Joycelyn Moody - JMoody's Musings
My December column about planning physical and mental rest included this sentence: “Folks, I am finally what not saying ‘No’ often enough, what being one soldier in a tiny army waging war against anti-Blackness, looks like.”
This month, I want to reflect on some of the ideas I crammed into that packed sentence. I’ve felt vulnerable since publishing it. The sentence has stayed with me; it’s crept into my driving quiet, and eased into my meditation. I feel like the image of “not saying no often enough” has me looking rough. My partner says I still look all right. But since Thanksgiving, I’ve had one respiratory illness after another, so I look and feel tired.
Treating my chronic fatigue ironically adds three 2-hour training appointments to my week: I’m working out like a dynamo to increase my energy level. If I want to be a soldier in anybody’s army, I need more strength. Anyone who plans to fight against xenophobia and inequality needs a hella lot of strength. And a lotta big sticks.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in this army, outnumbered though we ultimately are. Other minoritized faculty women—and our shrewd allies—are also fighting against race-based hatred. Sistah-soldiers share their stories of struggle and grief with me all the time. Most are overcommitted in the ways that led to my own need for deliberate rest. which is to say, they need rest, too.
An insight I’ve had recently—and I realize I’m late recognizing this point—is that I keep forgetting that our army is tiny. I probably forget it because we are so mighty. We are powerful. But for all my own literal and figurative strength-training—physical therapy, home, meditation, massage, sister-friendships, and so on—I wore myself out trying to multiply myself on the job, trying to do the work of five faculty sistahs when I am only one person.
There aren’t enough of us minoritized feminist academics. There are not enough faculty women of color to represent us in all the classrooms and boardrooms, on all the committees and platforms where we want our collective perspectives and issues to be raised.
A friend reached out to me the other day. I’ll call her Sheila, though that’s not her real name. Sheila is a Black woman professor who desperately wanted to assist another mutual sistah-colleague of ours.
Aside: Our numbers are so small that it’s actually hard to narrate this experience without worrying that I’ll inadvertently include some details that will reveal the identity of one or the other of these dear friends. In fact, that’s a worry Roxanne and I experience each time we publish a WellAcademic™ newsletter: will our anecdotes unwittingly disclose the identities of the professionals who trust us, given that our focused readerships are so small?
I first became aware of progressive feminist research into this area circa 1995, and I’m discouraged that the demographics of educational institutions remain pretty much the same. It’s a shame that the minoritized women in the academy I know are separated by maybe four, hardly six, degrees. Many of us know each other by name and lineage. We are each other’s teachers, students, mentors, coaches, coauthors, and kin. Systemic poverty and racialized evil keep our numbers low. (One way of generating more of us would be the development of more pipeline programs like the African American Literature & Culture Institute. Call that self-promotion if you want, but I call it begging you to do what you can to replicate yourself, too.)
Back to Sheila. She is a proud person who rarely speaks her stress levels, but in a recent phone call, her voice was strained and tight. Even more oddly, she actually ticked off out loud some of the faculty tasks almost overwhelming her. The year is young—it’s still January as I write this post—so I’m worried about Sheila, concerned she could be following me down the road to chronic fatigue.
And now Sheila was calling on me to bless the fact that she’d agreed to support another sistah-colleague. Been there, bloody heart in both hands extended and determined to help.
I both wanted to encourage Sheila for her willingness to help our sister and to throw up the STOP sign. How to move forward in moments like this is always complicated. Do we take care of ourselves? Do we care for our sistahs? No easy answers--only hard questions and harder answers.
So, I offered Sheila a few suggestions for ways she might assist our other friend, a sister who—needless to say—genuinely deserves the support she was seeking. Sheila responded with gratitude but also with dismay. It was her groan that prompted me to reassure her she could relieve herself of the commitment; she could, in fact, she should, say no to our girlfriend this time because there aren’t enough of us.
“You don’t have to do that for her now.”
Saying no would be more than all right; it would be best. It would save Sheila to fight in our stalwart army another day. And saying no would help keep our numbers rested and ready.
There simply aren’t enough of us yet, no matter how much we want to support each other’s projects, to assist each other in the work we do for the ultimate goal of exposing injustice and righting the immoralities of the institutions where we work. We educate our hearts out to produce an intelligent, informed, and righteous citizenry, but our numbers remain low anyway. We are not to blame for our small populations.
A surge of relief surprised me head-to-toe when Sheila readily embraced this last suggestion. She’d already intuited we minoritized women faculty owe it to ourselves to say no even to each other from time to time.
Such a choice is rarely simple in the injurious academy. Our socialization teaches it’s “selfish,” maybe “unsisterly.” Yet I don’t want another woman faculty of color ever to feel herself a doleful image of “not saying ‘No’ often enough.” Careful self-preservation will remain essential as long as there simply aren’t enough of us.
Until next time,
By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
We are in the middle of annual reviews, which means we have been busy documenting what we have “accomplished” in the areas of research, teaching, and service in the last year and describing the quality and significance of that work. We rate ourselves in each of the three areas, and our department chairs also rate our work as exceeding, meeting, or below expectations.
I know what you’re thinking: annual reviews are a function of neoliberal audit culture in higher education settings, where increasingly across the U.S., professors have to “prove effectiveness,” some might say prove our worth.
For faculty women of color, annual review time can be especially stressful. Student evaluations do not always reflect the effectiveness of our teaching and instead reflect how racism and sexism intersect to influence students’ perceptions. Faculty women of color whose research is situated in marginalized disciplines (like critical race feminism) also may have a harder time demonstrating quality and significance of our publications using traditional measures (like impact factor of journals). Sometimes the service faculty women of color do that supports our institutions’ diversity missions, like mentoring of students of color and supporting other women of color colleagues, is invisible labor which does not get counted fully.
For a long time (before and after earning tenure, by the way), I put pressure on myself (and way too much time) into annual reviews. With my research, teaching, and service situated in marginalized education fields, my focus was often on “convincing” my superiors that my work was as good as the work of my colleagues in traditional disciplinary fields. Because the academy has historically recognized as legitimate only a few indicators of quality and significance, a higher bar exists for demonstrating how my work “measures up.” This higher bar, and all the extra work it requires for a successful annual review, takes a lot of time and emotional energy.
Explaining my teaching evaluations in a larger context of research on Black women faculty teaching diversity courses, providing additional documentation to demonstrate how big of an impact my scholarship is having in my field, justifying how mentoring of students and colleagues from historically marginalized groups is more time-consuming and energy-depleting than regular service yet still so essential to the health of the university, and proving that my public scholarship (the blogpost you’re reading now, for instance) is indeed scholarship and deserves to be “counted”—all of this extra labor for annual reviews is not uncommon for faculty members who do “diversity” work. We understand the costs when we make these commitments, but even with this knowledge, having to count and measure and justify and prove our “value” to the university can still be dehumanizing.
To counter this effect, I made some changes over the last five years in how I approach annual reviews. I view my annual review for what it should be: an opportunity to stop and take stock of all that I have done over the past year; to think about how my work is aligned with my pedagogical commitments, especially related to social justice; and determine what adjustments I need to make in the upcoming year so that my work is more integrated and purposeful.
The most difficult change was developing a different framework for and attitude toward annual reviews—and I’m still a work in progress. I resist seeing the review as my one shot at proving that my work and I matter in the space.
I know that I matter, I know that the work I do matters, and I know that my mattering is never going to be measurable using the means that institutions privilege. I am no longer looking for ratings on an annual review to tell me how effective I am as a teacher, researcher, and colleague; what to do more of, what to do less of; or how close I am to what sometimes seems like a moving bar. The bar I set for myself is always going to be higher than one set for me, and sometimes this has meant that I don’t earn the highest scores.
I’ve made some practical adjustments as well that I invite readers to consider.
First, I set a timer to the work I do completing annual reviews. A very firm timer. I give the task no more time than this. No exceptions.
Second, I use my own template which has sections with reusable content and sections that I fill in with new stats each year, and so far, this template works with the university template I am required to use.
Third, I set goals for research, teaching, and service in 2-3 year increments, so I don’t write new ones until I have achieved these or until they change after this window of time has passed.
Lastly, I know what my university’s handbook says is required of department chairs and me in this process, which can be helpful especially when department chairs change frequently.
I also learned from Roxanne to schedule a session to work on annual reviews with a couple of colleagues who do similar work so that you can create statements of quality and significance together.
Even though I’ve made changes over a number of years prior to my recent promotion to full professor, I understand that being able to work around some institutional norms is a function of my privileged position in the academy. I also understand that my individual approach to changing my mindset around annual reviews is not going to solve a more systemic problem nationally, where evaluation of professors has become increasingly more high stakes. But I have effected change for myself, which is sometimes all we can do for ourselves.
I also invite administrators to use the approach of my current department chair—shout out to Dr. Anete Vasquez. She added a humanizing frame to the annual review process by sending an email to faculty members acknowledging that review meetings often trigger the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and stating her intent to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). To do this, she gave us a brief set of questions to answer in advance of our meeting which asked us to reflect on what was working—a strengths-based model—in our teaching, research, and service, and to offer solutions if we noted any problems.
She also stated that we would work collaboratively in our meeting to draft the letter together—with ratings in each area—that accompanied my annual review to the next level. In my meeting with her, she asked me to help her make a case for positive ratings, which sparked a conversation about my accomplishments the previous year. I never felt like I was defending my work. Instead, my work was understood, and I felt acknowledged.
I hope you’ve found a way—big or small—to use what agency you have to make annual reviews more formative and less high stakes, generative and not destructive, and collegial not adversarial. That’s what we deserve after all the work we’ve done throughout the year.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.
By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness
Feeling especially overwhelmed? More exhausted than normal by unfinished grading and writing? Wondering why spring break wasn't refreshing? You’re not alone.
Spring semester is a major slog. Even worse than fall. No, really. Here’s why:
Spring comes after the holiday season, which for some means depletion from travel, forced cheer, and overspending worries. For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s the extra stress of dealing with even more Christian privilege than usual. How many times could you hear Merry Christmas as a non-Christian without wanting to scream?
Some parts of the U.S. experience little sunlight and lots of cold during most of spring semester, particularly the start. This can have emotional consequences that range from malaise to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Even if shorter, darker, chillier days don’t get you down, they may negatively affect your friends, family, students, and colleagues. And their down mood can impact yours, a phenomenon called emotional contagion.
Taxes are due! Need I say more?
Then there are faculty annual reviews that typically occur in the spring. Ideally, professional reviews are a time for thoughtful reflection with chairs who: value all that we do; make space for the ways positionality influences how we are perceived, treated, and evaluated*; acknowledge that we operate within an education system that increasingly gives too little and takes too much; recognize their power in the process even if they feel powerless in their roles otherwise; and understand that those reading their reviews are people with feelings and vulnerabilities and hopes, even if some of us protect those parts of our humanity behind heavy armor.
But as many of you already know, annual reviews regularly fall short of this ideal. So far short, in fact, that I’ve had a steady stream of painful phone calls and meetings with faculty from all kinds of institutions demoralized by their review process. These are exceptional faculty who work tirelessly for their students, colleagues, and colleges. Yet shifting standards, the application of previously unmentioned expectations, and the minimization, or even outright dismissal, of considerable intellectual, physical, and, oftentimes, invisible emotional labor marked their interactions.
There is no clear win among the fallacious choices available to those faced with this situation. They can:
And these costs are not equally distributed. Those who are junior, belong to historically marginalized groups, challenge injustice on or off campus, have chronic health challenges, are without strong supportive networks, occupy vulnerable emotional spaces, or sit at the intersection of these factors are poised to suffer more regardless of “choice.” All from one process that has the potential to be affirming, healing, and motivating.
My intention is not to depress. It’s to shed light on the ways environmental, systemic, and institutional agents can influence our spring semesters, and lives in general, sometimes outside of our awareness. And I mean to challenge flawed cultural narratives that link success (and failure) solely to individual, personal efforts. If only life were so simple and magical that we really did have full control over our destiny.
It isn’t. We don’t. And buying into this belief can seriously hamper well-being.
A healthier alternative is to acknowledge the agents at play. Accept that they have the strength to impact our lives…that they can show up like hurricane force winds pushing us off course or like an almost imperceptible but relentless headwind that slows us down or makes keeping pace exhausting.
Surrounding yourself with those who truly see you, hear you, and value you for all that you are is necessary shelter when winds are raging and can shield a headwind’s full impact. Finding those communities in systems that instill distrust among and within us is not easy. But know that it’s possible. [For more strategies, see Nichole Guillory's Surviving The Annual Review Process post.]
Awkward plug: Adding to these rare compassionate spaces is why Joycelyn and I created our wellness retreat for women of color faculty. The need for replenishment at spring’s end prompted us to offer a retreat in May as well as November.
Let me close by saying that acknowledging the external forces that might be making your spring semester hellish is not an invitation to give up on the semester or lose sight of your own power. It is an invitation for radical self-care. And seeing what society is adept at invisiblizing is pretty damn radical.
In peace and solidarity,
*If you need evidence to support that positionality matters in teaching evaluations, see here and here.