Friday, December 19, 2008


I've been thinking a lot about self-censoring as I've emerged from my haze of grading (got the last batch of papers and grades turned in on Sunday) and writing (finished one article deadline ahead of time -- WOO HOO -- and am trying to meet my second article deadline of late January--keep your fingers crossed for me!). Recently I've had a series of experiences at Southern U. that has left me disenchanted. Which is a stark contrast to the more rosy-colored perspective I wrote over a year ago in August 2007 in my "Allies" post.

[I recently re-read the post when I received a new comment by a very thoughtful commenter]

However, unlike positive anecdotes, which I think are wonderful to share, negative anecdotes, particularly ones that are racially sensitive--particularly ones involving people in positions of power--are problematic to share.

And here's where I remember my own position at Southern U.: I am untenured.

I realize that for those of you reading this who are not in academia and/or who may not be familiar with the hierarchical system of universities, let me briefly explain. I am fortunate, very fortunate, in the sense that I have a job at Southern U. that is a tenure-track position--this means that within the academic university faculty system, this is the brass ring for most folks in graduate school, especially in Humanities programs (like English, my home department).

But as privileged and fortunate as I am (and I DO recognize my academic class privilege as an assistant professor at a research university), I am also at the bottom of the academic tenure-track food chain as a junior faculty member: as someone who does not have tenure (because tenure generally is the golden ticket--it's a permanent status in a college setting, which means I have a job for life).

There are several hurdles to jump in the race towards tenure--and one of them is politics. I am overly aware of who I am in my department and at Southern U: I am a non-white woman, a racial minority who is often not recognized as a racial minority (because Asian Americans are generally not recognized as racial minorities here and in many places in the South in my experience), a person who works on issues of race and who teaches classes on ethnic literature and issues of race.

So there are these stories that I would love to share in this space--on a blog dedicated to issues of race in America. Not because I want to bash anyone or be dismissive, but because I think they are illustrative and instructive about the ways in which race, especially "Asian American" as a recognizable race, is continually misunderstood.

But recently I heard an anecdote about someone who was on a search committee at Elite U. and one candidate they were considering had a blog--a personal blog that dealt with issues of race related to the candidate's research in a non-academic way. The position that Candidate "X" was applying to was not, necessarily, one that dealt with topics of race and apparently some of the committee members at Elite U. didn't like Candidate "X's" scholarship--so they were going through Candidate "X"'s blog to find material that they could use to blackball this person. There was, apparently, a rigorous debate about whether one could use material on a blog in a job search, but the consensus was that if it was in the public domain it was fair game--and certainly blogs are public domain.

Of course when I read about this, I was reminded of my own tenuous position as an untenured person at Southern U.--because tenure is in many ways a mysterious process--that even though I have received good counsel from several sources and from many senior scholars, both here and nationally, the truth is, you just don't know and there are no guarantees, because anyone in academia knows the horror stories of Asst. Professor "Y" who had a book out, glowing teaching evaluations, positive accolades from her professional peers, and the respect of colleagues nationally, yet Asst. Professor "Y" didn't get tenure.

I know this is a long and rambling and overly academic post after a long blog silence, but part of my silence has to do with feeling like the things I really want to write about here are things I shouldn't write about because I should be cautious about what I disclose in this space.

And that makes me think about all the ways in which we self-censor, not just in blogs but in our everyday lives--the thing you WANT to say--the moment you are itching to speak truth to power, but that voice in the back of your head, the one that is the voice of survival, says "Wait a this the smart thing to do right now?"

So I'm playing it safe and being smart. But self-censorship doesn't feel good and makes me feel sad. Because some of these stories are just TOO APT for discussion in this space.


Guess I'll have to wait two years and see what the tenure gods have in mind for me.


Jennifer Imazeki said...

It's sad that any of us need to think about these things. I wish I could say something more encouraging but it's just reality. I don't think anyone can fault you for playing it safe and smart now - doing so means that in the long run, you can accomplish more. In my own case, I didn't start blogging until after I had tenure (partly because I had no clue) but even with tenure, I occasionally find myself questioning whether something I put out there could potentially come back to haunt me professionally (and I don't even blog about anything particularly controversial!). It can be a tricky area to navigate, and probably why there are so many academic bloggers who use pseudonyms. On the one hand, I don't blame them and I think it can mean a much richer conversation when people aren't worried about being honest; on the other hand, personally, I'd prefer to know who I'm really interacting with.

At any rate, I certainly hope the tenure gods appreciate your sacrifice!

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your comment and for being reassuring. I think you are right--that regardless of whether I had tenure or not and regardless of whether we're in academia or not, there are things that are appropriate to share on a blog, with or without a pseudonym, and things that, as tempting as it would be to share, is probably not politically expedient/politically correct (and I really mean that in the "correct" sense).

I think what I'm feeling is being on the other side of my 3rd year review (which went fine)--and the odd thing is that I hadn't felt worried/anxious before my 3rd year review, but even though it went well, I now feel the palpable sense of what it's going to be like to be up for tenure.


If I'm still blogging I"m sure I'll be sharing some of what I'm going through, but hopefully I won't over-share!

CVT said...

This just means that, in two years when you have tenure, there should be some VERY juicy blog-topics rolling out of this . . .

But I definitely get what you're saying - that's why I don't blog under my real name. I just don't want the wrong folks reading my blog at the wrong time, you know? It's too bad it has to work like that, but the internet is so very public in so many ways.

I've also heard of hiring committees finding applicants' MySpace, Facebook, and other similar websites, and if they see something they don't like - no hire (and just setting the site to "private" doesn't keep them from seeing it, apparently). It makes sense that blogs would be a similar thing.

Jennifer said...

I've heard of the My Space & Facebook hiring issues as well. I've also heard of profs. using it to find out whether students lie when they say they have to attend a grandparent's funeral or other such egregious issues of trying to get out of an exam.

I usually give my students the "karma" talk, so I don't worry too much about whether they lie about killing off a near relative.

[The karma talk is where I tell my students that I believe in karma--and the principle of what comes around goes around--that the energy you put out in the world will be returned to you. Therefore, they shouldn't ever lie about killing off a grandparent to get out of an exam or as an excuse to turn in a paper late. Because if they do something like that, if they lie in this manner, then years later, when they least expect it, something TRULY HORRIBLE AND BAD will happen to them, and then they'll have to think back to what I just said about karma and realize that it has bitten them on the a** 10X harder than they planned.

But to get to the point about this post, yes, self-censoring is a necessary thing in the blogging and real worlds, and in the scheme of things, not such a big deal, because we self-censor on a nearly daily basis a lot of times (if you are feeling crappy do you really say you feel crappy to the check-out clerk at the grocery store? The more honest among you might. But only with close friends would you ever say to someone that the pants they are wearing makes them look fat or that their new hair cut is ugly--we censor ourselves in myriad ways all the time--it's how we can get by, socially, together instead of killing each other, I think).

Enough rambling--I'm going to continue web surfing since I found that Newark Airport has free wifi and I have 3 hours to kill before my flight boards.