- Do You Have Any Skin in the Game?
This idiom gets right to what bothers me most about this most recent “Why are we still here?” conversation. Beyond the immediate metaphor, “skin in the game” indicates a person entering a space in which something is already in play. In financial circles, the price to play necessitates an investment—a risk. When Nellie McKay wrote her now famous pmla guest column, “Naming the Problem That Led to the Question ‘Who Shall Teach African American Literature?’; or, Are We Ready to Disband the Wheatley Court?,” she spoke insistently about both the risks and the necessities of saying what needs to be said, especially when no one wants to hear it. No one in the academy wants to be questioned about why this person or that group is not in the room/sitting at the table/engaged in the discussion, because the question implies, at best, indifference and, at worst, a systemic ambivalence that feeds something much more sinister. This question too often seems unspeakable and too often goes unspoken: What do you really believe, and (how) does that inform your praxis?
The interconnectedness of individual praxis and institutional best practices is key. Any scholar editing a volume or organizing a symposium, or any academic organization choosing an editor or panel, might do well simply to practice the same due diligence afforded fields of study predominantly about empowered (in this case white) subjects. What is the likelihood that a group of earnest, intelligent scholars would edit, let’s say, a collection on British literature in England and not include a representative number of British scholars? Can we imagine a scenario in which those same scholars were specialists in American, Irish, or postcolonial literature yet published on an important topic in English literature with a highly respected press with nary an objection raised? These questions point to the obvious yet so often obfuscated issue at hand. The importance of the “who” seems to differ significantly depending on what and who is being studied. To my mind, Foreman’s call to address Foucault’s [End Page 63] question “how does it happen” (qtd. in Foreman 307) through what she characterizes as “self-reflection [and] accountability” is not asking for much (307). One could ask that all those who “exercise power” do so while consistently questioning the cultural ethics of their decisions that affect the work and those who produce and benefit from it. Or, one could simply ask that each power broker apply the same academic practices across the board, in every field. Serious academic players should be expected to conduct substantive and in-depth surveys of the terrain to gauge what is already in play and who is on the field. And they should be expected to know that a high level of previous investment is required to be an entitled contributor to an academic venture.
When I was McKay’s graduate student, we had an intense conversation about a student in my cohort who had never heard the term Middle Passage (until I used it in her presence) yet was applying for African American literature jobs with only a token dissertation chapter on Harriet Jacobs as her calling card. She successfully misrepresented herself as a job candidate trained to teach in the field without risking the full immersion necessary to be trained in any disciplinary area. Evidently, dishonoring a tradition of distinguished scholarship as if it’s anybody’s “pick-up game,” to borrow from duCille (qtd. in Foreman 310), is of little importance when vying for job opportunities in an evershrinking market: minimum investment, no risks, appreciable gains expected. And what of white students who have done the work, fully immersing themselves in the richness and depth of the field? In my cohort, they did not fare as well as their white colleagues who had only “dabbled” in darkness. Moreover, they often suffered on the job market, although they had fully invested and had taken ample risks.
Foreman, duCille, McKay, and the many scholars who have for decades banged their collective heads on this same wall now are not talking about the shallow (and quite suspect) business model of diversity...