Sunday, March 10, 2013

Market Madness


My unconventional journey along the tenure track has inevitably led me back to the arduous task of juggling a job search in addition to research and teaching. I admit, I have been an avid reader of advice columns and blogs about the academic market in recent years.  I have had my share of horror stories and interviews from hell as well as experiences with the increasingly popular Skype interview.  Needless to say, the job search has definitely changed since I first got my feet wet as a doctoral candidate with an “in-progress” dissertation.  I feel impelled to share some thoughts—not to be mistaken for advice—on my particular experiences.  Consider them things I’ve learned along the way.

My graduate mentoring about the job market focus solely on scoring the coveted Modern Language Association interview. Well, if you wanted a tenure-track job with benefits and your own office that is.  That certainly is not the case nowadays. There are actually more jobs being advertised post-MLA than ever before.  In fact, some of the jobs in American and African American literature at Research I institutes were advertised in late December and through January with little thought to adhering to the MLA job search schedule. That doesn’t include the number of tenure track jobs announced at smaller, 4-year institutions or liberal arts colleges.  Indeed, it can no longer be said that the job search has no life after MLA.

Apparently, the new hot thing is the academic job wikis.  For all the web heads, this is THE space for up to the minute news/gossip on any particular job search for the current academic year. I only pursued the searches in the Humanities disciplines, most of which have their own dedicated following. It was great to know what moves the search committee was making—interview requests, requests for additional information, when job talks were scheduled.  The wikis really helped to level the playing field and have a one-up on the elusive search committees. I did more information seeking on the wikis than information sharing, but it was still a great tool to have. It just seemed a bit much to register an account and participate when I needed any and all extra energy to be focused elsewhere.  Shame on me. Maybe.

“Fit” applies to both the hiring department and the job-seeking candidate.  With the “shortage” of jobs—or maybe the over abundance of PhDs in the Humanities, it would seem foolish for any candidate to turn down a job offer, right? I’m not so convinced about this one.  We job-seekers can probably fill a bathtub with emails and letters of kind rejection about how we were not the right “fit” or how some other candidate most closely “fit” the needs of the department.  I can dig it. But what I have discovered is that sometimes, the candidate may just need to return that sentiment to the hiring institution.  Depending on your career path, how desperately you need job placement, or how far along you are on the tenure track I would tell anyone to consider how great a fit any department is for their needs as much as the department is considering you. 

I mean, jobs are not a dime a dozen these days but I do think job seekers still have some room to be choosy. That is, weigh all your options and if, in fact, you have several options be sure to completely evaluate all of them.  And in the words of a good colleague of mine, while one offer might  not be the best fit for your long term goals it still may be a “great place to leave”—a stepping stone for achieving the career goals you have set out for yourself.  But if it is absolutely just not a place you can stomach…then, it maybe kinder to leave the job for someone who actually wants it and pursue those other options. Think of it as job search karma.

Lastly, I suppose I will direct my thoughts on another “new” turn in the job search for me.  In my early days (I have to chuckle at that), it was standard to receive a phone call requesting an interview with a particular department.  Out of about 8 interview requests, all but two of them arrived via email.  I actually prefer the email request for time management reasons and to have a written record of the language, but I did find the phone conversations welcoming and more personal.  As a self-declared introvert and shy-guy, I am likely more uncomfortable on the phone than others but I was still a bit surprised at how hands-off the whole process has become.

It is mid-March and I am still actively engaged in the job search with promising options to consider.  I am hopeful that the academic gods will have mercy on my time and teaching and bring this sucker to a swift close.  It has been an eye-opening experience just in the way that the process has changed in a few short years.  I’m actually glad that I decided to get my feet wet again as I feel I am in a much better position to mentor my students on the realities they will inevitably face.  Times, they are a-changing.

A Conscious Choice


My recent junket on the job market has brought forth many reflections on why I chose to pursue a career in academia in the first place.  I think back to the moments in my education when I made conscious choices about what I would and would not do with my graduate training and career.  I distinctly recall the eureka moment when I discovered that I could specialize my research and teaching on the African American literary tradition.  I was just an undergrad, but the realization that I wouldn’t have to spend my graduate years studying dead white men with penchants for ravens or molesting young boys or their female counterparts was life altering. 

I knew I would have to learn the American literature canon to some extent, but I called  myself circumventing that reality by pursuing my Master of Arts in African American Studies rather than English. In my Ph.D program, I managed to take only two courses in American literature—one a directed reading course in which I selected the readings and the other a seminar on the history of Jim Crow and Black Face Minstrelsy.  That seminar focused a great deal on issues of race, so it wasn’t as painful.  The rest of my course work focused entirely on the literature of the African diaspora, save the required course on the History of the English language and a Brit Lit sequence. My comprehensive exams where thoughtfully focused on my primary area, African American Literature and my secondary field, Folklore Studies.  I was pleased with myself at having escaped graduate school without being weighed down with training and courses in a tradition I had relatively little interest in teaching. 

My graduate path was indicative of the course I wanted to pursue on the job market. I was and remain dedicated to the choice not to specialize in the American literary canon. I sought no training in the field and feel no shame or guilt in my lack of expertise.  Sure, I can teach an American literature survey with the best of them—the works have been crammed down my throat for the majority of my formative education. But I can’t help to think about all the scholars, educators, professors, and so on who can declare expertise in British or American literature without ever having studied Hurston, Wright, Ellison, least of all Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Arthur Flowers, or Henry Dumas. They all seem to function just fine in the academy without that knowledge.  So, too can I. Ya feel me?

No one castigates them for any lack or whole in their training.  My conscious choice not to dabble in American literature or to list it as an area of specialty on my CV is both purposeful and political. I don’t want anyone to wrongly assume that African American literature is a sub-field or that it comes secondary to the normative, default position of white, American literature. I want any and all interested parties to recognize that African American literature and culture is the only literary tradition in which I carry expertise.  I want them to be absolutely clear about what it is that I have to offer and for what purpose.

I strategically designed my graduate program around the history, culture, literature and folklore of people of African descent. It was my prerogative to do so and I have been and continue to be extremely happy with that choice. I make no apologies for it as it grants me the privilege of doing work that is at once personally and professionally satisfying.  Besides, isn’t there an over abundance of professors who focus their teaching and scholarship on the American tradition—a tradition that for way too long excluded any writers of non-white origin?  It just does not appeal to me and I think life—especially the academic life—is much too arduous to spin one’s wheel studying in an area simply because it is the default model.      

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Self-Esteem, or Channeling My Inner Nikki G.



A few weeks ago, I received a call from my sister in spirit Daaiyah Salaam.  Daaiyah and I attended college together at Georgia Southern University (the real GSU) and were engaged in a number of social and cultural organizations. At the top of the list was the Black Student Alliance.  Daaiyah served as President of the organization while I was content to deal in the more creative endeavors—like hosting the bi-weekly spoken word sessions we called “Esoteric”.  Dig it.

The nature of sista Daaiyah’s phone call was one of nostalgia. She said she wanted to read something to me.  She began reciting this poem that seemed vaguely familiar.  It wasn’t until about two stanzas in that I realized she was reading my words!!!!  We got a great laugh as we reminisced about Esoteric and our coming into consciousness about our femininity, sexuality, and identities as black women.  The poem was a manifesto of that consciousness.

I recalled the moment that inspired the poem. I was 21, a college graduate, and preparing for my sojourn to attend grad school at UCLA. It was summer. I arrived at a family gathering wearing hip hugging bell-bottom jeans that had come back in style. This was a change from the big, baggy, TLC-inspired wardrobe that had become my signature when I left for college. My adult cousin Joy spotted me first. “Daaaaang, girl. Look at you! Coke Bottle,” she taunted.  

I was well aware of my full hips and up until that point, I had been severely self-conscious of them.  But something changed while I was at GSU.  I had discovered Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Ego-Tripping” and had also discovered that these hips weren’t going any where.  I had also discovered what my mother meant when she said, “Nobody wants a bone but a dog,” to my 14 year old self to assure me that my curvy figure was nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, I wrote about it.

Hearing the words of my twenty-something self reminded me how important it is to have a healthy self-image and to love all of one’s self. Celebrate it, even! I share this poem, inspired by and dedicated to Nikki G. and Joy S. Jones, as a reminder to us all that we can and should create our own aesthetics. 


Coke Bottle (9.8.2001)

Please excuse the conceit

I have a body that’s bangin’ and I want you

To dance to my beat

Never tall and skinny

Enough thigh bone to fill out that mini

Round brown thang

So much sexy I make the sweetest man sang

Mama passed down everything she had

But, she was modest . . . me? I know I’m bad!

All the men stare in awe

Such a lovely sight, even with my many flaws

Among the sistas, I’m an object of envy

Not to worry girls, we all have plenty

Full, silky, soup-coolin’ lips

Jalapeno-pepper, collard green and cornbread hips

Skin dipped in honey so you know I’m delicious

So much booty you can chew it up and blow like bubblicious

Check out my coke bottle figure and Miss America smile

I walk in a room and brothers ask me to have they chile

Slender, shapely legs that will work the hell outta a pair of heels

28 inch waist and a stomach so flat you’d swear I skip meals

Almond joy eyes and licorice lashes

Only a handful of “tatas” but enough to keep my man off those other girls asses

Fly girl supreme

Giving adolescent boys wet dreams

Luscious, succulent brown sugar thighs

Light me up and I guarantee the contact will make you high

All eyes on me like that chic Carmen Jones

Gotta have junk in the trunk because only a dog wants a bone

I’m fine like your grand-daddy’s sweet aged wine

You may choose to disagree -- that’s perfectly alright because I still look good to me

Don’t need Cosmo’s, Allure’s or Seventeen’s approval

It’s those societal norms and standards of beauty that need urgent removal

So again I ask that you please forgive my vanity

I’m in love with myself because trying to look like Barbie would drive me to insanity

Copyright 2002

Kameelah L. Martin

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My First Published Book!!!!


This week I completed reviewing my page proofs and creating the index.  I have approved of the jacket copy and blush at the strong endorsements provided by scholars in the field.  All that is left is for the manuscript to go to press!! I’m dreaming of the UPS man delivering my advanced copies in December—a great birthday present if you ask me! Conjuring Moments in African American Literature will be released commercially in January. I have completed my first monograph!

The journey to publication has been a learning experience.  I didn’t have many issues with losing an editor or fighting for the cover art—all of which I’ve heard horror stories about.  I even decided to go ahead and create the index myself rather than contract a freelancer to do it on my behalf. If you’ll remember, I was torn about that decision in a previous blog.

As it turns out, if you prepare in advance putting the index together isn’t all that troublesome.  It is a tedious process, but at the advice of my colleague Elizabeth West, I did the work of creating the index terms well in advance. When I received the page proofs is was a simply matter of using the appropriate software to do a search for the terms. 

In all, it took me two full days of work to complete it to my satisfaction. I’m not sure whether I’d be willing to entrust that kind of detail and thoroughness to someone who is less familiar with my work.  After all, I’ve invested some years in developing my scholarship and the index is as much a reflection of that as anything else.  Who knows? Maybe for the next project I’ll be more flexible since I am now initiated into the process. 

I am very happy and excited to see this project come to a close in terms of the writing, revising, and other minutia of publication.  I do hope, however, that the life of Conjuring Moments does not end here.  The next phase is promoting and marketing my work---another area in which I’m a novice.  There are no manuals or guides for how one should go about the work of promoting his or her scholarship. I will have to lean on my great circle of mentors and colleagues to assist with that one.  I am looking forward to the critical response to my scholarship as well as the awkward dance of self-promotion!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Let the Circle of Sista PhDs be Unbroken!


As I have continued to make my rounds at professional conferences, summer institutes, and various university campuses I have been overjoyed to learn of all the other thirty-something black female PhDs who are making waves in the academy!  It’s always great to see a friendly face, but to make contact with a friendly face that is reflective of your own experience is exceptionally exciting! My professional “elder” T. Harris once told me to seek out the best and brightest in my field and to make them my professional support network. She advised me to lean on this circle for reading those raggedy drafts, for emotional support when the academy gets to be enough, and for collaboration on other professional projects.  It was a great piece of advice and although she didn’t point to other black women in particular, my black female mind was directed that way by default. That is not to suggest that I am opposed to black male scholars in my circle or even white men and women. I lean on more than a few, but this one is for my ladies. 

I knew some folks in my age range or a bit older with whom I shared similar interests, but the task of building the type of bond T. Harris speaks of has been grounded in more theory than practice. That is, until recently.  As I have encountered black female academics who are still in the early stages of their careers, as am I, I have made a special effort to lend my support and build professional and personal links to these women.  It is a work in progress.  I am a very shy and introverted individual—don’t judge me. Nonetheless, I am happily moving forward with building my network of thirty-somethings. I am so proud to share the academic stage with such fierce and innovative thinkers. Here are just a few of the amazing scholars with whom I have connected or intend to connect. Look out for us:

Therí A. Pickens, Assistant Professor of English (Bates College)

Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. Check out her blog: The Rogue Vogue Professor. Did I mention she isn’t even 30???  Do the math.

Folashade Alao, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies (University of South Carolina)

Her scholarship examines the construction of the Sea Islands as a significant cultural landscape in the black feminist imagination and historicizes the Sea Islands' contemporary emergence as a site of memory.You can find her profile here.

Ayesha Hardison, Assistant Professor of English (Ohio University)

Ford Fellow, MLA Executive Committee Member of the Black American Literature and Culture Division, NEH Summer Scholar. Look forward to her monograph Writing Through Jane Crow: Race, Gender, and Genre, 1940-1954.

Koritha Mitchell, Associate Professor of English (Ohio State University)

She is most well known for her work on the depiction of lynching and racial violence in African American Literature and Drama, Living with Lynching. I can’t wait to see what is next from this scholar.

Aisha Lockridge, Assistant Professor of English (St. Joseph’s University)

A Diva in her own right, Professor Lockridge has crafted an innovative read of the the Diva in African American literature in her recently released book, Tipping on a Tightrope. Her next project will contend with the “magical negress” in popular culture. Read all about her research and teaching here. 

Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

The phrase she coined to describe her scholarship says it all: “Haute Couture Intellectualism.” I haven’t met this scholar yet, but her work on black women, respectability, and adornment sounds like a project that is well over due.


I will admit, with many of these women I do have a professional relationship and I am unabashedly promoting their work just for the sake of exposing others to the scholarship of other black female PhDs of a certain age.  Isn’t that, after all, also part of the professional life? Get to know them and support their work!!!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Beyoncé as Black Feminist Subject


As part of the amazing and generative energy cultivated during the NEH Summer Institute, I signed on to contribute to a project on urban fiction in visual and popular forms.  As the title probably informs you, I have committed to tackling Beyoncé Knowles and the “urban fiction” that has been created by her performance persona, music videos, and so forth.  It’s a bit of a daunting task, but I was inspired to think of Beyoncé critically during Eve Dunbar’s lecture and discussion of hip hop, pornography, and black women. 

We read an essay that attempted to position my girl B as an agent of post-Katrina feminist activism. As I began reading the essay, I kept an open mind. I thought, “Okay. Maybe this will work. Let’s see how she will lay out the argument”.  The essay left me unconvinced.  I did walk away, however, thinking that Beyoncé was saying and doing something important for young black women. I just wasn’t sure what exactly. 

We chopped up the usual criticisms of Beyoncé as narcissist, her overt consciousness of her body as visually pleasing, playing up her French “creole” roots, and of course, there were lengthy comments about her playing the role of prostitute—supplying her viewers with whatever fantasy (usually sexual) they desire. 

As our conversation parsed out the holes in the essay and we placed our critical gaze upon B’s video for “Déjà vu;”  I was struck by the metaphor of the prostitute and how that has all sorts of implications for black female sexuality.  I began to consider her body of work and what, if anything, Beyoncé is telling us about black female sexuality—or even her own.  What narrative of sexuality does  Beyoncé weave when considering her various performances—both entertainment performances and the performance of her public persona--as hood rat (think, Destiny’s child “Solider”), whore (“Déjà vu”), and wholesome (wife, mother)??

This is the question that is at the center of my burgeoning project. Now, I will be the first to confess I am a fan.  I know the lyrics, I know the choreography, and I know her story. I have paid to see her perform a time or two. You don’t know Beyoncé until you have seen her stage show. I am still thinking through my ideas and what I ultimately think of Beyoncé's urban fiction.  I want to believe and argue that there is something powerful at play in the Beyoncé imaginary. I think that she just may surprise us by offering a transformative view of black female sexuality that is neither confined by social standards nor bearing the weight of the slave experience.  How active an agent she is in constructing such a narrative is another question altogether.

What I saw in the “Déjà vu” video was an invocation of another black female icon that disrupts binaries—particularly as it relates to Africana women’s sexual experience during slavery.  I will save the rest of my thoughts for the book chapter, but know that I am anxious to work through this project and to center Beyoncé as a black feminist subject.            

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Single Black Female…..Mother.


I have heard much discussion about and have even experienced some of the difficulties of being a career-oriented woman. The balance of work and quality of life---which often means family—is not always easy to maintain.  One has to consider if and at what point marriage and child-bearing (and the thankless task of childrearing) will enter into the equation. Before of after tenure? Are you being justly compensated for the same work as your male counterpart? And maintaining the boundaries between the personal and the professional lives is always at the forefront---at least these are many of the concerns I have shared in my young career.  I’m sure many of my female colleagues would agree that this is pretty normal  stuff for us.  It’s part of the social inheritance of being a working woman. We just have to charge it to the game and work it out to the best of our abilities.  Most of us fare pretty well.

What I have heard less discussion about is the murkier waters of the career woman who has made it past many of the initial hurdles of securing a job, finding a partner, publishing, and procreating only to discover that the universe had something else in mind.  For whatever reason, career woman is now a single parent.  Now, the everyday tasks of raising a child aren’t really the challenge. There is certainly some adjustments to be made but we’re talking about Ph.Ds---career woman doesn’t miss a beat in that arena. But single parenthood creates all sorts of other interesting challenges for Lady PhD that I’m just dying to know about.

You see, I have found myself in this very predicament. The issue? How does one continue on with the business of academia as a single, black female mother?  In my previous life, I maintained an active presence with my professional organizations.  Usually I attend a minimum of two conferences a year.  Now that I am sans spouse, that seems like an impossibility.  Sure, I hear of parents who bring their children to conferences and expose them to the academic life.  They make all the claims that it is great for the child’s development.  I’m sure it is.

But you see, my current institution doesn’t pay me enough to incur the cost of flying my child to the conference site.  And to be fair, I don’t see my son sitting quietly in the audience as I present.  I’m just saying, you have to know your children and little man is much too….shall we say inquisitive for that. And further more, when I’m conference hopping, I’m always “at work” and I’m just not of the mind to bring my 4 year old into the work space. It’s cute and totally acceptable for other folks. I love to see kids in those spaces, but for the record---I’m just not that person. I prefer not to mix the two. Call it a personality quirk.  Rather than polling for answers to my unique situation, I am much more interested in how other single parents—and I am not privileging mothers—who are also academics maneuver through the minefield.

Conference attendance is just one issue—but it is pretty important to a young, burgeoning scholar such as myself.  Conference attendance is one of the forums through which I stay current in my field.  It is a very important part of my professional development.  What about others? I anticipate going on the job market this year—how on earth will I navigate invitations for a campus interview when I have no childcare solution for pre-school age kid? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill or are there other professionals who have had to alter their professional paths due to unforeseen life changes? And if so (as I just can’t imagine there hasn’t been) why aren’t people talking about it!!!???? I am all about making the necessary adjustments to make life livable and work doable—I just don’t know what they are.

I don’t have any answers. I am navigating each situation as it reveals itself. But I am seeking community—others with shared experience who might provide some insight.  After all, that is how we do things around here….right?