Hey friends! This is the third in the series Beyond the Ivory Tower, which I started last year to add some colorful/creative outlets in my reading and writing-heavy PhD life at UC Berkeley while learning more about what it might mean for me to be in academia. In it I interview (and draw portraits of) academics that I admire and respect My hope is that it’ll demystify academia a bit as well, and can become a platform for featuring folks who are doing groundbreaking work within an academic environment where older cisgender heterosexual white men still make up the majority.
After posting the first two interviews, someone on Twitter recommended I interview andré m. carrington and I was excited to learn more about his work! Check out his awesome answers below 🙂
andré m. carrington is Assistant Professor of African American literature at Drexel University. His research explores the cultural politics of race, gender, and genre in Black and American popular texts. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and his first book, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, was just published by University of Minnesota Press. He is a member of the Audubon Society, has served on the board of directors for CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies, and planned the first Queers & Comics conference in 2015.
Miyuki: When did you know that you were going to be an academic? Could you share a story or timeline of the journey you took to arrive at Drexel as an assistant professor? Was it a relatively straight shot or did you take a meandering path to get there?
andré: It was a continuous journey, but the path was longer than it might have been, and curved, so to speak. I figured out in undergrad that I wanted to be an academic thanks to very effective mentoring by a Black feminist professor I’d studied with. I participated in the Mellon fellowship program for undergrads pursuing PhD programs, which aims to diversify the professoriate by helping Black, Native, and Latinx students become good candidates for graduate school admission; it worked, and I did a PhD in American Studies at NYU. The whole world opened up to me intellectually in grad school, and by making friends with other grad students who were committed to socially conscious scholarship and activism, finding mentors, and doing summer teaching to pay my bills, I made it through some very costly years in New York. Part of how I could afford to do that was that I went directly from undergrad to graduate school, which meant I didn’t have to start paying off my student loans until after I earned my PhD. I taught in American Studies at Skidmore College while I was ABD, and I taught for Liberal Studies, a very broad undergraduate core curriculum program at NYU, after I earned my doctorate. This experience was gratifying for me and the skills it provided were practical, but academic departments want to hire people who fit the priorities of their disciplines, for the most part, so my experience as a generalist wasn’t necessarily an asset when I was searching for jobs. Landing a tenure track job was an extremely challenging task, especially because the year I finished my doctorate, the financial market implosion took place, and a number of schools canceled searches for positions I had applied for. In the years since, universities have cut back significantly on hiring tenure-eligible faculty and have de-prioritized their diversity and multiculturalism initiatives, which often provide the momentum for hiring faculty with expertise in the knowledge of people of color.
Miyuki: Given your work starting the Queers and Comics conference last year and your recently published book, it seems like you have an incredible ability to juggle academic work and organizing work that includes folks outside of academia. How do those two worlds complement each other for you and is it difficult to organize/plan your time? Do you have any time management tips?
andré: When organizing and community building efforts that I’ve been involved with have succeeded, it’s probably been a result of listening to and learning from people who do creative and political work outside of institutions like the university, media corporations, and the law. That was definitely the case for Queers & Comics, which was incredibly time consuming but incredibly productive, and for other work I’ve done with CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies. Since I have a reliable job and some access to institutional resources, I try my best to make what I know useful for people who have plans that will benefit from my involvement. One way I find balance between the worlds I move through is by remembering that being an academic is only part of my identity, while no matter where I go, I’m constantly addressed on the basis of what my racial identity and my gender expression mean to the people around me. Remembering that helps me remain comfortable with who I am on the job and recreationally; it helps me make the right kinds of connections with people who can value me for who I am.
I try to take on influences in my life that are healthy and sustaining: this includes deciding when to bow out from work-related socializing or networking events, watching TV shows that my friends recommend, and having friends who aren’t professors. I also try to acknowledge how my job positions me in relation to the other peer groups I move through so that I know what quality time looks like. For instance, sometimes I’m holed up writing or doing course prep and don’t hang out with friends for weeks, but I might have a lot of down time during a given week of an academic term, and then I try to catch up with people I need to see. All the while, I know everyone’s livelihood puts different demands on their schedules and their finances, because I know that’s true for me.
Miyuki: Could you share a brief outline of a typical day or week for you during the semester? For example, is there a breakdown of how much time you spend on teaching, research, and service?
andré: In a typical week during the academic year, I’m on campus teaching two classes per term, anywhere from two to five days a week, but classes are only an hour and change at a time. I usually spend about half the day on campus, four days a week. On a day to day basis, I get up and I have coffee and breakfast, check my email, and log on to social media to see what’s going on, and then I walk my dog.
When I get to my office, I work on class-related stuff first, then any other school-related business; this usually involves answering students’ and colleagues’ emails, scheduling meetings, and reviewing what I’ve assigned in my classes. Most everything I teach, I’ve read many times, but I like to revisit old material and to discover new texts by teaching them. The “other school-related stuff” is what’s classified as “service.” For me, my relationship to the institution I work for doesn’t take shape primarily through administrative activities or committee meetings, but rather, through teaching and through programs on the co-curricular side of the university. These are the features from my undergraduate and graduate education that have the most continuity with my current experience of academia as a professor. For example, I probably participate in four or five panels or roundtable events a year on my own campus addressing issues students care about: LGBT Studies, Intersectionality, political developments like police violence and mobilizations to resist it, presentations with other scholars about our fields of expertise, etc. Some of these are large scale events that take weeks of planning by staff at the university and pull in audiences from outside of Drexel, and others are small affairs, like moderating discussions with the LGBTQA student group, doing a talkback after a student-initiated film screening, or hosting a forum with the local Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity chapter. This kind of work is integral to being a citizen of the university’s community, as far as I’m concerned.
I do most of my research and writing on days that I’m not teaching, or after I’m done with classes on a teaching day, and I’m the most productive between 5 and 10pm. I also do a great deal of research over the summer; that’s when I make the most progress on long-term projects. Research, for me, consists mostly of reading, viewing and listening to media texts, and making notes. Unless I need to use a particular library or archive, I can undertake research or write and edit for a few hours at a time, from home or in the office. It’s a different story when I need to use certain resources at libraries or when I’m facing a deadline to submit something I’ve written.
Miyuki: How long did it take you to write your book? Is it an expanded version of your dissertation work or is it the result of a new direction your research took since teaching?
andré: The book project originated with my dissertation, and it took me about two years after the dissertation just to get it ready for publishers to look at. Though I had a contract that required me to make major revisions over the course of another several years, once I started working in an English department, I had to think more consciously about the language of the different disciplines I address–literary criticism, Media Studies, American Studies, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies–in order to rewrite and reorganize the chapters in ways that would resonate meaningfully for students and scholars. All told, it took about five years, which involved responding to two rounds of peer review with substantive revisions, during which time I was teaching five or six courses a year. Some of us are more fortunate than others in getting time off from our other responsibilities to make progress, and I know that’s why I’ve been able to do more writing in a shorter period of time than many of my colleagues who teach four courses per term. There’s no single way to get it done, but I’m glad I stuck with it for a long as it took and that my publisher made a long-term commitment to getting my work into print.
Miyuki: What moments in academia spark joy for you? What gets you excited to wake up in the morning?
andré: I love discovering something I didn’t know when I’m doing research, and I love telling people about connections I’ve made through things I’ve read. I also absolutely love when students have interpretations of the literature I assign in classes that I’ve never heard them say out loud or read in one of their papers before.
Miyuki: On the flip side, what are the struggles you face within academia that you wish you could change? When do you doubt yourself in academia (if ever)? And how do you overcome these difficulties?
andré: I wish I could change the exploitative dynamics that make work so hard for so many people. Academic jobs shouldn’t be scarce and they shouldn’t be as heavily imbalanced toward contingent labor as they are. Many of my colleagues work on an adjunct or contract basis without continuous job security, with heavier teaching commitments that don’t provide the kind of unstructured time and compensation for research that tenure-eligible positions like mine afford. If more of us could make our living in a less precarious way, this profession and society as a whole would be more equitable, and academic work would be more gratifying for everyone involved.
I don’t doubt my capacity to do the work, but I disidentify with some of the typical qualities through which most academics understand themselves. I think the ideal notion of professional identity that academics are presumed to share is very limiting. In most accounts of the profession as a whole, I find that academics are encouraged to identify with our field, with our gender within a binary, and with some shared notion of social class, all of which make particularly ill-fitting suits for people of color. I would prefer to see academic institutions winding down, in the way that we talk about winding down banks that are too big to fail, so that higher education becomes a less capitalist enterprise more capable of acting in accordance with the intellectual and civic priorities of communities of color. I try to teach and write with these priorities in mind, which is why I’ll evangelize for African American Literature and LGBT Studies at pretty much any opportunity!
Miyuki: What are some non-academic rituals and activities that you absolutely can’t go on without? What or who do you turn to when “shit hits the fan” ;) ?
andré: I like TV and pop music and podcasts, and my faves are just as problematic as the next person; while some of my research finds redeeming value in popular texts, I also know that I’ll be alright if some of the pop culture is beyond redemption. I have Tidal and Twitter and Netflix and Hulu; I’m pretty methodical about keeping up with certain shows this way. I love my dog (I have an Instagram account solely for pictures of him), I love birds (I’m a member of the Audubon society and sometimes I report rare birds I see on eBird), and I have a wonderful partner who is a very practical person in addition to being brilliant. We go see art and we explore nature, we have drinks with friends and share memes on Facebook, we eat pizza and watch Scandal, and we also like reading some of the same books, because we’re nerds. When shit hits the fan, I know I can turn to him and also to longtime friends and mentors. And we like taking a vacation once a year if we can; for my partner and for everyone else who works 9 to 5, getting away and having unstructured time is really healing. Academics can learn a lot from people whose time is structured differently by their work.
Miyuki: How do we as academics make sure we’re engaging with the world?
andré: I think we either know we are or we know we’re not. When I’m unsure whether I’m out of touch in a given situation, I try to reflect on what’s behind the uncertainty–anxiety, stress, or insecurity is usually the issue, so I try to consider the source of those feelings. Twitter is also an active bridge between academics and people located elsewhere, so it provides some indication of whether people outside of our professional circles know what we’re talking about, and vice-versa.
Miyuki: What do you wish you knew when you were in graduate school, or what would you stress the most to current graduate students of color who want to find a tenure track position in the future?
andré: I don’t want to say something as pithy as “publish or perish,” because I think it’s unreasonable to expect graduate students to be ready to publish right out of the gate. Likewise, I don’t think it’s necessary to place too much stock in the abstract idea of what your colleagues are like or what an institutional location will be like for you; you really can’t know about a community in concrete ways until you live and work there, so be open-minded and consider what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis when you start looking for jobs. Being a tenure track professor comes with a fair amount of autonomy, because you’re salaried and free to allocate your own time when it comes to conducting research, but the institutions you will work for may not be any more aligned with your values and interests than a given community organization, creative enterprise, NGO, government agency, or corporation, and it’s important to acknowledge that in order to consider how your work will fit into your life.
For current graduate students who intend to work in tenure-eligible positions in the future, the advice I could provide would be highly individualized depending on the job and the candidate, but I have a perspective that I hope is useful to everyone: you should be pressing your institution to create, renew, and fill tenure lines instead of relying on non-tenure-eligible faculty to meet instructional needs. It’s equally important to support the collective bargaining efforts of non-tenure-eligible faculty, so that job security, living wages, and benefits are available across the board. Particularly for scholars of color, it’s unfortunate that the academic profession seems to be offering fewer and fewer opportunities for secure, remunerative employment producing knowledge and disseminating it in our communities, given the many and varied ways we’ve been systematically excluded from this work, historically.
That said, when I reflect on graduate school, I wish I knew then that I would continue learning so much after I earned my doctorate. I’ve learned how to teach subjects I hadn’t studied before, how to act as a peer reviewer, how to coordinate a conference, how to apply for grants, how to manage the work of grading, how to advise students, and I’ve learned how to collaborate with people who have much more knowledge and experience than I do–that is, I’ve found out that no one needs to be the smartest one in the room, when it’s everyone’s job to be smart–within the past eight or so years. I’m still learning.
Thank you SO much andré for sharing so many great tips and personal stories of balancing your academic and non-academic worlds! I know I learned so much from your answers!
You can follow andré on Twitter @prof_carrington