1000th Blog Post, Academia, Ageism, CMU, Douglas Reed, Elitism, Gatekeepers, Georgetown, Graduate School, Inequality, James Baldwin, Nonprofit World, Pitt, Politics of Everything, Professional Failings, Racism, Scholarly Writing, Social Justice, Steve Salaita
This is my 1,000th blog, folks! It took me 12 years and three months to reach this milestone — yay, me!
But it’s on the exact day/date that I began grad school, specifically, the master’s program in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh, 28 years ago. Although that day and that semester were great times for me, my professional lifecycle has been almost as full of failures and setbacks as it has been one of triumph and overcoming. Unfortunately, the microaggressions of racism, ageism (too young and too old), and elitism have all been a central part of my experiences in academia, in the nonprofit world, in writing books, in freelance writing, and in consulting in the nearly three decades since.
In contrast to 2019, that day in 1991 was the first of many in which I heard from professors and colleagues, “You’re too young to do…” and “What? You’re just 21? You know the average age of a history grad student’s 28, right?” Now, when I say to people that I’m a fledgling writer, they ignore me or say, “but you’re too old to be a writer.”
If it were just Millennials or Baby Boomers discounting me, my successes, and my outlook on the world because of my age, I might have been able to live that down. But throw in the occasional, “Wow! You’re a program officer? I thought you only played basketball!” (this happened to me in one of my nonprofit jobs back in 2003), and, “You know what we call a Black guy with a PhD…,” and the rage that reminds me of everyday racism rises up. James Baldwin said as much as part of a 1961 conversation Nat Hentoff between him, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Alfred Kasin, on “The Negro in American Culture.” “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” Baldwin famously quipped.
But mostly, it has been others’ attempts to demean me by offering ashes as opportunities, whether for publishing a book, finding an agent, getting a consulting gig, or teaching a course. Or, rather, to expect me to perform free labor for a so-called opportunity at some middling job. Only to realize later on that the job was a mirage. And they really expected me to drink sand and glass shards while they mocked me by pouring cold water down their throats!
I had a reminder of the layers of professional elitism and the cruelty that it engenders in April. For nearly two years, I had been in contact with a colleague of mine at Georgetown about the prospect of teaching undergraduate education courses there. Even with my two teaching gigs (which combined make me slightly more than full-time, contingent, but not nearly as tenuous as life had been back in 2010), I still wanted to teach education foundations/policy courses. Because, well, I’m still me, eclectic and still wanting courses that fit my experiences working in multiple worlds.
Out of the blue, Douglas Reed, a professor in a related department, contacted me about the possibility of teaching a summer course. “I now direct a graduate level program that just launched two years ago and have a possible last-minute opening to teach a summer course entitled ‘Social Justice in Education’ to our incoming cohort of MA level students in Educational Transformation. Would you have time to meet over the next week or two to talk about that possibility?,” he emailed.
Now, as someone who has done this with seven universities since 1997, of course I wanted to meet! It’s a grad-level course, combining social justice and education, something that I had taught before, I thought. I hadn’t taught grad students in more than a decade, but at least I already knew how to. I figured that this was a legitimate chance at a third part-time teaching gig.
I was wrong. Instead of the informal meeting/interview process, it seemed more like a one-on-one interrogation. Reed asked questions that would have been easily answered by my cv, by our mutual colleague, by literally anyone in my classrooms that semester. I brought samples from my relevant courses, while Reed never produced a copy of his Social Justice in Education syllabus. When I assumed that I was brought in to teach this course, he mused, “Maybe there might be others involved,” a wishy-washy answer at best.
Five weeks later, after I prompted Reed several times, I got this response:
Our situation has changed a bit since we last spoke. We have extended an offer for a three year position to a candidate and that candidate has accepted our offer and she will also be teaching the course we discussed. We will definitely keep our CV in our files and be sure to reach out if we have any new opportunities.
Un-effing-believable. Unless I consider the truth. I am a 49-year-old Black guy with a salt-and-pepper beard who has never held a tenure-stream position, and one who never attended or has formally taught at an Ivy League school (I did two summers at Princeton, working with high school students, but that doesn’t count in the eyes of the elite gatekeepers). I had the nerve to leave contingent academia behind for nearly a decade, working at nonprofit entities. I made the decision three years ago to no longer pursue publishing scholarly articles, because of, well, the elitism of such publications. And, I eat friend chicken with my bare hands to boot — I’m sure that’s been a dealbreaker some time in the past twenty-something years!
The following is part of what I wrote in response to Reed:
I ended with, “You already hold all cards. There was never a need to hide half the deck.”
Most of the time, I am okay with the idea that I can make the combination of mainstream freelance writing and full-time equivalent teaching work, for me, my wife and son, and for our future. It’s been working for almost a decade, after all. But I know that as I approach the big 5-0, that combination better become semi-successful author and term faculty pretty soon. Because I’m too young and too broke to retire, and too old and too good at what I do to try much of anything else. I have considered janitorial work or the Steve Salaita route, though.