two & a half cheers for the lunaticks

The 2012 convention of the Modern Language Association saw two deeply thoughtful #alt-ac roundtables — one on jobs in the digital humanities and another on systemic, corporate, and institutional responses to a broader “future of alternative academic careers.” I moderated the second panel and participated in the first. Both, in their ways, spoke to a remarkably changed environment: to altered employment conditions in the academy, to the humanities as they have entered the digital age, and to a moment in which hybrid scholar-practitioners and non-traditional academics are becoming more visible, and more desperately needed. This is a rough blending of remarks I made in the two sessions.

By “alt-ac,” a growing community speaks not of “alternatives to academic employment,” but rather of “alternative academics” – “alt-academics,” that is, in the way that alt-country music has a bit of rockabilly and folk mixed in – or old Usenet discussion groups would signal a fringe twist on their subject-matter with an “alt.” preface. I chose #Alt-Academy as the title for a recent MediaCommons publication — a collection of essays and personal narratives on the subject — because, taken together, our 32 authors were really gesturing at “an alternative academia” in the way that writers create speculative fiction or works of alternative history.

The term “alt-ac” primarily is itself meant to provide an alternative – an alternative to the prevailing notion that, for graduate students, there is one straight and narrow career path to fulfillment and return on the investment of their humanities educations and meaningful contribution to the profession – and that is to follow the tenure track. Too much of the discourse suggested that, beyond tenure-eligible employment, you may either be an adjunct in Limbo (presumed to be seeking a “real” academic job) or someone who has moved Beyond the Pale, to a “non-academic” career. “Academic-as-fulltime-faculty,” “academic-as-adjunct,” and a “non-academic” everything-else. That was it, that was the message we were giving our grad students. But my own experience was very different — first as a member of UVa’s research faculty (my final title in that role was Senior Research Scientist – perhaps the only one ever with an English PhD) and later in leadership roles in a library, a digital humanities lab, a university-based think-tank, and a number of professional societies – all of which certainly felt to me like academic employment. So, a couple of years ago, I began to see a clear need for a banner (a temporary one, I’ll emphasize) under which to host conversations about the special challenges and opportunities facing humanities scholars who choose to keep their talents within the academy but who work outside the narrow zone for which grad school prepared them.

And then, last July, UVa’s Scholarly Communication Institute ended with a convocation of Lunaticks.

One of my hats is as associate director of SCI, which is a Mellon-funded think-tank and project incubator that tries to take a broad view of conditions, opportunities, and helpful players on the scene of 21st-century scholarly communication. This summer, we succeeded at something our eight previous institutes had not – and that was to amplify next-generation voices, count on them not to be too timid, and really let them set the agenda for further action. We succeeded — in part, I think — because for the first time we were truly agnostic about where this next generation was to be found. And therefore most of the people plotting out the future of humanities scholarship on our final panel were not tenure-track scholars. They were working in digital humanities, on the #alt-ac track.

Now, the rhetoric you might expect me to employ (as somebody who helped coin the term and raise the flag for “alternative academics”) probably goes something like this: SCI found its emerging leaders among the DH #alt-ac crowd and the scholars working most collaboratively with them, because these people are the pathfinders of our era. They’re innovators, entrepreneurs. They’re unbound by convention — that is, brave enough to say no-thanks to certain aspects of a system that too much of graduate education is bound up in perpetuating – and yet still in love with a humanities they’re ready to help shape anew. They’re iconoclasts, explorers.

Only some of that, as I see it, is true. The #alt-ac track is not exactly filled with a Romantic brand of lunatic-as-solitary-genius. We are not the individualists our faculty mentors trained us to be. If this generation is possessed of a vision and an energy, it’s for the most pragmatic and collective kinds of reform. Strong and unconventional ideals underlie the #alt-ac project, but we are also a community that likes to ship. We get things done, collaboratively, and in the real world.

The alternative academy is comprised of scholars with hard-won experience in creating new-model publishing and research workflows and platforms, often from scratch and of necessity. We are the systems-builders, and that’s true whether those systems involve software, humanities data and metadata, or social groups – or all three in complex interrelation. We know what it means to fashion the tools and networks we require to do the scholarly work we want to do — but, much more importantly, we’re inclined to feel the pain, to document it all, and to share outcomes and services freely in order provide a leg up to the people coming behind us. This, too, is an impulse not nurtured in graduate school and on the tenure track. I’m struck again and again in talking with scholar-practitioners of the digital humanities and with their allies among the faculty – that, for us, “service” was never a dirty word. In fact, many of us have been at it long enough to realize that we gravitated toward #alt-ac through something like a vocation – a calling.

These ideas crystalized for me when my colleague Tom Scheinfeldt made an offhand comment in the final session of last summer’s SCI, and when I saw how much it resonated with the group we had assembled. Tom is an historian of science, working as managing director of the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. His observation had to do with the history of 18th-century physics, in which, by some definitions — nothing very exciting happened. Newton came earlier. Faraday came later. Tom’s comment was that the people in the middle worked at “a moment of discipline building.” Some of them were involved with the monthly-meeting Lunar Society of Birmingham, described, if you’re interested, in Jenny Uglow’s great book, The Lunar Men.

Those 18th-century Lunaticks weren’t about the really big theories and breakthroughs – instead, their heroic work was to codify knowledge, found professional societies and journals, and build all the enabling infrastructure that benefited a succeeding generation of scholars and scientists. “Would I rather be a Newton?” Tom asked. “Maybe, but that’s not the time I find myself in. Maybe the big intellectual breakthroughs will happen in the next generation.” The remarkable thing about this, for me, was in watching a whole panel of traditionally-trained humanities PhDs – now librarians, publishers, administrators, and various sorts of scholar-practitioners, including post-docs and junior faculty in hybrid roles — up on the stage saying, “Yep. That’s us. That feels right. That feels A-OK.”

Maybe the next major task for us (begun admirably by contributors to this #Alt-Academy cluster) should be to dissect the labor implications of what I’ve said here. Maybe we should look at the difference between offering expert, discretionary, game-changing services and being a member of a denigrated service personnel. (#Alt-ac, as something of a movement, has thus far been about exposing all the complexities and contradictions in academic labor.) Or maybe the next step for us is to examine and fundamentally reform graduate education in the humanities, in ways that appreciate the need for a new kind of scholar-practitioner, and that prepare students for productive and valued, first-choice #alt-ac careers.

But if you agree with me that there’s something remarkable about a generation of trained scholars ready to subsume themselves in collaborative endeavors, to do the grunt work, and to step back from the podium, applying their expertise in roles only they can play – that is, that there’s something remarkable in such a large and voluntary graduate cohort’s desire become systems-builders for the humanities — then we might also just pause to appreciate and to celebrate. We might just want to share “#alt-ac” as a safe place for other people to say, “I’m a Lunatick, too.”