Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Back in December, I started a conversation with the staff at Savage Minds about professionalization, particularly in relation to recent Ph.D. recipients who might be on the job market and who might also be adjuncting. While we often collectively bemoan the state of affairs around non-tenure track employment in academia, it seemed to me that very little had actually been written about navigating the waters between graduating, adjuncting and finding a tenure track job. We began with a couple of surveys — one for people who are currently adjuncting and seeking more permanent employment, and another for people who had adjuncted and successfully made the move to a tenure track job or moved into a different form of work. About 50 people responded to each of the surveys (although if you’re so moved, you can fill them out now). Over the next month, I’ll be presenting some of the findings we collected from these surveys and thinking about the kinds of challenges that people face and how they might be overcome. In addition, I’ll be writing some posts about professionalization in anthropology in our current climate — an extension of some of my work on my professionalization blog based on the series I run in the anthropology department at UC Santa Cruz.

My interest in professionalization is based on my own experience, which has been characterized by a persistent need to pull myself up by my bootstraps. I’m now halfway through my fifth year on the tenure track at UCSC, and was previously employed at Wayne State; I was fortunate to enter the job market in 2007, at the height of jobs being offered. I graduated from Oakland University, a little-known liberal arts school is suburban Detroit, with a BA in Literature; taught elementary school for a year in Columbus, OH; went to the University of Liverpool for an MA in Science Fiction Studies; returned to the US for an MA in American Cultural Studies at Bowling Green; and then went on to work on my Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. By no means do I have an elite background, and I attribute my professional success entirely to robust efforts to professionalize early in my career, a quirky project on sleep in American society, and supportive mentors.

For readers who are interested in the context of my meager expertise about these matters, I’ve included a little biography below. In addition, I’ve participated in several hires over the last decade, sometimes on hiring committees and other times as a graduate student representative or community participant — I’ve seen hundreds of job letters, CVs, syllabuses, and writing samples. Although it’s all subjective in the end, I do have a sense of genre and form. As someone who has never received a massive grant, graduated from a elite university, or received a prestigious dissertation writing fellowship or postdoc, I’m interested in opening some of the black boxes associated with getting a secure job in higher education.

I’ve been teaching at the university and college levels since 2001, first at Bowling Green, and then at the University of Minnesota, both times as a graduate student. While at the University of Minnesota — to make ends meet — I took adjuncting work at the University of Phoenix and a local culinary school, in both cases teaching courses as part of their general education curriculum, and not necessarily anthropology. In fact, it was never anthropology, and more often World Literature, Ethnic Studies or Composition. After finishing my fieldwork — during the one year I took off of teaching — I began at Wayne State, and have been teaching at the university level since then.

Drawing on my MA research, I started working on publishing in 2002, and have published something annually since then; I’ve also attended and presented at no less than two conferences for most of 2001-2010 (and then I cut it down to just the annual AAA meetings). In 2002, I started a cultural studies journal with a number of friends, including Davin Heckman, which provided us with a number of networking opportunities; now in its 12th volume, Reconstruction continues under the editorship of Marc Ouellette.

I’ve done a number of other things over the years — organized conferences, guest-edited journals, etc. (I have my old CV available here, as part of a tutorial, in case you’re really interested). I wouldn’t recommend it all to everyone, but in my experience, there’s very little stopping graduate students and junior faculty from being professionally involved in a variety of contexts and in a number of ways. I’m not sure that anything I’ve done has directly contributed to where I am now, professionally speaking, but, taken together, they provided me with a broad network of colleagues and a breadth of experiences that graduate school doesn’t normally provide.

Over the next month, I’ll draw on my experiences and the experiences of those who have filled out our adjuncting-related surveys. I have a few posts in mind, and more to write based on the surveys, but if you have burning questions or concerns about professionalization in anthropology, I’m happy to tackle those as well. With the Savage Minds community behind me, I’m sure we have plenty of answers to give.

13 thoughts on “Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew Wolf-Meyer

  1. For those of us about to start doctoral programs this coming fall, any advice on network building and skill set acquisition outside of the normal pedagogical channels would be great. How important are the first 2-3 years in doctoral studies regarding professional development?

  2. Reviewing my recent contributions to Savage Minds and OAC, I see myself writing about anthropology in an increasingly severe and critical tone. As I reflect on where that tone is coming from a phrase pops into my head: disciplinary involution. The words are a twist on Clifford Geertz’s “Agricultural Involution,” the title of a book in which he describes the economic plight of Javanese peasants who, as part of a growing population, cultivate smaller and smaller fields with increasing intensity. They work harder for smaller rewards. Is this not, I ask myself, the plight of anthropology today? We talk about our need for better public outreach, but spend most of our time talking to ourselves. Is there any way out of this predicament? What if we spent more time talking to our disciplinary neighbors?

    At least in its classic four-field American version, anthropology was the original multi-discipline. Anthropological training included human biology, linguistics and archeology as well social/cultural anthropology. Our knowledge might be shallow compared to our professional peers. We didn’t know as much biology as biologists, as much about language as linguists, as much about archeology as other archeologists, as much about quantitative methods and social theory as sociologists, as much economics as economists, as much about politics as historians and political scientists, as much about literature as our colleagues in English or comp lit. But we could talk to everybody and, like bees fertilizing flowers, carry ideas across disciplinary boundaries. As gatekeepers and bridge builders we achieved the prominence that network analysis predicts. Clifford Geertz is exemplary here. To read The Interpretation of Cultures from cover to cover is to find yourself in the presence of a scholar who talks to everybody, in philosophy, science, the arts, politics and offers such interesting conversation that his influence spilled far outside of anthropology itself. He even wound up writing for the New York Review of Books. Put aside whatever it is that you like or don’t about his ideas. Look at what he accomplished.

    It is far too late for me, but I say to my younger colleagues. That is what you can do, too.

  3. @John–None of us are Clifford Geertz. But judging from your posts here, you probably have an interesting or engaging book or two in you still. Consumerism in Japan, maybe? Cultural history of post-war Taiwan? And that, indeed, is how the discipline will go forward!

    I would be happy to look at chapters.


  4. I have been on numerous hiring committees at Chico State in California. Chico State values highly undergraduate teaching, and experience doing this is foremost in our hiring decisions. T.A. experience, and especially teaching your own class, and teaching it well is probably the foremost requirement. This means that you should include statements about teaching in your cover letter, have your letter writers write about teaching, include student evaluations, and copies of syllabi. All are scrutinized.

    As for research, we assume that anyone finishing a PhD dissertation can do research. It always helps if there are some writing experiences on your c.v., but an article in American Anthropologist (or the equivalent) will not trump a skimpy teaching record, or a fistful of wishy-washy student reviews.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents from a Teaching University perspective.

  5. Thanks for your perspective on this Tony. I think that your experiences and expectations are pretty similar across comparable institutions, and for people who are thinking about jobs at teaching universities, it’s very important to get teaching experience early — which is something I’ll be posting more about soon.

  6. @John–None of us are Clifford Geertz. But judging from your posts here, you probably have an interesting or engaging book or two in you still. Consumerism in Japan, maybe? Cultural history of post-war Taiwan? And that, indeed, is how the discipline will go forward!

    Tony, thanks for the kind words. Beware, I may take you up on your offer. Won’t be consumerism in Japan (been there, done that, Japanese Consumer Behavior:From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers, 2000) or postwar Taiwan (I am way behind the curve on developments in Taiwan). What I have been working on, off and on, since 2008,is a study of the Japanese advertising industry ad seen through the results of the annual Tokyo Copywriters Club advertising contest. This is my second attempt to try out the approach to ethnographic research I learned from Victor Turner on a much larger scale than an Ndembu village: (1) start with social structure and material conditions that set the stage; (2) examine a social drama shaped by that setting; (3) only then examine symbols and imagery in light of the conflicts and contradictions that play out in that drama. For the Japanese consumers book I used a technique I privately labeled “piggy-back ethnography,” looking at Japanese consumers through the eyes of Japanese researchers at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, translating large chunks from the internal newsletter to which I had access as a Hakuhodo employee, then interviewing researchers to see what they thought of their conclusions in retrospect. For the new “Winner’ Circles” project, the social structure is the networks formed by participants in the project teams that produce award-winning advertising. The social drama is an ongoing debate about the roles of copy and copywriters in advertising, whose twists and turns have been strongly effected by the ups and downs of the Japanese economy and the rise and fall of advertising media, the rise of TV, the decline of print, the emerging challenge of the Web. The latter is especially important since different media make different technical demands on the copywriter. The symbols and imagery will likely be taken from ads for beer and other alcoholic beverages. Travel and smart phones are other interesting categories (interesting because the most award-winning writers in the business have worked On these categories).

    Anyway, should you be interested, a Google search for “Slideshare John McCreery” will turn up a series of presentations that represent various stages in which the project has developed. Also, if you check out our company site (, you will find that I have just started posting my translations from a book of essays by Nakahata Takashi, who, along with a fellow named Sasaki Hiroshi, have won more advertising awards than any other copywriters in Japanese advertising history. This is material that will ultimately I hope enrich my account of that social drama I mentioned above.

    But returning to the issue at hand, we are none of us Clifford Geertz, but my own experience suggests that outreach to neighboring disciplines and aiming to do something remarkable instead of merely competent is an important strategy that more of us should pursue (though some of us, Chris Kelty, Adam Fish, Kerim and Rex come to mind, are already moving in this direction).

  7. I agree, the range of people posting interesting and wide-ranging research is impressive. I am also hopeful that blogging itself will become more widely recognized in academia, and outside. Blogs are becoming important, albeit in a different way, than traditional academic peer-reviewed publishing.

    I have to admit that an advertising competition is not something that I usually think of as ethnography! But innovation is always about things you never thought of before. I look forward to hearing more about how your work proceeds. Feel free to email me samples, when you are ready. I did have a look at the Slidewhare, and now have a rough idea of where you are coming from.

    Another idea: Have you ever thought of writing something about the “art” of translation? It is a underestimated field, and shouldn’t be particularly in ethnographic research which is often about translating one independent lifeworld into another equally independent lifeworld.

  8. Tony, thanks for the encouragement. One thing I’ve liked about anthropology is the sheer hubris of nothing human is beyond our scope. Advertising is now a part of billions of human lives around the world, plus, of course, the advertising industry’s internal arguments over whether global campaigns will work in particular local markets, how far they will have to be localized, and whether only something locally created instead of adapted will work mirror anthropologists’ debates about the application of theory, to all humanity, with local variations, or not at all in some populations. Since both advertising and anthropology deal with categories and symbols and social constructions of reality, there is lots of overlap.

    The translation business is similar, too. Can a word, phrase or document be seamlessly translated from one language to another? Are modifications, e.g., providing additional information, required to achieve a reasonable correspondence? Are some expressions simply untranslatable? Again the questions have to do with categories and symbols and social constructions of reality. That said, it is almost never the case that we are translating “one independent lifeworld into another equally independent lifeworld.” Nowadays, Eskimos ride snowmobiles, Masai wear Nikes, Japanese bring a connoisseur’s palate to grand maison French cuisine (I was talking about that with a possible new client, today). There is always a large overlap—not surprising that, given that we are all featherless, omnivorous bipeds, with similar nutritional needs and a limited range of senses, genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics.

  9. I agree on your point about overlap between most if not all lifeworlds. I was thinking about mono-linguals recently, and trying to figure out how to explain that vocabulary is defined relative to other terms in that language, and not a one-to-one translation with English. And since I am currently in Germany, thus the imprecise use of the term “lifeworld.”

  10. Ich verstehe aber nür ein bisschen. My German (highschool and a bit in college) is almost gone.

    P.S. I will be in Germany in late May for the annual Sunbelt conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis INSNA, which is in Hamburg this year.

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