#Alt-Academy: Professionalizing Unconventional Academic Careers

by brandontlocke

I wrote the following review in the Spring of 2012 as part of my ‘Internship in the Digital Humanities’ graduate course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My classmates and I have other blog posts and reviews located on the class blog, DH Internship @ UNL. — BL

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

Bethany Nowviskie opens her introduction to the #Alt-Academy project with Frosts words on the beauty of a career that is meaningful and fulfilling (Nowviskie 2011, Two Tramps in Mud Time). For many inside the academy, there exists a disconnect between this notion and a career like Nowviskie’s – in academia, but outside of the tenure track. Nowviskie put together the project after a few Tweets about her excitement about her work sparked a conversation about the enjoyment many get from similar careers (Ibid.). #Alt-Academy is an innovative collection of media that seek to unite, inform, professionalize, and lobby on behalf of scholars in academic roles outside of tenure-track academic appointments. The majority of active contributors work in the digital humanities, but the project does not limit itself to those who consider themselves digital humanists. The project includes six “clusters” of posts with similar topics, including one introductory cluster. Individuals with advanced degrees in the humanities that work in these positions are often seen as failures, or are otherwise excluded from discussions about the academy. Although the project defines alt-academy very broadly, most of the active contributors and topics are also under the big tent of Digital Humanities, where scholars are creating an entire new genre of scholarship and careers. This project aims to redefine and professionalize these new roles in the academy, and bring more attention, respect, and job stability to those in the field.

#Alt-Academy is a vital resource for junior scholars and grad students who are “building skills and experience in…those areas of the academy that are most in flux, and most in need of guidance and attention by sensitive, capable, imaginative, and well-informed #alt-ac scholar-practitioners (Nowviskie 2011, #alt-ac in Context).” Nowviskie’s introductory essay also speaks to the idea of unifying a disparate segment of the academic community that has long been considered failed tenure-seekers. The innovative publishing model fosters quick, multifaceted communication between #alt-ac members and attempts to synthesize the unification and professionalization of the community by focusing on both changing institutions and encouraging junior scholars to pursue work in the field.

The two clusters that focus on institutional change and senior scholars are essential to solidifying the field by clarifying labor issues and creating permanent spots in institutions. The two clusters, Labor and Labor Issues and Making Room, address topics that are important to establishing a more permanent field, because so many in alt-ac are paid with temporary funds or are otherwise limited by impermanence atypical in the traditional academy. These positions must also be created using structures very different from traditional practices, because tenure does not fit in such a dynamic field where values are changing and risks must be taken. These articles sketch out arguments for the necessary changes and structures that are needed for new “alternative” positions. The arguments even extend to the most basic of pay models, as Julia Flanders discusses at length in her article “You Work at Brown. What do you Teach?” ( Flanders, 2011.) Flanders points out that academic teachers are salaried, have relatively specific hours, production expectations, and calendars, but many in the alt-academy are paid hourly or by project and do not have very specific long-term goals or signposts. These labor and structural changes have very profound effects not only on legitimizing the jobs and attracting more top talent, but also in adding value and stability to employees.

The other three clusters focus on training and career paths for alt-academics – both junior and senior scholars. The clusters Careers and CredentialsGetting There, and Vocations and Identities are more focused on individuals and provide support, advice, and inspiration to other alt-ac scholars looking to succeed in the field. The clusters provide a great deal of information for aspiring and junior scholars, and truly showcase the breadth of field. The latter, Vocations and Identities, really branches out, including many emerging positions in libraries, public historians, and scholarly publishing. Collectively, these articles really drive home the point that no one path for an alt-ac career exists, and everyone in it has followed a very different track. These also show the richness and diversity in training, and the way that these contribute to a rich field with a wide variety of thought and development.

The highly innovative publishing methods of the project promote a higher level of interactivity and review in scholarly communication. #Alt-Academy employs a publish-then-filter system, so pieces are published right away, reviewed, and then selected works are featured on the home page. The site’s “Response” function – a vast improvement on typical web commenting – appears prominently along the side rather than being relegated to the bottom of the page. The responses are also brought to life through photographs and biographies, and the front page shows how many responses each piece has received. To date, however, there hasn’t been a wealth of responses on the articles. This is, of course, not to say that the project has not had a lot of traffic or that the articles have not been well received – the project has garnered a great amount of attention – but much of the conversation has taken place on individuals’ blogs and on Twitter. Unfortunately, such a thoughtful and positive scholarly communication tool has gone underused. If the project could harness more of the conversation that surrounds it (whether through plug-ins and integration or by encouraging responders to double-post), it could be an even more powerful tool for communication and innovation in the community.

By raising the profiles of humanities scholars working in non-traditional routes, and bringing their contributions and expertise to the table, the scholarly environment becomes richer and stronger for everyone else. There needs to be a large shift for the academy to move from those who teach the humanities to those who are professionally trained in the humanities. While the “#alt-ac movement” will not directly do that, it can make an essential first step to raising the profile of alt-acs and moving this work into great acceptance and training more graduate students in it. This also enlarges the overall community, brings in new perspectives, and eliminates the loss of half the humanities PhDs (not to mention the master’s degrees) that will not work in tenure track positions.

Although the idea of an alternative academy existed prior to this project, the use of the term as a uniting point for scholars can be problematic. In taking a stand as the alternative academy they separate themselves as an alternative – outside of the mainstream focus and establishment of the current conception of “the academy.” The nomenclature and separatist attitude has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the separation causes an unnecessary distinction – is it impossible for scholars to float between traditional and alternative academy? Should there be two separate paths through graduate school? A different terminology – perhaps something like ‘Broadening the Academy,’   ‘Nontraditional Scholars,’ or something of that ilk, would serve the purposes of fostering an idea of a united academy or the acknowledgement that alt-ac careers are just a different form of academic scholar, neither “alternative” nor less deserving of respect and employment. The term “hybrid humanities” sometimes describes humanist scholars with training in other fields, although this is problematic in that it gives the impression that the scholars are mixing humanities with other disciplines (which isn’t always true) or that it is not “pure” humanities. The term Humanities 2.0, as presumptuous as it may seem, may be best, because it announces that the humanities must broaden in the digital age, and names these roles as necessarily inclusive.

Perhaps a differentiation is necessary to establish this “alternative” career as a viable and stable form of academic work. Tenure, at least in its current and common practice, does not work well for most alt-ac jobs, as tenure often discourages innovation through continuing traditional standards and make scholars overly risk-averse. Perhaps differentiation will provide stable employment within the university, and non-teaching careers can be institutionalized, permanent, and well-paying without the pressures and rigidity of tenure. In Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment, Tom Scheinfeldt says he remains unwilling to accept second class academic status as his digital humanities work wins awards and funding but remains untenurable (Scheinfeldt, 2011.). He adds, “It can’t be tenure track or nothing. My work requires a ‘third way’” (Ibid.). Bethany Nowviskie’s #alt-ac project is among the best resources for those seeking to build that third way.

Works Cited

Flanders, Julia. “You Work at Brown. What do you Teach?” May 6, 2011. #Alt-Academy. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/you-work-brown-what-do-you-teach (accessed March 12, 2012).

Nowviskie, Bethany. #alt-ac in Context. Undated. #Alt-Academy.  http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/ alt-ac-context  (accessed March 10, 2012).

Nowviskie, Bethany. Two Tramps in Mud Time. January 24, 2011. #Alt-Academy.  http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/introduction-two-tramps-mud-time (accessed March 10, 2012).

Scheinfeldt, Tom. Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment. May 6, 2011. #Alt-Academy. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/toward-third-way-rethinking-academic-employment (accessed March 11, 2012).

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