One Is a Lonely Demographic
Minority Faculty Navigate Institutional Isolation
The AHA’s Committee on Minority Historians sponsored a session at the 2019 annual meeting in Chicago to make space for historians to gather and share their experiences of being minority faculty at their institutions. The universality of themes emerging from the session, “One is a Lonely Demographic: Navigating Institutional Isolation,” extended across disciplines and institutions. They will resonate with those who hold similar titles as their colleagues in the office next door but whose professional experiences differ because of their racial, ethnic, and/or gender identity. While it was primarily faculty of color who participated in this session, the Committee on Minority Historians recognizes that many of our other colleagues have distinct experiences of their own even as they face similar professional demands.
The themes of the discussion included service to departments and institutions, lack of familiarity with university practices and hierarchies, counseling students beyond academic advising, fostering connections with local marginalized communities, interpreting experiences and perspectives of marginalized populations for academic institutions and faculty/staff colleagues, and being subject to tone-policing during the process of that interpretation.
Participants discussed how faculty of color typically carry high service loads because colleges and universities want them on all kinds of committees, from student affairs to hiring committees to governance. Faculty of color are committed to institutional service, of course, but they often find their service commitments to be greater than that of non-minority colleagues. As members of the AHA’s Professional Division wrote in Perspectives, “University administrators, eager to showcase diversity, constantly call on faculty members of color to serve on search committees, ad-hoc working groups, and diverse task forces.”
Faculty also discussed finding themselves on committees where they are the only person of color in the room. Not only is the number of service commitments great, perhaps greater than that of non-minority colleagues, the emotional labor performed by those faculty members exceeds the labor of others on a committee. Emotional labor consists of caring for the feelings of others during the processes of educating them about cultural contexts or while interpreting contested histories. In a colleague-to-colleague setting, that labor is usually unidirectional, performed by the faculty of color. Historian Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora) writes in “Emotional Labor and Precarity in Native American and Indigenous Studies” that, because Native scholars must continually assert Native and indigenous presence rather than absence, persistence rather than disappearance, “self-care and the regulation or management of our own affective responses to working conditions in higher education also figures into the emotional labor [Native and indigenous people] undertake.”
Consequently, service can actually prove more burdensome for faculty of color than for non-minority faculty on the same committee. Faculty of color do, however, want to participate in conversations about governance in order to positively impact the direction of their department or university, and to develop policies that advance intellectual, intercultural, and social justice issues. During the session, and at a subsequent session on navigating professional service, faculty shared advice on prioritizing service requests: undertaking service that is personally meaningful; serving on committees that shape the university—curriculum, admissions/scholarship, or senior administration hires; clarifying and documenting upfront the number of service hours a given appointment will require; and requesting a diverse committee make-up, including a variation in professional ranks, equal gender distributions, and efforts to include more than one underrepresented voice on the committee.
During the session, faculty of color observed that, while we successfully navigated our educations as first-generation college students, that success did not necessarily mean we understood university infrastructure. Faculty can feel even more isolated when they lack familiarity with institutional practices or hierarchies. They may not realize that support systems or potential partners exist, or they may unintentionally end up declining requests from high-level members of the university or board. Colleges and universities can support first-generation faculty by introducing them to the university through a welcome process. In fact, all faculty could probably benefit from this kind of practical overview. Some universities may practice this already, but session participants were not familiar with this kind of introduction at their own institutions.
Participants also discussed how institutions wanting to maximize engagement with faculty of color sometimes unofficially extend the scope of work to include outreach with their cohorts in the broader local community. While minority faculty members are likely to seek a community upon their arrival, particularly if they are the only one or one of few faculty of color, this is a social endeavor, not a professional one. Universities typically do not require non-minority faculty to engage their social cohorts with university programming, but often do not see a contradiction in requiring that faculty of color do so. How does the individual navigate this? Fostering community relationships is not contractually required, but will the individual’s career path be negatively impacted if they are not successful in this endeavor? This can be perilous territory, especially for junior faculty entering the academy.
Having these conversations and finding solutions to these problems are imperative to supporting faculty of color, and to making their experiences visible to non-minority colleagues and university leadership. The session participants expressed gratitude that we could gather and noted how much they appreciated being reminded that we are not actually alone in our experiences. For the Committee on Minority Historians, this is a great outcome, and we hope this session is only the beginning of many conversations to come.
Laurie Arnold, PhD (Sinixt Band, Colville Confederated Tribes), is director of Native American studies and associate professor of history at Gonzaga University. She’s also chair of the AHA’s Committee on Minority Historians.
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