Reporting from the #Alt-Ac Panel at Digital Humanities 2011

blue sky framed by walls

Last week, a few members of the ProfHacker team descended on Digital Humanities 2011. As George has already reported, we saw barcodes enhancing presentations in interesting ways and there were a number of big announcements made at the conference. One of these announcements heralded the launch of the #alt-academy project, an open-access collection of essays, dialogues, and personal narratives on the subject of alternative academic careers. In an act of full (and self-promotional) disclosure, I’ll mention that I contributed an essay to the collection.

The launch of the #alt-ac project was fortuitously timed with a DH2011 panel on “The #alt-ac track,” which was moderated by Bethany Nowviskie who edited the collection (and has written here previously on negotiating contracts for alt-ac jobs). Bethany opened the panel by reminding the audience that “Non-tenure track does not mean non-academic.” The panelists, including some of the contributors to the collection, then touched briefly on different issues facing alternative academics:

  • the often ad-hoc trajectory one takes into working in an alt-ac job
  • the self-consciousness that comes with having one’s professional identity tied to projects in a way that differs radically from people on the tenure track.
  • the glass ceiling of alt-ac positions that is created by not having clear paths to promotion within a particular position.
  • helping others to recognize one’s alt-ac work as scholarship
  • moving from academia to industry and then back again
  • the “credential creep” that is accompanying the digital humanities job market, something that doesn’t differ all that much from the ever-increasing expectations for tenure

Following the presentations, there was a lengthy Q&A that brought to light many more issues facing people who are working in or want to work in #alt-ac careers:

  • What risk does alt-ac run of being part of a larger casualization of the university’s labor force?
  • What freedom can and/or should an alt-ac person expect for conducting her own research?
  • What role (or lack thereof) do alt-ackers play in university governance?
  • Since many universities require the principal investigator of a grant to be a faculty member, how can we help alt-ac people become involved in leading or co-leading grants?
  • How can I acquaint my adviser or program with alt-ac options?
  • How can alt-ac people be credited for their intellectual labor rather than having it labeled as work for hire?

Along with these questions, there was an acknowledgment that we should remember that alt-ac does not equate to the digital humanities, the humanities, or even necessarily the digital. Nor need it be connected only with the university; museums, archives, libraries, and local, state, and national governments all provide jobs that can easily be understood as alt-ac. But don’t just take my word for it! Along with the abstract of the panel and the essays in the collection, the #alt-ac panel enjoyed a lively Twitter backchannel, which you can find archived by our own Mark Sample.

Since this is ProfHacker, then, let me suggest two ways that you might use this conversation to think about hacking your own career, whether you’re alt or not. First, it’s important to recognize that the specifics of alt-ac jobs resist definition. If they did anything else, they wouldn’t be “alt,” would they? That being said, there is certainly a real conversation happening about the status of these positions. If you’re interested in thinking outside the tenure-track, then jump into the conversation at places like the #alt-academy collection or the white paper from the recent NEH-sponsored, Tanya Clement- and Doug Reside-organized “Off the Tracks” workshop.

The second point is related: because the track to alt-ac isn’t especially well defined (and, again, might defy being otherwise), there is only so much to be gained from hearing others’ experiences about how they landed their particular alt-ac job. A person’s path to alt-ac is much less like the tenure-track and much more like a “regular” job: idiosyncratic and contingent upon any number of circumstances. That being said, these narratives do offer a key insight: it is possible to do something different. My coming to this realization (again) during the panel at DH2011 was well worth the price of admission alone.

What questions do you have about alt-ac? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: atibaia’s BEAUTIFUL lovely lovely SKY. / Ana Bernardo /

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