#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars

[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]

I held no illusions about my role in the process SCI had facilitated. SCI (from the insider’s point of view) is about listening, helping, and nudging. In the conference room at the Hotel Palomar, I was Note-taker-in-Chief, pausing only a few times to add my own perspective — as a recent humanities PhD, a person who had held one of those rare digital post-docs we were discussing, as a member of the research faculty at an R-1 institution, and (now) as someone who had exercised the “expanded employment options” that are often brought up in conversations about improving methodological training in graduate education. My day job is as Director of Digital Research & Scholarship for the University of Virginia Library. This is a department that includes the Scholars’ Lab, a growing digital center which offers fellowships to grad students, runs a vibrant speaker series, undertakes its own research-and-development work, and partners with humanities and social-science faculty on projects in text-based digital humanities and geospatial and statistical computing.

I have a pretty sweet gig.

But, as will have been obvious to anybody who heard my recent MLA convention talk on matters of intellectual property and institutional status in collaborative scholarship (or who found it through the Chronicle), that whole grad-school detox/deprogramming phase that the #alt-ac crowd must work through takes a while to leave one’s system. I can personally attest that this is true even if you’re one of the people who opted out of the tenure-track teleology very early on. (I never undertook an academic job search, and I politely declined the campus visits I was offered as an ABD grad student. Friends, the market was better then.)

#Alt-ac is our Twitter-hashtag neologism for “alternate academic careers” — particularly for positions within or around the academy but outside of the ranks of the tenure-track teaching faculty. These positions are nonetheless taken up by capable humanities scholars who maintain a research and publication profile, or who bring their (often doctoral-level) methodological and theoretical training to bear on problem sets in the orbit of the academy. Keeping our talents within (or around) the academy is often more psychologically difficult than examining the color of our parachutes and gliding off to fabulous private-sector careers. Class divisions among faculty and staff in the academy are profound, and the suspicion and (worse) condescension with which “failed academics” are sometimes met can be disheartening. As “Natalie Henderson,” an administrator who writes pseudonymously for the Chronicle of Higher Education, asks:

“In an arena where people spend so much time trying to think in nuanced ways and where we ostensibly celebrate the wide dispersal of sophisticated ideas, why is so much energy expended in maintaining fixed categories and squelching the intellectual contributions of those on the wrong side of the fence?

In an environment dominated by research agendas that often seek to right historic wrongs, question power, undermine hierarchy, and give voice to the voiceless, why are intellectual status and respect given so grudgingly to smart and engaged people who have jumped off the tenure track?”
(“A ‘Non-Academic’ Career in Academe,” 20 June 2005)

For all that, we love our work. Many of us on the #alt-ac track will tell you about the satisfaction of making teams (and systems, and programs) work, of solving problems and personally making or enabling breakthroughs in research and scholarship in our disciplines, and of contributing to and experiencing the life of the mind in ways we did not imagine when we entered grad school. Among us are: administrators with varied levels of responsibility for supporting the academic enterprise; instructional technologists and software developers who collaborate on scholarly projects; journalists, editors, and publishers; cultural heritage workers in a variety of roles and institutions; librarians, archivists, and other information professionals; entrepreneurs who partner on projects of value to scholars, program officers for funding agencies and humanities centers, and many more.

My flippant, self-satisfied tweet (“how many junior faculty sit in on discussions like this?”) brought representatives from all of these groups flocking. Clearly, I hit a nerve, and before I knew it I was editing a book. This is largely thanks to the encouragement of the first respondents, including CHNM‘s Tom Scheinfeldt (of the “third way”), and other valued colleagues — as well as Brian Croxall, who, frustrated with the adjunct lifestyle in which so many humanities scholars feel trapped, demanded “signposts” for following the kind of path we’ve taken. I offered to oblige. Within two hours, ten amazing contributors had volunteered to share their perspectives. The number (without my making any kind of formal call) is now at 18 — and this does not include a set of CLIR post-doctoral fellows who will be contributing a dialogue about their shared and divergent experiences in academic research libraries. I do plan to issue special invitations to a few more people who could help round out the discussion, and am open to further ideas and expressions of interest.

We are adopting #alt-ac as the rubric for our open-access collection of essays, which will be written from the points of view of well-educated, non-tenure-track humanities professionals, here to tell you that their work in the academy is satisfying, delightful, reasonably stable, deeply intellectually engaging, and — occasionally — a damned hard row to hoe.

Contributions to this Web-accessible publication are due July 1st, 2010. I am currently in conversation with interested University presses about print and print-on-demand options for the book, and will continue to accept proposals from potential contributors by email (accompanied by a one-page abstract, please!) through April 1st. All essays will be licensed, with attribution, under Creative Commons by their authors, and will be made freely available online.