I defended my dissertation five years ago, but I’m not on the tenure track: Notes from the trenches


defense anniversary

My Facebook “On This Day” feed, February 25, 2019 (with my advisor Wendy Bellion)

Facebook’s “On This Day” feature is a funny thing: it sometimes reminds you to carve out some time in your day for a milestone that you might otherwise have overlooked. Five years ago today, on February 25, 2014, I defended my doctoral dissertation on the development of citizen soldier monuments in the wake of the Civil War. On the tail end of my first time through the academic job cycle, I was already aware that my prospects for employment the following fall were shaky. But I did not yet sense how difficult those job prospects would become – or the ways in which news on the national stage would transform the trajectory of my research and my career. Today seems like a great day to reflect on all of that.


Back in 2014, I knew the academic job market was tough and getting worse, but as a cockeyed optimist, I always thought it would work out for me. I cast a wide net geographically, followed Karen Kelsky’s advice on “The Professor Is In” when crafting my job docs, changed the font of my CV to Garamond, and set about building a publication record. When my first job cycle failed to yield a tenure track job or even a VAP, I started adjuncting. At one point, I taught at three different schools in the same semester, racking up miles between Central Jersey, northern Delaware, and Philadelphia, learning how to fill up the long commuting hours with podcasts. Dream jobs came and went. I made it to a few first-round interviews, but never a campus visit. And with each passing year (if you look at the statistics), my odds on the market got longer.


My family and me on the day of my hooding ceremony in May 2014 – wouldn’t have made it without them!

But at the same time, a weird thing was happening with my research. Suddenly, Civil War monuments were national news, and I had a new platform to share my work. I couldn’t get any art history departments to take my job materials seriously, but I was in high demand as a public scholar. I wrote an essay that has become the third most-read published in Public Art Dialogue, and I’ve heard that a lot of colleagues have found it useful in class discussions – just what I was hoping when I drafted it. Participating in the discussion about the future of Confederate monuments has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career as a scholar, and I’m profoundly grateful for the training that has brought me to this point.


sarah gettysburg tour

With Temple University graduate students on the Gettysburg battlefield (Photo courtesy of Peter Wang)

And in my seven semesters as a contingent professor, I’ve amassed a body of work of which I am truly proud. I’ve created syllabi and course materials for eight undergraduate courses and one graduate course. I’ve built a collection of nineteenth-century photographs to teach students how to identify daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and more. I’ve led field trips to cultural institutions throughout Philadelphia and to Washington, DC and Gettysburg. I’ve booked guest speakers and experimented with digital assignments on Twitter and Wikipedia. I’ve written short essays about pedagogy and thought a lot about how to optimize art history courses for art students’ needs. I’ve learned how to work under pressure and to make sure to be ready for class every day no matter how many commitments are tugging on my time. And best of all, I am no longer remotely afraid of any sort of public speaking. Exposure therapy works.


Five years out from my doctoral defense, I’m not sure what my next step will be. I think the tenure track is unlikely at this point, but I’m still hoping to stay in the classroom. With the help of my Smithsonian fellowship this year, I’m hard at work on my book manuscript, and currently talking to a few presses about publishing it. I have some entrepreneurial ideas that could keep me close to my academic roots, but I’m also wondering what else is out there. I’ve been listening to the great advice of lots of folks who have branched out into the #postac and #altac worlds. I’ve been turning this problem over and over in my head as I think about what the future holds, but today at least, I’m happy to look back.

I may not be where I hoped I would be by this point when I stepped out of my defense in February 2014. But I’m so proud of the work I’ve done to keep my head above water, and so grateful for the friends, family, and colleagues who have sustained me every step of the way.

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