I found myself back again. After reading Marybeth Gasman’s follow-up Washington Post article on her findings about academia’s hostility toward faculty diversity and the low expectations of the mostly White and male search committees in hiring faculty of color, I remembered. Seymour Drescher, George Reid Andrews, Van Beck Hall, Richard Smethurst, Dick Oestreicher, Larry Glasco, Paula Baker, Joe Trotter, John Modell, Steve Schlossman, Wendy Goldman, Kate Lynch, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones, and Peter Stearns. Everyone on this list was either my advisor, a professor for a graduate course I took while in the history departments at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, on my dissertation committee, the department chair, or someone I TA’d for between January 1990 (when I was a junior at Pitt) and May 1997. And nearly all of them either had super-high expectations of me — really, weight-of-the-world expectations — or expected me to choke on my own vomit intellectually while in grad school.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen this before. With select folk while in Humanities in middle school or in high school, like Doris Mann in seventh and eighth grade art, Sylvia Fasulo as my guidance counselor while at Mount Vernon High School, and most notably, with David Wolf in AP Physics my senior year (more on him soon). At Pitt, I had an elderly White professor in a constitutional law class who regularly expressed his displeasure over affirmative action in his lectures and gave all four Black students in the course a C+ on every assignment. But generally, if faculty did have low expectations of me because of their racism, it was more of a feeling, a sense that creeped up on me but couldn’t quite grasp, and not obvious because of their statements and actions.
Until I decided to go for an MA in history in 1990. Everything from discouraging statements to half-baked letters of recommendation brought headwinds meant to slam me up against rocky shoals. Professors like Smethurst or Hall who assumed I didn’t work hard enough because I took time to recharge and hang out with friends. A couple like Oestreicher and Resnick who believed that I actually plagiarized material because the quality of my writing was higher than they had seen from a grad student in years. Some like Andrews, who couldn’t believe I was well into my dissertation, much less having made it into another PhD program at all. That doesn’t even count the assumptions about my basketball prowess, or about what I did in my spare time. Nor does it include the overlooking of alternative perspectives on Marxism, on Whiteness, on multiculturalism, on American poverty, on religion, on a host of historical issues I brought to one seminar after another. Because in my spare time, I read more than what was on a syllabus, and given my upbringing, I had already lived a good portion of what the privileged class had only studied.
Add to this the expectations from Baker and Glasco, or Trotter and Jones. All had high expectations of me. So high, in fact, that their expectations were about more than me. It was about what I should or could represent, a graduate student of color who could compete successfully with the so-called geniuses in the field. With Trotter as my dissertation advisor, of course, it became a balancing act between his paranoia born out of his own experiences with graduate school, the job market, and academic racism, and working with me to make me a better scholar. We never had a conversation about why Trotter was the way he was with me, but as I have noted here over the years, Head Negro In Charge syndrome (HNIC) was certainly part of this equation. It’s one thing to meet one’s own high expectations. It’s another when folks who are pulling for you expect you to outperform yourself because of race.
There were so many expectations of me because of my race and relatively young age that I rebelled, mostly unconsciously, my last two years of graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. I wasn’t sure I wanted a professorship of any kind by 1996. But I was so close to being done with the dissertation, with Trotter, and with my mixed-signals dissertation committee. So I finished, and put myself into a job market, hoping that it wasn’t going to be so bad to look for tenure-track positions.
I was wrong, of course. Search committees couldn’t even meet the minimal expectation of at least evaluating my applications based on my qualifications. I interviewed for seven academic jobs between 1997 and 2000 before my first full-time professorship offer from Howard University. In at least three cases — including Tufts and NYU — the search committee chair’s friend was the person whom ended up with the job. With Teacher’s College, who knows? Slippery Rock canceled their search altogether. I didn’t even care to find out what happened with UNC-Charlotte or Colgate. I can say with absolute certainty, based on yawns, stupid questions, racist comments, and strange looks, that racism played a role in the Slippery Rock cancelation, and in my interviews at NYU and Colgate. Those people simply did not want me there, period.
In all, I have applied for 350 academic positions over the past two decades (keep in mind, I applied for 250 of these between 1997 and 2001, and hardly any during my nonprofit work years between 2001 and 2011). Other than adjunct or term faculty work — sometimes, even well-paying positions — going for academic jobs has confirmed my worst expectations of an institution that prides itself on the myths of meritocracy, scholarship, and objectivity. If I had to do it all over again, I would have not pushed myself through two revisions of my dissertation to get this degree. It wasn’t worth the $24,000 in student loans, the thousands of hours of reading boring ass dense writers, all the stupid hypotheses and theories, and the half-assed people I sat in front of in classrooms who claimed the title professor.
That’s how I feel sometimes. But I’ve also had a full slate of courses at my current gig for the past eight years, worked with thousands of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students since 1996, written dozens of recommendation letters, and worked myself into a writer who has dropped nearly all the trappings of academe. Had I not faced the racist failings of academia head-on, I might have bought into this world’s hypocrisies and reproduced them for my students over the years. In this, at least, I can be thankful for academia’s low expectations of me.