In the field

Suave, elegant, cultured; that’s never been me, but thanks for implying it. No, by the time I’d developed the proper social camouflage, I was out of grad school and working as a practicing anthropologist. So it had become a professional disguise.
I was not in academia but almost continuously on projects for various long-term and short-term clients.

In the field, anthropologists put forward aspects of our personality to enhance our role as participants and observers in a community. This field persona is eager to learn and interested in what people tell you.
You can’t fake this for too long. Most people who wind up in anthropology will tell you that being in the field can be a drug. It juices you, and after my first year in “practice,” I was thrilled that my only academic involvement was an occasional adjunct position.

For academic anthropologists, it’s not the same – catch them in their native setting roaming the departmental offices, the lecture halls, or browsing in the faculty lounge, and you’ll see personalities vastly different than you saw when in your community. Those rivalries over tenure look more like ritualized combat sequences from bad ethnographic documentaries.
Most spend a year or two at most with you. Then talk and write about it for decades. A sabbatical year will allow them to return and do the long-desired follow-up study; if they are fortunate.
Their long arc from adjunct professor to tenure begins with some pithy dissertation and terminates with a sappy rewrite of old data. With any luck, they’ll wind up an emeritus professor with a horde of former grad students hurridly writing a book in honor of their contribution to the field.

Of course, things are changing. For decades academic programs took on more students than there would ever be full-time positions for. The interim solution was to hire on short-term contracts, dangle the possibility of tenure track positions, and then pull out the carpet and send them on their way to the next alluring college or university.
Ph.D.’s have gotten wise to this tactic. Some have decided to leave academia and go into marketing, cosmetics, urban planning, and other areas. I’m prejudiced enough to think that wherever they go, they’ll contribute positively to that enterprise.

But every once in a while, just before bed. We’ll get visited by an apparition of the bold tenured professor we once thought of as being our future. Some dreams don’t die quickly.


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