of graduate school with a few essays in the pipeline. When I went up for my promotion, I had co-edited a special issue of Romantic Pedagogy Commons, published half a dozen peer-reviewed essays (a combination of essays on nineteenth-century British literature, pedagogy, and a piece on the job market), and two book reviews. I had a book manuscript under review, another manuscript in progress (drafts of all the major chapters, though some of those chapter drafts are way too drafty), and an essay and book reviews in progress with firm commitments for publication. I don’t attend conferences every year, but it’s easy to see a pattern that shows I attend them steadily.
Before I submitted my file, I met with my dean, my department chair, and the chair of the personnel committee. My last full personnel review was in 2007 when I went up for tenure, and, though I had served as the chair of the department’s personnel committee since then, I wanted to make sure I understood the ins and outs of the process. Of course no one could guarantee anything, but the clear message was that I was ready to be promoted to associate professor.
Portrait of a Tweeter as an Assistant Professor
I think I’m what’s called a late adapter. I don’t have many Facebook friends, and the majority of them are family members, friends, and the very few colleagues I like to keep in touch with outside of school. I don’t use it as a networking tool and rarely post anything related to the academy, or even my own personal blog. I joined twitter because a guy in my building told me it could help me promote my work (to be fair, the “guy” works at N+1, so I was more inclined to follow his advice). I started my first blog during the first Obama election. I was recently tenured and my friend and I decided that when we weren’t talking on the phone non-stop or having television marathons (we once watched a season finale of “Heroes” at dawn as I drove him from New Jersey to LaGuardia) we should write. We blogged about politics, pop culture, race, gender and the usual stuff young lefties feel the need to comment on. When that relationship ended, I started my own blog called “new musings” and I recently changed the name to my own. That blog has shifted away from the political (there are people much smarter and faster than I am in that arena) and more towards writing about my what I’m trying out in my classes, what I’m reading and watching, and posts that might end up in a memoir someday.
I’m not all that social media savvy, and I’ve sort of felt my way through the more intellectual corners of twitter. On the one hand, although I publish as Patricia A. Matthew, my twitter handle is my nickname. On the other hand, my profile picture is the same photo I use for my department’s website. I’m pretty open with my colleagues and students about the fact that I am on twitter, but I don’t use it in any official capacity. I’m mindful that I should avoid tweeting things that might be professionally distracting but also don’t fret too much about what that means. My only iron clad rule is that I don’t make fun of or complain about my students in any public space. If I mention them at all, it’s usually to poke fun at myself or to show how clever and resourceful they are. In addition to wanting to protect their privacy, I would not want to say anything on social media that might make future students feel uncomfortable about working with me. I also don’t want to cultivate an environment in my classes that makes students feel as if they need to think about some larger audience as we do the messy work of literary analysis and critical writing. I also try to keep my blog and twitter account as free from distractions as possible, so you won’t find me criticizing my colleagues (even in subtweets or shade).
The posts on the race and tenure blog, the one I mentioned in my promotion narrative, are meant to be accessible and to provide an overview of larger issues that I (or someone else) might take further. They are, on one level, aphoristic but also point to patterns worth noting. I don’t offer much by way of analysis, though that might change after the book is out. Most of those posts could be fleshed out into traditional essays. I’ve tried as much as possible not to dwell on the personal unless it serves a very specific purpose (this is most clear in the “Teaching While Black” posts). The goal of the blog is to promote the ideas that didn’t make it into the collection and to collect stories about diversity and tenure that I heard about after I’d finished planning the project. When I started the blog, I didn’t really know what I had in mind, and you can see this by the odd categories I listed. I had some vague idea that I wanted it to be more resourceful than confessional (a lot of crap happens to me and academics of color I know that I don’t write about publicly) and I expected that it wouldn’t really be useful until after the book came out. I didn’t understand twitter when I signed up, and it has been the most pleasant of surprises to find that it has allowed the research I undertook to edit the anthology to do a different kind of work than I expected. It has made an impact and it has made the kind of impact that my institution considers valuable.
The Case for Academic Blogging with Social Media
I’m using the term institution very deliberately here because I suspect that individuals in my department and university don’t take the race and tenure blog very seriously. I don’t talk about it with too many people, but it’s clear that colleagues know it exist and it’s likely that some of them see it as some pet project—like a blog about recipes or cats but with colored folks instead. The general sense is that “diversity” is “important” and I have been supported in very concrete ways to get this work done, but individuals will probably only take the work seriously when the brick and mortar book comes out. Institutionally, I believe, it has some weight because it has lead to the kind of work scholars are supposed to, and I was eventually able to make the case that the only reason I’ve had these opportunities is because of this blog.
After consulting with a few institutional folks, I added a new section to my c.v., called it “Public Writing” and listed my race and tenure blog, its stats the most relevant cross-postings. I also listed publications in non-academic venues and where they are cross posted. I want to be very clear here: I don’t believe that blogging of the kind that I do will prop up a weak file or distract from the absence of peer-reviewed publications that are still the gold standard in my discipline. In fact, I can easily imagine a scenario where a skeptical personnel committee or administrator might see blogging as a distraction from the “real” work of traditional, peer-reviewed scholarship. Although I didn’t plan for this to happen, the blogging I do leads to the kind of work most institutions value—publishing in peer-reviewed venues, conference presentations, and service beyond my department.
Here they are:
• The editors at Signs invited me to review Presumed Incompetent.
• I was invited to review Mentoring Faculty of Color and that review will come out in The Western Journal of Black Studies.
• The New Inquiry asked for a more personal reflection based on the “Teaching While Black” series and the publication of that piece along with this post on my personal blog has lead to an invitation to conduct a workshop on the challenges on diversity in the classroom with graduate students.
• I received an invitation from two (remarkable) graduate students to participate on a panel at the College Language Association that included some serious heavy hitters and we are now working on turning that panel discussion into a publication for the organization’s primary journal.
I bet you’re noting a pattern here. With the exception of submitting a proposal panel to THATCamp, all of the work I list here has been by invitation. People have found my work, read it, and figured out how they think it will be useful. It’s all happened in the last year or so. I’m not sure what will happen going forward. I know I’m thrilled at the idea of conducting workshops that will be of use to graduate students from marginalized groups as they learn how to think of themselves in the different pedagogical roles they will be required to occupy in and out of the classroom. I’ve daydreamed with friends about a summer workshop for new faculty from underrepresented groups to help them get over that first big publishing hurdle. I’ve started ending e-mails in response to those asking for advice with “The Black Professor is In.” It’s a joke, but there’s truth there too.
I’ve often wondered how the impact of the work I did for a traditional book project has taken on a different life because of social media. I feel I’ve done it backwards. This work (book reviews, conferences, and workshops) is supposed to come after the book is out. I’ve been careful to write on the race and tenure blog about things that are not in the anthology, but the conclusion is called “Tweeting Diversity: Race and Tenure in the Age of Social Media,” and I’m keenly aware of the fact that by the time the book comes out Twitter could actually be dead.
Despite an initial denial (the one that lead to Jill Scott on at full blast), I ended up getting promoted. It turned out that about 20 pages of support documentation (letters of invitation for the list above and thank you letters, correspondence showing visits to my on-line publications, my google scholar data) did not go forward with my file (thank God I had a back-up of my entire file on my laptop). My decision not to include the draft of my book in progress for fear that people would think I was padding my file (again, see the preface to the anthology) was not the right choice.
In that period between the denial and the final positive recommendation (yay!), I wondered if I had undermined my case by mentioning twitter. I wondered if my social media work seemed a waste of time (I do talk a lot about scrabble and there’s a long stretch of “Scandal” tweets when I still believed in Liv and whatshisname…seriously, I can’t remember his name). I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Those 20 pages were key. I’ve been encouraged to keep at this work, in this space. It won’t replace my more traditional writing and publications, and I wouldn’t want it to. But it does make me feel a different sense of responsibility about maintaining this blog as a resource. It also has me realizing just how important it is that those of us who use social media for our work make the case for its importance in our research whenever and wherever we can. I’m a big fan of thank you notes, and so when someone I meet via social media helps me (or my students) with my work, I write a fairly formal thank you note detailing what they’ve done in case it will help them show their institution that their work matters beyond 140 characters or a blog post. I risk sounding silly be explaining when I’ve met someone whose work interests me via social media. Right now I realize that it might sound rather odd to most to say that I’ve met “Academic Person A” in the same space that valorizes Justin Bieber, but eventually I think it won’t.
On “being” @triciamatthew
There is, of course, a performative quality to social media. We perform our best lives on Facebook with vacation pictures and descriptions of our accomplishments. Twitter rewards sharp, witty, withering critiques. It feeds on snark and outrage. I’m pretty well adept in all of those things, but I decided that I would try to be on twitter what I can’t always be in real life—helpful and thoughtful. I try to be more reflective in that space. You will rarely find me in a twitter argument, and I try to keep destructive, snarky tweets to a minimum. I’m not always successful. For a hot minute I fantasized about taking Tim Wise DOWN, and even started composing tweets to do it. And then I wondered what I would really be doing, what good it would actually do for the causes I believe in, and how it might make other people with good intentions feel about their work.
That last part is most important. I don’t shy away from tough critiques if I think they’ll be helpful, but tweeting my ideas, especially those about race and gender, has shifted since I signed up for twitter. It happened right around the Zimmerman verdict. Michelle and I had an opportunity to do a workshop together. We talked about schedules and whether or not this was something I wanted to do on my own (in the end, scheduling made the decision). I loved co-facilitating with her and hope we’ll do it again, but I was also curious to see how it would be to work with a small group of women on my own. In the days before the workshop, George Zimmerman was found not guilty and I went on a twitter tear and called the Zimmerman verdict a failure of white feminism (or modern feminism or white modern feminists). I was throwing rhetorical thunderbolts (and gaining followers, I’m sure). It didn’t really hit me until later that I would be in a room of women, most of whom would be white, leading them through a series of discussions about race and feminism. How, I asked myself, could I expect them to trust me if they worried I would walk in with a knapsack full of rhetorical rage? What good could I do in that space if my justified rage made it impossible for an open conversation? I think it all worked out for the best. In person, I’m actually as friendly and open as I think I am on twitter. I also started the first session asking us all to think about privilege and laid my own out on the table. But I decided after the Zimmerman verdict to choose my hashtagging and ranting more carefully and mostly opted out of the #solidraityisforwhitewomen discussion. In the first place, after that workshop I simply could not think of “white women” in broad terms. The women I met there were too different (and beautifully human) for me to think broadly about white women as a group in 140 characters. I understood what was behind that hashtag and, to some qualified degree, agreed with it, but most of my participation in that moment was to note what I was learning from feminists from Middle-Eastern countries. It was an area where I had a lot of blindspots, and I decided I needed to read more than I needed to chime in with my own critiques.
I wish I could translate the diversity social media experience with my work in British literary studies, but it’s not working. I suspect it’s because in that arena I’m totally old school and the arguments I make can’t really be distilled into anything less than a conference paper. It also doesn’t have the same political efficacy as work on diversity in higher education. Those dead writers have been ignored for so long that a few more years won’t matter. The world may be better for my writing on medical discourse and the history of the novel, but it’s doing just fine without it. I’m also not in touch with my peers in this field via social media. I wonder if the fact that my work is not more theoretically oriented limits its audience; a close reading of Valperga will not draw as wide an audience as a careful consideration of Barthes. I wish I could write my book in public like Michelle is doing, and perhaps I will post a chapter or two as I revise this draft. I’m not sure it will be the best use of my time, especially at this stage. I suspect that my third book, which is rooted in the blog posts about the tensions between mainstream feminists an women of color, will be written in a more public way.
* “DemandsofTenure:OneProfessional’sStory fromThreePerspectives”
April L. Few, Fred P. Piercy, and Andrew Stremmel. Feminist Formations. 19 (3) Fall 2007: 47-66.