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Black Women in an Unjust Academy

By Caprice Lawless

Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity by Sekile M. Nzinga. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

In this original and much-needed book, Sekile Nzinga maps the lived impact of the market-oriented practices of contemporary higher education institutions and the opaque ways that they compound inequity for Black women in the twenty-first century. Readers will find themselves traveling the hidden trails that Nzinga and her non-tenure-track colleagues have had to follow and listening to their hushed conversations.

Interviews with Alexis, Annisha, Cha, Charlie, Drena, Maquita, Monique, Niyah, Trice, and Wanda reveal the familiar, sad signposts well-known to precarious faculty everywhere but tinged with an extra dose of pain for Black women: the high hopes at the start of the journey; the lack of mentors and guides; the setbacks of episodic job losses; partners’ job moves that result in relocation and the loss of hard-won ground at this college or that one; the need to rely on food banks, food stamps, and government assistance; the psychological scars of lost self-esteem; feelings of shame, despair, and role confusion; and, for too many, the decision to leave the profession altogether. More important, though, the book documents how uniquely difficult this is for women of color: because of structural racism in the academy and the larger society, these women have fewer resources than other women and have had to be courageous and resourceful to persist. Their stories describe how, often starting in graduate school, Black women face a host of difficulties as they attempt to rise in academia. They are less likely to obtain funding for their graduate programs and so take on more student debt, only to face the hopelessness of contingent faculty positions in disciplines that the academy undervalues.

Nzinga puts individual experiences in the context of neoliberalism as a free-market, bottom-line approach to managing colleges and universities. “It is important to situate contemporary Black academic women’s critiques of higher education even while knowing that ‘neoliberalism is coming for everyone,’” she writes. “By doing so, I seek to highlight the differential impact neoliberal and corporate practices have on subgroups that are experiencing compounded forms of inequity. The women interviewed for this book organically extend the praxis of Black women academics who have come before them, but their analysis offers us an illustration of their racialized and gendered position within this massive economic onslaught on the current academic workforce.”

The introductory chapters set out the familiar causes of the inequity: the neoliberal agenda—with its unilaterally imposed austerity measures and requisite cuts to funding for higher education—and the influence of the Right, which has had catastrophic effects on a generation of academics, including Nzinga. “Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration and including Barack Obama’s Democratic administration,” she writes, “every US president over the past thirty years has sought to balance the federal budget by diverting funds from higher education and simultaneously allowing the deregulation of partnerships between academic institutions and private entities, including banks and financial institutions.”

Nzinga sets out what she calls “four pressure points” that will guide the reader—the graduate school process, faculty appointments, parenting and caregiving as academic women, and attrition—and elaborates on each one in subsequent chapters. The unpaid “academic mothering” as mentors and advisers that administrators take for granted is especially difficult to read about for anyone who is both a mother and a non-tenure-track faculty member. However, it is one of the aspects of the book that will stay with me forever.

Similar to the way Herb Childress structures his recent book, The Adjunct Underclass, Nzinga starts with the familiar aspects of the situation. Like him, she waits until the end of the book to admit that she, too, has given up teaching for a litany of reasons both similar to and different from his. Childress’s struggle cost him his mental and physical health, as well as his first marriage. Despite all the unjust career struggles she has faced as a Black woman in the academy, Nzinga has been able to stay with her partner. She gave birth to two of their three children during her PhD program. Although not granted parental leave in either instance, she “was somehow supposed to be as ‘productive’” as her peers. She finished her program and was successful as a professor in the liberal arts. Even so, she began to devalue her accomplishments and internalize “the academy’s hierarchical messaging about what forms of academic work ‘count’ and ‘matter.’”

That same messaging is mirrored in the experiences of the women she interviews for the book. The rigid expectations of the academy can lead to significant career setbacks. Those, in turn, often lead to lifelong financial burdens from which there is no escape. Nzinga writes, “After 15 years of paying our student loans, they have only ballooned. Now that I have two children in college, I have been forced to take out even more student loans as a result of not being able to save for their college education because we had to pay for child care for three children, repay my and my partner’s student loans, and pay high taxes and a mortgage in order to live in a suburban school district that might give our racially marked children a fighting chance.”

The book is of interest to all scholars, but especially those studying the academic labor movement. Nzinga’s insights add to those whose words have contributed to a metaphorical Guernica of higher education’s war on faculty. Lean Semesters conjures for the reader visions and nightmares through the vivid narratives of each faculty member who shares the author’s story and hope for a tenured position. “For the past four years,” she writes, “I have tried to keep my distance from the bloody guts of this book, but now realize that I have been standing at the scene of the crime this whole time.”

Nzinga urges us to seek justice in the academy proactively. “The women who shared their personal and professional lives with me were aware of the mountains they faced but moved through the world with transformative perspectives about higher education and viewed education as the practice of freedom,” she explains. “In turn, we must demand comprehensive responses from higher education institutions because they have not been passive victims, but instead have been active agents, in the exploitation of their workers and students.”

Lean Semesters describes in abundant detail how Black women contend with extra layers of difficulty as graduate students—only to meet more difficulty in the academy as they try to rise within it. We are losing them. We cannot let that happen. We need them as colleagues and our students need them as mentors and role models.

Caprice Lawless teaches English at Front Range Community College in Colorado, where she is copresident of the state AAUP conference. She previously served as second vice president of the AAUP and currently serves on the Committee on Contingency and the Profession and the Committee on Community Colleges. Her email address is coloradocaprice@gmail.com.

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