In March (28-29) I attended the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy Conference, which was hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This conference brought together faculty, graduate students, and post-docs “for professional development, personal development, and community building.” Through workshops and various discussions, the conference sought to identify challenges within the academy for women of color and suggest strategies to deal with working and succeeding in the academy. Although often cited as one of the best careers, a career as a college professor can be quite stressful.
Friday’s Keynote Address was by Nell Irvin Painter, distinguished historian and professor emerita from Princeton University, who provided suggestions on navigating the academy. She gave us the benefit of her experience and wisdom, and I was determined not to miss a word. Then, on Saturday, I attended a workshop that was presented by Carmen G. González, professor at Seattle University School of Law and one of the editors of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Both of these scholars offered sage advice and coping strategies. One of the themes repeated during their presentations and throughout the weekend was that women need to build networks of support in order to prosper. Their wise counsel took me to a less than scholarly place, however. These professors gave the same advice as one of my favorite comedians, Katt Williams.
People of color can find themselves feeling quite isolated on their campuses. To cope with the isolation and stress of academic life, Prof. Painter emphasized the need or collective support. She cautioned us not try and deal with academic life alone. Instead “you need your own ‘posse.'” (Yes, Nell Irvin Painter said posse!) This posse, for example, may include friends, mentors, congenial colleagues, older women, administrative staff, sorors and church members. You need to have a friend who will listen–without interruption–when you have had a bad day. You need people who can offer good career advice. In short, you need a group of people who will defend you when you need it and support you when you need it. While it is helpful if you and the members of your posse work at the same institution, it is more likely that at least some of them will not.
Similarly, Prof. González stressed the need for collective responses to life in the academy by building alliances. These alliances can be cross-generational (with mentors and sponsors); horizontal (with peers from your department or university); or cross-border (with people outside your department or university).
In much more colorful language, but with the same message, Katt Williams gives similar advice in his 2008 stand-up comedy DVD It’s Pimpin’ Pimpin’. This comedy show is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Williams riffs on everything from Pres. George Bush to Michael Vick and Brittney Spears. But “Jesters do oft prove prophets.” Williams contends that we have to be a bit more selfish and take care of ourselves. After all, YOU are your “number one star player.” So, “make sure you got your team set up” because you will need four or five people who will “jump in and block bullshit” during a crisis.
America is a country that celebrates individualism, but it’s clear to me that there are times when we will all need a little support from our friends, no matter what careers we’ve chosen. Each one of us needs a posse. I’m fortunate enough to have a posse that includes my husband, former professors, friends from graduate school, sorors, and former colleagues. Who’s in your posse?