The concept of “departmental fit”

Isn’t it normal for academic anthropologists to change their research interests over time? Usually we are hired into departments to fill specific ethnographic and theoretical slots. Department course offerings in smaller universities especially are built around these varied areas of expertise. It can therefore present a problem when faculty depart from their university or retire, leaving courses in a planned curriculum menu untaught.

But what happens when faculty are still in residence but no longer have the same teaching and research interests? Are the consequences from this shift different for particular types of faculty, and is this one of the hidden areas where power relations in a department come into play? One sees many instances in which, say, a person is hired as an expert on Thailand but once they are tenured will only do research on tourism in Southern California. Or, hypothetically, a biological anthropologist is hired because of his research on hominid fossils but later decides he will only do primate observations at a local zoo. Is the pressure on junior faculty to stay within a narrow slot hindering their development and creativity? Is it justifiable for senior faculty to use “departmental fit” as an argument for tenure denial when they themselves mange to justify their own radical retooling?

8 thoughts on “The concept of “departmental fit”

  1. There is also an opposite problem – departments that hire tenure-track faculty who are narrowly educated in one of the sexy, “flavor of the month” specializations; only to be stuck a few years later with a tenured faculty member who can’t competently teach out of their own area, which was itself a passing fad.

  2. thank you for raising this issue, laura. in my limited experience with this sort of thing (at an R1, not a small university, mind you), i’ve been amazed at the rhetorical uses of “department fit,” particularly the way this is used to eliminate candidates in a rather arbitrary way. “we’re not X type of department, we don’t need that” or “we already has so-and-so who works on immigration, so this one’s out.” it often amounts to a way of couching individual preferences in institutional-departmental terms–a trick that most members of university committees know well.

    for smaller departments, it seems that fit can be assessed in a more straightforward fashion. if you’re a teaching-oriented institution and only have room for four anthros, why have two cultural anthropologists who work and teach courses on the same region?

    for research institutions–unless there is a narrow search and/or department consensus about what the department needs–i’d venture to say that it’s more often a rhetorical device than part of some objective criteria. here, the terms “complement” and “duplicate” are used in highly strategic ways.

  3. @ Martin @ JF yeah, I’ve seen that, too—relics of fashionable topics now passé. But not as often as senior faculty using this flexible concept to monitor and control hiring and tenure decisions, as JF notes

  4. You ask several different questions here. Yes, it can really disrupt a program when a senior person decides to change topics radically. When I was in graduate school (1970s, in a major program), a senior archaeologist decided he wanted to be a blacksmith, so that is what he did. No more archaeological research, but he did publish a few things on technology and practice. Really helpful for the archaeology program. No one seemed to complain too much, though. Another prof was hired as an expert on the archaeology of region X, but then started working in region Y (his original specialty). But that was a positive change, adding a new region and and enthusiastic professor. This is the price we pay for tenure and “academic freedom.” I was also told by the chair of the grad committee back then, when I complained about a clueless and incredibly out-of-date (senior long-tenured) prof who gave incompetent classes, that because of academic freedom there was nothing the department could do.

    As for pressure on junior faculty to be narrow – that choice is simply the easiest path to productivity and professional growth. One can diversify or change directions later, and probably more effectively, after establishing a good (narrow) platform. As my music prof would tell us in a composition class years ago (when I seriously thought about majoring in music) – you have to know the rules before you can throw them away.

    And as for using “departmental fit” as a reason to deny tenure, that just sounds bizarre. I’ve taught in large and small departments, and I can’t imagine that argument being offered seriously (except perhaps as a minor point, secondary to scholarly quality and productivity). Maybe I have been privileged by teaching in reasonable departments, though.

  5. I think faculty need to change their research interests every so often or face the real prospect of becoming stale, rehashing old topics or attempting to reinvent the wheel. I encountered a number of academics who had done research in a particular region in a particular topic for 30 years. What they said in 1984 and 2009 were virtually the same. There comes a time when we have to recognize that slight variations due to time are not going to radically change the data. I had an adviser who worked in different fields with varying topics focused on mobility. It kept the research fresh, novel and interesting.

  6. @ Michael I agree that departments benefit when faculty expand their research interests. I do notice, however, that these shifts for senior faculty are often related to the degree to which their old topics/areas required travel overseas. However, I never supported the argument that junior faculty should be advised to stay in their topical/theoretical place. That’s reminds me of an old claim that a scholar peaks at 25 or something (a myth based on the model of a male mathematician’s career trajectory.) I have known some talented young scholars who were able to examine several unrelated topics and publish on all of them.

  7. Isn’t the idea that you start a second/different project _after_ tenure? It seems to me that you get to a certain point of seniority and when your interests change, that means the culture of the department changes to, since what you are studying ‘now’ influences the department more generally.

  8. @Rex Well, that’s a good point because it brings up assumptions about what a career might look like. For elite pedigree folks pre-tenure might still be the period in which a person is processing dissertation matter. But many of us worked as adjuncts and visiting professors and so on before getting a tenure track job, so we will have already started a second or third project before tenure.

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