I keep hoping that I’m not becoming one of those old folks who is constantly chastising the younger generation for the failure to live up to mine but recently I have been noticed something particularly disturbing about the next generation of scholars. They are truly self-involved!
Now I know that part of academic culture requires scholars to toot their own horns. We’re supposed to cite ourselves and try to publish singly authored books and articles. But, we were also taught a bit of ancestor worship. I first came across that notion as a graduate student. As I was working on a literature review my anthropology adviser quipped, “We’re not that different from traditional cultures; we believe in ancestor worship, too. We just call it reviewing the literature!” However, it was not merely remembering to cite my Stanford professors to which I am referring. It was remembering all of those senior scholars who gave me a push of encouragement or who literally pulled me along.
I remember the senior scholar who I once had lunch with who told me, “You’re going to have to come up with an ‘original’ idea, word, or concept to get tenure at a research intensive university. Just make sure you give proper attribution to all of those who helped you come up with the idea…no matter how incidental their contribution.” I never forgot that piece of advice and whenever I write something I try to acknowledge the work of those scholars…particularly those Black scholars who were much more constrained than I was in the development of their work. They were the trailblazers, the forerunners, the pioneers who were often the “one and only” in their departments, schools, and colleges.
The other thing I learned from a senior Black scholar was that my only REAL legacy would be the students I helped to nurture through the doctoral gauntlet. I will not be an active scholar forever. I will move out of the academy and my real legacy will be all of those students who can look at their dissertation and see my name on the front page next to the word “adviser.” When I think of all of the “hot shot” scholars that are out here trying to make a name for themselves I always ask, “Who is studying with him/her? Who are they bringing up behind them?” For many of the biggest names of New Jack scholars I cannot call to mind any young scholars they are bringing along.
I am weary of all of the Young Turks who stand up in professional settings and basically declare themselves “self-made” and self-sufficient. They are not actually nurturing the next generation; the are marketing themselves. For the most part they are careerists whose only interest is in how many seminars and consultancies they can headline. Their role as advisers and teachers is of a lower priority than advancing their names. One of their trademarks is the self-referential nature of their work. Typically they don’t bother me…no they’re more likely to ignore me. But I’ve watched them cut each other down publicly in ways that are destructive and in the end counter-productive.
I’ve been able to have a good career because I had a cohort of scholars who helped one another. We pulled each other in on every major project we proposed. We not only helped our students, we helped each other’s students. We created a sense of family in the midst of the hostility of the academy. Because our students saw us do that, many of their students came to us because what they saw among the generation we raised up was cutthroat and more reminiscent of the way dominant, oppressive scholars did their work.
Every generation of Black people talks about how Black people “need to work together.” We have never been successful following the “Lone Ranger” route. Each of us in the academy needs to evaluate our behavior and ask ourselves who we have helped (in the past), who we are helping (right now), and what our plan is for helping someone (in the future). It can’t just be about me, me, me!
Stay Black & Smart!