#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.