Excerpt: Written/Unwritten, by Patricia A. Matthew

cover photo fro written/unwritten by patricia a. matthewThe academy may claim to seek and value diversity in its professoriate, but reports from faculty of color around the country make clear that departments and administrators discriminate in ways that range from unintentional to malignant. Stories abound of scholars–despite impressive records of publication, excellent teaching evaluations, and exemplary service to their universities–struggling on the tenure track. These stories, however, are rarely shared for public consumption. Written/Unwritten reveals that faculty of color often face two sets of rules when applying for reappointment, tenure, and promotion: those made explicit in handbooks and faculty orientations or determined by union contracts and those that operate beneath the surface. It is this second, unwritten set of rules that disproportionally affects faculty who are hired to “diversify” academic departments and then expected to meet ever-shifting requirements set by tenured colleagues and administrators. Patricia A. Matthew and her contributors reveal how these implicit processes undermine the quality of research and teaching in American colleges and universities. They also show what is possible when universities persist in their efforts to create a diverse and more equitable professorate. These narratives hold the academy accountable while providing a pragmatic view about how it might improve itself and how that improvement can extend to academic culture at large.

In the following except from Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (pages 223-228), Matthew explores what it means to be a professor involved with “activism” in today’s society.


To some degree, all of the contributors to this volume are engaged in some form of what might be called “activism,” though almost no one will apply the label to themselves or their work. They may call it “community service,” “community building,” or, as I prefer, “community engagement.” Or they may resist labels by not calling it anything at all. All, however, are rooted in the understanding that their research and teaching need to have a material impact on the world outside of the work the academy recognizes. The challenge, then, is to think through the implications, through the risks and stakes. As Jafari Sinclair Allen notes, it’s a different thing to sit on the board of a benevolent and politically neutral community group than it is to organize protests to challenge the things that make charitable groups necessary in the first place. “What,” he asks, “does it mean to be a political citizen in the neoliberal university?” How does this work matter in academic careers when, as George Lipsitz observes: “Evaluation, recognition, and reward in academic life usually proceed through relentlessly individual and individualizing processes. . . . Prevailing professional practices encourage scholars to seek distinction for themselves as atomized individuals rather than as participants in a collective and collaborative conversation.”[1] As the protests that reached a new level of intensity in Ferguson move from neighborhood blocks and street corners to university hallways and classrooms, and institutional leaders assemble task forces and committees in response to issues that will be around for a while, it’s essential that administrators and faculty leaders remain mindful of what this labor costs faculty who engage in this work, particularly faculty of color. Talk of task forces and diversity initiatives, meetings with students and administrative leaders are essential, but they come at a cost. It isn’t easy for anyone to participate in these conversations, in this work. White faculty worry about missteps and misunderstanding and simply may not have much practice thinking about these issues in real time, even if their research focuses on the exact same questions that are physically manifested in protests. Faculty of color can face both the burden of representation and backlash from students, colleagues, and administrators.

As Jennifer Williams, an assistant professor at Morgan State, wonders, what is the difference between professors who join their students in protest and those who help them plan those protests? When does an appearance on MSNBC boost a university’s profile, and when does it become a liability to a scholar’s intellectual reputation? How can administrators whose job is to maintain the university’s vision challenge it to reimagine itself? The questions about the connection between activism and higher education are not new, but they must be considered in new ways by every generation of academics. The spotlight on this moment is brighter, the pace of the conversation is quicker, and the sense of urgency is heightened as we bear witness almost daily to a crisis that many have been able to ignore or see as marginal to our research, especially those of us whose work does not bring us into direct contact with the harsh world in front of us. Stacey Patton captured this when, in the days after the Ferguson protests, she interviewed academics of color who, in addition to feeling brittle with anger and fear, also questioned the value of their work: “Broader questions intrude. . . . Does students’ doctoral work matter? Does teaching matter? What about having a PhD? Should they continue to channel their passion and intellectual pursuits into higher learning or should they redirect that energy toward activism?” To these questions, I would add ones more tied to institutional concerns. How does the kind of service that is expected of faculty of color, especially working with students of color, change when these students are agitating for change and the notion of service to the institution slips into activism that seeks to upend its current practices?

These questions are partially answered by this promise in the “Austin School Manifesto,” an evolving statement about the work of Black Studies scholars: “We believe that teaching and the production of insurgent knowledge is itself one form of ‘resistance’; however, we struggle to push our work past discourse to praxis. We seek social transformation through both aspects of our work.”[2] This question of “praxis” is one I asked three Black women academics to think about: Ariana Alexander[3], a doctoral candidate in history; Williams, at Morgan State University; and E. Frances White, professor of history and former vice provost for faculty development at New York University. None of these women would call what they do activism, and they vigorously oppose the label “activist.” They each believe the term should be reserved for those whose livelihood relies on activist work, but they also know that their research is not just put in service to their individual fields of specialization or even to teaching but to their larger communities, even when they don’t engage directly with movements getting the most attention right now. Alexander, as she prepares to defend her dissertation, captures the questions hovering over many of today’s scholars and academics regardless of where they might be in their careers: “How can I see my intellectual work manifest itself in real ways?”

FOR HER DISSERTATION “Soles on the Sidewalk: The Bronx Slave Markets from the 1920s to the 1950s,” Alexander uses personal correspondence, oral histories, legal records and surveys, and institutional reports to trace the lives of Black domestics in New York City to show that in the Northern struggle for Black freedom, “the treatment of black domestics in the context of modern slave markets reframes questions regarding migration, political activism, labor, urbanization, and local governance.”[4] The starting point for her dissertation is the intersection of Westchester and Simpson streets in the Bronx—a spot she reads as a historical archive to show how various parts of the community from policy makers to journalists to church leaders responded to the presence of women forced to seek work in public spaces. “This archive on the sidewalk,” she writes, “helps us imagine the personal narratives of the women waiting for work, the importance of community activism, and the execution of local power amidst a structured informal economy.”[5]

Alexander has the kind of CV that could easily lead her to the tenure-track path: a postdoctoral fellowship or two followed by a few visiting assistant professorships and finally a tenure-track position. She is a Ford Fellow, has presented her research findings at the major conferences in her field, and has been a teaching assistant. She worked on the Bronx African American History Project to implement a digitizing system for oral history interviews, and she is a rigorous scholar who sees teaching as a way to transform students’ perceptions about history. But she decided midway through her program that she didn’t want to follow that specific path: “By my third year, I really loved teaching but really loved working with students more.” Alexander’s approach to her graduate education has been a mix of optimism and healthy skepticism. Instead of feeling closed off by the idea that the tenure track was not for her, she sought out ways to think of success beyond tenure at a research institution or a small liberal arts college. She wasn’t “clamoring for the tenure track.” In part, this was because she’d heard enough about it to know it wouldn’t work for her and in part because she wants a career that puts her into regular direct contact with students. She does not think of work outside the tenure track as a consolation prize. Instead, she questions and actively interprets how her training can be of service. She is less interested in the idea of success that Lipsitz describes as rewarded in the academy (focused, individualized work) and more invested in how she contributes to activities that improve the material conditions of those in whatever community she finds herself in—at school, at church, and at the not-for-profits where she has worked. The question she faces is not how to survive the contingency gauntlet until she finds a tenure-track job but how her work will be meaningful.

The term “community” gets thrown around quite a bit, but for Alexander the idea of community shapes how she approaches her work: “You serve the community that you come from, you serve to help other people, you serve because we are all involved in a larger fight.” In practical terms, this shapes how she imagines her career, working with students in an advisory capacity wherever she can find them. At NYU, this meant working in the Office of Pre-Professional and Advising; at Bryant and Stratton, a for-profit college in her home state of Ohio, it has meant working with at-risk students. It also shapes how she approaches work far away from the academy. Asked to organize a health fair for an organization, Alexander naturally reached beyond the normal corporate organizations usually found at such events, into the community organizations that focus on the underserved. I think this impulse is linked by two things: one is in how she approached her dissertation, and the other is in how that approach complements all of her work. Alexander’s approach to her dissertation research reflects a thinker more interested in narrative than institutional boundaries. “I started thinking about narratives in nontraditional spaces and about underground archives,” she explained to me. This, in turn, shapes how she works in the world: “My academic process in terms of thinking about how things influence each other influenced the choices I made about how to build a community for health.” Her goal was to bring in organizations like Good Greens, a company whose goal is to make healthy food available to people regardless of their socio-economic status. This was essential to Alexander who wanted to move beyond simply including local businesses to organizations whose work extended into the community. Her goal was to show how underserved communities can have access to the kind of food (organic, locally sourced products) that can significantly impact their health, and she sees this as a political issue. The health fair served 300 people and is an example of how Alexander sees herself contributing to social justice work. As much as possible she chooses to work with young people and believes that, “the research, the approach, the tools that you get should be to serve people.” As a result, when she’s advising, teaching, or working with young people at local churches, she is working toward what she sees as the larger fight against economic inequity and the kind of absorption that she believes pulls young people away from building and maintaining meaningful communities.

The work that Alexander wants to do is not necessarily antithetical to a tenure-track career, but her experience in graduate school has shown her that one of the dangers of the academy is how it can separate people from their communities and the values that shape our work. She described it to me as “a fog” that makes it difficult to see the greater vision and impact of [our] work.” Alexander was months away from finishing her dissertation when I talked to her about her work and where she thought it would take her. I asked her what advice she might have for graduate students still making their way through, and she advised them to remember this: “You’re only working on a little brick … in combatting inequality.” It’s advice that is particularly useful for graduate students who, as Jeffrey McCune, an associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and performing arts at Washington University in St. Louis, explains, have been pulled “out of their theoretical silos and into a space of activism, both in terms of getting physically involved and shifting how distant their work may be from the assault on black bodies in the every day.”[6]In some ways Alexander has chosen what might be called the alternate academic (or “alt-ac”) path, but this is only considered “alternate” in a model that sees a tenured position as the only way to define success. What is clear from how she goes about her work outside of the academy is what she’s learned inside of it, particularly while completing a dissertation that focuses on the different ways women worked together to secure economic equity for domestic workers. In this process she has learned to see archives in non-traditional spaces and to understand how different narratives intersect in public spaces in powerful ways, for substantive change.


From Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure  by Patricia A. Matthew. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Patricia A. Matthew is associate professor of English at Montclair State University.

  1. [1]Lipsitz, “Breaking the Chains and Steering the Ship: How Activism Can Help Change Teaching and Scholarship.”
  2. [2]E. T. Gordon, “The Austin School Manifesto: An Approach to the Black or African Diaspora” Cultural Dynamics 19(1) (March 2007): 93–97. From the author: “This manifesto is a collective living document. For this reason there is no definitive version. This version was presented by E. T. Gordon at Williams College in spring 2006 and revised in August 2006. It was based on the results of a collective writing effort initiated during the two-day Diaspora Symposium held at UT Austin in 2003, with a version produced by Jafari Allen from notes that he and Jemima Pierre took of discussions that took place over the course of two days during the Diaspora Symposium held in 2005. This was leavened with some of ETG’s insights and those presented on the subject in commentary by Charles Hale as a discussant of papers presented by affiliates of UT’s Diaspora Program on an AAA panel in 2004.”
  3. [3]I asked my editors at UNC Press if I could have time to think about service and activism in this particularly turbulent time. They gave me that time, and I’m quite thankful for it. Ariana Alexander’s early research on the subject has been essential to this version of the essay. The shape and direction of the conversations here reflect her thinking and are rooted in her ideas about scholarship as a kind of service to communities beyond the academy’s walls. Jafari Sinclaire Allen pointed me to key texts on the subject of activism in the academy and also read an early draft of this essay. I am eternally grateful for both.
  4. [4]Ariana Alexander, “Soles on the Sidewalk: The Bronx Slave Markets from the 1920s to the 1950s.” Unpublished dissertation. New York University, New York.
  5. [5]Ibid.
  6. [6]Patton, “After Ferguson, Some Black Academics Wonder.”