My Crucible

In March 2012 I quit my job. In the midst of an economic downturn where tenure-track jobs are very hard to come by, I resigned. I had no job. I had no plan. And because I ended a 12-year relationship a month earlier, I was alone. But I was happy. And by happy, I don’t mean that Disneyfied birds singing, squirrels chirping happy. I felt a sense of liberation and joy that I didn’t know I could feel. My advisees were going to freak out. I was going to miss teaching those bright naïve soon-to-be teachers. I was also going to wake up in the morning and start the day thinking about my own well-being, which I had never done with any consistency.

I had emerged from my crucible—four years as a Black female faculty member—with a crystal clear sense of who I am and what I want. When I decided to take a job in the College of Human Resources and Education at West Virginia University, I had zero support from my mentors and friends. Zero. Absolutely no one thought it was a good idea. I didn’t listen because I received their lack of support as an indication of the acceptable bigotry against Appalachia. As someone who prides myself on being justice-minded, I couldn’t make a decision based solely on prejudices against an entire region and its people. And in my experience, West Virginians had been the people who embraced me and folded me into their families. So I forged ahead. Little did I know how right I was. The problems I encountered had less to do with Appalachia or the people of West Virginia than with the cloistered, internally-focused people of West Virginia University.

In the middle of my first year, I was lamenting my adjustment and a good friend recommended I read Straight Man by Richard Russo. When a professor was assaulted in a faculty meeting in the first few pages of the book, I saw how typical my experience must be. (I could even see myself assaulting a “colleague”.) But over time, I recognized how distinct my experience was as well. By the end of my second year, almost nothing I had been promised had materialized. Although I had written proof—in the form of emails—of promises, I chose not to push. The dean who hired me was not the dean who reneged—lesson learned. I could write a second dissertation on how toxic cultures strangle intellectual curiosity and achievement, but what made HR&E and WVU my crucible was far more fundamental than organizational toxicity. I lived every day at the intersection of anti-intellectualism, racism, and sexism. I can’t say exactly when I realized this, but the process of recognizing it, determining it was intractable, and then extracting myself took up four potentially fruitful years of my life.

In The Passion, Jeanette Winterson writes of passion that “the way there is sudden and the way back is worse.” Just like an abusive and damaging romance, an abusive and damaging work environment is hard to leave when it’s your dream. What was the point of all those years of study and achievement if I can’t be successful at a university? This is school. This is what I do. This is who I am. But there I was, years in, almost no publications and over a hundred more pounds overweight than when I started.

In spring 2011, I was hospitalized for what I thought was a heart attack. Turns out, it was an anxiety attack. I then went on to sleep for months. I couldn’t stay awake. I slept for more than 20 hours one day. I was put on driving restrictions. My hair, which had apparently started to fall out months earlier, was clearly thinning now. By the end of the summer, I had given so much blood that I joked of looking like a heroin addict because of all the bruising. My doctor found nothing wrong. The exercise physiology department found that my metabolism had slowed to about 50% of normal. So, I quit my job.

But several people in leadership talked me into staying at least one more year. I was about to throw my life into chaos. They were convinced that I had a lot to offer and had already done so much—not in my effort to gain tenure mind you—but plenty to help the institution. They would work to find a way to make my life better. This made me feel good because I respected these people. I respected what they had accomplished. I respected their vision for the place. I still do. Their support and encouragement spared me the experience of over-turning my life and abandoning my dreams. So I agreed. I stayed.

As I made my way through the 2011-2012 school year, I devised a plan. I would not apply for faculty positions. I would go to law school. I would stay an additional year at WVU, apply to law schools in fall 2012, and then leave WVU for Yale. Of course I was going to Yale (or Harvard). This brief sojourn outside of prestigious schools was an experiment that had failed. I needed to return to my people. But something else happened. It had been happening for years, but I hadn’t been paying attention. My marriage was ending. Like a still-birth, it had already died, but it was in such a place that it couldn’t just be cut out. It had to take a more “natural”, laborious, and painful course. Ending that relationship and tasting that freedom was its own awakening.

March was the second wave. I spent two weeks in Washington, D.C. immersed in work that I loved. One of those weeks I was stuck in a room with 8 people from 8AM to 6PM wrestling with very real education issues and drafting language. Anyone who has ever tried to write with one other person knows how challenging that can be. Try it with a group of 9. At the end of that week, I was able to remember how much I used to like the people I worked with. I recalled the joy associated with doing work that I thought mattered. And I experienced collegiality, mutual respect, and mission focus.

As I drove back from Washington, D.C. to Morgantown, WV, and descended Sideling Hill, I knew I had to quit my job. I had somehow convinced myself that I could be successful in an environment practically designed to destroy my career. I had convinced myself that enduring racism and sexism was just a reality of life in academe—a reality I had chosen. I had further convinced myself that with more and more vibrant and intellectually curious new faculty would come a more intellectually stimulating environment. None of these things were true of course. There was no way I could be successful when so much of the institution is designed to prevent it. Sure racism and sexism are a reality of white male dominated institutions, but there are places where people—white male people even—are committed to addressing those isms. And the distribution of power in higher education means that anti-intellectual and incurious tenured faculty can greatly restrict the potential of promising junior faculty. They successfully manage to marginalize the smartest and most productive full professors in the college; the juniors didn’t stand a chance.

I don’t know when I had become delusional about what was possible, but I had come to my senses. I was broken. I was physically ill and emotionally damaged. My career was severely side-tracked. But I was awake. I had survived my crucible and emerged with the most essential parts of myself pure and intact.

By the time I drove away from Morgantown, WV on June 13, 2012—my own Juneteenth Day—I had begun to heal. I was driving home to Memphis without a job or a place to live. For a brief moment, I felt shame at my monumental failure, but that moment passed almost as quickly as it emerged. (It came back with a vengeance though. That’s a different story.) The WVU experiment produced results. They were not the results I had wanted or expected, but they had value. I learned a few things. I am an excellent teacher. I am a very good advisor. I am still one of the smartest people in the room. I have the ability to stand up and push for change in the face of injustice without flinching. And my diminished capacity is more than many people can muster at full-tilt.

I learned some things. And this series, The Dark Side of First, is my contribution to higher education faculty and administrators. I’ve spent a few hours over the years bitching and moaning with my friends and colleagues. But I’ve never been one to just complain. So, for anyone who’s interested, I offer a few lessons on what the tenure track was like for me and why I liberated myself from it.

In this collection, I will tell a few stories but most offer my analysis of what it means to be a black first in 21st century professional life and what it feels like to be a first as a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of color who is unimpeachably qualified and thus has a target on her back.