First, the skinny on my job interview Wednesday: it went very well! The committee seemed to like me (I liked them!), there was lots of nodding and scribbling as they worked through 14 questions, and I had good answers for all of the questions. My screwups were minimal and not deal-breaking, IMO. It’s hard to say, obviously, what that means: last year, I had a fantastic interview at a community college that yielded no job. Overall, I think it’s an excellent fit, I have the experience and approach they’re seeking, and I have the right connections. Now it’s just a matter of my competition. They’re interviewing 13 candidates for 2 openings and hope to be able to tell me something in about 3 weeks. Ah, the academic timetable: glacial. Anyway: it’s a job (“students service-y administrative position” is all I feel comfortable sharing right now) that I very much hope I get, and I believe I put my best foot forward.
I guess I’m officially on the “alt-ac” track. Have you heard of “alt-ac” (or #alt-ac as they tweetly insist)? You probably have: as usual, I’m late to the party. I missed the rise of this movement, a group of Humanities scholars who work outside the tenure track in “alternative” academic careers. I guess it made quite a splash at the MLA convention in January. I spent some time looking over the clusters and articles on the main alt-ac site, and have some thoughts about it as a post-academic myself.
First, I’ll say that any conversation about work outside the tenure track is healthy, especially for those of us foolish enough to go into the Humanities. Having lots of “out” alternative academics discussing how they got their jobs is a good thing. And there are some practical resources available now that are invaluable to all of us striking out on this journey. So, I’m glad alt-ac exists, even though I mostly think it’s not that innovative and probably destined to be a footnote in academic history, much like the brief flourishing of Doctor of Arts programs. Like the DA, alt-ac has its heart in the right place and a lot of great ideas. It’s essentially a community based on hope, which is lovely.
But I think it reenacts far too many of the same old fantasies that led us like sheep to the slaughter of Humanities grad school in the first place.
1. It maintains the same old hierarchies of “Tenure Track first, everything/anything else second;” as well as “academic jobs best, everything else embarrassing.”
Just its name – “alternative” – reasserts that absurd binary of TT as the main, ideal, bestest and realest academic career and everything else as “alternatives.” It’s ridiculous, because TT jobs are such a teeny, tiny percentage of the many jobs available in academic institutions. (Alt-ac does NOT include adjuncting, by the way.) How can the jobs that will define life after grad school and make up the majority of jobs for grads be alternatives?
And they say “alternative academic,” but seem to define academic very narrowly as non-faculty employment only in legit, non-profit higher ed institutions. What about jobs that are academic in nature but occur in the context of consultation, corporations, museums, public schools, or for-profits? Are they alternative alternative academic careers? Are they not academic? This just screams ivory tower privilege to me.
2. It offers desperate people false reassurances about the availability of jobs.
Just looking at the names and institutional affiliations of the alt-ac contributors at Alt-Academy made me groan. I’m not convinced that anyone with a PhD and a long term, safe and solid position within an institution can truly understand what it’s like to be a grad student facing imminent demise, especially folks with long CVs that are identical to those of my former profs. It’s misleadingly optimistic.
These alt-ac folks in leadership positions in departments and programs aren’t any different from my former grad school mentors who acted as examples of those who “made it” in academia: their existence made me think I could make it, too. But how many Digital Curating positions are really out there? My understanding of alt-ac markets such as academic librarianship, archives and university museums is that they’re competitive, possibly low paying, and would likely require you to move. How different is that, really, from the academic market? You likely aren’t going to start out as a Director of anything: you will be applying to Level IV Library Assistant spots and competing with people who (gasp!) actually have degrees in Library Science.
But just the existence of these people saying, “Hey, look at my dissertation on American Progressive era labor rights and my swank gig as Director of New Media in History! It’s just as fancy as a Professorship and my CV is just as long, but the pay is better!” makes it seem possible to people who really want that to be true. I think that’s deceptive.
3. It pretends that a PhD in the Humanities is ideal career preparation.
Which it is not. An MA in English is great preparation to teach English. A PhD in Am Studies is a great preparation to write really long texts that no one will read. But it is not great preparation to be, say, a corporate trainer or work in administration.
CERTAINLY – before all y’all get pissed at me – there are generally transferable skills that one can gain in a Humanities education that are valuable. Like WRITING! But I would assert that those skills are manifest in any Master’s degree program (even a good BA program) and not honed to any further or particularly essential level of awesomeness during PhD study for most (alt-ac) careers. For example, my husband works in higher ed administration (at a lowly career college, so apparently he cannot claim illustrious alt-ac status). He got his job because he had an MA, some teaching experience, and a connection on campus. They didn’t care what his MA was in, and he doesn’t use his extensive knowledge of British modernism to do his job. He does use his outstanding written and verbal communication skills, and an MA did just fine for that (although IMO, he had those skills even as a lowly BA– but I am a bit biased when it comes to the love of my life).
A PhD is preparation of a kind, but I think there are more direct ways that would take less time and cost less money. A lot of folks seem to end up in alt-ac because they cultivated side interests or continued to pursue interests they’d had in undergrad (e.g. coding, website design, keeping an administrative position while doing grad school on the side, etc). These “side projects” become linchpins in new careers. Why not cut out the decades-long-largely-pointless-middle-man and do the Occam’s razor thing? Don’t pretend that a Humanities PhD is a career-making, essential element of an alt-ac career.
In other words, although I adore the Humanities, I think we need to get real when it comes to vocational prep. The Humanities are great but if you really want an alt-ac career – hell, if you want ANY career – it seems like the Humanities PhD is incidental. You get a job in spite of it, rarely because of it.
4. It sidesteps the fact that no one goes into the Humanities to be a website designer.
There was a brief… thing… called OccupyMLA. They had a twitter account and at one point were in a debate with alt-ac folks. They said: “Stick your alt-ac up your variorum, TENURE TRACK NOW.” No one goes into Humanities grad school so they can do paperwork, or design course management modules, or orient international students, or learn all about digitizing files. I know people who left jobs like that, for grad school, specifically so they would never have to do that crap again (their words!).
Alt-ac sometimes touches on this dark edge of post-academia, but I think the relentlessly chipper “You can still live the life of the mind while writing memos!” schtick falls on extremely bitter, deaf ears at times. People are angry about the demise of academic life, and the system that produced its failure is still pretty broken and messed up. How can alt-ac recruit that anger to its benefit? How can it better acknowledge the fucked-uppedness of higher ed? Anger is powerful. Ignoring it is foolish.
5. It might encourage the overvaluing of the PhD, and PhD creep.
The abundant availability of PhDs means that employers can be more picky about who they hire. Two years ago, when I was on the Community College market, I noticed that some Community Colleges were starting to require a PhD for faculty positions. A freshman comp position at a nearby 4-year college required a PhD for its contingent, entry-level faculty position. I think it’s an attempt to legitimize the work: only the best and brightest qualify just to APPLY to this crappy position! This is PhD creep.
Now, I know those are both faculty examples, but really, what’s to stop PhD creep from happening in alt-ac fields, which are housed in the very universities that overproduce graduate students? If you have a sudden glut of History PhDs clamoring for a spot in your Special Collections wing, it’s easy to make the PhD a requirement, if only to make the stack of applications smaller. While you’re at it, throw in a preference for an illustrious research and presentation record. Why not make it just as difficult and inaccessible as the real, best job: TT prof?
Of course institutions (legit ones, where all the alt-ac jobs live) have a vested interest in keeping the PhD overvalued: they need scores of idiotic people like me to enroll in their PhD programs and teach all the students and do all the jobs they won’t want to compensate me for when I finish. And grad students have an interest in the PhD continuing to be overvalued because they/we have given our lives over to it and we are so desperate for it to mean something (anything).
Overall, I like the idea of alt-ac, but worry that it’s just going to continue encouraging people to go to grad school in the Humanities, esp. PhD programs, and perpetuate a lot of the problems and misapprehensions that have always been there. While it seems to be geared towards people who’ve already made the decision or committed time to Humanities graduate school, I think they should think more comprehensively about the audience of people considering grad school and speak more directly to the ways they can avoid our mistakes and get a desirable career with more direct pathways. And, they need to expand their definition of legitimate post-academic careers so it doesn’t so blatantly reproduce the privilege that none of us are going to have access to pretty soon.