Alt-Ac Careers, the Lost Generation, and the University

"A mash-up of two images to metaphorically depict the challenges of escaping the ivory tower."

"Escape the Ivory Tower" by jtneill. Reproduced under Creative Commons.

I created this blog as an alternative way to disseminate my research. That is, I expected this to be a place to post work in its germinal stage, material that didn’t make it into a final draft of an essay, bits of trivia that I encountered while doing my research, and the like.

I didn’t expect my first post to be a meditation on the state of my academic career. I guess it’s not all that surprising. Part of the reason I created this blog was to help me get an academic career. But lately, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what an academic career looks like.

This is in part due to the recent surge in dialogue surrounding the so-called alternative academy (“alt-ac,” or “altac”) movement. Spurred on, in part, by what I would describe as an emergent “lost generation” of scholars who have been or are being displaced by the dearth of “traditional” academic work—that is, the tenure-track position—in the United States and Canada, proponents of the alt-ac movement are exploring alternative career paths for scholars, especially those in the humanities and the social sciences, who have no obvious road to an “industry” the way some graduate students and faculty members in the hard sciences might.

Obviously, this has captured my attention. I am, after all, a potential member of that “lost generation.” I defended my dissertation nearly a year ago, and since then I have been working as part-time faculty member. I have it a lot better than most. Compared to many other institutions, particularly those in the United States, my university pays me fairly well, and if I can get two or three courses a semester, I do okay, financially.

At the same time, that’s a big—and frustrating—”if.” It’s pretty difficult to plan for your future if you don’t know how much money you’ll be making in four months’ time. Right now, I am unemployed. I was very lucky to get a summer course, but it doesn’t start until July. This means that I don’t have an income for two months.  I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner with a full-time job, but for many, this would be a pretty dire predicament.

There’s a psychological cost here. Many graduate students become of the mindset that anything other than the tenure-track job is a sign of failure. The fact is that this is what universities are training you for when you are a Ph.D. student. Though many schools will now have workshops on working outside the ivory tower, or advertise the non-academic careers of some of their graduates, programs are still designed as an apprenticeship in being a professor. You take courses. You do comprehensive exams, to ensure that you are capable of teaching beyond your dissertation. Finally, you write something that resembles an academic book and, with the approval of some senior scholars, you join a fraternity of academics and are expected to publish, publish, publish, turning chapters into articles and the dissertation into a book.

In the meantime, you apply for jobs, and you’re told that in today’s market, you can’t be choosy. If you want to be a professor, you have to be willing to work anywhere. You can’t (much to the chagrin of your parents) wait for a job in the right place to come along, or just drop your CV off at the university down the street. Oh, and there’s a time limit, too. If you work as an adjunct professor for too long, you’ll become “tainted goods,” and hiring committees will wonder why you didn’t find a job already. (The reason, of course, probably has nothing to do with the candidate.) Regardless, your eyes must always be on the prize: a book-lined office in some ivied building, and the title of “professor.”

The alt-ac movement wants to challenge these ideas. Its proponents recognize that there simply aren’t enough tenure-track jobs to go around, and that it is unrealistic to tell graduate students at this point that there ever will be. But what makes me a believer in this movement is that rather than simply telling students to jettison their dreams of higher education, especially in the humanities, the alt-ac movement recognizes that fields like English, History, and Sociology do develop students who have something to contribute to the world beyond the university. As a doctor of English, I’m idealistic enough to believe that the humanities do give value back to the world, and that I have useful skills, abilities, and talents that are desirable to off-campus institutions and businesses.

However, if the alt-ac movement is to really take off, it is going to need institutional support. And frankly, I don’t know why universities aren’t clamouring to get on board. If humanities departments want to survive, and even thrive, they need to actually embrace the fact that the tools of the discipline have value outside the university, and they need to market that. Part of the reason humanities programs are struggling so is because of the perception that they have no value beyond the choir they are preaching to. Universities need to embrace the possibility of alternative careers for academics. This will demonstrate to the world that the humanities and the social sciences do absolutely have value beyond the walls of the university and that they are capable of more than just preaching to the choir. Universities should do more to liase with post-academic scholars and use them as a contact point between the humanities and the “real world.”

So, I guess my interest in the alt-ac movement is not simply out of self-interest. It’s not a “plan B,” or an escape hatch. It’s something I believe in pretty strongly. I know far too many intelligent, skilled, and creative humanities students who have an awful lot to give the world, within the university or without.

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7 Comments

  1. Great blog, Dave, and I like the fb thread as well. I graduated more than twenty years ago and, though I got very lucky (and luck was huge), the same problem seemed to exist then, if perhaps to a slightly lesser extent. Still, I can name many Ph.d,’s, some with books, who have struggled to find a place in academia; most have left, though I can’t say how well they are all doing. When I was a student, there was no career counseling in graduate school. I understand there is some of that now, though clearly not enough. The other side of the problem, of course, is sharply declining undergraduate enrollments in humanities courses. The humanities generally, if seems, are perceived as a poor investment in the larger society, and universities have done very little to persuade anyone of the case otherwise.

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  2. Nice post, David. Interestingly, I think Humanities departments are beginning to understand that it is important to focus upon — and indeed, market — the potential for non-academic employment for undergraduate students. But there remains a great deal of resistance to this idea at the graduate and especially the PhD level.

    In part this is just institutional inertia, and in part it plain ignorance of what is happening beyond the confines of our own campuses. I think, though, that another important point to remember is that graduate faculty have a great deal “invested” in their graduate students. On a personal and even an emotional level, I think we want to see our grads “succeed” because we tend to be closer to them than we are to most undergraduates. But the success of our grads also validates *us*: there is prestige and status associated with peopling academia with new scholars whom we tend to see as representing us professionally, and also reproducing our particular perspectives on literature, history, or whatever field we work in.

    Graduate students, in other words, are seen almost as the progeny and legacy of our academic lives, and like many “parents,” we want them not merely to succeed, but to succeed by following in our footsteps.

    There certainly needs to be a shift in attitudes, but it’s more fundamental I think than merely re-marketing ourselves: we need to rethink what we are doing, as faculty teaching grads. And we need to be wary, too, that, in the shift to what is in some respects a more “vocational” approach to graduate education, we never lose sight of the values that mark us as humanities scholars. It is, and must always be, as you suggest, about more than merely teaching “skills.”

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  3. Excellent post that shows a real understanding of what being a graduate outside of academia is really like. The reality of the job market is taking its toll, and many ambitious and bright students are graduating with a BA or an MA without an eye on academia. There’s a generation gap, too, in which parents believe that the title of “professor” is more desirable than unemployed liberal arts major but don’t understand that the job market doesn’t bend to one’s will. It’s high time to recognize that Alt-Ac is the way to go for many graduates and start giving them resources through which they can market their skills to employers who will, you know, pay for work.

    Reply

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