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.