#Altac and the Tenure Track

Brian Taylor

May 23, 2012

The alternative academic movement—known on Twitter under the hashtag of #altac—was supposed to be my calling.

A little over a year ago, I read Sally Racket's essay in The Chronicle on "Survivor's Guilt," about the guilt she felt over being successful on the academic job market. I found her account of what it takes to secure a tenure-track position to be horrifying, suggesting that life on the job market is an endless cycle of publishing, applying for jobs, failing to get interviews or offers, and publishing again. Sally imagined what it was like for the countless other applicants who did not receive offers, writing that "it seemed incredibly callous to yelp, dance, or run through the halls when I knew that more than 100 other exhausted candidates would get a form letter from a search committee or human resources."

When I read her essay, I had been teaching as a postdoctoral fellow in a three-year renewable position, and had just experienced a particularly stressful job season. I had thought that getting a book contract under review and becoming increasingly visible in my field would garner more attention from search committees. I was wrong.

Incredibly frustrated and depressed, I saw that Bethany Nowviskie was preparing to publish her edited volume, #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars, a collection of essays by people who had received a Ph.D. but had, for various reasons, not ended up in a tenure-track position. She identified such positions with a movement, and connected that movement with a Twitter hashtag: #altac.

As Nowviskie's Web site for her book explains: "By 'alternative academics,' we refer to people with graduate training in the humanities who apply their skills to a wide spectrum of positions beyond the tenure track. #Alt-academics embark on a variety of careers in areas like libraries, museums, archives, higher education and humanities administration, publishing, research and technology, and more."

It felt like I had found the promised land. I thought the #altac movement would give me a better chance of finding a position that would not only pay the bills, but allow me to work in a humanities-related field that would offer some job satisfaction.

And it did. I applied and was hired for a position at the Digital Scholarship Commons at Emory University, met an amazing group of professionals who really valued me and my work, and had many wonderful conversations about the role of digital technology and the future of the University with faculty members, provosts, deans, students, and nontenure-track members of the community.

I remember feeling like I had just taken off a straitjacket. While I remained committed to a research agenda, I now knew that I didn't have to limit my interests to a narrow specialty or worry about whether every little bit of research I produced fit seamlessly into that specialty. I could publish work at my leisure, because it meant something to me, instead of constantly checking whether the velocity of my scholarly production mirrored some abstract and undeterminable (but lightning-fast) requirement for a job or tenure.

Then I received a tenure-track job offer.

I had been on the faculty market for a number of reasons. Despite my enthusiasm for my job, I wanted to keep my options open. I also didn't know what would happen after the end of my two-year postdoctoral fellowship.

So I applied for teaching positions. It's strange how much the tenure-track offer reflected my wildest dreams as a graduate student and my more current concerns about academic job training. During my campus interview, when I discussed my passions about reinventing graduate education to fit the needs of students considering #altac careers, the department was interested. I found a group of academics who valued me because I struggled.

This job offer wasn't winning the daily lottery; it felt akin to winning one of those multibillion-dollar jackpots that appear only once every decade or so—and not having to share it with anyone.

I have accepted the job, but I find myself feeling guilty, torn, and anxious. Did I use #altac to secure a "better" position, then callously abandon the alternative-academic track when I no longer needed what it offered?

I enjoyed my #altac position, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't mourn a little when I thought I would not be able to teach graduate students or be valued primarily for my scholarship. At the Digital Scholarship Commons, we sought to be collaborative in developing digital projects, but we also found it difficult to conceptualize what that would mean within a humanities context that primarily favored individual scholarship. Were we truly working together to create projects that no one scholar could complete, or were we simply working in a service capacity by digitizing the work of individual faculty members?

While I know that the future of the academy is #altac, I also know that tenured and tenure-track faculty members will, for some time, enjoy prestige and power that #altac professionals do not currently possess.

I want to leverage my new tenure-track position to advocate for the #altac community by collaborating on scholarship with the professionals on my new campus and by mentoring doctoral students to develop transferable skills that they can use in nontenure-track positions. But I also know that it will be difficult for me to do so without looking like a hypocrite.

As long as faculty members in the humanities view #altac jobs as consolation prizes for the golden ticket of a tenure-track job, graduate students won't be able to see the value of thinking about the humanities in different—and more productive—ways. We'll all suffer as a result. The #altac movement isn't just for people who can't or don't want to get jobs on the tenure track; it's a fundamental rethinking of the boundaries of the academy and a long-overdue embrace of public life as an essential part of what the humanities are.

The alternative-careers movement can be sabotaged by whether we allow the zero-sum mentality of the job market to make decisions for us as a community. Recently I discussed my own career path with a graduate student who was just about to go on the job market. He seemed concerned that my experience would end up becoming a new trend—assistant professors who briefly worked in alternative positions would bring that experience with them to the tenure track and take jobs from staff professionals who have comparatively little job security. Or, he argued, perhaps the opposite would happen: #altac professionals would start to replace tenured positions, as administrators decide they like to bring in new blood from time to time instead of fully financing new faculty lines.

Indeed, one of the current problems plaguing the #altac movement stems from the fact that many of the alternative jobs are very precarious, existing mostly as limited-term postdoc opportunities. I overheard a particularly shortsighted colleague, at an institution where I briefly worked, refer to people in #altac positions as "glorified adjuncts."

These are not easy issues to resolve, and I continue to struggle with how I fit, or not, into the complex new career ecology emerging in academe.

My experience as an alternative academic gave me enough knowledge of university budgets and politics to realize that neither I nor anyone else around me is out of the woods. There are large challenges looming for academe that tenure-track and alternative jobs won't magically erase. Until we realize that we are all contingent, we are all #altac, we all need to be flexible, and we are all in this together, we won't be able to effectively deal with the crisis in the humanities with anything other than guilt.

Roger T. Whitson is an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Scholarship Commons at Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Library. He will start as an assistant professor of 19th-century British and Anglophone literature at Washington State University in the fall.