(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

The Urgency of Public Engagement

Higher education is again under attack, raising the stakes of public engagement for scholars higher than ever. The disdain for truth, research, and critique is palpable: Within days of the inauguration, we have seen the White House impose stop-work orders and media blackouts on federal scientific agencies like the EPA and USDA. We have seen proposals threatening to eliminate the NEH and the NEA. And we have seen the administration nominate an unqualified Secretary of Education, all while spinning official narratives that willfully oppose evidence (think “alternative facts” or the “Bowling Green Massacre”).

In this environment, scholarly work that looks only inward is doomed not only to irrelevance, but elimination. We as scholars must ensure our work can reach broad audiences in a powerful way. Institutions may not recognize that work, but especially in the current political climate, when our research and writing has the potential to influence policy, public opinion, and more, there is much more at stake than simply tenure.

Plus, public interest in the humanities is growing. Orwell’s 1984 has seen an enormous rise in sales since the election; there is a thirst to understand Islamic history and culture (see this interview in Business Insider with Graduate Center President Chase Robinson, a historian of Islam); and many are turning to the writings of Hannah Arendt and others to understand the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Humanities-related work is also being incorporated into non-specialist publications; for instance, The Vault, by historian Rebecca Onion, is a regular feature of Slate, and BuzzFeed recruits humanities scholars like Anne Helen Petersen as analytical writers. But if such work is not respected by universities, then it remains an extracurricular pursuit or a plan B for emerging scholars.

With this in mind, I believe critical reflection about what constitutes academic success is crucial to deepening public engagement in the humanities today. Such reflection must include not only changing modes of scholarly communication, but also career paths, with the goal of improving the health and inclusivity of the humanities for the public good.

One often-overlooked element in discussing new modes of scholarly discourse is the relationship between innovation, equity, and public engagement—all of which contribute to an understanding of higher education as a public good. Though innovation is frequently considered something for elite, well-funded institutions, through my work with the Futures Initiative and the international scholarly network HASTAC I have witnessed countless ways that innovative solutions can be developed organically to solve real needs and connect communities.

If equity and innovation are linked, then it follows that recognizing more varied scholarly work enables a broader range of scholars to break new ground. This was apparent in a 2014 event at CUNY called “What Is A Dissertation,” in which graduate students shared projects that didn’t resemble the protomonograph of most dissertations. Their work included the use of Tumblr and other social media to share and discuss historical photographs of black women; ethnographic work on contemporary youth created using video and the multimodal platform Scalar; the ecology of proprietary data, explored and shared using mapping visualization tools; and a dissertation on comics in comic form.

Living in an increasingly interconnected world—under an administration hostile to knowledge—means we need the humanities more than ever. Recognizing the expansive social value of humanistic knowledge and methods means understanding the myriad ways scholars can make a significant impact beyond academe. Even as the specific types of work are constantly evolving, we have an opportunity to adjust graduate program structures to better equip students to take on a wide range of roles where they can apply their training.

Our country needs more, not fewer, scholars trained to understand and contextualize the cultural, historical, and linguistic valences of contemporary geopolitics. We need more scholars who can read, critique, and synthesize complex arguments. We need more scholars who know the national and global histories of systemic racism and institutionalized bias and who are equipped to speak out against ongoing inequalities. We need them in the classroom—but not only there. The impact of humanities training could be far greater if we trained students not only to teach, but also enabled them to pursue careers that carried them beyond the university.

Rigorous, deeply creative work makes research and scholarship more accessible to broader audiences than ever before. When the academy embraces a wider range of outcomes as signs of scholarly success and merit, I believe the result will be a deeper connection with local communities and more powerful exchange of knowledge among them. In moments of great uncertainty, scholars can do their best and most important work by applying their expertise in ways that engage broader publics.

This piece is adapted in part from a book project on career paths, academic labor, public engagement, and diversity. It was originally published on Media Commons on February 22, 2017, in response to the following Field Guide question: “How might digital and media scholars and educators engage with the commons, both physically and online? What roles should we assume in such spaces or within such communities?”

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed SCI

Now available: Report and data from SCI’s survey on career prep and graduate education

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab website]

I am delighted to announce the release of a report, executive summary, data, and slides from the Scholarly Communication Institute’s recent study investigating perceptions of career preparation provided by humanities graduate programs. The study focused on people with advanced degrees in the humanities who have pursued alternative academic careers. Everything is CC-BY, so please read, remix, and share. I’d especially welcome additional analysis on the datasets.

All of the materials are openly accessible through the University of Virginia’s institutional repository:

(Note that the files available for download are listed in the top left-hand corner of each Libra listing.)

Having worked on this for over a year, I’m more convinced than ever about the importance of incorporating public engagement and collaboration into humanities doctoral education—not only to help equip emerging scholars for a variety of career outcomes, but also to maintain a healthy, vibrant, and rigorous field. It has been fascinating to connect with scholars working in such a diverse range of stimulating careers, and to see some of the patterns in their experiences.

Many, many thanks to everyone who has contributed time and energy to this project—from completing the survey, to reading (or listening to) the preliminary reports, to providing feedback and critique.

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed SCI Talks and Events

Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab site.]

I’ve had the privilege of talking about graduate education reform and career preparation for humanities scholars at several universities this spring, including Stanford, NYU, and the University of Delaware. I’ve adapted the following from those presentations. The full dataset from the study that I discuss will be available later this summer, along with a more formal report. A PDF of this post is available here.

Already familiar with the background of this project? Jump straight to the survey results.

HumanitiesUnbound_APR13.001 Image source

Graduate students in the humanities thinking about their future careers face a fundamental incongruity: though humanities scholars thrive in a wide range of positions, many graduate programs operate as though every PhD student will become a tenured professor. While the disconnect between the number of tenure-track jobs available and the single-minded focus with which graduate programs prepare students for that specific career is not at all new, the problem is becoming ever more urgent due to the increasing casualization of academic labor, as well as the high levels of debt that many students bear once they complete their degrees.

Continue Reading Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track

(#Alt-)Academia SCI Writing

The place of beauty in scholarly writing

[Update: Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog]

I’ve just returned from two thought-provoking days of conversations about assessment and authority in new modes of scholarly production, the second in a series of three SCI meetings on the topic. We’ll synthesize the key outcomes and insights into a report very soon. For the moment, though, I want to think a little more about a question that occurred to me after the meeting: What is the place of beauty in academic writing? While this wasn’t something the group discussed directly, it did seem to be an undertone of certain threads of conversation.

I got home from CHNM on Friday evening feeling pretty brain-dead from the hybrid (and quintessentially #altac) work of wrangling meeting logistics and absorbing stimulating and thoughtful discussion. Ready to relax, I sat down to watch Pina and was entranced within minutes; the film is stunning. The clips of Pina Bausch’s dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, are mesmerizing; they are made even more compelling by Wim Wenders’ directorial work. Something about the visual beauty of the film and the dance it portrayed helped me to think about the preceding conversations about scholarly work in a new light.
Continue Reading The place of beauty in scholarly writing


#Alt-ac: Moving toward a broader humanities community

I’m back home in New York after several exhilarating days at the MLA Convention in Seattle. Despite my background in the humanities (I completed a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado in 2010), I had never attended an MLA Convention until this year. The surprisingly positive experience that I had, plus the mere fact that I made the decision to go this year, suggest the deep and exciting changes that are taking place within the association and in the humanities community more broadly.

Two main topics contributed to the unique atmosphere of this year’s convention (and have already received a ton of attention): alternate academic careers (#alt-ac or #altac) and the digital humanities (#dh). (Note! While there are many areas of resonance and overlap, they are not the same thing.) Neither needs another triumphal account of how it will Save the Humanities; still, I came away with strong favorable impressions of the ways these two topics are affecting the broader conversation, and the people involved in each deserve accolades for the excellent work they’re doing. Though I’m kind of in an alt-ac profession myself, I’m a newcomer to the conversation and don’t pretend my comments can address the full spectrum of the work being done, the people involved, or the issues that have been or should be raised.

As a graduate student, I never attended an MLA Convention because I decided not to go on the academic job market; I didn’t see much use in going to the convention if not for interviews. After completing my degree, I let my membership lapse, because again, I didn’t perceive much value for an academic outsider within the MLA. The convention didn’t sound fun; I had heard tales of a stressful environment, riddled with the tension of people waiting for interviews or presentations, with a cutthroat mentality imbuing even the panel sessions as people viewed one another as competitors rather than colleagues. Plus, the thing is huge, which I thought would make it difficult to connect with people. I decided to risk it because I am deeply excited by the work being done by a number of individuals and organizations, including some recipients of Sloan grants.

What I found when I got to Seattle couldn’t have been further from the scene of tension and anonymity that I had anticipated. As I discussed with Kathi Berens at the end of the conference, I was impressed by the generous encouragement and cheerleading that went on. I heard many, many people credit the excellent work of others during panel presentations, showing a great willingness to highlight good work even if doing so didn’t directly benefit them. People were friendly and happy to introduce themselves, and nobody was particularly surprised by my description of my own work outside of the university (and at an organization largely focused on STEM at that). True, the people I was interacting with most were either on alt-ac tracks themselves or highly informed about the trends in the alt-ac world, so it was a somewhat skewed sample. Nonetheless, I was so pleased that I could jump in and share ideas with people as a colleague, even my email address no longer ends in .edu.

Much of the alt-ac conversation has already been well documented on Twitter (Brian Croxall’s storify gives a good sample), in blogs (Bethany Nowviskie‘s latest entries are great and link to many other useful sites), and in the Chronicle. William Pannapacker seemed to surprise himself, undergoing a sort of conversion experience with regard to alt-ac, digital humanities, and even Twitter; oddly, I can relate to his sense of unexpected elation. I have had enormous respect for the alt-ac and digital humanities communities for awhile, especially as I’ve come to engage with specific projects through my work at the Sloan Foundation, so it wasn’t surprising to me that I was enthusiastic about the work people were doing and discussing during the panels. Rather, what surprised me was the markedly positive tone that dominated many of the informal side conversations that I heard, as well as the Twitter backchannels on many sessions. (The way Twitter was used at the conference was amazing; my experience was deeply enriched by it.)

One transformative idea has really stuck with me, and it’s something I hope the MLA will consider. In his presentation called “Five Questions and Three Answers about Alt-Ac,” Brian Croxall proposed that the MLA shift its membership scope from those engaged in teaching languages and literatures, to those who have studied languages and literatures. I think this is a fabulous idea. Everybody knows the academic job market is a problem, and there are multiple ways that the issue can and (I think) should be addressed (including, importantly, better and different training for graduate students. As I mentioned in my previous post, I think that at least some of the frustration that current and recent grad students feel when facing the job market could be alleviated by improved networking opportunities that allow them to see paths that their peers have taken. Engaging a broader range of humanities scholars under the umbrella of the MLA could really help with that transparency.

Happily, I learned from Fiona Barnett that HASTAC is launching a group that will take a big step toward helping establish such a network. If the MLA could also explicitly broaden their member base so that people like me who are not employed by a university but who continue to feel compelled by and attached to current happenings in the humanities community, the variety of paths that scholars take would become much more apparent. It would be easier to maintain valuable and meaningful connections to people who share values, training, and sensibilities regardless of institutional affiliation, and the community could collectively help one another pointing toward (and developing new) resources applicable outside the narrow(ing) profession of professorship. Not insignificantly, the MLA could also gain dues-paying members this way, and would benefit from a breadth of perspectives that could strengthen its organizational health.

There are many questions that will need to be addressed for the alt-ac movement to continue to grow and thrive. For one thing, unemployment is high across all sectors right now, so alt-ac and digital humanities won’t provide a magic bullet that propels all of us into satisfying jobs; indeed, any job is hard to come by at the moment. Matt Gold (in “Whose Revolution? Toward a More Equitable Digital Humanities”) also pointed out that funding is already concentrating in the elite institutions. The people that are drawn toward alt-ac and digital humanities tend to be the kinds of people who like to get things done, though, so I am optimistic that questions will be raised and addressed in productive ways. The culture of humanities scholarship can start to change if the conversation about it shifts, and alt-ac is helping both to change the dialogue and to accomplish real work.

A great deal of movement is already happening naturally within the MLA community, and the MLA itself is doing a tremendous job in welcoming and encouraging such changes. The leadership of Russell Berman as evidenced in his outstanding address at the convention (excerpted here); Rosemary Feal’s deep and energetic engagement with the alt-ac and digital humanities communities (including an unbelievably active and engaging Twitter feed throughout was must have been an unbelievably busy few days), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s crystal clear and eloquent articulation of the issues facing scholarly communication are undoubtedly some of the big reasons that the MLA Convention felt the way that it did. I hope that the energy of these last few days is indicative of a catalytic moment that the association and the community will take advantage of. The timing is right, people are hungry, and a revitalization and expansion of how we understand the humanistic profession will benefit all of us, both inside the university and in the myriad other institutions that we call home.


On scapegoats, opportunities, and MLA occupation

This post is a little different from my usual book chatter, and it’s on a topic that matters a lot to me: the choices that humanities PhDs face once grad school is over. When I started writing the post, Occupy Wall Street was at its peak in New York, #mla12 chatter was revving up on Twitter, and a group of people tweeting under the @OccupyMLA handle and using the #omla hashtag had just begun causing a stir over the lack of tenure track jobs available to humanities PhD grads. As I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on the matter, the circumstances have shifted a bit, but I still want to post a few thoughts.

While the @OccupyMLA group generated a good deal of attention (even eliciting articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed), ultimately they badly misplayed what could have been a great opportunity to open up a productive dialogue about the state of the profession. Instead of thoughtful critique, the feed was full of scathing posts illogically directed at people in alternative academic professions (famously, “Stick your alt-ac advice squarely in your variorum”), weirdly personal revelations by and about members of the group, and toxic infighting as the members tried to determine the future of the account and the movement it was trying to launch. (Here’s a glimpse into the dialogue; see also this thoughtful rant from Bethany Nowviskie, which includes additional tweets and links to other resources.)

By now the @OccupyMLA account has crashed and burned in such spectacular ways that a number of people in the MLA community on Twitter became convinced that the account was fake (not unlike Rachel Maddow’s insistance that the only logical explanation for Herman Cain’s antics is that he must be a work of performance art). Legitimacy of the account aside, the problem with the @OccupyMLA storm wasn’t the premise; many, many people in the humanities community (myself included) recognize the fundamental problem that PhDs are trained almost exclusively for jobs as professors, but there aren’t enough of those jobs to go around. The problem, rather, was that the @OccupyMLA people were perpetuating the same narrow-minded focus that contributes to the problem in the first place, and they seemed to be looking for scapegoats instead of opportunities. (How else to explain the bizarre stance of seeing the alt-ac community as an enemy?)

Part of the problem with the @OccupyMLA group is the continued tunnel vision that sees only two options: either a PhD lands a tenure-track job (and therefore succeeds), or a PhD does not get a tenure track job and is relegated to the world of contingent labor as an adjunct (and therefore fails). They may allow for a long purgatory between the two, but as far as I can tell, that’s the gist of their worldview. They seem to think the only problem is a lack of tenure track jobs; they think they deserve a tenure track job by merit of having completed a PhD; and they think anyone who has a PhD and does not have a tenure track job is miserable.

They’re forgetting something hugely important: many PhDs who pursue careers outside of academia are happily earning good salaries and benefits in stable positions that provide all kinds of satisfaction, challenge, and growth. The discourse around @OccupyMLA continues a tired conversation that needs to change. As long as PhDs continue to buy into the notion that there is no measure of success for us outside of academia, the mentality will continue to feed back through departments and graduate students, who will continue preparing for tenure track jobs that they may not get and who will become bitter when they don’t know how to do anything else.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fates of humanities PhDs who, for whatever reason, do not become a part of the academic machine of the tenure track. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is the widely varied nature of this group: there are many, many reasons people end up outside of the tenure track, and many, many other paths that they (we) pursue. Too often, however, people who leave the traditional path feel isolated, and have no real means of connecting to a true network of peers who have made similar professional decisions. There are so many people in this position–however, to my knowledge no good network exists to help us connect in a useful way. (I would *love* to see such a network develop, and I’d love to be a part of it!)

While certain individuals and organizations do provide useful and thoughtful perspectives on these issues (including many who will present at MLA this year), the overall tone of the conversation hasn’t changed, and it should. It could be incredibly useful to connect the @OccupyMLA folks (and the large, silent body of embittered PhDs that they represent) with the happy post/alt-academic crowd so that they can start hearing a voice that differs from the one from within the walls of the university.

Happily, in the wake of the @OccupyMLA thread I’m hearing much more constructive conversation on the same topic from a variety of voices (such as this one), and if nothing else, I’m relieved that the community recognized the problems with the @OccupyMLA and sought more reasonable counterparts to direct people towards. It’s going to take a big push to shift the momentum of the dialogue, but maybe the time is right for it to start changing. I know that many people have been working hard on this issue for a long time (Anthony Grafton at the AHA being one great example), but it’s far from enough.

I’ll be heading to the MLA convention in a couple days, and I’m curious to see how the dissatisfaction of the @OccupyMLA group manifests itself. I’m also excited to see the ways in which the MLA and individuals within the organization are working to improve the situation in various ways–whether by advocating for better and different training for grad students to prepare them for much more than the tenure track, or by presenting on other types of job searches and career options, or simply through informal conversations that validate alternative academic work rather than marginalize it. Not because the work needs external validation, but because grad students need to know that there’s so much else out there, and they need to know how to become a part of it.


*Addendum: For an excellent set of #alt-ac perspectives and resources, make sure to check out the #alt-academy project on MediaCommons, edited by Bethany Nowviskie.