#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]

Continue reading “#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars”

monopolies of invention

[This is an edited version of a talk I gave today at the 2009 convention of the Modern Language Association. I omit here some of the local details and concrete examples I offered at MLA. At this point, I feel more comfortable voicing these specifics than publishing them online – but I do commit to seeking out further opportunities to open the kind of frank and important conversations I advocate below. This text (like everything posted on my personal website) reflects my opinions only – not those of my colleagues or employers. I welcome comment, including correction and instruction.]

I’ve decided to spend my 10 minutes of introduction on the MLA convention’s “Links and Kinks” panel indecorously – in opening conversation about one of the least genteel, least talked-about aspects of collaborative work in the digital humanities. I’ve been active in this community of practice for 14 years – and can count on one hand the number of interchanges I’ve had about these issues that were both unguarded and productive.

The policy issues related to institutional and academic status that I want to put before the panel are so uncomfortable that they tend to make good-hearted, collaborative folks like all of you behave as if they can be wished away – as if they’ll shrivel up and die if they are studiously ignored. But here, as in other areas of the academy, benign neglect is bad behavior. Consciously ignoring disparities in the institutional status of your collaborators is just as bad as being unthinkingly complicit in the problems these disparities create. Continue reading “monopolies of invention”

collaborative work: links & kinks

This winter, I’ll join an MLA conference panel sponsored by the discussion group on Computer Studies in Language and Literature.  I’m among friends! and am looking forward to talking with Laura Mandell, Jason B. Jones, Timothy Powell, Jason Rhody, and our moderator, Tanya Clement.  Our panel is called “Links and Kinks in the Chain: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities.”  Here’s what I’ve offered for my bit:

New modes of interdisciplinary, tech-enabled research and production drive us to collaborate across an array of boundaries in the digital humanities.  It is no longer unusual for a scholar to lead a tight-knit, interdepartmental research group or function as part of an ad-hoc team that may include faculty colleagues, graduate students, designers, programmers, systems administrators, and librarians or other instructional technology and information specialists.  This is a good thing, and (in my experience) the most productive and interesting collaborations are grounded in a kind of professional and intellectual egalitarianism, or openness to the contributions of all team members.  But not all of the social boundaries inherent in digital humanities project-work can or should be ignored.  Continue reading “collaborative work: links & kinks”