Dream comes true for alumna on the tenure track

April 25, 2023

By Yujeong Kim

Douaa Sheet will join American University as an assistant professor in the fall 2023 semester.

Douaa Sheet Headshot
Douaa Sheet (Ph.D. ’21, Anthropology) (Photo courtesy of Douaa Sheet)

Douaa Sheet (Anthropology, Ph.D. ’21) will start as a tenure-track assistant professor of governance and humanitarian crisis at American University this fall, fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a professor. Ever since middle school, she had a goal of becoming a professor and “shaping future generations,” she said.   

While at the Graduate Center, Sheet won a prestigious Newcombe Fellowship, which allowed her to write her dissertation without taking on extra work. As part of her Anthropology coursework, she took a class on grant proposal writing. She credited the skills learned in that class and her record of securing grants with helping her land the new position at American University.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology

Sheet, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, shared with the Graduate Center her experience on the job market, her hopes for her new role, and how her Ph.D. program helped her to land it. A lightly edited version of the interview follows.

The Graduate Center: What was your reaction when you learned that you got the job?

Sheet: I was in Lebanon for the winter break, and my American phone started ringing just a little past midnight. I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked up anyway mostly to silence it, whispering because everyone was asleep. And the last person I expected was the dean of American University’s School of International Service calling to offer me the job. I had given my job talk only two weeks prior, so I really wasn’t expecting to hear back so soon. Obviously, I was very happy with the news, especially because it is a position that is perfect for me in many ways. It’s an interdisciplinary department, which is an ideal home for my research that draws on multiple disciplines. Secondly, as someone who works on human rights, D.C. is an excellent location for building potential research collaborations.

GC: How would you describe your career path as a scholar?

Sheet: I have always been interested in questions of politics and justice, but it was a winding path before I got to academia. I mean, being an academic is not exactly the dream of any family where I grew up. So my venture into academia started out accidentally; I was doing work as a research assistant mainly to make some money as a student. I liked it, and I felt at home doing it. And so the applications to graduate school started. As for the themes I work on, I come from South Lebanon, which has a very volatile border with Israel, so it is no surprise that my research is preoccupied with questions of justice and human rights.

GC: How did the Graduate Center prepare you for this new job? How did the Newcombe Fellowship help your studies?

Sheet: Several things. The GC is where I developed my intellectual sensibilities through the faculty there, my adviser, Vincent Crapanzano, and committee. The Anthropology program also required Ph.D. students to take a proposal-writing course. I really think that course was pivotal in signaling how important winning external grants is and preparing us to write in a particular way. I was explicitly told by American’s hiring committee that my record securing external funding was one of the factors in their decision.

The Charlotte Newcombe Fellowship was one of these grants that gave me the time to write my dissertation without having to take on additional work to support myself. And after graduating, the Anny Bakalian Postdoctoral Fellowship, which I was awarded by the GC’s Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) gave me a full year to focus exclusively on publishing. And I really believe the publications that came out of that period were instrumental in making me a more competitive candidate for the job.

GC: Your dissertation was about dignity in Tunisia after the Arab Spring. What are some of the important takeaways from your findings?

Sheet: In my dissertation, I wanted to take this buzzword, dignity, that dominated political discussions of the 2011 Arab uprisings and understand better what people meant by this demand: Does the demand for a “life with dignity” articulate an actual framework of justice? So the project draws on the testimonies and historical grievances of three groups that were persecuted by the former regime — defined by religion, gender, and class respectively — but feel unrepresented by a framework of human rights, to ethnographically articulate what their demand for a “life with dignity” as an alternative standard of justice entails. The project is essentially a critique of human rights, which has a complicated history in the region, with an eye toward more emancipatory forms of justice. Ultimately, the point of this project is to employ “life with dignity” as an analytic framework that allows us to see human rights as one system of justice among many other possibilities for how we recognize violations and how we envision justice, repair, and change.

GC: What project or projects are you working on now?

Sheet: Two articles from my fieldwork in Tunisia are finally coming out. One just came out in the Journal of Human Rights, and the other is forthcoming in Cultural Anthropology. I am just starting to work on transforming my dissertation into a book, as I also draft a proposal for my next research project. Since my doctoral research examined a Tunisian present temporally defined as an “aftermath” of a successful uprising, I grew curious about how each of the Arab uprisings engendered strikingly different temporal aftermaths, many construed as “incomplete” transitions. And so, my next project looks at another transition that was instigated by the 2011 Arab Spring, which I analyze through the lens of forced migration.

GC: What advice do you have for other students who want to get on the tenure track?

Sheet: Publish. I know this seems obvious — it should be. But you’d be surprised at the number of Ph.D. students who graduate without any publications. And they put all this energy into perfecting their job applications when those applications are not even read because they are dropped into the “no-publications” pile of applicants. A lot of faculty members will tell you “just focus on your dissertation, finish” and that’s important. But so is making sure you have at least one publication in a prestigious journal by the time you plan to go on the market. It makes such a difference in your visibility and chances.

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