From Postdoc to the Tenure Track at Wesleyan

May 19, 2022

A class of ’22 grad takes an unusual path to a faculty role at a liberal arts university.

Class of 22 - Zaira Simone Tenure Track at Wesleyan
Zaira Simone-Thompson earned a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Graduate Center. (Photo courtesy of Zaira Simone-Thompson)

In the last year, Zaira Simone-Thompson (Ph.D. ’22, Earth and Environmental Sciences) defended her dissertation and started a postdoctoral fellowship in the African American Studies department at Wesleyan University — which she will join as a tenure-track professor in the fall. Her research focuses on reparations for slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean.

She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her academic path, her goals as a professor, and the influence of her adviser, Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore:

The Graduate Center: Do you think that being a postdoc at Wesleyan helped when you were applying for a tenure-track position in your department?

Simone-Thompson: It was an unusual position to be in. I was teaching at Wesleyan and attending departmental meetings and events, but I operated from a place that there was nothing guaranteed with the application process [for the tenure-track position]. I think that distance gave me some extra drive in putting my application together. I also think it helped that I had some insight on what the students are like, as well as the culture of the African American Studies community and university.

GC: In your Wesleyan bio, you say that you encourage “students to approach the course material as a political ‘tool box.’” Could you explain your teaching philosophy?

Simone-Thompson: In the fall of 2021, I taught a course on Black reparations. My intention was for students to be able to create something tangible that they could engage within and beyond the seminar, and that was to develop their own reparations proposals. That embodies what I imagine as a political tool. I wanted students to facilitate the seminar in a way that they thought was beneficial to them, in terms of their political commitments beyond the course, but that was also grounded in the literature and the theories they were being introduced to.

The formation of that course, and my pedagogy, draws on my experiences in Dr. Gilmore’s classes. One of the most memorable courses I took with her was a studio course — that was a methods course, which was very different from, say, a technocratic approach to methodology. One of the objectives of the seminar was to curate a space for both collective research and critical creative methodological practices. We were essentially expected to develop a group project that employed some of the critical framings that we were engaging with, inclusive of abolition geographies.

GC: What was it like to have Ruth Wilson Gilmore as an adviser?

Simone-Thompson: It was amazing, because she really does push you to fulfill the expectations of completing a “good” dissertation (a finished dissertation), but she would also pose questions that were geared to getting me to think even beyond the dissertation — to generate further questions, not just conclusions.

Our advising sessions felt like meetings with a colleague. They were intimate spaces of thought and engagement that challenged the hierarchies that exist in the academy.

GC: What are you most looking forward to in the coming months as you start your new role?

Simone-Thompson: I’m really looking forward to finally being a part of the African American Studies community full time now at Wesleyan. It was hard in 2021 and going into 2022 because of the pandemic, which required a lot of pivoting, so I’m looking forward to being much more present within the community of faculty and students. And I’m really excited about the prospect of teaching more courses, particularly centered on the Caribbean.

This summer I’ll also begin working on the proposal for my book, which is an extension of my dissertation. A lot of the larger questions that I ask in the dissertation, I will engage with more deeply in the book.

GC: Do you have any advice for students who might want to follow a similar path, even to make the leap from postdoc to tenure track at the same institution?

Simone-Thompson: Definitely try to take advantage of any opportunities to make a presence, especially as a postdoc. Be visible within your department, within the university. And that might mean carving out time to get to know students outside of the seminar, going to faculty lectures and even social events on campus.. Also, work to foster community even outside of your department. In that first year, hit the ground running, in terms of your teaching, engagements outside of your teaching, giving presentations of your doctoral work — all of that really helps, I think, in the process of applying to a tenure-track job.

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