Issue Date: February 23, 2009
Guiding Black Academics
THE E-MAILS about “The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure—Without Losing Your Soul,” written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy, began crossing my computer screen in late August, just as the fall semester was starting. Because of the provocative—not to mention personally relevant—title I was very interested, but unsure I would have the time to read the book before the semester break. The buzz didn’t let up though, and before I knew it, I had agreed to review the book.
Rockquemore, who is black, is a sociologist on the faculty at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Laszloffy, who is white, is a clinical psychologist who started her career and earned tenure there but is now in private practice. The authors collaborated on a mentoring program for junior faculty of color at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and cofounded BlackAcademic.com, “an online mentoring portal for under-represented faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and those who are committed to our success.” The book grew out of their work and is described on the back page as “for the African-American Scholar who may be the lone minority in a department.” This likely covers more than 95% of the black chemists who hold faculty positions in predominantly white institutions in the U.S. as well as the experience of a sizable fraction of black postdocs and grad students.
The authors write that they are often asked, “Why write a book just for black academics on the road to tenure? All faculty need [useful] information!” Their answer is that black faculty report a number of unique experiences that have racial components that they must successfully navigate in addition to the challenges that are common to all tenure-track faculty. The unique experiences include alienation and isolation within their departments, classroom hostility, and double standards in expectations and evaluation.
The book begins with a frank discussion of several of these experiences (chapter 2), then moves to departmental politics and fit (chapter 3). Descriptions of several strategies and tactics that junior faculty can apply and adapt to master the unique and common elements of navigating the tenure track (chapters 4 through 10) constitute the bulk of the book. It is well written, concise (194 pages, 11 chapters, four sections), full of advice that is sometimes counterintuitive, and illustrated and highlighted by fictionalized anecdotes or personal stories describing young black faculty who’ve faced difficult experiences and used Rockequemore and Laszloffy’s prescriptions to address them.
The book is tightly organized around the theme of developing clarity about one’s goals and responsibilities and then adopting a proactive posture to fulfill them. For example, the authors’ advice that young faculty proactively develop ways to ensure that their schedule and efforts reflect the centrality of their publication record to the strength of their tenure case rather than reacting to the immediate demands of teaching and service is emphasized a number of times in various discussions throughout the book. Another theme is developing clarity about both the unwritten and written rules at work in the various situations new faculty face, particularly those involving race. This open discussion of race is so important for black faculty who are much more likely to work in departments where racial issues are the 800-lb gorilla in the room rather than ones where race and other issues of power, prestige, and privilege are openly and constructively discussed.
A corollary of the question “Why a book just for black junior faculty?” is “Why might the book be of value to readers who are not in its target audience?” One answer is that senior faculty members who seek to mentor black junior faculty successfully and university administrators who seek to evaluate young faculty fairly need resources to help them focus and refine their thinking. They have few other resources available. Another answer is that junior faculty from other groups that tend to be marginalized, including women, Hispanics, and Native Americans, will find strategies and tactics they can use or adapt to their circumstances.
THE POTENTIAL for racialized interpersonal or departmental dynamics is not the greatest challenge black junior faculty face; like all new faculty, they must meet their department’s expectations in research, teaching, and service in five short years (assuming that documents for tenure review are submitted at the beginning of the sixth year). As stated, an overarching theme in all of Rockquemore and Laszloffy’s prescriptions is the development of professional habits that support proactive engagement rather than passive reaction. A proactive stance is difficult to construct in any position that has demands that are significantly greater than available time and/or financial resources, as tenure-track positions in chemistry are.
Rockquemore and Laszloffy observe that without the perspective that comes from developing and implementing a strategic plan and timeline for one’s research, the immediate demands of teaching and service, which can be greater for underrepresented faculty, often drive young faculty to spend all their time putting out fires in these areas. This leaves insufficient time for building a unique line of inquiry and a substantive publication record. They suggest ways that new faculty can build short-term accountability mechanisms for research and writing to balance the immediacy of teaching and service demands into their schedule. These include making inviolable 30- to 60-minute appointments for writing each day, forming weekly writing groups with other faculty, and having a “Sunday meeting” to plan the coming week’s work.
While the importance of research and publication productivity is emphasized, the book makes suggestions new faculty can use in meeting all their department’s tenure review criteria. Chapters 3 through 7 provide concrete advice on departmental socialization, time management, office organization, research productivity, teaching effectiveness, and managing service loads. The book not only suggests prescriptions to help faculty shift from a reactive to proactive stance in all these areas, but also provides instruments and frameworks faculty can use to assess their current situation before implementing or modifying the book’s advice to fit their particular needs.
IN CHAPTER 7, the book outlines an adaptation of Boice’s Balance Program for new faculty. Robert Boice constructed the program after studying approximately 200 new faculty on two campuses over two years. Rockquemore and Laszloffy present program guidelines that are much the same: Limit preparation to two hours per hour of class, write daily, integrate research interests into teaching, devote four hours per week to discuss teaching and research with faculty in the home department, and keep daily records of work time expenditures. The most significant difference is that Rockquemore and Laszloffy suggest that black faculty devote twice as much time to cultivating relationships with other faculty in their departments (Boice recommends two hours per week). This suggestion and the one limiting the amount of time spent alone preparing for class to two hours per contact hour strike me as counterintuitive for most new faculty. I certainly would have been surprised and resistant had I gotten this advice when I was a new assistant professor.
Since admiration for the lone cowboy investigator and deference to higher status faculty are strong prevailing social norms in our discipline, the balance program suggestion that new faculty take primary responsibility for cultivating relationships with the senior members of their department (via discussions regarding classroom strategies and so on) will surprise some new faculty. Although all new faculty arrive convinced that it is important to conduct and publish research, some may need to be persuaded that it is their responsibility to reach out and cultivate relationships with other (including senior) faculty. This will be especially true and difficult for black faculty who survived graduate school by keeping a distance from the departmental and group politics during their Ph.D. training. Cultivating and managing interactions with other faculty is so important, and the last section of the book before the conclusion develops this topic further.
As in the discussions of productivity and organization, the book encourages the development of more self-awareness. Chapter 8 warns that relying on the habits one developed as a student to negotiate the tension between succeeding professionally and maintaining integrity may not be useful in interactions with other faculty. This chapter describes the heartrending story of “Sandra,” a shy, submissive social scientist whose demeanor and inability to say “no,” especially to requests for service, was taken advantage of by supporters and taken as a license for disrespect by detractors.
Only one anecdote in the book features a scientist. It strikes me as ironic that it was provided to illustrate some elements of unhealthy conflict resolution. “Sheena” is described as a natural scientist at a small liberal arts college who was surprised and disappointed by a critical third-year review. Where she expected praise for having three papers under review (one in the revise and resubmit stage in the discipline’s top journal) despite a yearlong delay in getting her lab ready, the department concluded that she had not met the evaluation criteria (two published papers) and should be admonished to buckle down, get to work, and turn things around. Sheena was deeply offended by the department’s decision to ignore the obstacles she faced and characterize her as less than hardworking. The charge that she was “lazy,” though not expressed using that word, connected immediately to Sheena’s racial injustice warning system.
The department’s use of teaching evaluations alone with no acknowledgement of the hostility Sheena faced in the classroom only added to her sense of betrayal. When she confronted her chair (by e-mail) with the unfairness of the department’s characterization, he was not apologetic. Her chair not only cast her rebuttals as a personal attack on him, but proceeded to dismiss all her arguments by claiming that she was using race and gender to avoid facing up to the deficiencies in her work. The book suggests this young scientist meet face-to-face with the chair and use communication strategies it describes to establish communication with him. The advice is sound, but I wish the authors had more to say about how to make the argument that black faculty are not overly sensitive or inadequately stalwart, but rather are often subjected to more stringent scrutiny.
WHILE THE BOOK is a valuable resource for young academics, it is not surprising that a book written for academics in all fields by authors who are social scientists leaves several topics important to chemists and chemical engineers unaddressed. The book has no specific advice about writing grants and managing research funds. It has no specific advice about the challenges of recruiting, training, and motivating research assistants or postdocs. It has no specific advice about having good communication with project managers and engineers during lab renovations or what to do if renovations stall. It has nothing to say about negotiating with instrument manufacturers or repair technicians and machinists. It has no specific advice about authenticating the originality and value of one’s contributions to multidisciplinary or collaborative projects.
Therefore, the book’s advice that new faculty connect to a number of mentors including those with similar research interests who can help them work through some of the discipline-specific issues not covered by the book is critical to young chemists and chemical engineers. Fortunately, the habits the book encourages young faculty to cultivate—developing clear goals, deliberately focusing all efforts, and polling trusted senior colleagues regularly—can help them find the additional resources they will need to win tenure without losing their soul or their sanity.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
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