Pannapacker at MLA: Alt-Ac Is the Future of the Academy

By William Pannapacker



Alt-ac is the future of the academy.

That’s what Elliott Shore, the director of libraries, CIO, and professor of history at Bryn Mawr, observed yesterday on the second of two panels at the MLA convention on alternative careers for humanities Ph.D.’s led by Sara Steger and Bethany Nowviskie.

In the last 10 years, Shore observed, the number of tenure-track teaching positions has plummeted from one-third to one-fourth of the total.  What’s left: thousands of poorly compensated adjunct teaching positions.   One speaker, Donald Brinkman, who works for Microsoft Research said: “I left the humanities because I didn’t, like, want to be poor my whole life.”

But for people with extensive humanities training who want to remain in the academy but don’t want to work as adjuncts, the alt-ac path is an option that more of them are exploring. That can include working with libraries, academic publishers, museums, and various government positions.  There is also a growing affiliation between the alt-ac community and the Digital Humanities.

The alt-ac route, for many scholars, is not a second choice.  Bethany Nowviskie, for example, observed that for her, with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, the alt-ac world was her “vocation.”  “It broke my adviser’s heart,” she said, but Nowviskie is now the director of research and scholarship at the UVA Library  and coordinator of an online journal dedicated to this topic: #Alt-Academy.

As more than one panelist observed, “alt-ac” is a new word for something that Ph.D.’s have always explored, even before the job crisis began more than 40 years ago.  Jason Rhody, Senior Program Officer at the NEH, recalled their efforts to prepare humanities Ph.D.’s for business careers beginning the early 1980s.  And I can remember the Chronicle columns—and direct personal counsel—from Margaret Newhouse, who directed Career Services at Harvard in the 1990s, around the same time that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, led by Robert Weisbuch, launched a program to help graduate students find nonacademic positions.

I remember, too, that in 1998 Elaine Showalter embraced the alternative-careers movement during her tumultuous year as MLA president.  Her support for that was bitterly opposed at the MLA Convention that year by the Graduate Student Caucus.  At the time, alternative careers seemed like a distraction from academe’s increasing reliance on graduate students and adjuncts.

A contributing factor was that there was, at the time, a strong prejudice against humanities graduates seeking non-academic employment.  I can remember being told many times by elders in the profession that there are “always jobs in academe for smart people who work hard.” It was accepted that anything other than an academic post was a failure.  (In elite programs, anything short of a tenure-track position at a research university was an embarrassment, too.)  Your adviser would mourn your death, and your name would be expunged from the records of your graduate program.

I wonder if that situation has changed.  I spoke with a young journalist—obviously successful—who told me that her graduate program isn’t proud of her for the career path she has chosen.  Julia Flanders, who directs the Women Writers Project at Brown, sees it as a “failure of mentoring to think that alt-ac people have fallen off the earth, given the realities of the job market and the vibrancy of the alt-ac field.”

One difference between my cohort, trained in the 90s, and the one trained in this decade may be that the most of latter probably have been warned about the shortage of academic positions from the time they started graduate school.  My cohort was told, repeatedly, that there would be more tenure-track positions than candidates by the end of the last decade.  Today’s graduates seem more likely to have been considering alternative careers all along, and, it seems, there is little expectation among them that there is anything the profession can do to prevent the final decline of traditional, tenure-track teaching positions.

Brian Croxall, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory, showed everyone a rejection letter he received that consoled him with the news that they had “received more than 900 applicants.” In such a context, what shame is there in being a “failure,” as he put it?

After the first panel, I asked one of the speakers whether there was any connection between alt-ac and academic labor activism.  The answer: “Look, I’m a pragmatist.  I’m not here to mount the barricades.  I‘ve got to make a living.  If that’s selling out, well, so be it.”

It seems that academe’s “angry generation” is being replaced by academe’s “service generation.” That can be seen as a positive development.  I don’t see the same kind of intellectual hauteur and one-upmanship; there is a stronger ethic of collaboration as opposed to the myth of the solitary genius: a feeling of “we’re all in this together: teachers, librarians, and technologists, among others.” “Things might get better, eventually, but let’s not get all utopian and revolutionary.”

There was some strong dissent to be found.  I did overhear and see some concerns that appealing alt-ac positions are not much easier to obtain than traditional academic positions.  One Twitterer, “BitterPhd”,” asked, “Where are these mythical jobs?”  We see the success stories, but are there really enough good jobs to go around in the alt-ac world?

Rhody observed that you have to treat the alt-ac job search with the same kind of seriousness as you would the search for a tenure-track position.  And you need to prepare early in your graduate career: Get some relevant experience and learn how to work with different kinds of people. Alt-ac should be your real career ambition, not a fallback position for “failed” academics—and who would want to hire someone who regarded the position in those terms? And, Rhody adds, “Assert yourself.” There are lots of people who are not tenure-track professors who are doing important work about which they can be proud.  According to Matthew Jockers, co-director with Franco Moretti of the Stanford Literary Lab, “The dark days of marginalization are over.”

In a subsequent discussion of alt-ac positions, Nowviskie said, “It’s not about the economy—not about getting jobs.  It’s about getting humanities scholars into positions where they can bring their training and values to bear on the wholesale transformation of libraries and the academy.  We are needed!”

Nowviskie’s overview of these events, “Two & a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks,” can be found here.


William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is a Chronicle columnist, and this is his fourth year live-blogging the MLA convention.Watch in coming days for his further dispatches from the meeting, and for other MLA coverage elsewhere in  The Chronicle.

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