Being an Ethnographer about the Tenure Process

What if you are going up for tenure and happen to be neurotic about the process? Not everyone is, although in my experience almost everyone is expected to be. But let’s say you want to worry, is there anything proactive you can do beside publish the expected amount and in the expected journals, teach well, and be a good colleague? Expected journals, good teaching, and well-behaved colleague are all fairly unstandardized categories but I feel quite confident your institution has fairly definite shared expectations and a good ethnographer can figure them out regardless of how implicit they are. If figuring out the tenure process or what goes into a tenure dossier is opaque to you right now, you can find more details about it in this Faculty Focus post and in your institution’s tenure and promotion guidelines.

A photo of an individual with short brown hair smiling at the camera and sitting in front of a computer screen.
Ilana Gershon. Ilana Gershon

When I went up for tenure, I thought a bit about how the tenure process worked at my institution and did two things that I have never heard circulated as bits of advice. First, I thought the biggest unknown in my file was going to be what my outside tenure letter writers would say. And at all levels in my university, people care a lot about what letter writers say. At my institution, I get to submit a list of eight letter writers that complements my department’s list of recommenders. I vaguely knew everyone that I was going to suggest, but I knew what they were like at conferences or on email interacting with a junior scholar. So I vetted my portion of the list with people who, because of their position in the field, got to see a lot of letters.

This is a moment where people might be a bit subtle about what they think of their colleagues, and you should listen carefully. Professor McGonagall asked me if I cited Septima Vector enough. Not if you are asking me the question, I replied. Septima was off my list.

Another mentor looked at my list and said, “You know, you are at a big 10 school and they like to see other letter writers from big 10 schools. You only have one, Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank.” I was puzzled, Professor Snape was also from a big 10 school. But I had done fieldwork among Samoans for whom an omission was an important political strategy, and so I noticed when she overlooked Professor Snape in this way. I took Professor Snape off my list. To this day, I don’t know why. But I knew that people who might seem fine in a conference interaction could be ungenerous tenure letter writers. I wasn’t willing to risk it.

Think like an ethnographer about the tenure process.

The other thing I did was ask faculty in adjacent departments to read my descriptions of my research, teaching, and service before submitting them. I have to describe a little bit about how the tenure process at my university is organized to explain why I did this. There are three committees involved with any tenure case—the departmental committee, the College of Arts and Sciences’ committee, and the university-level committee. At my university, most departments will support their junior colleagues’ tenure case. If there is a problem, it usually happens in the college-level committee. And that committee is organized in the following way: On the year you go up, no one from your department will be serving on that committee. But the dean will choose someone from an adjacent department to be on the committee, and they will be the ones who will present your case to the rest of the college tenure committee. The same thing is true at the university-level committee. So I approached someone from the history department and someone from the law school, both of whom had served on these committees before. Given my work at the time, it made sense to approach those two people. If I was going up now, I might approach someone in sociology or science studies too. I asked them to read my statements with this question in mind: “What can I add to or change about my statement to make it as easy for you to present me in the best light possible to a college- or university- level tenure committee?” And I got very helpful suggestions.

Every institution is a bit different, and what I did might not be good strategies for you at your place. But I still think the basic principle isn’t a bad one. Think like an ethnographer about the tenure process. How is it organized? What are the moments in which you are most vulnerable in the process, even if you have hit all the marks? And is there something you can do to anticipate those moments, even just a little bit?

Finally, the 2019 AAA Annual Meeting is fast approaching, and it is probably worth pointing out that this is the moment where most people in our anthropological community of practice are together in person. And tenure is a gatekeeping moment where people are evaluating how well you act as a not so junior member of this community. Being at the Annual Meeting thus becomes a moment where you do the social labor that tenure dossier committees are trying to evaluate, however bureaucratically. I know that there is lots of advice out there warning people not to do service, but this is a two-edged sword. Service to your professional association is how you get to know people, and have some say in how our community makes decisions. It is a place where you can talk to people about ideas that excite you and excite them, and be a good community member. All these things trickle into a tenure dossier, often in unpredictable ways.

Ilana Gershon is the Ruth N. Hall Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. She runs the CaMP anthropology blog www.campanthropology.org and welcomes author interviews of recent media and linguistic anthropology books.  

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana. 2019. “Being an Ethnographer about the Tenure Process.” Anthropology News website, November 12, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1308

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