Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: Jan 3rd, 2010
  • Category: higher ed

#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars

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[Update and disclaimer, 2013: This post was the seed of #Alt-Academy, an edited collection and grassroots publishing platform at MediaCommons. In its initial iteration, in the summer of 2011, the project featured two dozen contributions by 33 fantastic authors. New editors have joined #Alt-Academy and fresh content is forthcoming. Because people continue to link to this post as shorthand for the emergence and naming of the #altac “movement” (so called–not by me!), I want to preface it with a link to something else I’ve written, in an attempt to explain the term: “Two and a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks.” If you are writing one of the many articles critiquing current uses of the term, I hope that you will pause to read that contextualizing post, and what I say here. In brief: in 2009, when we started using it, “alternative academic careers” was a pointed push-back against the predominant (and in fact only) phrase, “non-academic careers.” “Non-academic” was the label for anything off the straight and narrow path to tenure — even if that position were, say, in an academic library, a writing center, a university-affiliated research group or cultural heritage organization. I felt it diminished humanities scholars who continued to use their skills in and around the academy, and I was concerned that it discouraged grad students from contemplating new paths. “Non-academic” is also, frankly, most of the world. At a moment when Twitter was emerging as a tool for academic community and labor organizing, it was helpful to have a more specific hashtag through which a relevant group could share info, become visible, and begin to agitate for better working conditions. It’s in fact a terrific accomplishment for the alt-ac community that today we hear the opposite refrain: the term “alternative” is not expansive enough, and it suggests we play second fiddle. “This shouldn’t be ‘alt’-anything,” the complaint goes. “This work is central. It’s obviously valid. In fact, it’s the mainstream.” I agree that the term may have outlived its usefulness (and am certainly disappointed that it has been co-opted by people selling “coaching” services to under-employed academics, or reading it without reference to our early work as a reification of class difference and a brain-dead brand of jobs-crisis “solutionism”). But I will observe that “alt-ac” in its early years was extremely valuable in community-building, in jump-starting conversations about authentic graduate education reform and the more subtly exploitative aspects of academic labor (that extend beyond and function in tandem with adjunctification), and in legitimizing the decisions so many humanities scholars have made, to contribute to the larger mission of the academy in ways oblique to their formal training and complementary to the professoriate. The “alt” in “alt-ac” was never meant to evoke an “oops! Plan B” moment for grad students, or suggest escape hatches be built on the backs of other professions — but rather to gesture at the alternative academy that we must construct together, from the margins to the center and back again.]

About six weeks ago, I left a swanky DC hotel feeling pretty good. The Scholarly Communication Institute, an 8-year old Mellon-funded project for which I serve as associate director, had just concluded a two-day summit with a some of the most interesting institutional thinkers and do-ers in the humanities: leaders from CHCI, the international consortium for humanities centers and institutes, and from centerNet, its energetic digital counterpart. For SCI, this gathering culminated a process that had begun in the summer of 2008, when we hosted an event on humanities centers as sites for innovation in digital scholarship. After a January meeting in Tucson (where grapefruit were ripe in the hotel courtyard) and a series of less paradisiacal conference calls and proposal drafts, the two groups were now poised for meaningful collaborative action. There was a palpable sense in the room that the plans we were hatching could change the way business is done in the humanities, digital and otherwise. In fact, something like a five-year program was emerging, and the two groups had outlined a series of co-sponsored ventures, joint meetings, and big-picture goals.

Happiness makes me obnoxious on Twitter. Before I packed up my laptop, I tapped out two messages:

“SCI-sponsored CHCI/centerNet meeting is winding down. Stay tuned for announcements from the two groups working jointly in the new year.” [X]

“& struck again by dues-paying crap I skipped in deciding against tenure-track jobs. How many junior faculty sit in on discussions like this?” [X]

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.