Facing the Data: Introduction

Our introduction’s title, “Facing the Data,” signals the twofold aim of this special section of Profession: to assess the statistics documenting people of color in humanities doctoral programs, given in the MLA report Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity, and to bring into focus the faces of those composing the report’s data. Initial engagement with the report began with meetings of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada (CLPC) and continued in Seattle with the 2012 MLA convention panel “The Faces behind the Data,” sponsored by the CLPC (of which we are both former cochairs). Inspired to continue the dialogue begun in Seattle, we invited a number of respected scholars to “face the data” while speaking to the faces behind the report in short responses thematically fashioned by their own design. This section is indeed part and parcel of the report as “a call and a context for textured anecdotal reports from faculty members and campuses” (1).

The three essays that follow thus make a range of critical arguments about underrepresented communities in the humanities and in the profession more broadly. In her contribution, Dana A. Williams offers an insightful view of the interrelation between the humanities and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Answering what she considers the report’s call for “more contextualized and textured narratives to accompany the data as text,” she proposes that we take seriously the curricular strategies offered at HBCUs to help “lead the way to critical reforms of American higher education.”

Although HBCUs are clearly accounted for in the data, Robert Warrior ponders the lack of Native American representation in them, a lack symbolized by “double crosses” or “double daggers.” He sees in the report an alarming reflection of Native American “statistical insignificance” in United States government data. In response to the discouraging data with regard to Native scholars, Warrior offers recommendations (such as allocating resources specifically dedicated to studies on Native participation) to ensure those scholars’ continued representation in literary studies. The anecdotal information he tenders counterbalances the glaring numerical absence and thus bolsters his insistence that statistical insignificance must not “limit the extent to which MLA refers to diversity in the profession.”

Despite the minimal gains made in diversifying the ranks of the academy, indicated in the report, Frances R. Aparicio challenges us to consider the delicacy of encouraging students of color to pursue doctoral work by asking, “How can we, scholars in the humanities and foreign languages, urge minority students to join us at a time when the economic crisis steers students toward more lucrative fields?” She has worked with students who, notwithstanding the challenges faced in the academy, aspire to “become producers of humanistic knowledge” and whose careers we have a hand in building.

Each essay, although distinct in concern and approach, is linked to the others by the anecdotal impulse its author embraces in addressing the data. Where do those people of color who go on to become faculty members earn their undergraduate degrees? It is this question posed in the report that we wish to answer with the help of some thick description. Therefore, in the spirit of the Seattle panel and in line with the contextual and textured narrative approach taken up by the contributors, we each offer a short response of our own, given the relation of the report to our respective careers as professors in the humanities.

Response 1: Nwankwo

“You’ll go on to graduate school and become an English professor.” So said Professor Donald B. Gibson to me during my sophomore year at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. The idea sounded remotely interesting, emphasis on remote because I really had no idea how I would do that or even whether I wanted to do that. After all, I was in INROADS, the internship program with the mission statement, “to develop and place talented minority youth in business and industry, and prepare them for corporate and community leadership.”1 I was majoring in economics and Spanish. Becoming an English professor had never crossed my mind. Correction: it had never crossed my mind until Dr. Gibson mentioned it.

By the end of my sophomore year I had declared a double major in English and Spanish. Economics was gone. My senior year came down to a choice: Was I going to accept the job offer I had from a corporation or one of the offers I had from PhD programs in English? I felt confident that I knew what it would take to do well at the corporation. I didn’t really know what I would need to do or be expected to do in the PhD programs. That prospect was intellectually exciting but daunting. I knew I loved poetry. (I had been performing the work of Louise Bennett and Federico García Lorca since the beginning of high school and dreamed of comparing Phillis Wheatley’s verse with that of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.) I knew I loved learning about new cultures and languages. (By the age of thirteen, I had taken two years of French and three of Spanish. In addition, I had grown up with a grandfather who regularly regaled me with the Portuguese, Spanish, and other words he had picked up during his years as a Jamaica Railway stationmaster.)

As I talked with my mentors at Rutgers and reflected on my long-held passions, I became progressively more excited about pursuing a PhD in literary studies and becoming a professor. Would I be able to think about, read, learn, teach, and do research on literature day in and day out and get paid for it? Would I have the opportunity to spend my days creating programs and projects that would help circulate information about issues of literature, locally and globally? How could I not jump at the chance? The sage Donald Gibson was right. I graduated from Rutgers in 1994, went on to earn my PhD in English, and in 1999 joined the ranks of tenure-track faculty members. As the years went on, I realized that when Dr. Gibson made that statement, he was also announcing his commitment to doing all he could to help me achieve that future.

Rutgers is fifth on the list of institutions of higher education whose black baccalaureate degree recipients went on to obtain PhDs in the humanities between 1997 and 2006. I am one of the sixteen faces behind that piece of data. As I look back on my years at Rutgers, it is no surprise to me that my alma mater ranked so high in the MLA report (Data, table 1b): faculty members and administrators at Rutgers fought to create and sustain an environment that nurtured and nourished students of color as human beings, as intellectuals, and as citizens. During my years at Rutgers, crucial elements of this environment were the presence of noticeable numbers of black and Latino/a faculty members, junior and senior; faculty investment in the growth of undergraduates so that as citizens they could think critically about the world around them as well as about texts; faculty members of color who embodied a diversity of models for political engagement and took divergent positions on the degree to which academic work was or should lead to it; an approach to degree requirements that made it easy for students to gain in-depth knowledge in their majors while also engaging in sustained course work in interdisciplinary and ethnic studies programs; support for student organizations and other on-campus spaces in which students could gain, hone, and refine their understanding of what being an engaged and productive citizen means; the presence of administrators of color at a range of levels in the institution; the willingness of university administrators to mentor students of color and to work with them in innovative ways to develop, exercise, and refine the students’ critical thinking, community engagement, and leadership skills. There were professional and psychological costs to faculty members and administrators entailed by this labor, sacrifices that were not apparent to me as an undergraduate student but that I now recognize and deeply appreciate.

The presence of several black faculty members, junior and senior, in the English department at Rutgers made seeing—and, by extension, thinking about becoming—an English professor a perfectly natural thing for my fellow black students and me. Among the department faculty members were Donald Gibson, Cheryl Wall, Wesley Brown, Abena Busia, and Judylyn Ryan. Renée Larrier, of the French department, had an important influence on me, even though I never met her while I was at Rutgers. Just seeing her walk across campus every day mattered, reminding me that a black woman could be a professor of French—or of any field. These faculty members taught us, whether they knew it or not, by what they did professionally outside class as well as in class. Busia, for example, organized and hosted the annual African Literature Association conference during my time at Rutgers. This event intensified my interest in becoming a scholar, in being able to do research about Africa and its diaspora, publish that research, and participate in thought-provoking conversations like those I heard at the conference.

In addition, that all English majors were required to take African American literature made it clear to everyone that black writers mattered, in the literary world in general and at Rutgers in particular.

Thanks to the way the degree requirements were constructed, I was able to take life-changing classes in other departments and engage in conversation with black faculty members in other departments, including Deborah Gray White (history), Kim Butler (Africana studies), Gayle Tate (Africana studies), and Karla Jackson-Brewer (Africana studies). My taking classes in interdisciplinary programs and departments also played a role in leading me to graduate school.

The relation between blackness and Latinidad interested me. Like many other anglophone Caribbean people, I had grown up hearing that I had ancestors who journeyed to Latin America early in the twentieth century to find work. What I didn’t know was that exploring that relation could be the focus of a career, the subject of one’s scholarly research and teaching. Gerard Aching’s presence in the Spanish department opened my eyes to this possibility. My awareness was heightened by courses in the Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean studies department, including one that introduced me to José Luis González’s powerful analysis of race in Puerto Rico, “El país de cuatro pisos” (“The Four-Storeyed Country”). My regular conversations with Tom Stephens about bilingualism as well as about race and ethnicity in Latin America stoked my intellectual fires. Marcy Schwartz’s seminar Latin American Displacement and Exile further enriched my intellectual toolbox by introducing me to critical theory from and about our America.

The Spanish department was crucial to my growth, because faculty members like Margo Persin were supportive of and invested in students who were excited about their courses, regardless of their race or areas of interest, regardless of whether her time spent with these students would advance her career. George Kearns in the English department was Persin’s twin soul in this respect. Ronald Christ, then English department chair, supported my interest in crafting an independent study that would help me research various university-linked career paths. Along the way, he gave me a copy of the special issue of World Literature Today he had edited, and it was my introduction to academic journals.

Supportive administrators were vital to creating the environment that led me to pursue a PhD. Marie Logue, dean of students, was open to student ideas about new ways in which her office could support their dreams. Her openness made it possible for Dean George Ganges to create a student affairs internship for and with me. One of the programs we developed allowed a faculty member and a small group of students to attend a play at Crossroads, a world-famous black theater company. The help of administrator mentors like Wally Torian, adviser to the Paul Robeson Special Interest Section, which I chaired for two years, and Ed Ramsamy, residence coordinator for the dorm that housed this section, was important.2 (Ramsamy was a doctoral student himself at the time and eventually ended up becoming a faculty member in the Africana studies department.) The value of having high-level university administrators of color invested in connecting with and mentoring undergraduates became most clear to me with the arrival of Roselle Wilson, a black woman who joined the university as vice president for student affairs. Wilson regularly and willingly spent hours with me sharing her wisdom, answering all my questions about the life of a university administrator of color, and challenging me to think critically about the world around me as well as about my vision for my future.

The report Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity provides valuable numbers—among them, the number of black Rutgers alumni who earned PhDs between 1997 and 2006 (table 1b), which indicates an environment that encouraged black students to pursue graduate study. It also hints at the difficulties faculty members of color face when they endeavor to create an environment that will nourish both them and their students. It shows, for example, disparities among faculty members by race and ethnic identity: in average age at tenure (39.3 for white, 41.5 for black, 42.2 for Hispanic [table 9]), in average hours per week spent on unpaid tasks (4.8 for white, 6.0 for Hispanic, 7.5 for black [table 11]), and in average hours per week spent on paid tasks (46.3 for white, 41.5 for Hispanic, 40.1 for black [table 11]). These numbers demand that we dig deeper, that we gather and listen to the stories of the people behind the data. It is only through that kind of work that we will be able to understand the productive actions and painful sacrifices that led to the data points. Only then will we be able to reduce the disparities and make the sacrifices unnecessary.

The data quantitatively encapsulate the actions of individuals and institutions, as well as the interactions between them. We, the individuals behind the data, now have the opportunity and, many of us would say, the obligation to try to inspire our students the way Dr. Gibson inspired me. The institutions represented in the report also have opportunities and obligations before them. The data present a multitude of possible departure points for institutional conversation and action, including attending to the aforementioned sacrifices. No individual or institution is perfect. The commitment showed me by Dr. Gibson and the many faculty members and administrators at Rutgers was an index not of perfection (mine, theirs, or Rutgers’s) but rather of an unrelenting determination to make a difference in the lives of students in general and of students of color in particular. We, individuals and institutions, can and should all strive to be as committed and determined.

Response 2: Rodríguez

When I first read the MLA report Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity, what caught my attention especially and held it longer than any other item was the table documenting the institutions that sent the most undergraduate students to graduate school in the humanities between 1997 and 2006 (table 1). Under the category “Hispanic” (a term by which I often find myself interpellated despite its historical and identificatory complications), the institution boasting the highest number of students who went on to pursue doctoral study is the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. This fact calls for a discussion of the socioeconomic differences between Puerto Rican students from the island as compared with those from places like New York and Chicago, but here I focus on the second institution on the list, the University of California, Berkeley, which is where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in English.

I arrived in Berkeley in the summer of 1989 as a student in Summer Bridge, a program designed to give underrepresented students a running start before their first semester. I don’t recall the precise number of Summer Bridge students enrolled that summer, but I do remember thinking that the university was indeed as diverse as the materials in my acceptance folder declared (this perception was significantly altered once the fall semester began). Being almost four hundred miles away from home in Santa Ana without a friend or relative nearby, I came to rely on peers who became friends and eventually extended kin after the eight-week program. What also sustained me was the willingness of graduate and advanced undergraduate students to provide healthy doses of mentorship that I consider the key to my baccalaureate success. And despite being told by a high school English teacher that Berkeley professors would be unapproachable, I soon met a number of them who were generous with their time and saw the importance of undergraduate mentorship.

Before the spring semester of my first year, I came to realize that Berkeley was the ideal place for a future scholar of ethnic and Latino/a literary and cultural studies because of the professors working there. I enrolled in four literature courses (and as a result deferred taking many general education courses until later in my undergraduate career). Why so many literature courses for a first-year student? I learned that I could get a degree in doing what I loved most, reading and writing, and that there was institutional value in writing about the things I was passionate about. Scholars and mentors like Genaro Padilla, Barbara Christian, Norma Alarcón, and Alfred Arteaga made sure that their students, many of them first-generation students of color, were aware of the possibility of pursuing a career in the humanities. Informing us about opportunities such as the Minority Summer Research Exchange Program (MSREP), they also provided the guidance and mentorship required for us to transition from undergraduate to graduate studies. They taught us how to take thinking and writing to the next level and demonstrated that academic labor demanded serious commitment and the acceptance of responsibility.3

I can’t name every student of color with whom I shared classroom space during my four years at Berkeley and who went on to earn a doctorate in the humanities and eventually tenure at places like the University of Southern California; the University of California, Santa Cruz; Princeton; California State University, Los Angeles; the University of Illinois, Chicago; and the University of California, Los Angeles—the very students who make up the statistics documented in the MLA report—but I will say that we were all fortunate to have faculty members of color guide us toward doctoral study. From providing frank advice at Minority Undergraduate Students in English (MUSE) gatherings to delivering lectures at weekly meetings of Other Voices, a faculty-supported course for which advanced undergraduate students facilitated discussions on the topic of that week’s lecture, the Berkeley professors we studied under were pivotal in sending us to PhD programs.

The vibrancy of the campus community at this historical moment had a great deal to do with my and my peers’ decision to pursue literary and cultural studies. Berkeley at the time claimed an ethnically diverse first-generation student population, which of course would diminish with the passage of Proposition 209, the ballot initiative ending affirmative action in public education. The steadfast encouragement and backing of my undergraduate professors—preparing me for advanced study, suggesting suitable doctoral programs, and writing many letters of recommendation—was the key factor that landed me on table 1c of the report as one of the seventy-two students from Berkeley who went on to complete a PhD in the humanities. For me, mentorship took shape in Arteaga’s willingness to read multiple drafts of my statement of purpose (and in turn asking for comments on a freshly composed essay about to be sent out for peer review), in Padilla’s sage advice to contact faculty members with whom I wished to work in Latino/a and queer studies, in Alarcón’s gentle but firm prodding for me to master the terms of critical theory, and in Christian’s willingness to share personal stories about the highs and lows of academic life. These are but a few of the many mentoring strategies that I’ve learned from senior scholars in my field and that I have adopted with my own students.

A Deep Accountability

In her essay “But What Do We Think We’re Doing Anyway: The State of Black Feminist Criticism(s); or, My Version of a Little Bit of History,” Christian writes, “Although black women are not the only ones who can do feminist criticism, it would be a significant loss if they were absent from this enterprise” (73). We wish to echo Christian, who in her essay responds to the consistently low number of blacks receiving PhDs in English with the argument that the absence of United States students of color from working-class origins in the academy perpetuates the profession as a bastion of racial and economic privilege, despite the frequent—if not obligatory—lip service paid to educational access and social justice. As our contributors illustrate, the MLA report might make faculty members and administrators face the data and work to increase the number of underrepresented scholars at their institutions and in the study of languages and literature more broadly. As Nellie Y. McKay has noted, the presence of faculty members of color “has changed the face of American education and revised the premises of accepted knowledge in material content, philosophical approaches, and interactions with and between students and faculty” (64). It is essential that we sustain and strengthen this presence at a moment when concerns of race, culture, and difference in the humanities matter more than ever.

Christian asks, “To whom are we accountable? And what social relations are in/scribing us?” (74). We believe that those of us working in the humanities should keep asking these questions no matter what our field or focus may be. The “we” and “us” to which Christian refers might help us consider who is included and who excluded in the profession and allow us to take stock of the faces that populate spaces from graduate seminars to professional meetings. Bringing affirmative action back may be an increasingly difficult feat (as we are currently witnessing in Texas), but a proactive stance and a deep accountability to underrepresented students are required if we are to provide mentorship similar to what we received as undergraduates. We must not forget that well-prepared and well-informed undergraduates—academic job market opportunities notwithstanding—will eventually become our most stellar graduate students and invaluable colleagues. It is our hope that this special section will prove instructive for how, in the midst of the complex social relations in/scribing us, we can work toward a humanistic inquiry that requires diversity in both intellectual perspective and faculty composition.


The authors wish to thank Deborah A. Miranda, Debra K. S. Barker, Thabiti Lewis, Chandan Reddy, and Doug Steward for their participation on the panel at the 2012 MLA convention in Seattle and all members of the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada, past and present, for making this special section possible.

  1. The mission statement of INROADS now uses the term “underserved” instead of “minority.”

  2. It important to note that at least three of the students living in that section in those years ended up pursuing and earning a PhD—one in English, one in history, and one in counseling.

  3. MSREP, an intensive research exchange program sponsored by various institutions on the East and West Coasts in which students were paired with faculty mentors to produce a scholarly project of their choice, has ceased to exist, but other opportunities—for example, the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program and the Summer Research Opportunities Program—continue to aid underrepresented students in transitioning from undergraduate studies to graduate school. I was a MSREP fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, and studied under the tutelage of Raymund A. Paredes in the English department during the summer of 1992.

Works Cited

Christian, Barbara. “But What Do We Think We’re Doing Anyway: The State of Black Feminist Criticism(s); or, My Version of a Little Bit of History.” Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 58–74. Print.

Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity. Modern Language Association. MLA, Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Aug. 2013. <>.

González, José Luis. “El país de cuatro pisos” y otros ensayos. Río Piedras: Huracán, 1980. Print.

INROADS. INROADS, 2011. Web. 14 Aug. 2013. <>.

McKay, Nellie Y. “Minority Faculty in (Mainstream White) Academia.” The Academic’s Handbook. 3rd ed. Ed. A. Leigh DeNeef and Craufurd D. Goodwin. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 62–76. Print.

Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo is associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Richard T. Rodríguez is associate professor of English and Latina and Latino studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Both are former cochairs of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada, which organized this special section.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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