Publication Date

April 1, 1995

Editor's Note: The following article was solicited by the AHA’s Committee on Minority Historians.

Minority scholars who seek tenure face a formidable challenge. They are observed from different angles by judges who apply their own standards and interpretations of what scholarship is about. These judges base their standards on scholarly patterns and developments that are often no longer comparable to new trends in minority scholarship and teaching. How does this process affect minority scholars? How do these scholars feel about earning tenure in a mainstream system? And how, for that matter, do they feel about being minority scholars? This essay will share some insights into the academic life of minority scholars under pressure from the mainstream academy. I look first at the general effect of stress on minority scholars and then at the negotiations they must engage in to earn tenure.

Stress, pressure, and rewards in unequal proportions await the minority scholar. Stress is normal for scholars working toward tenure, but minority scholars, typically young and inexperienced, face much greater pressure, an internal pressure that colleagues, departments, programs, and administrations do not fully comprehend. Those evaluating the minority scholar and thereby influencing his or her career often have little knowledge about minorities, their distinct culture values, or their economic backgrounds. These judges often compare the experiences of the minority with their own experiences without understanding that real differences exist These differences are difficult for mainstream academics to grasp because they conflate the divergent life experiences of minority scholar; with the dramatic changes that have occurred in the nature of scholarship itself.

The predicament of the minority scholar in the academy is further complicated by feedback from the scholar's own community. While families are often supportive, the larger minority community might not be entirely supportive of minority scholars—even though the community may welcome the scholars' assistance with certain projects. Standards have been set for all professors going though the tenure system. Stress results because minority scholars must meet these standards as well as the expectations of their own ethnic communities. Moreover, the tension of meeting so many expectations is sometimes intensified if minority scholars develop agendas of their own. For instance, minority scholars may feel a sincere obligation to focus their scholarly attention on certain subjects that are sometimes outside the parameters of currently accepted scholarship. They may feel committed to the study of particular issues, unsung historical figures, or neglected historical events involving their own people. Often, these young scholars threaten their own survival in the tenure system as their focus appears to become political rather than scholarly. In such situations, it is vital for minority scholars to have a solid understanding of existing scholarship so that they can successfully pursue their chosen subjects of research and present them clearly and comprehensively to the mainstream academy.

Meeting the expectations of both community and university imperils the sociological and psychological balance of minority scholars who try hard to please everyone. Young minority scholars must maintain a friendly relationship with their professional colleagues. In this respect, cooperation is important–minority scholars must be willing to serve on committees, carry • challenging work load, and foster a pleasant atmosphere. But within the minds and hearts of young scholars turmoil occurs; confusion and frustration produce tensions that must be suppressed or, if the scholar is fortunate, resolved. The degree of disequilibrium varies among minority scholars according to their degree of assimilation into mainstream society, their personal commitment to their community, the depth of their identification with their native cultures, as well as their class background, racial identity, and ethnicity.

The untenured minority scholar thus faces a daunting challenge. The situation confronting minority scholars makes it truly difficult for them to survive. A respectable number of minority scholars have succeeded, yet the numerical base of minority scholars is very small. In its November 23, 1994, issue the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled “Faculty and Instructional Staff: Who Are They and What Do They Do?” The article reported that as of fall 1992 there were 526,222 full-time faculty with teaching duties. Of these faculty members, 14,644 were historians. Among historians, .3 percent were American Indian men; there were too few American Indian women to be counted for the report although there are at least six at colleges and universities. The Chronicle article further indicated that 1.8 percent of historians were Asian American men, while .4 percent were Asian American women. Black male historians accounted for 3 percent of the total; black women for 2.2 percent Hispanic male historians made up 1.2 percent of the total, and Hispanic women .4 percent; white males accounted for 70.6 percent of all historians, while 20 percent were white women. The article did not state how many of these historians had earned tenure.

The American Historical Association's data on faculty with tenure show that the percentages for minority faculty are, if anything, worse than the Chronicle reports. A survey of U.S. history faculties listed in the 1994-95 edition of its Directory of History Departments and Organizations (with 291 of 637 departments responding), indicated that 77 percent of tenured faculty were white males and 16 percent were white females. The responding departments further indicated that 25 percent of tenured faculty were African American men, while .1 percent were African American women. Hispanic men accounted for l percent of tenured faculty; Hispanic women for .3 percent. Native American men comprised .l percent of faculty with tenure; none of the reporting departments had tenured Native American women on their faculties. The percentages for minority historians are small indeed.

The price paid for even this modest success has been high. Feeling trapped in a lose-lose situation, minority scholars feel pulled in different directions. Minority scholars and their families often suffer as a result. Many marriages have been pushed to the brink of failure or have ended in divorce. For young minority scholars, the world seems at an end when this happens, especially if the trauma then leads to poor job performance. Great expectations are even greater for minority women scholars since academia has been consistently dominated by white males. Minority women scholars, for instance, are often expected to be ideal wives and mothers as well as competent professors. This enormous challenge should give anyone pause. The difficult decision is whether or not to pot family first because sacrificing the family for tenure can create a lonely existence for a minority scholar.

Minority scholars vary in their degree of talent and intellectual ability. But since the numbers of minorities, and certain minorities in disciplines like history, are limited, administrators bring heavy expectations for success, without fully understanding the pressures minorities face. These expectations are even stronger if the minority individual has been trained in a field where only a precious few minority scholars exist in the country, or in the world for that matter. Because these minority scholars survived graduate school, it is automatically assumed that they will be shining stars and successful role models. They are expected to reap the benefits of brilliant careers, but in reality the road is not paved with gold. Even after tenure, the pressures continue as the demands on minorities increase with good scholarly work. Requests for guest lectures increase, invitations pile up, committee work escalates, and opportunities to publish expand. This is "success," and it brings with it additional stresses! How must minority scholars achieve success? They must negotiate tenure review procedures related to community service, teaching, and publishing. Let us look at each of these areas in turn.

Tenure committees usually consider a candidate's community service record. This "community" refers to both the scholarly (university) community and the minority community. Minority communities have typically welcomed assistance from minority scholars on community projects-such as helping to put on workshops and conferences, assisting with grant proposals, attending community meetings, and helping to represent the community in various ways. Working together often creates a mutual satisfaction between the minority scholar and the minority community. It is very rewarding, but the mainstream judges of tenure do not always realize the importance of this gratifying rapport between the minority scholar and the minority community. In the end, it is politically wise for minority scholars to extend services to both their minority community and the mainstream community so that their mainstream peers can more readily understand their efforts and evaluate them in this area. But twice the effort and time is consumed in order to satisfy this criterion for earning tenure.

Teaching is perhaps the easiest area for minority scholars in the tenure process. Their different perspective in the classroom is more accepted during these receptive times of affirmative action and multiculturalism. However, minority professors sometimes wonder what mainstream students think about them when they are teaching a class about American history to mostly nonminority students. Student prejudice, like academic prejudice at the professorial level, enters into the classroom and peer evaluation of the minority scholar. Fortunately, this has been less of a problem in recent years, but in certain colleges or universities and in some parts of the country such prejudice against the minority professor in classrooms still presents a problem.

Evaluation of publishing can also be more complicated than it would be for a mainstream scholar. Where the minority scholar publishes and in what kinds of journals is often affected by the fact that his or her work may be more acceptable in minority journals and by minority presses. Understanding the scholarly perspective of minority candidates is extremely important since their work reflects their perspective. But like all scholarship for all professors, minority scholarship should meet acceptable standards.

In recent years, mainstream peers have become more sensitive in evaluating their minority peers than they were in the past. Including a minority scholar with tenure in the review process can help to sensitize the tenure committee. A tenured faculty member can advise the committee about the difficulty of evaluating the minority scholar in a fair and comprehensive way. In the end, judging the minority scholar in the three traditional areas considered in the tenure process-service, teaching, and publications-requires careful consideration of the whole picture.

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