Forging New Paths off the Alt-Ac Track

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Choose Your Own Adventure by Thomas Hawk published under CC-BY-NC 2.0.
Tara Coleman suggests that if we forge our own alt-ac paths by creating opportunities rather than waiting for them, we might actually end up doing the thing we really want to do.

By Tara Coleman

When I began the Connected Academics proseminar last fall, I had only recently started following the discourse around the term alt-ac and connecting it to issues I had been thinking about for a long time. My original impression was that alt-ac stood for alternatives to the academic career path or for alternative academic careers, such as administrative or teaching positions in the university but off the tenure track. The term seemed to give a name to my desire to remain affiliated with academic work in positions other than that of a traditional professor, but when I looked at the various “alt-ac” jobs I might pursue, none felt like a good fit.

Whereas the appeal of a traditional faculty position, from my perspective, is the way it combines teaching, research, and service, it seemed that the alt-ac jobs most appropriate for me required choosing one of those three pursuits and leaving the others behind. I could become a teacher in a non-tenure-track position or non-university setting, a researcher in an archive or research institute, or an administrator of some kind, either in the university or in a humanities-focused nonprofit organization or foundation. I found myself adrift and ambivalent because I didn’t want to give up any aspect of my intellectual and professional interests.

I was still grappling with this problem in January when I attended the MLA convention, which I thought might help me settle on a path forward. Instead, after listening to conversations about the limitations of the term alt-ac, I realized that my understanding of alt-ac was limiting my sense of the choices available to me. I heard people lamenting the use of the words alternative and nontraditional to describe any career that isn’t a tenure-track teaching job. It occurred to me that despite the optimistic and proactive approach to career development that I was cultivating in the proseminar, I still thought of the alt-ac search as a plan B. I had internalized the notion that I was prepared for only one type of job so deeply that even as I considered purposefully and affirmatively deviating from that path, I continued to measure my options against an idealized tenure-track position. I still thought of the new careers I was contemplating in terms of how much of the teaching-research-service triad I would be able to maintain.

At the convention, I discovered that alt-ac is not only about alternative careers. In tracking one particular conversation about terminology on Twitter during the convention, I followed a link posted by Katina Rogers, deputy director of the Futures Initiative, which led to a 2012 blog post by Bethany Nowviskie, “Two and a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks.” In this post, Nowviskie writes, “By ‘alt-ac,’ a growing community speaks not of ‘alternatives to academic employment,’ but rather of ‘alternative academics’—‘alt-academics,’ that is, in the way that alt-country music has a bit of rockabilly and folk mixed in—or old Usenet discussion groups would signal a fringe twist on their subject-matter with an ‘alt.’” For Nowviskie, these alternative academics are “systems-builders,” creating a new infrastructure for a new sort of academy, which may not fully manifest itself until after their work is done.

Alt-ac, therefore, challenges the assumption not only that a PhD must lead to an academic career but also that there is one way of being an academic. I always thought that even if I did get a tenure-track teaching job, I would want to be involved in administration down the road, because I want to be a part of big-picture conversations and institution-wide initiatives. I guess I always wanted to be an “alt-academic,” and the idea of being a “systems-builder” resonates with the kind of role in which I find myself being most successful.

This rethinking of the “alternative” in “alt-ac” was furthered by a session at the convention, Connected Academics: Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur, arranged in collaboration with the Connected Academics project’s partners at Arizona State University. I admit to having had a bit of prejudice against the term entrepreneur, thinking that, since I wasn’t interested in going into industry or in applying the humanities to the business world, I wasn’t interested in hearing about humanist entrepreneurs. But the conversations at this convention proved me wrong in two respects. First, we are all forging new pathways for ourselves, and if we aren’t thinking of ourselves as entrepreneurial, we should be. Second, scholarly activities are work, and we need to acknowledge the financial stakes at play here, as well as the intellectual and personal ones. The sense that the business world is tainted by monetary concerns that we in academia are free from is a fantasy.

In his talk at the Connected Academics session, Carl Stahmer, director of digital scholarship at the UC Davis library, discussed how making money was an important aspect of his calculations as he pursued his circuitous (and pathbreaking) trajectory into and out of academia. He presented a graph in which he charted his level of job security, interest in his work, and salary over time, from his years of undergraduate education onward. These three aspects of his working life rose and fell in unexpected ways, making it clear that we all need to find our own formula for combining intellectual, personal, and financial concerns. In doing so, we are all “entrepreneurs.”

Near the end of the session, one of Stahmer’s fellow panelists, Dawn Opel, made a comment that brought everything together for me. Opel is a postdoctoral fellow in computational humanities and data science at the Institute for Humanities Research Nexus Lab and the Computational Innovation Group at Arizona State University. Her title alone speaks to her innovative, intersectional work. She urged us to reshape the systems around us to fit what we want to do, instead of contorting ourselves to fit into them. I realized that instead of choosing among preestablished career tracks, I should be asking why I have assumed that it is impossible to combine my interests into one career.

When talking about “alternative” careers, why are the more generalized research, teaching, and project-management skills that one develops while pursuing subject-area expertise separated from that expertise? We talk about these as transferable skills, as if they are the aspects of our education and work experience that can be maintained and translated into a new context, but this implies that our content-area knowledge is too specific and therefore not transferable. What would it look like to put that knowledge to work in the university in ways other than producing academic articles and books?

Through Connected Academics, I have met people applying their research to work at libraries and archives, work that, when affiliated with universities, also involves some teaching. I have met people who are advancing teaching and learning in various ways while occupying unique administrative roles. Could I take a cue from such hybrid positions? For instance, given my teaching background in comparative literature and my research focus on East Asian literature and film, could I carve out a role for myself preparing materials and disseminating strategies for the teaching of non-Western texts in general education humanities courses? An alt-ac job search in which I work to create the opportunities I don’t currently see before me will require an even greater commitment to uncertainty and the long game, and even more creative thinking and relationship building, than the alt-ac job search I first envisioned. But it might lead me to the only thing I really want to do.

Tara ColemanColeman is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Rutgers University. Her dissertation uses poetic and film theories from various Chinese and Western sources to analyze how lyricism becomes the formal basis for an alternative historicism in contemporary film and poetry from mainland China and Taiwan. Previously, she completed an MPhil in English literary studies with a comparative focus at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In conjunction with her experience teaching English as a second language, her broader research interests include translation, world literature and world cinema, and questions of transnationalism, especially the dialogues these areas of inquiry open up among scholars, artists, and their audiences.

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