When I heard Patricia A. Matthew being interviewed by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom on a podcast then called listen to kill (and now Roxane’s Gay Agenda) in an episode titled “We don’t have the same job“, I got a copy of the 2016 book she edited, Written/Unwritten: The Diversity and Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press). And I knew I wanted to ask him some questions for the Scholars Talk Writing series.
Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. In 2021-2022, she was a visiting associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo, and she will spend the next academic year as a fellow at the National Humanities Center working on her manuscript, Gender, sugar and the consequences of abolition, for Princeton University Press. She co-edits a series of books for Oxford University Press (Race in 19th Century Literature and Culture) and is under contract to publish the Norton Library edition of Jane Austen mansfield park. I spoke with her recently. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Scholars talk about writing
In this continuing series, Rachel Toor interviews scholars about their writing process and influences.
In the introduction to Written/unwritten, you start by discussing the four Michigan women who were denied tenure, then you recount your own battle for tenure. When you’re told you’re not competent — or, worse, accused of lying about your accomplishments by a dean, as you were — how do you stay sane?
Matthew: As a person of color, you’re rarely told to your face that someone thinks you’re incompetent, but some colleagues and administrators will treat you as if you are. It can be demoralizing and destabilizing. And it is difficult to fight against this particular type of dismissal; you simply cannot “prove” that you are competent to people who are determined to think otherwise. There is no point in trying to appease them. Focus on your work and those who support you.
For me, writing is a refuge, even when it’s a fight. Spending even half an hour working on something as basic as footnotes distracts me from what I can’t control. It also reminds me that I am part of a larger intellectual community, and somewhere in that community I know there are people who see and appreciate my work. More concretely, a complete file is a good rebuttal.
It is also useful to pay attention to how people who think you are incompetent treat other colleagues and, in particular, how they behave in meetings and other professional settings. You almost always see that they tend to be terrible for a lot of people. This is cold comfort, but in addition to understanding institutional patterns, it can also be helpful to see individual patterns.
You write that it is “often difficult for professors in more traditional fields to fully appreciate and assess the value of research in emerging fields”. How do I change the type of scholarship that “counts”?
Matthew: This problem is, in part, a byproduct of colleges and universities exploiting casual faculty. I truly believe that not supporting new researchers with stable academic positions is the greatest threat to research innovations. Being in a department for a year or two, primarily to teach, makes publishing one’s work so difficult. It also means that tenured professors – usually overworked and too spread out – don’t have the opportunity to learn more about working in emerging fields.
It is therefore difficult to assess the importance of new journals or the impact of an emerging researcher in a new field. Full professors do not always understand our role in making this work legible in our establishments either. Tenure-track faculty members must strategically advocate for the importance of emerging areas – from when we offer a new tenure line, to how we discuss the work of new colleagues formally and informally, to how we write about their work in staff review materials. We need to abandon the myth that good work speaks for itself, especially since emerging fields often challenge the foundations and methodologies of established fields.
Faculty facing review need to be strategic about where they publish their work (I know it’s not easy). They should also talk to experienced colleagues they trust and seek advice from established academics in the field on how to discuss the rigor and impact of their work in the tenure and promotion process.
Let’s talk about service and how it can take time on writing.
Matthew: I advised teachers of color to plan their department, especially the “diversity” department, the way they plan their teaching. Instead of reacting to institutional crises, the best approach is to have resources ready – bibliographies, names of possible speakers, and alternatives to the dreaded “town hall” – when we are called upon to respond to the latest diversity crisis.
For a while, I would bring a hard copy of my current writing project with me to department meetings and put it on the table as a physical manifestation of my work. It was an instant reminder on how to keep my priorities straight.
You made the brilliant suggestion of making a list on a large whiteboard – or something similar public – of all the writing projects people need to complete.
Matthew: I admit I stole the whiteboard idea after seeing how Tressie organized her project board! I’ve adapted his approach a bit to include a column of dream essays and articles I’d write if I had a world of time. The Dream Column reminds me of what I say no to when I say yes to requests or when I’m about to be dragged into swamps of institutional services. I think it’s important to keep in mind that when you say yes to certain things, you’re more often than not going to say no to your writing.
I listen to editors on Twitter. I’m also a big fan of reading books about writing, not just “to do” books. I love John McPhee Project No. 4, and recently, when I complained on Twitter about having difficulty with my own work, William Germano kindly sent me his latest book, At revision. It really helped me understand my writing on a structural level.
Graduate students of color are often “invited” to do extra work. How do they say no?
Matthew: Graduate students of color are often asked to take on diversity issues at their institution. It drives me crazy, but one black graduate student explained to me that he wanted to participate because he believed his experience in the profession would improve if its programs, institutions, and professional organizations were more diverse. My feeling is that doing this work also means connecting with a community of like-minded graduate students outside of their home departments.
Universities that ask graduate students of color to undertake diversity work owe them – and I’m not just talking money, although that’s certainly ideal. These students are not there to “fix” the institution. They are already making important contributions: they are improving his intellectual life by taking courses, participating in graduate assistantships and completing their degrees. Asking graduate students of color to do this work while their white peers focus on their research and material needs (and build a professional reputation when they focus on race) is grossly unfair. If institutions insist on requesting this service, they should provide additional summer funding (i.e. manpower), pay dues to professional graduate student organizations, and ensure that they get the support they need when applying for scholarships and jobs.
Do you think a lot has changed for the faculty of color since your book was published in 2016, Written/Unwritten: The Diversity and Hidden Truths of Tenure?
Matthew: I’m finished Written/unwritten with a chapter on social media, and I’ve seen how it helps marginalized scholars of color focus their challenges and strategies to thrive and build solidarity. It’s been especially interesting to see how STEM seekers of color have used Twitter to advertise themselves and share their experiences.
In terms of how we understand color faculty experiences, I think we’ve moved away from books that collect individual experiences, and we did that because Presumed incompetent (volumes me in 2012 and II in 2020) has done essential work amplifying the struggles facing the faculty of color. Written/unwritten and some other books, like Faculty of Color Mentorship (a collection published in 2012), came about, in part, because of a series of Occupy denials that gained attention before social media became part of the Occupy protest machine.
Now we see books like the truly groundbreaking Chanda Prescod-Weinstein The Messy Cosmos: A Journey Through Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Deferred Dreams. This is not just a book about “diversity in STEM”. Chanda understands, as well as anyone, that “diversity” is a largely bankrupt term and that to think about inclusivity in a meaningful way, we need to pay attention to how we interact with the known and unknown universe. and about which we speak of our commitment. She wants us to understand that the rhetoric of darkness has ideological weight.
In his new book, Community as Rebellion: A Program for Surviving College as a Woman of Color, Lorgia García Peña reflects on her experience. The book is part memoir, part cautionary tale, and it’s really a program about how scholars of color can embrace community as resistance. The book is a testament to agency that does not romanticize individual resilience. She gave us an important model for how to reflect on the experiences of scholars who are marginalized by their institution even as it attempts to absorb and neutralize what meaningful diversity, by necessity, destabilizes.
I think those of us who are called upon to do “diversity work” – giving talks, leading workshops, writing essays, articles and books – need to reflect on the effectiveness of our work. I understand the appeal of enthusiastic talk about diversity, but I worry that we are preaching to the choir and I believe these resources can be put to better use. I’m taking advantage of the next year to think about how I can do this job more efficiently.