Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure Edited by Patricia A. Matthew
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016, $27.95, paperback
Reviewed by Marybeth Gasman
In an essay for the Washington Post (September 23, 2016), I wrote about the lack of faculty of color in our colleges and universities, claiming that the reason we have so few is because we simply do not want faculty of color. We know how to recruit and retain them, but we do not have the will. Because of the essay, I received more than 7,000 email messages and hundreds of phone calls. The article was shared on Facebook and Twitter at an incredible rate. But I did not say anything that people of color have not been saying for decades. The only aspect of the article that was different was that I am a white woman faculty member at an Ivy League institution. My race and my institution’s prestige made my message palatable to many of the same people who had ignored the voices of people of color.
With these factors in mind, it was a true pleasure to review Written/Unwritten, edited by Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University who usually focuses on British Romanticism and British abolitionist literature. She decided to pull together Written/Unwritten after navigating a difficult tenure process, during which her provost objected to granting her tenure. Matthew was supported by her department and school but ran into trouble at the provost’s level because several of her publications were forthcoming rather than already published—a distinction that was not made clear to her at any time during the tenure process. As Matthew worked on her appeal of the provost’s decision, she learned that many black women and people of color had experiences similar to hers. Eventually, the president of the university overturned the provost’s decision, and Matthew was awarded tenure. Regardless, she felt the need to share her story and to provide a platform for other scholars of color to share theirs. This need and desire resulted in a beautiful book of vivid and gutwrenching stories told by those who had lived and endured them.
As you read this book, it is important to understand that if you have a soul, it will tug at it, and if you are a white faculty member, you may not be able to move forward in your career without changing the way you think and act around issues that your colleagues of color regularly face. If you can move forward with no change, I beg you to pursue another profession, as academe does not need you anymore!
Written/Unwritten is organized into six sections: “Foundations,” “Navigations,” “Identities,” “Manifestos,” “Hierarchies,” and “Activism.” An introduction and conclusion bookend these sections. Of note, the overwhelming majority of the authors are women of color. Matthew places the voices of these women center stage, where they belong.
Matthew has structured the collection to lead the reader through the lived experiences of the authors. At the same time, readers discover how they can make change—that is, if they are willing to take on the difficult work of pushing against the status quo in the academy. “Foundations” features interviews with two important African American scholars, Houston A. Baker Jr. and Cheryl A. Wall, about race and gender in the academy. Most important to me were their accounts of how the academy has changed—or not—over time. Despite shifts in the student bodies at most colleges and universities, the professoriate has remained overwhelmingly white and male. Faculty are not prepared for or comfortable with teaching the next generation of students and are often too stubborn to realize they need guidance from others who are more expert than they. Moreover, although the academy has moved toward using the language of diversity in faculty search and tenure processes, it has not learned to be truly inclusive and continues to force faculty of color to operate according to rules that preserve white patriarchy. What surprised me most about the interviews is that even though Baker and Wall have lived through decades of racialized experiences, they are still hopeful about the potential of the academy, mainly because of the young scholars entering it.
“Navigations” focuses on the experiences of two women of color, one Asian American and the other Latina. Leslie Bow’s essay, “Difference Without Grievance,” tells the story of the limbo she often finds herself in as an Asian American woman: she is considered a minority by some but not by others. Asian Americans, she explains, are both visible and invisible within the academy—used when convenient to showcase diversity, but otherwise left out. Lisa Sanchez González demonstrates the damage that the academy can do to Latinas, noting the way that senior faculty often sabotage the lives of young faculty of color. However, she also discusses the way these same faculty of color can succeed despite the damage, sharing the story of her own success after sabotage.
Two of the many decisions faculty of color must make as they navigate the professoriate is whether they want to embrace their identity (or identities), and how they will cope with the ramifications of doing so. In “Identities,” the authors discuss the intersections of language and sexuality that some faculty of color confront in the academy. They argue that issues of language are juxtaposed with the securing of tenure, because the granting of tenure is not merit based but deeply rooted in issues of race, class, language, sexuality, and nationality. Queer faculty of color may find themselves taking on additional responsibilities of advising and mentoring both students and other faculty members of color.
The “Manifesto” section of Written/Unwritten is perhaps my favorite, as it is wholeheartedly unapologetic and documents the lack of safety that faculty of color continually feel in both the formal and informal spaces of the tenure process. Sarita Echavez See, for example, discusses the ramifications of not attending a dinner at a senior faculty member’s home. Although attending social events has nothing to do with one’s qualifications for tenure, it somehow factors into the evaluation process, and skipping a dinner with a powerful faculty member can be detrimental to one’s career. Although the academy claims to be a meritocracy built on hard work and intellect, it often requires genuflecting to the powerful.
In “Hierarchies,” the authors critique the false notion that all are equal in faculty governance. Even when African American faculty are invited to the table, they end up eating in the kitchen. In other words, they may be counted in the diversity numbers, but when they ask to be fully included in the college or university community, they are often ignored—or worse, their requests are viewed as out of line, even if they are simply asking for what they deserve as full colleagues. Similarly, although adjuncts—who are often people of color—made up the majority of most faculties in 2017, they continued to receive minuscule salaries, no benefits, and no job security. They are not allowed to vote on governance decisions. The situation creates a caste system within the faculty.
The final section of the book focuses on activism. Because the academy was not set up for faculty of color, many become activists for the sake of their students, their communities, and each other. They may suffer for their activism if their white colleagues start to feel uncomfortable. For most faculty of color, their research is part of their activism, even when the research seems to have nothing to do with the activism. For example, faculty of color working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields often consider their research activist because their very presence can make a difference in the lives of people of color and motivate others. Moreover, it pushes against stereotypes about people of color and their abilities in various disciplines.
Matthew ends the book with a chapter on the risks of tweeting about diversity. Many faculty of color have taken to social media to discuss diversity and to push against racism, white supremacism, and prejudice in the academy. However, turning to social media can be risky, especially for untenured and adjunct faculty. Tweets and posts last forever, even when deleted, given screenshots and glitches in technology. Moreover, these forms of communication can be taken out of context and used against faculty during tenure and promotion processes. Recently, adjunct, tenuretrack, and even tenured faculty have been fired for their comments on social media.
Written/Unwritten is an important book. It should be read by anyone considering the professoriate, whether or not they are a person of color and no matter what their discipline, not only to gain a full understanding of the experiences of faculty of color, but to understand whites’ role. Attempts to defuse academic hierarchies and systems are not generally welcomed, and administrations and faculty who want to uphold the status quo often retaliate. For the academy to become a place that welcomes all voices, we must be willing to dismantle the elements of it that leave so many ostracized, left out, and erased.
Marybeth Gasman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She serves as the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.