Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure – Guest Post

By Patricia Matthew

Patricia Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University.  She is writing a book about representations of the body and the discourse of disease and illness in Romantic-era fiction. She is the co-editor of a special issue for Romantic Pedagogy Commons (“Novel Prospects: Teaching Romantic-Era Fiction”) and has published essays and reviews in Women’s Writing, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and the Keats-Shelley Journal. She is the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and has published essays and books reviews on diversity in higher education in PMLA, The ADE Bulletin, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The New Inquiry and The Atlantic.

Find her on Twitter as @triciamatthew and visit the Written/Unwritten Facebook page for more information.

In my first semester of graduate school, a footnote in my methods book, The Art of Literary Research, cracked me up:

This moment is as appropriate as any to point out that it is a faux pas, no less deplorable than eating peas with a knife, to speak of our professional publications as “magazines.”  Magazines are publications of miscellaneous content for the lay reader: Time and Smithsonian are magazines. The proper generic terms to use is periodicals; if the periodicals are devoted mainly to research, they are journals; if to criticism, reviews. But never “magazines.”

The tone made me laugh, and I imagined the book’s authors as some amalgam of John Houseman in “The Paper Chase” and Emily Post.  The directive also made me feel like an insider because of course I knew the difference between a periodical and a magazine (I had a BA in English, thank you very much). When I was a new assistant professor and was teaching my own methods course, I would read that footnote to my students and show them the kind of research problems we were asked to solve each week, in the days before ubiquitous internet access, when the MLA bibliography was only in print. We all laughed, and they got to feel like insiders too.

And then, during my tenure appeal, when I was preparing the case to convince the (now retired) provost to overturn his decision to recommend against tenure, a union representative told me that the problem with my tenure file was that I was using the wrong term to describe my peer-reviewed work. I’m not sure why I never learned that I was supposed to call what I write for periodicals “articles”, but, according to this union rep, I had committed a rather deplorable faux pas by using the wrong term (“essay”) and was going to lose my job because it. “It makes you sound like as student” she told me, and while I wanted to argue the point on several fronts, it seemed prudent to just change the wording for my appeal. So I went through my tenure narrative and changed “essay” to “article.”

Then I turned my attention to the rest of my appeal, which rested on whether or not my essays/articles needed to be in print to count towards tenure. Here is how I resolved that. A former colleague heard that the problem with my file was that my articles were not “in print” and was kind enough to send me an email exchange he’d had with a dean confirming that “in print” was not the rule for a publication to count towards tenure. My department personnel committee used that information in their letter urging the provost to grant me tenure.

To be clear, no one was questioning the value of my research or the rate of productivity. I wasn’t a troublemaker and my teaching was fine. According to the Provost, even as he was trying to fire me, I’d done what I was supposed to do to get tenure, except for this “in print” criterion no one had told me about, and I didn’t know to ask about.

That and, apparently, not knowing the right labels for my work meant I was about to be out of a job. With the help of people from across my college (I had the support of my department personnel committee, my department chair, and an interim dean), I ended up getting tenure, and in the years since I started doing research on the topic of diversity and tenure for my anthology Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, I’ve been curious about what I may have missed during my tenure case.

When I asked the Provost point blank why he hadn’t told me “in print” was the standard he told me that if he’d answered that question I would then want to know how many articles I needed. He knew things were unclear and why they like to keep them that way.

My colleague knew too. But he had had the foresight to ask the right questions, get clarity about what counted, and then was smart enough to get it in writing. This was in the early 00s, so we didn’t know that The Professor was In, and I was so busy trying to get my work done I never took the time to learn how to present it. And no one took the time to help me figure that out. But he knew. We were both bright and hardworking, but he had an edge I didn’t.

I’ve wondered about the differences between that colleague and me from time to time. Yes, yes, yes, he is white and male and heterosexual all at the same time, but it’s too simple to reduce his understanding of this process to those things. One thing he had was successful academics in his extended family and so, I suspect, moved in a world where these processes were topics of regular conversation. Neither of my parents graduated from college, and I still remember explaining to my mother that my thesis was not an eight-page paper but a book-length study.

There were other consequential issues that were probably based in our familial legacies. Although we were friendly when we worked in the same department, we moved in different social worlds. I quickly cordoned myself off, so I didn’t have the same informal access to strategies and information that he did. More than this, I simply did not understand that some part of the review process is people making their own experiences and ideas institutional, and if you don’t speak the same language that they do you’re at risk. The lesson I should have learned while I was chuckling at the image of eating peas with a knife (I mean, seriously, how is that even a possible thing to do) is that part of the work of being untenured is figuring out a few things:

  1.  How to make your accomplishments legible to those who will evaluate you
  2.  How to get your colleagues to help you learn what the institution will seek in your file and the evaluative discourse of your institution
  3.  How to develop and maintain a healthy academic community as far away from your institution as possible so you can understand your experience within some larger context
  4.  Where you are willing to draw the line to succeed at your institution

It’s not fair, by the way. These processes are loaded and decided on things that have virtually nothing to do with the quality of a scholar’s work. I know this not only based on my own experience but on the research I undertook in order to provide a critical and historical context for the narratives in Written/Unwritten.

In public talks about the anthology I’ve said a time or two that whiteness protects mediocrity and have felt the very air in the room shift. White people narrow their eyes at me while their colleagues of color raise their eyebrows in solidarity. They all know that the rumpled, scattered, I’m-so-brilliant-I can’t-be-bothered-to learn-how-things-function-persona works well for so many white people—not because they are necessarily better or more productive than their peers but because they have built their careers on the benefit of the doubt. Faculty of color rarely have that luxury—regardless of how many people assume we skate through the academic world on white liberal guilt.

Of course, you can do the things above and still not get reappointed or get tenure. It’s important to understand how deeply invested people are in not making the process transparent. It’s not only possible, but highly, likely that I could have asked the same questions as my more strategic colleague and not been given a clear answer or gotten that answer in writing.

There are many reasons for this, but elitism is behind most of it. The feeling is that if you have to ask certain questions about process than you’re probably not qualified for the job in the first place. In a world that claims to care about “groundbreaking” research, innovation, and the new, you’re only allowed to be different in a very narrow way. For some, the whole point is to only work with people who don’t need to be told not to eat peas with a knife.  I think that’s why number 4 above is so important. You need to carefully (and with guidance) draw those lines for yourself. One way to measure that is to see how many colleagues around you are willing to share what they know to help you out. If no one is reaching out to you to see if you feel prepared for your personnel reviews, you need to pay attention to that, and if no one seems willing to give you concrete answers to reasonable questions like what counts towards tenure, you need to note that too.

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Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure – Guest Post — 9 Comments

  1. Fascinating essay! Hope that’s the right word to use here. I think that your points may also apply to issues of class; having two parents who went through graduate school definitely prepared me better for graduate school and life as a faculty member. My family is middle class. In contrast, a close colleague’s family is working class to poor and he is the first person in his immediate family to attend college. Many aspects of academia have been–and still are–“in the water” for me, but I have observed–and actively tried to help with–the fact that my colleague doesn’t know that he doesn’t know things about academia and various associated processes. This also means that he does not–as a white man, even–have the “absent minded professor” trope to fall back upon. He has to stay alert to detect what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. Thank you for your insightful essay and the best of luck to you in your career.

  2. The above comment mentioned “not knowing what you don’t know”– and this has been true for me almost every step of the way in academia. Neither of my parents have a bachelor’s degree, although my mom completed an associates in landscape architecture, so she knew the steps toward getting in the door. It wasn’t until I came out the other side with a BA that I realized how many mistakes I had made, what I should have done differently at this point, and so on… Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. But I continued stumbling through my MA program, and I have no doubt that I will stumble through my PhD program. My biggest pitfalls seem to be the questions I don’t know to ask. And yeah, the second biggest is the tremendous fear I have that, once I ask “stupid questions,” they will figure out that I don’t belong in academia, at all.

    Thanks for this, it is a great ‘sanity check.’Looking forward to checking out your book! 🙂

  3. So let me get this straight: This is basically a roadmap for the sorts of intellectual gymnastics that you want minorities to go through, in order to blame white people if they don’t get tenure?

    If your goal is to uplift the next generation, you’ve failed miserably. I suggest you take personal responsibility for your own choices and their consequences.


    A black kid from the ghetto who got tenure.

    • Excuse my skepticism, but the current climate of fake news and alt-right trolling leads me to ask: is Javon M’Kawi your real name, and what is your institutional affiliation?

      • Perhaps you could respond to my point instead of trying to discredit me.

        This is a perfect example of soft bigotry. Dismantling minority experiences that don’t fit with your personal narrative of us.

  4. Thanks for an enlightening perspective–good food for thought. I’m a 2nd year Assistant Prof and was searching for perspectives on going through the tenure process, especially as a female minority. Will check out your book…

  5. An excellent essay. I wanted to add that there are many ways to be an outsider and not to know “peas and knife” stuff. I am white, my parents had PhDs, but I am from another country, with different academic culture, not to mention a different language. I was very fortunate to have an excellent advisor, very generous with his time. One reason he did it for me – apart from being kind – was probably the fact that he was not an American either, and he understood difficulties of navigating a different culture.

  6. A million times yes!!! And I love the peas/knife analogy.

    Upon graduating, I had published about a dozen single-author articles in esteemed publications. I had presented in several flagship conferences in my field. I had been managing editor at a well-regarded academic journal. I had fabulous teaching reviews.

    And yet I didn’t get shortlisted once.

    My dozen articles were on a range of topics that could all fall under the umbrellas of gender and post-colonialism (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid being identified); rather than showing my intellectual curiosity and adaptability, the breadth of my publications apparently made me “illegible.”

    I also had no idea how to write my letters of application. This was a couple years ago so my memory is a little fuzzy but IIRC, for post doc apps, I was particularly flummoxed. I mean, how could it possibly take a year to turn a dissertation into a book? This seemed absurd: I had already written my dissertation as though it was a book. How could it possibly take a year to edit?

    And not only that, I had not networked throughout grad school. I thought foolishly that academia was a meritocracy, and that my record publications and teaching and research would be sufficient.

    How many brilliant scholars have we been robbed of because a provost likes things “unclear” or because someone uses the word “essay” instead of article”?

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