Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Race, Ethics, Jobs

One of our students here is interested in going on to grad school. She's not quite sure, but is really interested in African American Lit, based on her two classes here. She's white, and has had little experience with African American communities, but she's a smart student.

On the one hand, I think people who want to go to grad school should study what they want to study. I don't think there's any reason a white person can't be a really good scholar and teacher of African American lit, any more than there's a reason I can't be a good scholar and teacher of early modern English lit. It's not like we have a genetic understanding or anything (I don't think there are many English ancestors in my background).

And yet, given the misery of the profession, what do you advise this student?

The job thing: In terms of race and hiring issues, I think there are four types of schools. And within those schools are departments such as English and History.

1) Historically Black colleges. I know relatively little about historically Black colleges, alas. But I just spent a few minutes looking at faculty pictures at a couple, and they look to be pretty diverse. There are faces that seem to me Black, and Asian, and Hispanic, and White. My impression is that they probably do a pretty good job hiring diverse faculty members in all the departments I glanced through. But there are also relatively few of these schools. And given the numbers of well-qualified African American candidates, it's hard for me to imagine a white candidate standing out for an African American lit position.

Among the historically white schools:

2) Schools that really don't hire many people of color. Maybe the people at the school consciously choose not to hire people of color, as, I'm guessing, at the school that asked me during an interview if I were Jewish, with the clear implication that they didn't want me if I were, though they couched it in terms that a Jew probably wouldn't feel comfortable at their school. I'm guessing when these schools do hire a person of color, that person doesn't feel especially welcome. But, of course, the hiring committees probably say they're not racist and believe it.

If my white student finishes a PhD in African American lit, she might get a place at one of these schools, I suppose. But I keep hoping these places are disappearing. Are they?

3) Schools that hire people of color to teach [subject matter] of [ethnicity], but don't much hire people of color to teach in chemistry or math. At these schools, English and History departments can look impressively diverse, because they have an Asian teaching Asian history, a Hispanic teaching Latin American history, and so forth.

Hiring committees at these schools, and mine definitely counts, often believe that diversity is important, but somehow stuff such as, say, "theory" is always "white" unless defined in the search as "post-colonial." So, the hiring committees tend not to hire a person of color to teach, say, intellectual history. But the hiring committees looking for scholars of African American lit mostly think in terms of African American candidates.

I imagine there are a lot of departments out there that look like this, and that wouldn't tend to hire many white folks for an African American lit position.

4) And then there are schools that hire diverse candidates, so they have African Americans teaching Shakespeare, Indian scholars teaching medieval European history, etc. This seems to me a more healthy diversity, but I've only really seen this happen at R1s that are big enough that they can have their load of traditional white male scholars doing Shakespeare along with one Asian American doing Shakespeare. Have you folks seen these schools hire new white PhDs to teach Ethnic lit or history? (I've seen them hire well-established full profs who are white to teach ethnic lits, but not beginning assistant positions.)

So, back to my student. Should she ask, what do I say?

In my mind, if she wants to study African American lit, she needs to go to a school with some really strong scholars of African American lit in an area where there's a strong African American community. Am I off the mark? Where would you suggest a student apply?


  1. i think that is really good advice in your last paragraph -- whether or not she goes the whole road and completes a ph.d. and wants a university teaching job, at which point she'll be confronting the hiring points you mentioned.

    to the extent that literature captures pieces of culture and context, that study and understanding can be helpful in any number of professions. white doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers and etc. can better serve with a vibrant understanding of the experiences and thoughts in the backgrounds of people they serve.

    i was an english major, particularly focused on american lit. my dream of a professorship was killed by better lsat scores than gre's, and the hearty advice of everyone that i'd never find a job with an english ph.d. so, i ended up a lawyer, stumbling fortuitously into an intersting corner of the law where i work for poor people of diverse backgrounds.

    my view from many, many years in is that nearly everything i've ever studied or been interested in has proven useful, one time or another. we do not have the ideal ethnic/cultural diversity of lawyers in this field, and so anyone with particular studies and/or experiences useful to our clients has some distinct gifts to bring to the table. in my opinion.

  2. I don't know what you should tell her; you don't even know yet what she wants or expects.

    But as knowledge for you, note that ethnic studies job ads and even whole departments are the *first* to get cut in budget crises, along with women/gender studies. After three or four years of the American job ads being dominated by early American and African American calls, this fall there were only three or four open positions. Period. (down from easily 70 or 80 last year)

    And for more perspective on the race and hiring thing (though this guy comes off as a jerk in terms of personality), look here:


    That said, I think African American lit is just as much if not *more* important to study than the rest of lit in English, particularly because it has been marginalized for so long. Are there good MA programs out there that would have a focus on it? I think it would be, at the MA level at least, such an important and transformative learning experience, especially if she took that knowledge out into the wider world, as the other commenter suggests.

    Is there any way to encourage her to study it but not ever plan on getting the chance to teach it, I wonder? How would you even go about doing that?

  3. Kathy A, Thanks for responding. If I could convince my students of the truth of your final paragraph, I'd be very happy.

    Sisyphus, Thanks for responding and for the link. I agree that African American lit is important. One of the next questions is how we center it in our curriculum? It's now at the margin, and it's hard to move it to the center.

  4. sisyphus' link is just astonishing, so packed with observations.

  5. I think your last paragraph is exactly how I'd advise the student, and I think that Sis's comment gives some context for the market. I can say that we've got two Afr. Am. lit specialists at my shop - one white and one black (in a dept. of around 25 t-t).

    In our (new, starting in the fall) curriculum for the major, we've done our best to eliminate the privileging of mainstream British or American lit, but that's partly because the revised major goes a long way to eliminating national traditions. In the core, students have to take 2 survey sequences of their choosing from three categories. Their options are the 1) Brit survey sequence, (no alternative for option one, as our brit lit faculty are the most resistant to change and to developing new courses) 2) the trad. Amer. survey sequence or the Afr. Amer. survey sequence, or 3) a writing studies survey sequence (options for the second half in either rhet/comp or creative writing). And they've also got one elective in the core, which could be a gen ed course or could be an additional course from within those offered surveys, depending on their inclination and course of study. At the upper level, we've stopped, in the lit track, with "brit lit" vs. "amer. lit" requirements, in favor of a more flexible approach (focusing on historical coverage, identities in literature, and genres, with no nation specified in any of those), though students in the lit track can specialize in one of three "fields" should they wish: "British, American, or Multicultural/Gender" in choosing how they allocate their courses. And within the lit option, beyond required upper-level courses, they've still got two electives at upper-levels with no specifications about what they must take. In other words, in the new major that will roll out next year, while Afr. Amer. isn't central, neither are the British and Amer. traditions. In theory a student could really embrace Afr. Amer. lit across periods and genres and in terms of thinking about the representation of identity in lit and not be bound to take more than a handful of courses outside of that interest. I'm not sure if that's the best or only way to handle the issue that you bring up, but it's the way that we've found.