Scholars Talk Writing: Patricia A. Matthew
“The failure to support new scholars with stable university positions is the biggest threat to research innovations.”
When I heard Patricia A. Matthew interviewed by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom on a podcast (then called “Hear to Slay” and now “The Roxane Gay Agenda”) on an episode called “We Don’t Have the Same Job,” I got a copy of the 2016 book she edited, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press). And I knew I wanted to ask her some questions for the Scholars Talk Writing series.
Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University. In 2021-22, she was a visiting associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo and she will spend the coming academic year as a fellow at the National Humanities Center working on her manuscript,
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When I heard Patricia A. Matthew interviewed by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom on a podcast then called Hear to Slay (and now The Roxane Gay Agenda) in an episode called “We Don’t Have the Same Job,” I got a copy of the 2016 book she edited, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press). And I knew I wanted to ask her some questions for the Scholars Talk Writing series.
Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. In 2021-22 she was a visiting associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo, and she will spend the coming academic year as a fellow at the National Humanities Center working on her manuscript, Gender, Sugar, and the Afterlives of Abolition, for Princeton University Press. She is co-editing a book series for Oxford University Press (Race in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture) and is under contract to edit the Norton Library edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I spoke recently with her. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In the introduction to Written/Unwritten, you start by discussing the four women at Michigan who were denied tenure and then recount your own tenure battle. When you’re being told that 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 are rarely told to your face that someone thinks you are incompetent, but some colleagues and administrators will treat you as if you are. It can be demoralizing and destabilizing. And it’s difficult to combat that particular kind of dismissal; you simply cannot “prove” you’re competent to people determined to think otherwise. There’s no use trying to appease them. Focus on your work and those who are supporting you in it.
For me, writing is a refuge, even when it’s a struggle. 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’m part of a larger intellectual community and that, somewhere in that community, I know there are people who see and appreciate my work. More practically, a full dossier is a good refutation.
It also helps to pay attention to how people who assume you are incompetent treat other colleagues and especially how they behave in meetings and other professional settings. You almost always see that they tend to be terrible to a lot of people. That’s cold comfort, but in addition to understanding institutional patterns, it can be helpful to see individual patterns, too.
You write that it is “often difficult for faculty in more traditional fields to fully appreciate and assess the value of scholarship in emerging fields.” How do we change the kind of scholarship that “counts”?
Matthew: This problem is, in part, a byproduct of colleges and universities exploiting contingent faculty members. I really believe that the failure to support new scholars with stable university positions is the biggest 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 faculty members — usually overworked and spread way too thin — don’t have the opportunity to learn about work in emerging fields.
This makes it difficult to assess the importance of new journals or an emerging scholar’s impact in a new field. Tenured faculty members also don’t always understand our role in making that work legible across our institutions. Tenure-track faculty members need to strategically advocate for the importance of emerging fields — from the moment we propose a new tenure line, to how we discuss new colleagues’ work formally and informally, to how we write about their work in personnel review documents. We have to let go of the myth that good work speaks for itself, especially since emerging fields are often challenging the foundations and methodologies of established ones.
Faculty members facing review need to be strategic about where they publish their work (I know that’s not easy). They should also talk to senior colleagues they trust and seek advice from established scholars in the field about how to discuss the rigor and impact of their work in the tenure-and-promotion process.
Let’s talk about service and how that can take time away from writing.
Matthew: I have been advising faculty of color to plan their service, especially “diversity” service, the way they plan their teaching. Instead of reacting to institutional crises, the better approach is to have resources ready — bibliographies, names of possible speakers, and alternatives to the dreaded “town hall” — when we’re called on to respond to the latest diversity crisis.
For a time, 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 about how to keep my priorities straight.
You made the brilliant suggestion to make a list on a big white board — or something similarly public — of all the writing projects people need to get done.
Matthew: I confess that I stole the white-board idea after seeing how Tressie organized her project board! I adapted her approach a bit to include a column of the dream essays and articles that I would write if I had a world of time. The dream column reminds me what I am saying no to when I say yes to requests or am about to get pulled into institutional-service swamps. I think it’s important to keep in mind that when you say yes to some things you are most often going to say no to your writing.
I eavesdrop on editors on Twitter. I’m also a big fan of reading books about writing, and not just “get it done” books. I love John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, and recently, when I was complaining on Twitter about struggling with my own work, William Germano kindly sent me his latest book, On Revision. It has 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 attend to their institution’s diversity problems. It drives me crazy, but one Black graduate student explained to me that they want to participate because they believe their experience in the profession will improve if their programs, institutions, and professional organizations are more diverse. My sense 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 take on diversity work owe them — and I’m not just talking about money, though that is certainly ideal. These students are not there to “fix” the institution. They are already making important contributions: They improve its intellectual life by taking classes, participating in graduate assistantships, and finishing their degrees. Asking graduate students of color to do this work while their white peers get to focus on their research and material needs (and build professional currency when they focus on race) is grossly unfair. If institutions insist on asking for this service, they should offer extra summer funding (this is labor), pay membership dues to the graduate students’ professional organizations, and make sure they are getting support they need when they apply for fellowships and jobs.
Do you feel that much has changed for faculty of color since the 2016 publication of your book, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure?
Matthew: I ended Written/Unwritten with a chapter on social media, and I’ve seen how it helps marginalized scholars of color to center their challenges and their strategies for thriving, and build solidarity. It has been particularly interesting to see how STEM scholars of color have used Twitter to announce themselves and share their experiences.
When it comes to how we understand the experiences of faculty of color, I think we’ve moved away from books that collect individual experiences, and we’ve done that because Presumed Incompetent (volumes I in 2012 and II in 2020) did essential work in amplifying the struggles that faculty of color face. Written/Unwritten and a few other books, like Mentoring Faculty of Color (a 2012 edited collection), came about, in part, because of a spate of tenure denials that gained attention before social media was part of the tenure protest machine.
Now we see books like Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s truly pathbreaking The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. This is not simply a “diversity in STEM” book. Chanda understands, as well as anyone, that “diversity” is a mostly bankrupt term and that to think about inclusiveness in a meaningful way we have to pay attention to how we interact with the known and unknown universe and how we talk about our engagement. She wants us to understand that the rhetoric of darkness comes with ideological weight.
In her new book, Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color, Lorgia García Peña reflects on her experience. The book is part memoir, part cautionary tale, and it really is a syllabus for how scholars of color can enact community as resistance. The book is a testament to agency that does not romanticize individual resilience. She has given us an important model for how to reflect on the experiences of scholars who are marginalized by their institution even as it tries to absorb and neutralize what meaningful diversity, by necessity, destabilizes.
I think those of us who are called on to do “diversity work” — give talks, lead workshops, write essays, articles, and books — need to reflect on the efficacy of our work. I understand the appeal of the rousing diversity talk, but I worry we are preaching to the choir and believe those resources can be put to better use. I’m taking the next year to reflect on how I can do this work more effectively.