Category Archives: (#Alt-)Academia

Reflecting on a decade

2020 is on the horizon, ushering in a time of looking back and looking forward. January will bring not only a new year but a new decade, and a metaphorical connection to 20/20 vision. In the U.S., the year also brings a high-stakes and emotionally fraught presidential election that feels something like a moment of reckoning. Naturally, this is a time of reflection for many, myself included.

I’ve been thinking especially about how much has changed in my professional life in the last ten years. At HASTAC, we’re in the midst of planning our 2020 conference at UT Dallas, with a theme of Hindsight, Foresight, and Insight. That theme resonates as I reflect on my own journey. Part of this professional trajectory connects to another unexpected ten-year mark. As Twitter reminded me, ten years ago Jason Rhody and Bethany Nowviskie started describing their work as “alt-ac”.

I didn’t hear the term when Jason and Bethany first used it to describe their work. I hadn’t yet had the great pleasure of meeting them, and wasn’t even really on Twitter yet. I was still finding my footing: I had recently moved to NYC and had just started working at the Sloan Foundation, while still working on my dissertation. While I suspected I wouldn’t go out for faculty jobs when I finished, I didn’t have a clear idea of where my future path would lead, or how I might fit into the landscape of scholarly work someday.

As Bethany and Jason have described, the term “alt-ac” was a way to describe the really interesting work that had long been happening in spaces adjacent to and intersecting with the academy. It is work that is intellectually demanding, complex, and fulfilling—and sometimes invisible or hard to define. Through my work at Sloan, I had begun to see and understand the vast and nuanced infrastructure that supported, enabled, and complemented the work of academic research and teaching.

A couple of years later, I would begin working for Bethany as part of the Mellon-funded Scholarly Communication Institute, then embedded in UVA’s Scholars’ Lab. There, my work would focus directly on the constellation of alt-ac career pathways and how graduate education did or did not prepare people to thrive in those contexts. I learned so much in the years just after finishing my dissertation, in those first couple of jobs that set me on a path that, as a graduate student, I didn’t know existed.

As I reflect, I find my mind returning so often to those first years in NYC, to the ways my eyes began to open to the structures and systems that appear to be neutral and yet can be the difference between facilitating someone’s research and stopping it in its tracks. I’ve learned so much since then about the invisible and unearned privilege that I benefit from personally, and the ways that the systems around me have been created in order to maintain that privilege. And I hope that in some small way I have begun to work toward new kinds of systems that facilitate the work of many other scholars, researchers, teachers, mentors, and students.

Since those years, I have continued to ruminate on what it means to engage in academic work from the spaces outside the professoriate. My thinking has expanded to reflect more broadly on the value of graduate education, and how we can build more equitable systems that expressly value the full range of scholarly work that people do from many different vantage points. I’m eager for Putting the Humanities PhD to Work to come out next fall so I can share these ideas more widely. And that research goes hand-in-hand with the programmatic and administrative work I do for the Futures Initiative and HASTAC. My work draws on every bit of my doctoral education—plus so much of what I learned after my degree was finished. I am so grateful to the people I’ve had occasion to learn from—Bethany and Jason and so many others—not only in terms of the knowledge or ideas they shared, but even more importantly the care and hope and thoughtfulness with which they approach their work. I hope that I am able to pay it forward in the decade ahead.

For me, it’s dizzying to look back to 2009. Within the span of a single year, from mid-2009 to mid-2010, I moved to a new city, started working at Sloan, finished and defended my dissertation, got married, and watched as my parents ended their own marriage of 30 years. It was a lot. And it was also a beginning. Ten years later, even more has happened. I’ve moved across the river to Brooklyn. I’ve become a parent to two incredible kids, something I suspect I’ll always be adjusting to since their worlds and lives are constantly changing. I’ve held a few different jobs, all incredibly fulfilling. I’ve written a book! The term and concept of “alt-ac”—and the relationships have come about through doing that work—is interwoven with my own journey. It sounds cliché, but ten years ago I never could have pictured what my life looks like now.

All that to say: as this decade draws to an end, I can see that a lot has happened by any measure. Not all of it has been good, and yet as I look back, I am filled with gratitude.

Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Updates, abstracts, and more

Stylized book title and author name

I’m delighted to share that Putting the Humanities PhD to Work is in production at Duke University Press, and should be out in the world in time for Fall 2020! It has a fresh new subtitle (Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom), and a structure that has been much improved thanks to thoughtful comments and questions by generous peer reviewers.

In addition, our team at the Futures Initiative is using ideas in the book as a starting point for what I think will be an exciting nationwide conference in Spring 2020. This conference, Graduate Education at Work in the World, aims to collectively imagine and redesign graduate education to support students, scholarship, and the public good. If you’re interested in these topics, please consider submitting a session proposal (by Oct 21, 2019) or joining us in NYC on April 30-May 1, 2020. Graduate Fellow Cihan Tekay (Anthropology) will be leading much of the conference development, and I’m so excited to be a part of the conversations that emerge.

What has become incredibly clear to me, both through writing the book and now through the process of developing the conference, is how important it is to embed any discussion about career pathways in a broader context of the values and structures of higher education. Even when a university has deeply-held values about its purpose and mission (such as supporting the public good), those values can easily be undermined by inequitable structures. I think a crucial starting point for reform is finding where the tensions are between values and structures, as those points of friction often illuminate tacit values that work against the university’s goals.

These are the kinds of difficult questions that are woven throughout the book. It will be released by late summer 2020, and I hope it will be useful to graduate students, faculty, and administrators alike. Read on for an updated table of contents and abstracts:

Continue Reading Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Updates, abstracts, and more
Powerpoint slide with the title Putting the PhD to Work for the Public Good

Putting the PhD to Work—For the Public Good

I recently had the privilege of giving a joint keynote address at the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference at the University of Texas, Austin, together with Adashima Oyo, doctoral student in social welfare, a graduate fellow in the Futures Initiative, and the director of HASTAC Scholars. Our goal in giving the talk was to situate the push for career preparation for doctoral students in a broader context of graduate education reform, including issues such as equity, inclusion, labor practices, and more.

Here’s the description we provided for the program:

Doctoral education opens doors to engaging and often unexpected pathways, with opportunities for significant public impact—an essential element of reinvesting in higher education as a public good. And yet, in many cases, faculty careers remain the default expectation. A number of programs are working to broaden students’ professional horizons, but it is not enough to talk about professional development in isolation.

The effort to prepare graduate students for careers beyond the classroom is most effective when it is embedded in a comprehensive discussion of the academic prestige economy, equity and inclusion, labor practices, and definition of scholarship. By providing thoughtful mentorship, material and intellectual resources, and flexible curricular and project design that considers the full landscape of graduate education today, faculty and administrators enable doctoral students to translate their skills and knowledge for different audiences and to conduct scholarly research that matters to their communities.

I’m sharing my part of the talk here. It contains some ideas that I’m still working through and hope to explore in more depth in future talks and writing. (Our complete slides are also available at bit.ly/big12tlc-phdtowork.)

Continue Reading Putting the PhD to Work—For the Public Good

Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work

I’m excited to announce that Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Theory, Practice, and Models for Thriving Beyond the Classroom is in contract with Duke University Press. The book is a project that I have been working on in one way or another ever since working with the Scholarly Communication Institute and the Scholars’ Lab at UVa. The book will be a solid discussion of career pathways for humanities Ph.D.’s, from nuts and bolts to why it matters. In the coming months, I hope to blog about the project, especially some of the more complex questions I’m wrestling with. Feedback is most welcome.

For now, here’s the working abstract:

Intended for graduate students in the humanities and for the faculty members who guide them, this book grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce and an emphasis on reaffirming humanities education as a public good. It explores how rhetoric and practices related to career preparation are evolving, and how those changes intersect with admissions practices, scholarly reward structures, and academic labor practices—especially the increasing reliance on contingent labor. The book also examines the ways that current practices perpetuate systems of inequality that result in the continued underrepresentation of women and minorities in the academy. Rather than indulge the narrative of crisis, this book invites readers to consider ways that graduate training can open unexpected doors that lead to meaningful careers with significant public impact. Drawing on surveys, interviews, and personal experience, the book provides graduate students with context and analysis to inform the ways they discern opportunities for their own potential career paths, while taking an activist perspective that moves not only toward individual success but also systemic change. For those in positions to make decisions in humanities departments or programs, the book offers insight into the circumstances and pressures that students are facing and examples of programmatic reform that address career matters in structural ways. Throughout, the book highlights the important possibility that different kinds of careers offer engaging, fulfilling, and even unexpected pathways for students who seek them out.

Neither here nor there

I couldn’t attend this year’s HASTAC Conference, because I’m not quite ready for work travel after baby S was born in July. But I’m still tuning in. During the opening plenary, which was a fantastic panel discussion featuring Tressie McMillan Cottom, Purdom Lindblad, T-Kay Sangwand, and Anastasia Salter, I tweeted this:

I posted it as a small gesture toward the ways that bodies and caregiving can complicate work, a nod at why attention to accessibility (like livestreaming) matters, and also a consideration of the ways that I try to remain in community even when I can’t physically be somewhere. But I’ve been thinking more about it, and I realized there’s something else behind it, too—something that makes me a little sad.

Watching a livestream while pumping breastmilk is not just an indication of where I am, but where I’m not. I’m not at the conference; that’s why I’m watching the livestream. But I’m also not with my baby; that’s why I’m pumping. The tweet was meant to show that I was embodying two identities at once, but it also means I’m not in either space fully.

The transition back to work has been more challenging for me this time around despite an incredibly supportive boss, coworkers, and institutional structure, and I think this tweet captures a big part of why. I want so much to be more fully present in both parts of my identity, and at this particular moment, I feel distanced from both. And that is not an easy place to be.

New Horizons

I am incredibly excited to announce that I will soon be joining the Graduate Center at CUNY as Deputy Director of the Futures Initiative and HASTAC@CUNY. The initiative, directed by Cathy Davidson, aims to develop innovative models for graduate education that will stimulate institutional change while also empowering the current generation of graduate students—which is to say, the next generation of professors, leaders, and agents of change.

The opportunity to help shape this initiative is exciting and a little daunting. The Graduate Center will be an amazing place to think through questions of the future of higher education not only because of the extraordinary work being done there, but also because, as a huge public university in a distributed urban setting, it offers a particularly interesting vantage point on systemic issues such as public support for and access to higher education. It also presents an opportunity to investigate critical questions related to labor practices given that, as is true nationwide, contingent faculty members shoulder an ever-greater proportion of undergraduate teaching duties. Finding a sustainable and equitable way forward is essential to a strong future for higher education. I look forward to thinking through the ways in which all of these questions intersect.

This good news carries with it mixed emotions, since I will miss working with my colleagues at the MLA, from whom I have learned so much. I have deeply valued my time working there. MLA Commons has made great strides since its launch, thanks to member feedback, our outstanding technical team, and the strong leadership of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Rosemary Feal. The decision to take this new opportunity has been a difficult one. I look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with the MLA in their tireless efforts to support the work of humanities scholars and the overall health of the discipline.

The Futures Initiative is in its early stages, so I’ll be doing a great deal of listening and learning as I get started. Watch this space to see the ideas and questions I’m thinking through in this new role, and join the open Futures Initiative group on HASTAC to take part in the conversation!

New #Alt-Academy section on graduate training

Since its launch in 2011, #Alt-Academy has provided a space for scholars working in and around the academy to explore and describe the relationship of our work to the broader ecosystem of higher education. Now, under the leadership of co-editors Melissa Dalgleish and Daniel Powell, #Alt-Academy will begin a more focused exploration of the role of graduate education in a changing scholarly environment. In their words, the new section, Graduate Training in the 21st Century, “focuses on the challenges, the potential, and the pragmatics of the graduate school years that precede the move into one of many academies.” Read more about the project and consider submitting an essay for the first cluster, Beyond the Proto-Monograph: New Models for the Dissertation.

Announcing a New Phase for #Alt-Academy

I’m incredibly pleased to announce that I’ve begun work as coordinating editor of #Alt-Academy, where I’ll be building on the work of Bethany Nowviskie and the 32 authors who contributed to the site’s inaugural collection of essays. Nowviskie launched the first iteration of the site in 2011, when the term “alt-ac” was just gaining traction as a useful shorthand to describe the kinds of intellectually satisfying careers that many humanities scholars pursue in and around academic institutions.

The conversation has evolved a great deal since then. There’s new data available about the kinds of work people are doing and the career preparation they’ve had; scholarly societies like the AHA and the MLA are investing resources in additional data collection and programmatic recommendations, not to mention hosting discussions at their annual conferences; and the term itself has become both more commonly used and more hotly contested.

All of these things are signs of a maturing discussion. When the term “alt-ac” was coined, it appealed to many because our collective vocabulary lacked a term for the kinds of work it suggested—work that built on their scholarly training and perhaps contributed to the larger academic system without being a teaching- or research-focused job in a university. The label itself is not particularly important. What matters is the discussion about the careers humanities scholars pursue, and the ways that discussion can inform the structure of graduate programs so that they better support students across a broader range of employment outcomes.

With the conversation evolving, it’s only fitting that #Alt-Academy should undergo some changes as well. In addition to the change in editorship, we’re making the first volume of essays available for download as an e-book. We’ll also be publishing new content more regularly, beginning with a new cluster of essays edited by Brian Croxall, called Looking for Signposts. Watch for this cluster—and others—to grow in the year ahead as we continue to publish new material. And if you want to get involved as an author or cluster editor, we’re always looking for fresh ideas! Here’s how to contribute.

Thanks to everyone who has helped to make this site what it is. I look forward to exploring where the conversation goes from here.