Teaching Careers: Already “Alternative”

Every year I’ve been on the academic job market, I’ve written a post-mortem at the end of the season about what I learned from the experience. So you could consider this the third (and presumably final) installment in a series. Last year, I mused (somewhat bitterly) on the dissonance I perceived between my activity and values as a professor and the systemic priorities of tenure-track hiring. This year, while adjuncting part-time in my graduate department at Brown University, I had the space to ponder more proactively the questions I was facing about my future career and its “other possibilities.”


Thus, I’ve been following with interest the rhetoric promoting “alternative academic careers,” as exemplified by the extensive collection of essays in the new #Alt-Academy project at Media Commons. As coordinating editor Bethanie Nowviskie notes in her introduction, this trend has been closely allied with communities in the Digital Humanities. Debates in DH have emphasized innovation in higher education by reconsidering pedagogy, scholarly production, labor practices, and professional skills, so there’s plenty of crossover with the #alt-ac meme’s interrogation of the job market, graduate training, and academia’s problematic hierarchies. But while “digital” initiatives within the university today may be creating new kinds of positions, these “alternatives” need not be tied to new media — the umbrella includes traditional roles for PhDs within college administrations, research centers, cultural institutions, non-profits, public agencies, and private companies.

These conversations are invaluable for highlighting the ideological burdens piled on an emerging academic career. Tellingly, many of the pieces in the Media Commons clusters are autobiographical, recounting very personal struggles with the expectations surrounding entering an intellectual elite. Patrick Murray-John’s essay, for example, describes the series of sacrifices and miseries he endured because he believed they were necessary bumps on the road to the “life of the mind.” I believe many of us can relate, and this script is a symptom of the artificial chasm between the university and post-industrial capitalism. That is, graduate students are rarely encouraged to think of their education as job training or their future positions as work, and the idea of a labor of love provides an alibi for untenable labor practices. There are innumerable corollaries to the doctrine of the ivory tower, including the relegation of university staff (even those with PhDs) to second-class status, as Julia Flanders illustrates. The #alt-ac project aims to reveal and dismantle some of these assumptions and hierarchies, as well as their practical repercussions, in order to broaden the quantity and quality of jobs that PhD grads can legitimately pursue.

In defining the purview of Alt-Academia, Nowviskie and others have used the phrase off the tenure track. While this indicates alliances with untenured contingent faculty, these overworked and underpaid jobs are rarely the focus of #alt-ac’s aspirations. The emphasis is on developing options for sustainable full-time employment beyond appointment as a professor. Brian Croxall’s list of alternative academic positions includes: “working in administration or a library… programmers or instructional technologists… cultural heritage institutions—museums and archives… journalists, editors, or foundation administrators… [and] work in traditional departments as researchers.” Therefore, while a diverse array of careers are grouped under this heading, they are typically presented in opposition to a singular antipode: teacher. Why?

teaching as an alternative

I posit that our presumptions about what it means to seek a job “on the tenure track” are colored by the specific characteristics of large universities. This point may be obvious: most of us are in graduate programs at research institutions being advised by professors at research institutions (whereas liberal arts colleges, regional universities, community colleges, and professional schools play a lesser or nonexistent role in training PhDs). I’ve had positive experiences at Brown and Stanford (where I was a VAP for two years), and I appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to interview for TT jobs at a range of institutions. But I fell in love with academia at Swarthmore College, where I did my undergrad degree — in my struggles to recapture that gratification, I’ve realized that ultimately a small teaching college would be the best “fit” for me.

Tenure-track positions at R1 universities are perfect for some people — I have prolific, multitasking friends who thrive when they can privilege their research, oversee large groups of students, and participate in an extensive intellectual community. In terms of my own professional and personal fulfillment, I believe I’d feel stifled by the pressure to produce traditional publications, the teaching style and lecture classes, the graduate advising load, and the ponderous bureaucracy of a typical research institution. This is precisely my point: emerging PhDs have diverse interests and strengths, and faculty jobs have diverse qualities and structures.

Long before the “crisis of the humanities” and the emergence of #DH and #alt-ac as aca-memes, critics bemoaned the lack of pedagogical training in PhD programs (see, for example, a slew of articles from the Chronicle dating to the late 90s). If Alt-Academia is going to take up the call for reform in graduate education and job market preparation, shouldn’t this still be part of the conversation? We all know that teaching-intensive positions look for very different qualities in an applicant and promise a very different work life. Yet there are few opportunities for PhD students to consider what kind of careers they might prefer and specialize (or generalize) accordingly. If the Alt-Academic discourse wants to make room for a broader repertoire of training, it would further the goal of higher employment to include training for undergraduate institutions as an option. Rendering the Assistant Professor track as a monolith only reinscribes some of the very hierarchies that #alt-ac wants to trouble. And the ideologies devaluing alternative/staff positions overlap with those devaluing positions at small/professional/community colleges — the privileging of faculty research. I believe this conversation would be better served by promoting alliances across the boundaries of faculty vs. staff, researcher vs. teacher, academic vs. professional — among all those who would resist the limitations of the job market’s received wisdom.

“it gets better”

To be fair, the proponents of #alt-ac are reacting against entrenched assumptions that an academic job search means an Assistant Professor job search, with no more granular distinctions allowed. Our  well-meaning advisors believe our best chance of success is adhering to a formula: apply for every job, take any job, conform to a discipline, play the game. Advanced professors can hardly be faulted for urging us to persevere on the path in which they themselves have survived and thrived — this is one reason why the Alt-Academy’s collection of career autobiographies offers us a vital counter-discourse. But I believe that the inflexible narrative about how to become a professor does as much damage as the idea that a professor is all we can be. It relies on a logic of deferral: NOW, you may have to take a job you don’t like, work too many hours, live somewhere dismal, but LATER, it gets better. In addition to the toll this acceptance of misery and denial of agency can take on our mental health, it’s possible that this strategy weakens the market as a whole.

Tenure is the culmination of the “it gets better” script: “it gets better… when you have tenure.” Is it really acceptable to defer such privileges as intellectual freedom and job security until six or seven (or these days, more like ten) years into a post-grad career? I support the lofty goals of the tenure structure, as well as its more practical humanitarianism (academics are so specialized that they can’t expect to find a comparable job locally, unlike workers in some other fields who might be fired). But I fear that, in practice, the grueling process of hiring and then reviewing candidates with an eye to tenure weeds out any who venture the risks and innovations that tenure is meant to protect, or at least tramples that energy and desire. This trajectory upholds certain truisms — for example, that it’s precarious for junior scholars to experiment, so senior scholars must pave the way.

“It gets better” was a viral YouTube campaign started by Dan Savage in response to queer teen suicides. Innumerable videos, from the corporate to the amateur, share life experiences demonstrating that kids have much to look forward to if they can just stick it out. I don’t want to trivialize this message, which has been meaningful for many, but I believe that some of the critiques of the project are analogous here. First, “it gets better” for whom? The white, the male, the middle-class queers? The queers with the resources to leave home for urban or progressive colleges? And second, why should anyone have to wait to enjoy the basic necessities of life?

A sustainable job market requires open discussion of alternatives, because only with ideological and practical support for working toward a range of meaningful careers can candidates say NO to this logic of deferral — NO to exploitative adjunct positions and even Assistant Professor positions that are a bad fit. I have found that the idea that non-traditional scholarship isn’t valued in hiring and promotion is another artifact of research universities. If your priority is to conduct creative, interdisciplinary, multimedia/digital projects, and to do it NOW, you CAN find an institution that supports just that. And this “alternative” might still be a job as a professor.


Each person lives this conjuncture differently, with different needs and resources on the table. The way we think or talk about the system goes only so far in the face of divergent financial realities, cultural capital, and geographical logistics. This year, support from Modern Culture and Media at Brown, who worked out an unusually remunerative adjunct arrangement for post-grads, and additional gifts from my family went a long way toward giving me time and choices. As I’ve said before, I worry about intensifying inequalities of access — this is an issue I believe the academic job market shares with other kinds of knowledge work that are subject to high unemployment and contingency.

Safety nets notwithstanding, I have wrestled with feelings of shame and crises of identity in the years of temporary positions since my PhD. With a partner, two cats, and a house full of stuff, I found myself unwilling to relocate again for a job that wouldn’t, quite simply, make me happy. The hardest part of this process has been seeking validation for happiness as a career goal. That was what #alt-ac meant to me back in March (toward the end of the tenure-track hiring timeline), when I began to consider in earnest what alternative plan I could hatch for the upcoming year.

But I also reconsidered, this season, what kinds of teaching postions I would apply for, narrowing my scope in some respects while broadening it in others. Come April, I had three campus interviews for less traditional faculty jobs. In May I ended up with two permanent offers that seemed appealing to me — one at a public liberal arts college and one at a dynamic and innovative professional school. While I couldn’t do both, I think it’s important that this wasn’t a bolt of lightning — I oriented my search toward placements with qualities I value and got a strong response. (Not incidentally, neither of these institutions has a tenure system; instead, professors are unionized.)

I’m delighted to tell you that, in fall 2013, I’ll be starting a position as a Regular Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College. Evergreen doesn’t have departments, rank, grades, or typical classes, and I look forward to an intense education in team-teaching and radical pedagogy. I respect Evergreen’s transparency, egalitarianism, mission, and commitment to ethical and sustainable community.

For the intervening year, I’m participating in a seminar on feminism and new media as a Research Associate of the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. I’ve taken seriously my pledge to cut back on supplemental digital labor (including Twitter and blogging), and my book project is still my top priority. But you can look for me to become more present again in online scholarly networks, now that I see a tangible path to do so.

My deepest thanks to Alexis Lothian for offering her incisive and candid opinion on earlier drafts of this post.

Professionalizing the Digital Self

This is a write-up of some remarks I delivered today at the “long table” session of Performing Under Pressure, a graduate conference at Brown on Life, Labor and Art in the Academy. From my perspective in media studies, I wanted to talk about how the late capitalist imperative to render ever more of our subjectivity as labor intersects with new technologies of self-presentation. Let me first note that this scenario is common across many sectors of creative and knowledge work, but academia’s historical positioning as a vocation/”labor of love” may make it somewhat unique — on one hand being a scholar has always been ideologically constructed as encompassing the whole self; on the other it has been relegated to a corresponding realm of non-work.

In this context, I have observed that emerging scholars, in the process of constructing ourselves as commodities on the job market, are often pressured to fulfill contradictory imperatives. We must cleave to the strictures of a conservative academy, ratify systems of distinction, participate in traditional forms of knowledge production, appear and behave appropriately, and generally build a CV that manifests orthodox standards. At the same time, we must smack of the cutting edge, continually reproduce the new, incorporate digital media into our pedagogy and scholarship, assert our relevance, and generally “innovate” according to the neoliberal schema. On the surface, this simply entails doing more work — all the old kinds of academic work PLUS all the new kinds of academic work. But the paradox can’t always be resolved additively.

I think the obligation to create and manage an online persona is a paradigmatic example of this double-bind. First, there is the demand to be publicly visible — at the most basic level, to show up legibly in search as a singular entity (we had a few laughs exploring some of Rebecca Schneider‘s googlegangers). In Google’s help post about managing your online reputation, they oh so helpfully suggest creating a G+ profile as a means to gain more control over search results. The recommended course is always to produce MORE — more pages and profiles under your proper name — in order to push any secondhand or incriminating content off the first page or two. But this of course creates further problems of identity (and time) management, not least because each social network you might join is a corporate platform with its own privacy settings and personal connections to navigate.

Thus beyond search visibility, there is the question of HOW you appear online, which entails constantly negotiating the contradiction I outlined above. Let me take the redesign of my website as an example. In grad school, I approached j-l-r.org as an active archive of my ongoing work. I posted term papers, compiled conference materials, chronicled my comprehensive exams, and let stand the occasional weird or belligerent comments.

Even when I pulled things down from an index post like this one, I sometimes tracked older versions or left them commented out in the html.

This year I decided that it felt unruly and vulnerable to expose so much of my intellectual history (call it a lesson from last year’s job market). I relaunched the site in a stylish WordPress package, stripped of most of its previous content. I imported only more recent blog posts, and hid the blog behind a link. The front page is now a “lifestream” which gives the impression of constant activity by aggregating my incidental clicks and tweets across various social media sites. The tradeoff here is that all the included profiles become more or less professional spaces (after five years on Twitter, I finally caved and made a second locked personal account). I should add that I concurrently deleted my Facebook profile. These are some of my own responses to a job market culture of risk and fear, particularly for those who may aspire to be personally and/or professionally radical.

Presuming that you, like me, aren’t prepared to stage an intervention by dismantling boundaries around the professional professorial self, I see two options. One is to compartmentalize by maintaining several separate online identities. Folks in fandom and other online subcultures have long used pseudonyms to engage meaningfully in communities insulated from one’s “real life” persona. The practice of pseudonymity is under siege from Facebook and Google Plus in its wake which encourage or enforce real name policies because their advertising revenue depends on data mining singular and static individuals. While there is radical potential in refusing anxieties around privacy and insisting on a fully integrated self-presentation (“the personal is political” after all), pseudonyms can also be empowering as a tactic for code-shifting between different performances of identity.

The other option is anonymity, which we can see in full flower on the infamous Academic Jobs Wiki. Denied any other outlet where we can speak openly about searches or the darker side of the job market experience, the wiki acts as a release valve for coveted information, questions, arguments, trolling, trivialities, polemics, and every minute neurosis. Comments can get ugly, but I maintain that anonymous exchange can be a valuable conduit for what was called in our discussion the “excess affect” of academic labor.

But can we envision other possibilities?

This is a macro from Academic Coach Taylor (h/t Hans Vermy), a tumblr curated by a self-styled “charming queer phd student” that iterates the advice meme format to dole out words of wisdom and encouragement from the Friday Night Lights character. The reference is to a book that is something of an intellectual meme in theory circles right now: Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. It comes up a lot in reflexive discussions of the present and future of academia, I think with good reason. Faced with all the contradictions and overdeterminations of our existence as immaterial laborers most of us can hardly help but fail. There’s some hope in the idea that failure might open up lives beyond the neoliberal narrative of career success. Is there a way we could ask not “how do I get a job?” but “how do I want to work?”

Fan/Remix Video special issue in TWC

I’m thrilled to finally share with you my special issue of the online journal Transformative Works and Cultures, co-edited with Francesca Coppa. Two years in the making, this project brings together new scholarship and multimedia from across the continuum of fan/remix video. One of our animating concerns was the intersections and tensions between fan vidding practice/study and more visible trends in viral video and “remix culture” at large. I believe that the resulting dossier exemplifies a nuanced and historically aware perspective on today’s online video ecosystem, with differing critical evaluations but a consistent respect for the contributions of diverse subcultures.

Fan/Remix Video – Contents

The issue adds to what I have experienced as an ongoing conversation over the past five years amongst academics, artists, and activists working on/in various spheres of vernacular video. Vidders, for example, have become increasingly attuned to the relationship of their creations and community to more male-dominated genres of fanworks and to YouTube’s spreadable culture of memes and mashups — a trend documented in certain vids that have attained critical or “viral” acclaim, remixers’ stylistic influence by vidders (and vice versa), and “meta” vids that comment on this larger context. In our introduction, I wanted to embody the spirit of remix as much as possible by incorporating references and artifacts from these networked discourses. This culminated, for my part, in a critical video component — a vid I’m calling “Oh Internet (A Vidding/Remix Romance)”:

Audio: Oh, Internet by Harto (Hannah Hart) and Creator&Distractor

By drawing on the excellent selection of citations and authors in the issue as my video sources, I hoped to evoke visually the fertility and unruliness of collisions between forms and cultures that we’re witnessing in remix today. The tone of this work is largely set by the song, a tender (if tongue-in-cheek) ode to geeky internet technologies and communities. It’s a recent slightly viral hit from the YouTube-famous creator of the vlog My Drunk Kitchen, inspired by anti-SOPA campaigns. Editing a music video to this song mingles vidding conventions of format and female “voice” with references to mainstream cyberculture. Styling the story as an anthropomorphic romance (evidently a “het” one, although marked by a /) between Vidding and Remix also invokes both feminine/feminist themes of intimacy and desire and some of the parodic critical distance more common to political remix. So the song choice establishes themes of hybridity within the frame of a love ballad — sweet and harmonious, but not without fear of loss.

The video consists of a remix of remixes that I expect rewards greater familiarity with the footage in terms of parsing its narrative structure (e.g. Vidding sings to Remix in the first verse; Remix sings to Vidding in the second verse). I intended for at least some of the complex connections and contestations between heterogenous artists and art forms to come across. The visual sophistication of my source material necessitated using longer clips, so I employed a simple digital technique called “datamoshing” on many of the transitions (this tutorial from Bob Weisz taught me how). Basically: by manually deleting a keyframe, you generate a distortion that makes the moving parts of a new clip emerge out of the image in the previous clip. The juxtapositions and moshed pixels celebrate the capacity of remix to generate collective and passionate interventions but equally suggest that its appropriations can be misrepresentative and violent.

Let me know what you think! You should also check out a series of trailers created for the issue by Kevin Tomasura — they appear in the introduction and OTW’s announcement.