The last month has been big for graduate education reform and post-ac in general. This Chronicle piece summarizes it pretty nicely. Some new reports have told us what we already knew. We’re planning some exciting stuff. MLA is just around the corner. It’s all happening.
But all this has left me wondering if the post-ac community — the small world of which I am a small part — is really part of this reform conversation. It seems like we should be, right? It seems like all of these schools and students and programs who are desperately concerned about employment prospects for graduate students would be interested in talking more to people who have actually left. And I guess #Alt-Academy is sort of doing that, but I have already written about my problems with the concept of alt-ac as the only option discussed as legit for humanities grads. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m glad “alt-ac” is around, and I’d love to hear if it has helped any grad school quittas as they look for assistance when they decide to leave. I like what Bethany Nowviskie, a founder of #Alt-Academy, says about the ethos of alt-ac:
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… like to get things done, collaboratively, and in the real world… 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… for us, “service” was never a dirty word.
But I’m uncomfortable with how, for lack of a better word, academic it is. Alt-Academy says that alt-ac is “really about an alternative academia, a new imagination for the systems in which we operate.” Which just sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me. I mean, I get it: I appreciate the refashioning of academic identity to broaden it and make room for the many folks who love working for institutions in a different capacity. But I see it mostly for grad students who plan to stay, selling them the notion that staying is wise and there are options that they can learn to love as much as they loved the fantasy of being a professor. This feels markedly different from the conversations in the post-ac blogging world, which are about breaking with the academy. Our pain is disjuncture from the identity that I think alt-ac is trying to maintain and expand. Our topics and methods feel similar, but our projects feel different.
Why alt-ac and not post-ac? Does one encompass the other? How much overlap is there in our Venn diagram?
I just don’t know if I or we are really a part of that, even though it seems like “we” (?) ought to be. Within the last few years, post-academic blogs have flourished (in that there’s, ya know, many of them where there used to be few). In fact, it seems that every few years, there’s a new crop of websites, blogs, or books devoted to post-academic life written by grad school/academic quittas that are subsequently abandoned (seem to have a shelf-life of 1-2 years — see postacademic.org for a great example). Even within post-academic blogs that are still active, posts focusing on quitting, job hunting, skill development, and the transition out of academia seem to peak for about a year or two and then fade away as life goes on. I’m sure that will happen here, to my blog. Life goes on. Maybe post-ac is different from alt-ac, or from the reform movement, because eventually it leaves these concerns behind, instead of rehashing the same concerns and points all over again, or trying to make academic conversations out of our daily lives and occupations.
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I was really amused to stumble across a series of posts on Postacademic.org from two years ago (2010), after MLA President Sidonie Smith made some proposed reforms for the dissertation. Caroline Roberts wrote:
“It’s great that Smith is taking such a sincere and proactive stance challenging one of the sacred cows of the Ph.D., the dissertation, so it’ll be interesting to see how her words translate into actions. While I hate playing the naysayer–OK, maybe I don’t hate it so much!–conceptual solutions can only go so far in a profession that is, in many ways, defined by looking backwards and not forwards.” The Latest from the MLA: Acknowledging the Problem is the First Step
“Before we go into greater detail about our admiring skepticism as to how plausible the possibility of change is, we do have to give Pres Smith credit for her foresight in attempting to take on the most ingrained and daunting of academic hazing rituals, the dissertation writing process. Beyond any issues folks have at a personal level maintaining their own sanity, balancing their finances, and figuring out their day-to-day lives through grad school, Pres Smith identifies the consequences the dissertation process has on the profession as a whole, stunting the development of young scholars at the start of their careers who may be investing too much into the diss manuscript as the end-all, be-all first book.” The Latest from the MLA: Is the Diss Extinct?
A few months later, Caroline @ Postacademic commented on grad students who had been writing to Salon for career advice. The columnist encouraged the students to stick it out, and this conversation happened in the Postacademic comments among Worst Professor Ever, Caroline, and Eliza (the three most active and “high profile” post-ac bloggers at that time):
WorstProfEver said: And so it begins — have you seen the PhD on this weeks’ PostSecret? I predict more people will need your Sense & Sangria!
Eliza said: “That dream will turn into a nightmare, though, if all you have to show for your PhD is a massive debt load.” Well put! Now if only more unhappy academics would ask the post-PhD community for advice rather than well-meaning, if clueless, advice columnists who are well and truly out of the higher ed loop.
Caroline Roberts said: WoPro, I did see the Post Secret! And that postcard will be appearing on Post Academic sometime in the near future. Eliza, I totally agree. While I have no doubt that these advice columnists have good intentions, I wish the people asking the questions about academic job dissatisfaction turned to the post-PhD community more often!
WorstProfEver said: Agree! But it’s been really hard to find people who are willing to talk about the issue honestly even though I’ve been looking pretty hard. I think we are the post-PhD community!
I think it’s interesting that there are all these conversations happening within institutions like #Alt-academy, which is institutionally housed, funded, and run by senior researchers, but there’s so little overlap between the alt-ac world and the post-ac world. I don’t think any alt-academy people are readers of post-ac blogs (Bethany Nowviskie popped up on my last post, but I don’t think she’s a regular!). I don’t think any of us have contributed to #Alt-academy, even though ostensibly many of us “count” (certainly me), and some stuff there is terrifically helpful and relevant. Is our how to leave academia project redudant with #Alt-academy? It doesn’t feel that way, but I’m curious if people who are in the process of quitting are finding the answers they seek over there.
Two years ago, WorstProfEver said that “we are the post-PhD community,” meaning the bloggers, the quittas. I wonder if that’s still true. What do y’all think?