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alt-ac census
May 16, 2012 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Who are the alt-acs? They are people with graduate education (mostly in the humanities and library science) who have decided to pursue alternative academic careers. They choose to skip the "dues-paying crap" often associated with pursuing a traditional tenure-track job, and avoid languishing in unrewarding adjunct assignments. They also tweet like mad. The results of a new (and, as of this writing, ongoing) #alt-ac census show alt-acs thriving in diverse positions; there's a strong contingent involved in the digital humanities, but also a historian at the U.S. Department of State, an exhibit developer at the National Constitution Center, and a self-employed "Editor, musicologist."

Even William Pannapacker, often cited by MeFites for his advice "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go", has repeated the claim that alt-ac is the future of the academy.
posted by Orinda (26 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite

 
If we're seriously reduced to claiming that "alt-ac is the future of the academy" — that is, that the future will see even more PhDs shunted out of the academy in response to its ever-worsening labor conditions — then the academy has no future. "Alt-ac" is not a solution to the systemic labor crisis, even if it's a good option for individual underemployed PhDs to consider.
posted by RogerB at 10:39 PM on May 16, 2012 [17 favorites]


I like Pannapacker's writing but he really doesn't address the concerns he raises at the end of his piece satisfactorily at all. Are there actually significant numbers of jobs in alt-ac positions, are these jobs a permanent feature of the new academy or a transitional measure, and will growth in alt-ac jobs sustainably match new PhD production in perpetuity? This all seems like a very good exercise in branding for a limited number of hybrid positions but it's not clear to me that the answer to any of those questions suggests alt-acs are actually the future of higher education.

As with charter schools, I think we should generally be skeptical when "revolutions" require the removal of worker protections without any clear reason for the removal. What sort of job security will alt-acs have? How can we protect the tenure system in an alt-ac context?
posted by gerryblog at 10:41 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised none of the links went to this piece, which was getting a lot of play in academic circles today. I'm pretty skeptical of the proposed reforms, which seem mostly directed towards establishing "alternative tracks" that will make it easier to blame students for the fact that there are no jobs, but other people seem quite taken with it.
posted by gerryblog at 10:45 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we're seriously reduced to claiming that "alt-ac is the future of the academy" — that is, that the future will see even more PhDs shunted out of the academy in response to its ever-worsening labor conditions — then the academy has no future.

As a doctoral student currently working in literary studies and the digital humanities who has vigorously pursued the alt-ac track since my first month of PhD training, I would question your basic assumption here; namely, that alt-ac positions have been shunted out of the academy. The academy has always been, is, and should always be more expansive than a tenured professoriate (although it is an integral part).

At the 2012 Modern Language Association convention in Seattle, the response of every alt-ac I heard speak to questions about tenure and job security were blunt: as a reality on the ground, tenure is quickly dying; to continue working in the academy in a way not limited to term-limited contracts on research projects either developed, overseen, or implemented by graduates of doctoral programs in the humanities, alt-ac positions provide a spectacularly useful niche. They see themselves not as outside the academy, but integral to its development in the 21st century, especially as related to digital technologies.

As for job security, there isn't any unless you consider anything other than tenure as such. In Canada at least, most alt-acs enjoy the same labor protections as other university faculty and staff with the exception of tenure. This state of affairs is closely mirrored in many libraries, as I understand it, and as others on Metafilter might be better able to comment on than me. Julia Flanders, remarked once that she worried as much about getting fired as most other white-collar knowledge workers do--i.e., not that much.

Don't get me wrong, I think tenure is a vital part of the academy. But the reality is that we asking how to protect it in the alt-ac context almost presumes that it still exists. To grad students like us, at least, that seems to be a mostly open question at this point.

I'm pretty skeptical of the proposed reforms, which seem mostly directed towards establishing "alternative tracks" that will make it easier to blame students for the fact that there are no jobs, but other people seem quite taken with it.

I couldn't disagree more, although I'd love to hear more. In my department (English, with a healthy dose of digital humanists) this piece was greeted with appreciation with a hint of relief that somebody was finally paying attention to what we needed and desired from a humanities graduate program. We're not stupid, and all of us are aware of the statistics in relation to time to completion of degree, availability of tenure-track jobs, and the almost pathological level of competitiveness present in today's humanities. Everything is most profoundly not fine, and we nearly all saw this as a useful reconfiguration that may allow graduate students in the humanities to move forward. The Inside Higher Ed piece doesn't seem geared towards blaming students when they can't find jobs; it seems to be saying that 1) There are no tenure track jobs in the humanities. 2) We train you for them anyways in a way that precludes any other viable career path. 3) Maybe we should train you for something else, or at least not solely for one thing (tt jobs). 4) How might that look? Considering the response of nearly every humanities department everywhere to the 30-year "crisis" in the humanities is to respond that "Good people always get jobs," can you blame us for applauding when someone like Russel Berman (former Pres. of MLA) comes out with a plan for something other than naive acceptance?
posted by scdjpowell at 11:14 PM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


I just pressed alt-acs on my computer and it cut my salary in half.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:38 PM on May 16, 2012 [21 favorites]


Just wanted to echo scdjpowell's response to RogerB. Be careful who you cast as being "shunted out of the academy" before you know who you're talking about. Many of alt-acs have wanted just this kind of career — which combines practical skill and intellectual rigor and is challenging in the best possible way — since beginning graduate study, and these jobs are highly sought after.

You're right, of course, to be wary of a contracting academy and a worsening academic labor market. But many alt-acs have chosen their careers precisely in order to effect real change in the academy. Many of the people in the census Orinda points to are campaigning for better working conditions, reimagined publishing models, and open access to scholarship.

Moreover, it strikes me that this narrow definition of who does intellectual work — this notion that only tenured professors can be scholars — is part of what's so troubling about the modern academy. It prevents us from seeking common cause with the librarians, technologists, adjuncts, and all the others who might offer us a more expansive idea of what scholarship can be and do.

Are alt-acs the solution to the academic job crisis? No, they can't be. There aren't enough of these jobs. But a broader definition of who does intellectual labor, and what that labor looks like, can only benefit us.
posted by miriam at 11:39 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Be careful who you cast as being "shunted out of the academy" before you know who you're talking about.

If it will bother you less, please feel free to substitute "shunted out of the traditional academic career" or whatever phrasing you prefer. But where on earth would you get the idea that I was saying "only tenured professors can be scholars"? This seems like a total misreading, and a distraction from the real issues of the situation (much as I believe the "alt-ac" rebranding to be, since it focuses us on the culturally divisive question of what exactly gets accorded the cultural prestige of being called an 'academic' career and away from material questions about the working conditions of all people who work in universities).

Everyone here seems to be in perfect agreement about the economic reality of the situation — that is, that Pannapacker is nuts to point to "alt-ac" as a viable "future of the academy" career track, because the jobs are just not there. It's a hashtaggy new name for a well-established line of work, in administrative and research and staff positions — and one that's grown massively in FTEs and salaries just as professors' salaries have shrunk and their positions have been replaced with adjunct labor, so no surprise that it seems attractive at the moment. It's certainly true that an administrative, library, or tech job is often better compensated, and sometimes more secure, than a teaching job in today's university. And it seems like many people invested in the "alt-ac" rebranding campaign are trying to use it as a corrective to feelings and attitudes (say, feeling marginalized, being treated as outside the 'scholarly' world, whatever), which is a fair enough issue to address as far as it goes — but some, like Pannapacker, are treating these epiphenomenal cultural-prestige concerns as though addressing them could somehow fix the economic destruction of the academy, which is of course impossible.

"Alt-ac" jobs are not a viable alternative career track for any but a few well-positioned and lucky PhDs, and we shouldn't let questions of the cultural prestige of competing definitions of "intellectual" labor distract from the more important issue of the conditions and compensation under which we actually do that labor (all of us, alt- or not). Working on the "idea of what scholarship can be and do" is not the same thing as trying to shore up the material conditions under which scholars work.
posted by RogerB at 12:25 AM on May 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


> It's a hashtaggy new name for a well-established line of work.

Maybe they can get together with other cobbled-together-by-bloggers groups like the 'brogrammers' and form a union.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:35 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


There have always been 'alt-acs', and it is a bit depressing that so much of the alternative career for academics narrative seems to have so little understanding of history. AE Houseman was one, for heaven's sake! Admittedly, now there are larger numbers of PhDs out there and a need for a more professional training for those going outside the academy, but the academy has never hired all the higher level degrees it produced for a variety of reasons. The trouble is that frequently to get a good alternative career you need to do many of the same things you have to do to have a shot at an academic career: got to a top tier program, hone some impressive extra skills, network like crazy, and be incredibly lucky. The idea that lovely lab jobs are out there for the plucking if only students were counselled better and not shuffled into academia by their delusional professors is an illusion. It doesn't mean that there isn't a need for students and their advisors to think of alternative careers, but, unfortunately, most of those careers aren't going to be long term or that lucrative. Especially not if they're in educational institutions having their budgets slashed: if you think it's only departments that suffer, then you're wrong. Tweet away all you like, but it's not going to change that fact, nor is it going to change the fact that administration of various sorts has for years and years been an alternative career path for academics. Given the collapse of large portions of the academy we're all going to be looking further afield and facing the fact that we're going to have to cut PhD production as a lot of the second and lower tier institutions, not just look for other jobs.

Though if I'm honest, I'm just going to admit that I find alt-ac an unfortunate abbreviation. It reminds me only of cough medicine. I say this as someone who spent a number of years not teaching as an adjunct at university because the pay was so horrifically bad; there's no way on earth I would have identified myself as an alt-ac. I preferred to say 'hey, this is what I do. For money, lovely money.' It reminds me of trying to organise a TA union at my PhD granting institution: the amount of people who wouldn't sign up simply because they needed to separate what they were doing from other forms of work was astonishing to me. A lot of the alt-ac stuff seems to have that same spin going, with people wanting to think of themselves as subtly different from other people in the same jobs. I'm not sure why, though it does fit with the way a lot of professors really refuse to think of themselves as workers either - until the axe comes swinging that is. I may well be wrong in this perception, though, and it will obviously vary for many.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:57 AM on May 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm pretty skeptical of the proposed reforms, which seem mostly directed towards establishing "alternative tracks" that will make it easier to blame students for the fact that there are no jobs, but other people seem quite taken with it.

I couldn't disagree more, although I'd love to hear more. In my department (English, with a healthy dose of digital humanists) this piece was greeted with appreciation with a hint of relief that somebody was finally paying attention to what we needed and desired from a humanities graduate program. We're not stupid, and all of us are aware of the statistics in relation to time to completion of degree, availability of tenure-track jobs, and the almost pathological level of competitiveness present in today's humanities. Everything is most profoundly not fine, and we nearly all saw this as a useful reconfiguration that may allow graduate students in the humanities to move forward. The Inside Higher Ed piece doesn't seem geared towards blaming students when they can't find jobs; it seems to be saying that 1) There are no tenure track jobs in the humanities. 2) We train you for them anyways in a way that precludes any other viable career path. 3) Maybe we should train you for something else, or at least not solely for one thing (tt jobs). 4) How might that look? Considering the response of nearly every humanities department everywhere to the 30-year "crisis" in the humanities is to respond that "Good people always get jobs," can you blame us for applauding when someone like Russel Berman (former Pres. of MLA) comes out with a plan for something other than naive acceptance?


Well, look, obviously I'm being flip -- I absolutely don't think there's any bad faith on the part of the writers of the plan, just that it won't solve the problems it seeks to address very well. The crucial elements of the plan are:

* formalize an alt-ac development track that students embark on in year 2
* reduce time to degree

The second point fundamentally misunderstands why it is people take so long, which is (1) because it just takes about that long (the average time to degree in history apparently has been 8 years for about a century, regardless of reforms) (2) because people only "finish" when they get a job, and when there are insufficient numbers of jobs people stay longer. A lengthy time to degree is half baked-in, and half a symptom of the jobs crisis rather than one of its causes.

Focusing on reducing time to degree without dealing with the systemic job crisis is a way of shifting blame to the students, whether one realizes or intends that; it ignores the actual situation and instead locates the "blame" for what's happening in students who aren't producing enough / working insufficiently hard. Additionally, because of the economics of academic departments, it will tend to only accelerate the problem: every student out is another open slot for an incoming first-year, so if we're doing PhDs in half the time we'll wind up making twice as much.

The first point is a great idea, but you can't put the decision point in year 2. The fact is, with plenty of exceptions like miriam's, most people are entering grad school because they want to be professors, and by year 2 they all still want that. It's just way too early for students to properly evaluate the situation at hand and make an informed decision about what they want for themselves. The inflection point for alt-ac careers is much later, usually after comps in the write-up phase or even in the job-search phase; that's when students find themselves in crisis looking for other options. Between year 1 and year 5/6 the training is going to have to be overlapping if this is to be practical.

How is this "directed" towards blaming students? Well, call me cynical, but I've just finished a PhD in the humanities and seen how the faculty-student relationship works at many different institutions. If a plan like this is widely adopted, I am certain that the primary result will be a great many students finding themselves at the end of unsuccessful job searches being told "Well, we gave you this other option! You should have made a better decision in year 2!" Faculty by-and-large are desperate about the job crisis and will cling like a liferaft to the idea that the student, rather than the system, brought them to this point.
posted by gerryblog at 1:59 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a former academic, now curator, I guess I belong to the alt-ac constituency and I should be very sympathetic to this movement. But the 'alt-ac' label makes my hackles rise, with its implication that academics and alt-academics belong to separate teams. (I much prefer the term 'para-academic' which Julia Flanders uses in her essay.) We're all in the same boat, and if there was a sudden cut in academic funding, the alt-academics would be among the first to lose their jobs.

As other people have already said, there's nothing new about alt-acs. (A.E. Housman isn't the best example -- he was a clerk in the Patent Office, basically a non-academic job, and did his academic work in his spare time -- but the point is a valid one.) But the claim that 'alt-ac is the future of the academy' seems to me to overlook the crucial fact that in many ways, opportunities for fruitful cross-fertilisation between academic and alt-academic positions are far less than they used to be. The 'scholar-librarian' was once a familiar figure; not any more. Librarians and archivists are now, quite rightly, expected to have professional training and qualifications in their own fields, which takes them on a different career track from that of the research PhD.

I think it's interesting to see the way the debate is being framed in this thread, as essentially about finding careers for PhDs who aren't lucky enough to land a tenure-track job. (Failed in academia? Why not become a librarian instead!) The stereotype of the 'failed academic' is difficult to dislodge. And there are good reasons for this. For all the doomy talk of 'the decline of the academy', 'loss of academic freedom', 'death of tenure' and so forth, the fact remains that tenured academic posts are still highly desirable and sought-after, offering a level of job security, salary, flexible working, public status and reputation that most alt-academics can only dream of. Alt-academia isn't going to emerge from the shadows until people start choosing to pursue it as preferable to a conventional academic career, not just the least-worst option because the academic jobs aren't there. Not many people are making that choice yet (there are some of us, but not many), and however bad things get in the academy, I don't see that changing any time soon. Academia is still the preferred option. And it is, of course, very much in the interests of academic departments to keep it that way.
posted by verstegan at 2:16 AM on May 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


verstegan : I think it's interesting to see the way the debate is being framed in this thread, as essentially about finding careers for PhDs who aren't lucky enough to land a tenure-track job [...] Alt-academia isn't going to emerge from the shadows until people start choosing to pursue it as preferable to a conventional academic career, not just the least-worst option because the academic jobs aren't there.

I usually take a negative tone on issues like this, but this time - Kudos to all the alt-acs! You guys "get" exactly the problem with the modern education system - People racking up huge debts learning un-employable skills in the hopes of someday going on to teach that same subject. Not so, for you! You fully intended to use the non-mainstream skills provided by your college education, and for that, I applaud you.

And as a side-bonus, the more, and more visible, people we have making a basic living with their humanities degrees to counterpoint the "luxury" of the tenured professorial class, the fewer people will consider the pursuit of such courses of study a good way to sink 4-10 years of their life and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
posted by pla at 3:26 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


And as a side-bonus, the more, and more visible, people we have making a basic living with their humanities degrees to counterpoint the "luxury" of the tenured professorial class, the fewer people will consider the pursuit of such courses of study a good way to sink 4-10 years of their life and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I think it's important to point out for my field that the most selective programs in North America, the ones that fund their PhDs and are brutal about cutting people who aren't going to make it or finish in a timely manner and might run out of funding, are the ones that consistently place nearly all their students in permanent academic jobs their first year on the market. (I did not come from one of these programs, so I've got nothing to gain by writing this.) Most of the premier programmes aren't getting hundreds of thousands in dollars from their students; sure they get TAs and other benefits, but it's perfectly possible to finish a PhD and not be in debt if you go to a highly selective institution. The key thing is that there are only about five-ten such institutions in North America in my discipline and far more people who want to do PhDs than they can take...so you end up with gradually diminishing returns the further you get down the rankings. But I have to say that it's near impossible to convince some students that taking a poorly funded graduate place is a bad idea. I've flat out told people that this is a bad idea and will all end in tears and been ignored. So we're not all rubbing our hands and cackling in our wood-panelled offices as we sip brandy when we see students not get jobs, you know. I know departments that would happily close their entire PhD program because they don't have the money to fund it, but aren't allowed to because that might affect the university's rankings. And the consistent hammering that educational and arts budgets get year after year isn't helpful.

Additionally, it's worth pointing out that the PhD in humanities is designed to enable you to produce a piece of original scholarship at the end; there's flexibility in how you define original scholarship and produce that scholarship, and that flexibility is increasing, but that's essentially its aim. (This is why so many academics used to get no training in teaching, with predictable results.) You could rejig it, and the research process teaches skills you can cross-sell (and that I have cross-sold), but it's not really designed to be an all purpose degree. We could decide as a society that we don't think that original research is worth anything at all and that we should all be doing professional degrees*, which would sadden me, but at least it would be more honest than the 'the PhD is useless because it doesn't teach you the skills it wasn't intended to teach' claims. The problems here go far beyond PhDs and into the collapsing value we place as a society on education that doesn't immediately have an obvious practical application and our willingness to slash funding for such education. That's not just a humanities problem though: there is an increasing reluctance in science to fund research that doesn't have an immediately obvious business function - see, for example, the current problems in veterinary science, where almost all the funded research is done in tandem with business, and anyone who might want not to sign on Monsanto's dotted line struggles hugely with getting money.


*Which have their own set of issues: see most of the debates about laws school on the blue. And I suspect that many business programmes are in for their own revelations in due course.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 3:49 AM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


You aren't truly part of the nation's future until your particular sub-set of economic casualties receives a media-friendly monicker.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:47 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think it's interesting to see the way the debate is being framed in this thread, as essentially about finding careers for PhDs who aren't lucky enough to land a tenure-track job. (Failed in academia? Why not become a librarian instead!)

This is a nice way of framing some of the problems I have with the "alt-ac" debates. I assumed, and was encouraged to think, that a PhD was the only good way of engaging with my subject and becoming a fruitful and happy member of the club. I got a master's instead, dealt with crippling doubt about my worth and prospects for two years, and I'm just now finally getting around to being okay with alternative careers and choices, and seeing those not as the failures they were presented to me, but as interesting and worthy careers in their own right. I would love to go back and do a proper degree, even if it takes eight years, but I don't think I'll ever go back to dreaming of a tenure track job. I don't think it's a bad thing to have the alternatives encouraged, but some of the framing in this debate really is problematic in terms of how it deals with the academically-aligned careers that have always existed as complementary options.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:06 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Context: I'm a PhD in humanities computing who—as several other altacs—has found herself working in an academic library.)

RogerB -- you write: It's a hashtaggy new name for a well-established line of work, in administrative and research and staff positions — and one that's grown massively in FTEs and salaries just as professors' salaries have shrunk and their positions have been replaced with adjunct labor, so no surprise that it seems attractive at the moment.

But that's not quite what's happening. Altac (about which name I have my own aesthetic concerns, but whatever) is a new name for a well established set of jobs, not line of work. Sure, library jobs existed before. But the work that librarians now do is different from before. Library and information science curricula have changed radically in the past couple of decades, much more so than academic degrees usually change in a comparable time period. This is in response to the radically changing demands of library jobs. We think about information in different ways. We think about what's possible in terms of organizing information in different ways. We think about the containers of information in different ways. These happen to be many of the same ways in which digital humanists have reconceived their raw materials, which is part of why DH and digital libraries are so chummy these days.

This is only one way in which altac has emerged from AND is feeding back into new ways of doing scholarship. Others can say smarter things about, for example, producing software as an altac career path.

So no, it's not a new name for an old thing. It's a new name for a new thing that's been shimmying its way into old structures.
posted by vzafrin at 5:31 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I can't keep up with the Twitterverse: as vzafrin hints, the relevant hashtag has changed to altac.
posted by Orinda at 6:15 AM on May 17, 2012


The real issue is when these alt-ac jobs become un-ac job. There are lots of highly educated PhDs and MA grads who are in jobs at centres and institutes in universities who are doing nothing in the way of academic research or teaching. I enjoy the entrepreneurship that comes with working in a training capacity, but the time I give to settling on a topic and researching is not paid for by anyone.
posted by parmanparman at 7:40 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The rise of altacs is not in itself worrisome; there are plenty of wonderful jobs to be done by academics who work outside the tenured system. But the sorts of problems identified by Tina Brown in The Gig Economy are present here at an institutional level: not only job instability, as gerryblog described so well; but drawbacks for the academy, wherein "colleagues are an amorphous, free-floating army of rotating waifs whose voicemails are clogged with plaintive requests from their own offices for missing information." Tenure is not only about providing a "luxurious" lifestyle (in the hopefully ironic scarequotes of pla), but about creating institutional memory, a stable research environment, a reputation for a school or department that generates exciting scholarship.

In my field, environmental policy/science, so-called altacs are fairly prevalent in environmental or community-based NGOs, government departments, or in non-traditional academic jobs, and they're often quite well regarded. So perhaps I don't see the controversy as clearly because there is already widespread acceptance of the roles of these altacs.

Within the humanities, though, and within some of the theoretical and radical fringes of my own field, I see a very strong reason to continue to strive for and support tenure-track positions. Tenure-track faculty, for one thing, can pursue work that is outside the narrow confines of applied research. Who will do the really radical stuff, the feminist political ecology, if we're all chasing the same grants that benefit the same industries? Who within our society is presenting a well-formulated challenge to existing social structures? Altacs within environmental fields must provide usable information for one or another position, and they cannot take a giant step back and do what tenured university faculty do well: criticize the very systems in which they're involved.

(and, btw: I do applied research and I recently accepted a tenure-track job funded by industry. So... whatever.)
posted by blueberry sushi at 7:41 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is surely room for humanities PhDs with IT expertise to remain around academia by administering automated grading tools and whatnot. I'd hope they negotiate salaries and benefits akin to industry IT workers though.

There is however no good reason for anyone with a PhD to teach a semester long university level class for only $5k though. Academic social status is not worth going without healthcare, never saving any money for retirement, never buying a house, never contributing to your kids collage, etc.

Also, there is a respectable chance that many lesser universities will fail when the student loan debt bubble bursts. I suppose the income based repayment system has postponed that bubble bursting by offering a continual bailout, but the for-profit universities will surely maximize their milking until congress changes its mind.

Academia's fringes could easily find themselves unemployed with kids who cannot attend university because student loans are no longer being granted for middling universities. You know, many countries have good public universities with tough admissions criteria along with less well respected expensive private non-profit universities that admit whoever can pay but offer minimal financial aid or loan opportunities. America could wind up following that model within a decade or two.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:46 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The biggest problem is that the name, hyphen or no, is horribly ugly.

that alt-ac positions have been shunted out of the academy

A self-employed editor and musicologist is not in the academy, even if many people who style themselves with the moniker in question do work within the academy.

The first point is a great idea, but you can't put the decision point in year 2. The fact is, with plenty of exceptions like miriam's, most people are entering grad school because they want to be professors, and by year 2 they all still want that.

There's also the issue that graduate school in a given discipline is for becoming a professor in that discipline. (Time was, the Ph.D. was actually the thing that gave you a credential for holding a t-t professorship at a university! Now, in many fields, it's merely a necessary condition—also gotta have publications, and a plum fellowship wouldn't hurt either.) A religious studies program is not for training a librarian. You might, in your research, end up doing the kinds of quantitative "digital humanities" thing that so many are jazzed about, and that could lead to some kind of non-professorial career, but that will be guided by your own particular research.

I basically agree with RogerB's first comment; emphasizing this kind of thing programmatically would be suicide for the academy. Which is already the victim of homicide.
posted by kenko at 8:01 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've tried to avoid threadsitting (and perhaps more to the point, I was really busy at work today). But I want to drop back in to say that contrary to verstegan's experience, I would say that the alt-acs in my network (myself included) don't see themselves as "failed" or "unlucky" at all. They're doing exciting, important work where their training is relevant and valued; they're employed full time with good salaries and benefits; and they're pretty universally happy to be free of the less-attractive aspects of a tenure-track teaching job (chiefly, grading). They are, in short, "choosing to pursue it as preferable to a conventional academic career," and they say so. The idea that people are being "shunted" out of academia (as RogerB says) is the opposite of what I think the links in my post convey: the coalescence of a self-aware, innovative, and proud alt-ac community is one of the forces reshaping the field.

There are other forces acting on the academic humanities, too—adjunctification, the publication crisis—and although I'd agree that alt-ac culture is far from solving all of academia's problems, it's hard for me to see it as anything but a good development. Alt-acs often work collaboratively, develop skills valued by non-academic employers, and even pull in grant money for their institutions—all qualities that I've been hearing for years are things humanists don't do well enough.

I don't think dividing students into traditional and alt-ac tracks early in grad school is a great idea; unfortunately, I think it would reinforce the attitude among some professors that any outcome other than a tenure-track job is inferior and alien to the academic enterprise. What I'd rather see is some informal promotion of the idea that it's good for humanities grad students in general to get a range of experience, develop some flexible (dare I say "transferrable") skills, and keep their options open. Yes, the Ph.D. is professional training designed to prepare candidates for one specific career track, and I don't quite buy into arguments that the degree program should be radically re-designed. But the emergence of alt-ac as a variation on the academic career path does not seem to me like a bad thing either for graduates, who may have a better chance of finding a good "fit" in a job (not everybody who commits to professional training at age 22 guesses exactly right about what kind of job will make them happiest), or for the academic humanities as a field, which is getting expanded and supported and re-energized by the work of alt-acs with information, tech, administrative, and other skills to bring into the mix.
posted by Orinda at 7:19 PM on May 17, 2012


What I'd rather see is some informal promotion of the idea that it's good for humanities grad students in general to get a range of experience, develop some flexible (dare I say "transferrable") skills, and keep their options open.

I think this reference to "transferrable" skills is of a piece with something that is admittedly beyond any individual's power to remedy, and probably beyond the university system's power to remedy (though the university system did enable it in the first place, sadly).

Really, anyone who has a Ph.D., in any discipline, even a humanistic one, does already have plenty of valuable, yea even transferrable skills. I am one of those who buys the claim that the ability to formulate and carry out a large-scale project (revising it as one gains a better acquaintance with the territory—flexibiility is a good thing!), master diverse literatures, analyze them, synthesize arguments of one's own, communicate all this clearly (according to the conception of clarity (note I do not say "standard of clarity", as if there was one scale and some disciplines just accepted less clarity than others) appropriate to one's discipline), manage one's time, learn new things as required by one's research, all of that stuff that's just part of writing a dissertation, has demonstrated skills, including the extremely important skill of being able to gain new skills as required, that are valuable even areas where the substantive topic of research is quite unimportant. Such a person should be able to be plopped into a workplace role—admittedly not just any role, but many roles—and learn the ropes fairly quickly, and, what's more, learn more ropes as more ropes come along.

Ah!—but that's not what one means by "transferrable skills" these days. "Transferrable skills", these days, means knowledge in advance of specific ropes. (It means being a tool, rather than a tool of tools.)
posted by kenko at 9:48 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the FPP:

Even William Pannapacker, often cited by MeFites for his advice "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go", has repeated the claim that alt-ac is the future of the academy.

I followed that link. Within, Pannapacker reports that Elliott Shore said "alt-ac is the future of the academy". Pannapacker himself didn't seem to offer an opinion either way, and just talks about what other people said at a conference. Is reporting what someone else said the same as repeating a claim?
posted by memebake at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2012


memebake drew my attention to this thread (hello!), and it finally got me to make a metafilter acc (hello!).

The aspect I see missing from the conversation here is that for a lot of us, it's less about having job skills or not, and more about what we want to be doing. I did an MFA in poetry, then a literature PhD, and I'm currently working in web content writing. I'm lucky to have a lot of strange skills outside literary studies and writing poetry, including computer stuff, and what I'm doing at the moment is getting close to one of these "alt-ac" positions. I write; I think about audiences; I carry sizable projects through to completion; I work in higher ed, even, for my univ's medical school; I could conceivably be making presentations to departments and doing training in web writing, although we haven't yet used me for that. I'm reasonably good at it and if I wanted to, I could make it a lifelong career -- but it's a very far cry from literary research and teaching students how to read and write really amazing poems. That's not just what I'm trained for; it's what I very much want to be doing with my life.

Plus: I believe hugely in humanities education. (Look toward the bottom of this page if you're curious.) I feel like I'm on the wrong side of the battles I care most about, doing what I'm doing here. And I think it's turning me into a worse poet, because I spend all day immersed in formulaic, hard-surfaced, marketing writing.

I didn't decide to try for an academic career because I thought it'd be a ticket to luxury (although, like a lot of us, no one started to tell me just how bad the numbers were until I started drafting my job app materials) -- I did it because it's where I want to be, ethically, for my enjoyment, for my satisfaction with life. Alternative job training during my degrees wouldn't have done me any good. I wouldn't have taken advantage of it. My office likes that I have a bunch of English degrees, but I could have done what I do here straight out of undergrad, frankly. I use about 3% of what I'm good at. So while I don't think PhDs who land jobs in arts management or helping third-world communities or administering online pedagogical platforms or the like are failures at all, being where I am does represent a failure for me, personally.

What lesbiassparrow said, that the core of the problem is in "the collapsing value we place as a society on education that doesn't immediately have an obvious practical application and our willingness to slash funding for such education" rings very true for me. Contemporary American culture isn't into protecting thought for its own sake. Those of us who value that get shafted.

Also parmanparman's point about "highly educated PhDs and MA grads who are in jobs at centres and institutes in universities who are doing nothing in the way of academic research or teaching" and experience that "the time I give to settling on a topic and researching is not paid for by anyone." When someone invents a career track that isn't vested in being a professor but that will put me into regular, conversational contact with other literary scholars and writers, and that will give me the time off for sustained reading and writing in my field, then that'll be an alternative that's actually good for me. Otherwise, yeah, it's going to be hard for me to feel like I haven't wasted 11 years of my life getting all these degrees. I applaud the people who are forging other paths, but it's not me, and I don't think it's most the people with whom I've gone to school.

(No one will make me mad if they tl;dr this. I'm aware how limitless my well is for verbiage on this topic.)
posted by poetiscariot at 8:51 AM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are an awful lot of westerners choosing academic lives in Asia and South America too, btw.

Anyone pursuing this should consider it a one way trip since you'll only earn about the same amount as adjunct teaching here, just forget about moving back to the U.S. for retirement of course. Yet, it's an infinitely better option than adjunct teaching here since you should earn enough for a middle class lifestyle and retirement there. You'll teach much smarter and better motivated students as well.

There are even universities in the middle east that offer western salaries. I turned down a formal offer for a professorship from one that I honestly believed I hadn't formally applied for.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:30 AM on May 21, 2012


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