Friday, November 9, 2012

Recognizing the importance of networks of support for new black faculty

For one of my ongoing research projects, I have concentrated  on what networks of support have meant in the careers of four prominent African American men writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aaron McGruder, Colson Whitehead, and Kevin Young. However, I recently considered what such networks have meant for my own career as a college professor. Looking back on my nearly 10 years at SIUE, it's clear to me just how important interconnected lines of support have been.

When I arrived at SIUE, I  received constant advising from two senior black men faculty members, Eugene B. Redmond and Reggie Thomas. During my first semester, Redmond and I talked nearly once a day every day of the work week; in the process, I absorbed a broad body of first-hand accounts about the social lives of dozens of artists who established themselves during the 1970s. Reggie Thomas and I spoke frequently about jazz and culture, and he eventually recruited me to direct the Black Studies Program. Unfortunately, few faculty members in the entire country can say that they've had two such accomplished senior black men faculty so involved in their early academic and professional lives.

In the English department, my colleague Anushiya Ramaswamy and I constantly had discussions about African American literature, teaching, and the implications of race in multiple contexts. My department chair at the time, Charles Berger, took the unusual step of reading and commenting on my entire book manuscript and then repeating the process of reading it and providing comments on my subsequent draft. Two senior librarians, Julie Hansen and Lydia Jackson, met with me nearly every week or so during my first few years, providing me with senses of the university's institutional memory and offering useful sources for what would become my book, The Black Arts Enterprise.

Hansen and Jackson were also instrumental in ensuring that Lovejoy Library would allow me to establish the Underground Reading Room--the lone African American academic cultural space on SIUE's campus. There was also Earleen Patterson, director of SOAR, who took my colleague Stefan Bradley and me under her wing, encouraged me to work with a large number of traditionally under-represented and under-served students, and further expanded my sense of the university's histories.

Usually when narratives like the aforementioned one are relayed about black men, observers tend to simply say the advantages were "gendered." That explains some of it, but not nearly enough. If I arrived at SIUE today, I would, as a black man faculty member, still have considerably less support. Redmond and Hansen have retired, and Thomas and Bradley work at different universities. Jackson's, Ramaswamy's, and Berger's different duties and Patterson's expanded service for students means that they would all necessarily have less time and energy to assist a new, junior faculty member like me. Similar to my studies of prominent black writers, I recognize now that timing advantages contributed to the levels of support that I was positioned  to receive.

Too often, universities assume that success for new professors rests on a single faculty mentor, when in fact, networks of support significantly determine whether a new professor will have expanded opportunities.  Universities, departments, and employees would all stand to benefit by taking a closer look at networks of support and what those networks might mean for new faculty. 

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