“Mentors, allies, activists – what it takes to change a profession”

By Carolyn (Collie) Fulford, North Carolina Central University

Collin Lamont Craig and Staci Maree Perryman-Clark give us much to consider in their critique of the ways racism and sexism have obstructed their involvement in the intellectual community of WPAs. Their narrative and analysis illuminate the impediments to full authority and inclusion that other new and aspiring WPAs may face. Their work thus provides stimulus for CWPA members to confront the ways this organization may unintentionally marginalize colleagues. We have a responsibility to create a profession that is more “habitable” (52) to more of us.

Mentors? To cultivate a more egalitarian profession, perhaps the relationships we need are not necessarily the unidirectional guidance flowing from senior-WPA–to-junior-WPA that is implied by the word “mentor.” For instance, Craig and Perryman-Clark courageously tell it like it is from the graduate WPA end of the seniority spectrum, calling their more established colleagues to the task of cultivating a deeper and broader hospitality. In so doing, are they not mentoring CWPA elders? I’m not saying that advice from experienced members of the field isn’t vital for acclimating newer folk, just that authority regarding matters of diversity need not be determined by seniority.

Allies. I borrow this perspective on the potential fluidity of mentoring roles from the ways the notion of ally has evolved in the queer activism community. Individuals are positioned in a matrix of oppression and privilege, and thus a person can function as an ally to those oppressed in other ways than s/he, and can hope that those who are not affected by the same oppressions s/he endures will nevertheless make themselves aware and do the right thing. To apply this to the current discussion, faculty in any privileged, normative position (whether by virtue of tenure status, race, gender, sexual identity, or what have we) need not wait for members of a minority to mentor them on the nature of oppressive situations. Case in point: I am a queer WPA planted in a highly heteronormative department. When straight colleagues publicly express solidarity against queer-hostile actions or policies, especially when they do so unprompted, I feel a whole lot less alone. Conversely, I must use my racial and tenure-track privileges to become an ally to contingent faculty and students, staff, and colleagues of color. (See Vikki Reynolds’s explanation of the complexities and imperfections involved in ally work.)

Activists. Allies may mitigate the isolation of colleagues whose identity is marked. But allies can’t substitute for actually diversifying our profession. What can we do, then? Recommendations created by a committee of the Association of Departments of English offer practical strategies for inviting and retaining more African Americans into English studies. I particularly like their long view. They focus on mentoring promising undergraduates and creating a hospitable and fair working environment for faculty of color so that the community of scholars can become more sustainably diverse. We can adapt their tactics for WPA development, embracing “Affirmative Activism” as an ethical and pragmatic means for redressing many inequalities embedded in our own profession.

That’s hard work, but we are not alone in it.