Although I have tenure now, as a new, African American faculty member I know I was strongly advised by my senior colleagues and administrators to keep my service to that so-called diversity mission to a minimum, and it was advice that I was happy to follow. I was happy to follow that advice even if it meant keeping as low a profile as possible and declining requests to take on important projects that I knew would not count when I came up for tenure.
I’m not sure what choices I would make now. For example, earlier this year, I got a lot of attention for a series of tweets that focused on how I have learned to talk to students of color, particularly black students, during a time when the extrajudicial deaths of black men and women are getting more attention than they have in the past. In those tweets, I mentioned that my colleagues and I put together a reader with articles and essays that we thought would offer useful context for our students for a Ferguson event we had planned. It reminded me of the importance of such service.
There’s not a lot of room in my teaching or research for this kind of work. I write and teach about 19th-century British literature, and the colleagues I worked with on the reader are not historians or sociologists. We worked outside of our expertise as a service to our institution. To date, I’ve personally received more than 200 requests for the reader from professors and student-service administrators from all kinds of institutions: high-school libraries, Ivy League professors, community-college faculty, and people who want to read it for their own edification. The thing I hear most often is that they want to do something for their students but they feel ill-equipped to do so because the issue falls out of their area of expertise.
I get requests from students, too. Those are the ones I’m most interested in—the student in a small midwestern town who wants to help his classmates understand why folks are chanting Black Lives Matter; the student who’s seeking more context after being assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; the student who explained to me that she is chairing a committee on her New England campus that is focused on racial reconciliation. So, every few days, I put aside time to do this work that probably doesn’t count to the people who assess my scholarly productivity. It isn’t a conference paper or a peer-reviewed journal essay or a scholarly monograph. It’s labor that is invisible except to those eager to be as woke as those students who have been protesting; and it’s labor that keeps me mindful of what role I can play right now as students of color and their white counterparts learn to understand one another in and out of the classroom.
This imbalance—this extra burden on minority faculty—has ever been thus. Women of color, for example, tend to take on more service than their male counterparts. Similarly, for me and other nonwhite faculty members I know, much, if not most, of this service revolves around supporting students of color—sponsoring campus groups, providing additional guidance (especially for first-generation college students), and intervening on their behalf with administrative officers. On top of that, we’re also called on to “diversify” campus committees and to represent the views of a variety of ethnic groups in even the most informal conversations. And while advice about how to manage the pressure is readily available, it’s hard to take the long view and think about tenure and promotion when college students need, and are seeking, guidance as they challenge their institutions to make diversity a priority in word and in deed.