Six Ways to Speed Up Inclusion and Positive Change In Higher Education Faculty Culture NOW

Joy Connolly
Aug 4, 2020 · 7 min read
Six things that faculty can do at the departmental level right now to improve the experience of Black people in academia.
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Black faculty, students, and staff know the pattern. Under pressure from local or national events, administrators and other campus leaders call on them to share their experiences of racism with the community — but no structural changes are made.

Here are six concrete actions that can be taken at the departmental level right now to improve the experience of Black people and other marginalized groups in academia.

1. Talk about how we want faculty effort and time to be rewarded

Thirty years ago, on the first page of Scholarship Reconsidered, former Carnegie Foundation President Ernest Boyer put his finger on the heart of the problem. Faculty at research universities spend their time in varied pursuits: they teach, mentor, manage their departments and schools, communicate the value of their research to an often skeptical administration and the public, and they work with colleagues in their disciplines and fields in direct collaboration or looser direction-setting activities like conferences. But faculty are rewarded with promotions and raises for achievements in just one area: published research.

This approach ignores the work done by scholars of color, especially Black faculty members, in mentoring and teaching. It overlooks the extra labor required of them to get recognition and funding support, as demonstrated, for example, by Tressie Cottom’s Thick and the contributors to Presumed Incompetent:The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012, 2020). And it erases alternative approaches to knowledge production that have been pioneered by scholars of color. Colleagues in African American Studies shake their heads when they hear white colleagues in humanities centers act like they invented interdisciplinary work. Faculty who are scholar-activists or who adopt a dialectic between academic research and community work are likely to create CVs that do not fit neatly into the “peer reviewed article and book” mold. As a result, they are held back or passed over — at the hiring stage, at tenure and promotion time, in salary reviews.

What can faculty, and here I am concentrating on the majority white faculty, do to change this? Like astronauts, keep a calendar of the way you spend your time for a typical month in term time and during longer breaks. Make a pie chart. How much time do you spend in each activity? Which do you value most, yourself? Which advances your career? And then ask the toughest questions: Whom do current evaluation standards serve and whom do they punish? What does the world need most?

Faculty will answer the last question differently. Scholars of race, class, religion, or other issues in the daily news might see a need for their expertise in public discourse. Or they may need to spend time asking members of the public what they need. Scholars of history or of cultures outside the US might argue that they should focus on teaching undergraduates, since these are areas that have seen marked decline in enrollments and majors. Classicists (of whom I am one) are concluding that we have a lot of work to do revising the central assumptions and research questions in our own field.

Asking these questions is just the first step in taking systemic action. The next is agreeing with colleagues, first at the departmental level and then at the level of the school (or at whatever level the promotion and tenure committee lives) that requirements for tenure and advancement must bear some reasonable relation to your pie charts, to the diverse contributions faculty make toward the production and circulation of knowledge beyond the research article and monograph. But we must start with ourselves. Boyer’s short 1990 book is a good place to start that conversation.

2. Change how we recruit applicants for graduate school

At some point in our lives, most faculty will pull an undergraduate or master’s student aside and encourage them to consider applying to graduate school to pursue the PhD. Most often the prompt is an outstanding paper or two, perhaps a presentation — something that maps directly onto the scholarly activity that (as we have already established) at research-intensive institutions today is a professor’s most highly prized achievement.

But even research-intensive institutions need faculty with creativity, multiple talents beyond the paper or the presentation, and the willingness to ask tough foundational questions. Let me make this vivid in your imagination with descriptions of a few students I wish I had encouraged to pursue graduate school:

● The undergraduate who asked to submit a YouTube video instead of a standard paper. I wouldn’t do this today, but 10 years ago I brushed him off with a few automatic comments about the importance of writing. I didn’t interpret his keen desire to experiment as I should have: as a sign he would make a top academic.

● The first-year business major in a large general education course, who came up to me after a lecture to ask why I assigned papers over five pages in length or indeed, why I assigned papers at all. His questions, asked with what I interpreted as a mixture of hostility born of anxious unfamiliarity with long writing assignments and sheer curiosity (how would I react?), made me write an explanation for the entire class, and I never approached assigning papers with the same set of assumptions again. His interest in the form of scholarly communication I was uncritically promoting and his insistence that I explain my assumptions should have sent me a strong signal that he would make a strong academic.

● The brilliant writer who started an environmentally responsible company in China while still in college, whose core passion was literature, but whose multiple interests I viewed as scattered and too loosely tied to academia as I then understood it.

● Two undergraduates in a small seminar, a queer student of color and an observant Orthodox Jew, who argued over the course of several weeks about sexuality, gender, religious belief, and the propriety of arguing about these things in the classroom. They didn’t like one another, but they sustained their arguments with conviction. Their energy, stubbornness, unpredictability, and willingness to take risks should have made me plead with them to apply to graduate school.

All them were strong students. They tended to question authority (mine, that of the professoriate, and older people’s more generally), push against expectations, and ask “why” at every opportunity, not always in a “nice” way that was easy to handle. I liked and admired them as people, for the most part (as far I could, given my limited time with them), but I didn’t see them as students who would fit neatly into the mold I recognized for “model professors.”

Today, thanks to the persistent efforts of colleagues of color, I understand why it is highly likely that I didn’t identify as many students of color as likely graduate students as I did white students. Accepted norms are not immutable facts. We have, as a culture, occasionally learned to recognize that social structures are created, not natural. I have come to see my colleagues and students who challenge assumptions and want to shake things up as crucially necessary to the academy’s flourishing.

Connected to this are requirements for graduate school. In my own field, multiple years of Greek and Latin are still required for entry to the PhD, though everyone knows this is a class-ridden bar that excludes students who discovered the field as a junior or who attended a school where budget cuts have eviscerated upper level languages. These requirements demand a close look through the lens of class and accessibility. When they are changed, you and your colleagues will also face the need to…

3. Change graduate curricula

Invite your doctoral students to a conversation right now about what is working and what is not working in their coursework, research, and preparation for the diverse careers that await them. Let them lead the conversation. Make sure students of color are invited to play a leading role. You will likely find that they need and want:

● Courses in languages or skills that we can no longer call “remedial;”

● Experience working with and learning from people outside academia, where a third to half of them are likely to work after the PhD;

● Serious assistance with teaching, not all of which you may be best placed to offer;

● Close study of the discipline or interdisciplinary area to understand its historical goals and habits, and discussion of its current research goals and future;

● Understanding of how the university works;

● A space to discuss racism and anti-racism efforts at the institution and in the department, including in curriculum design.

4. Bring people working outside research academia into scholarly practice

A mostly white system won’t change without external shocks. What more positive shock than inviting people outside the academy — especially people of color interested in what the academy might offer them — into departmental space? Cultivating knowledge for the public good is best done when some contact with the public is woven into regular departmental practice. Two ways to get this done:

● Invite non-academics who are generally sympathetic to the emerging generation (graduate students) and interested in scholarship but who will speak their minds, to sit on dissertation proposal committees, so that the student and advisers are prompted to discuss the value of the work, its accessibility to a larger public, and the style of writing the scholar will adopt. This is a tricky area. The point is to push against assumptions about hyper-specialization and to cultivate communication skills.

● Get to know your local high school faculty. They are your colleagues and best placed to teach you in understanding the needs of diverse young people. And they may help grow the pipeline of students into your department or ultimately, the professoriate.

5. Learn what others are doing

Many people are working on anti-racist action in the academy. Get familiar with at least three actions that are being taken in your learned society, by colleagues in other fields, and within your own institution.

6. Call a departmental faculty meeting

Make a plan to take these steps, or better ones, right now. What are you waiting for? If not now, when?

At the American Council of Learned Societies we are dedicated to encouraging and supporting the types of changes outlined here, while advancing and strengthening humanistic scholarship to best serve the present and future needs of the academy. New initiatives like the Emerging Voices and Leading Edge fellowship programs are supporting the new generation build toward that future.

ACLS In Depth

Strengthening, Advancing, and Diversifying Humanistic Scholarship