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?