Pandemic Advice for BIPOC Junior Faculty: Balance, Connection, Confidence

Citizens & Scholars staff sat down this past fall with both Mellon and Career Enhancement (CEF) faculty alumni to discuss current challenges for underrepresented junior faculty. Dr. Ben Vinson CEF ‘01, Dr. Jennifer Nash CEF ‘13, Dr. Faustina DuCros CEF ‘17, and others shared their views on the relationship between institutions and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) faculty during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, junior faculty from underrepresented groups have frequently been asked to take on additional labor within their departments—often disproportionately so, because of the well-documented problem of identity taxation—and this phenomenon continues. For example, Dr. Vinson notes, There are still the encumbrances that come with a heavy mentoring load.” BIPOC faculty bear other familiar and longstanding burdens as well: “There’s still a lack of understanding and appreciation for some of the fields of inquiry of some of our scholars who are underrepresented,” he says, as well as possible feelings of isolation and alienation from the community and institution. “One has to appreciate the time that it takes for one to socialize into these university communities, so the structures can be in place—but that doesn’t mean an overnight inclusive atmosphere.”

Change can be frustratingly gradual and uneven, Dr. Vinson adds, even at institutions deeply committed to inclusion. It is a process that takes work, and one or two slips can really hurt that work, despite the strongest efforts,” he says. When “a small pitfall magnifies, its impact on a small group of scholars also magnifies, [and that] can affect a whole university community. Unfortunately scholars may look for an exit out of that institution—and sometimes, let’s be honest, before that university has developed the full ability to show its desire to support that member.”

Reiterating Dr. Vinson’s concern about alienation and isolation, Dr. Nash observes that the pandemic exacerbates this concern. She believes junior faculty are feeling disconnected to [their] campus community, colleagues, and mentors because of the remote format.” The intellectual, emotional, and financial repercussions of the pandemic, she points out, also pose uniquely difficult obstacles for junior faculty: a lack of access to archives for research, constraints on space and time for intellectual work, the demands of childcare (which universities are not adequately addressing), layoffs and pay freezes, and other factors that leave faculty feeling financially squeezed. She sees these as the most pressing issues for faculty during COVID-19. 

The move to remote teaching has recently tenured CE Fellow Faustina DuCros concerned not only for her colleagues, but also for her students of color, who have also felt the stress of transitioning to online platforms. “We serve a high proportion of first-generation and students of color, as well as working and parenting students,” says Dr. DuCros. “Our students are also needing more support from their instructors to manage the changes in teaching and learning on top of shifts in their own personal circumstances. Many of these challenges are particularly amplified for BIPOC faculty members.”  Moreover, concerns over the impact of social justice issues and climate change are front and center for colleagues at her California-based institution. “Navigating the tenure clock and dealing with the uncertainties of COVID-19, racial upheaval, and wildfires in our area—all this is creating added stress for junior faculty,” she adds. “This is especially the case if the tenure requirements are not laid out clearly in institutional documents.”

While these challenges loom large, say these Fellows, progress has also been made. The blueprint is there, Dr. Vinson suggests, and can allow for both individual relief and collective change, so long as institutions remain diligent and faculty remain patient. “We  have to make sure that junior scholars are actively trying to seek out those resources that they need,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes given the dynamics of a department, the power of a chair, the power of certain faculty members in a department. [Junior scholars] need champions who may not be in their department—maybe outside of the department or in the larger scholarly community—to help them see how to navigate.”

“This is why these fellowship programs are essential,” Dr. Vinson adds, “because they create that cohort and those networks.”

Dr. Nash emphasized the importance of taking advantage of pandemic-related tenure clock extensions, urging faculty to “collaborate with junior and senior colleagues to demand this” from their institutions if not already offered. However, as one current junior faculty member remarked, this is only a temporary fix, whereas the impact of the pandemic will be long-term. “I’m hoping that these [tenure clock extensions] are just starting points, because faculty are facing ongoing struggles that do not have a one-year time limit. Once research faces stoppages and slowdowns like the ones we are seeing, we are going to have to account for the time that starting up again will take in the midst of recovering from the trauma we have collectively experienced.”

Junior faculty should also make an effort to stay connected with colleagues and be transparent about their needs, says Dr. Nash. “Connect with your chair and senior colleagues (over Zoom, of course) to stay plugged in, and discuss openly the challenges to your research posed by COVID, the demands of remote teaching, and these other pressures,” she encourages. “Try as much as you can to stay connected to people who support you, nourish your soul and brain.”

While this time has been exceptionally challenging, it also presents opportunities for junior faculty. “In this particular moment, I will always go back to the gift of time,” says Dr. Vinson. “All fellowship opportunities, all these things that can buy a faculty member some time, whether that’s internal or external—faculty members should be seeking those. In some ways, time is more important than money in the early stages because it can catapult a career forward.”

In addition to time, Dr. DuCros highlights the importance of support from senior colleagues, and self-care for junior faculty. I’m hoping that junior faculty have been finding ways to be supported in their various on- and off-campus communities so that they are not facing these challenges alone,” says Dr. DuCros. “Academia can be so isolating in the best of circumstances. I’d recommend junior faculty to take up any offers of support coming from senior colleagues…Try to cultivate a supportive group of off-campus friends or of peers at your institution so you can vent when impossible circumstances peak. All of this still needs to be paired with treating self-care as a priority.”

At the end of the day, these more senior Fellows agree, current Fellows should trust themselves and their training.Come what may, their path is going to be a good one. They are as prepared as one can be for the road ahead,” said Dr. Vinson.  “It may look very different from scholar to scholar, but I think that just knowing the background of the cohort of Fellows, everyone’s qualified for a grand slam in the academy.”


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