What Alt-Ac Can Do, and What It Can’t

This is a cleaned-up, lightly edited version of a talk I gave on November 22, 2013, as part of a panel on “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University” at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Our original proposal for this session read like a lot of attempts to grapple with controversy in the digital humanities. “Is digital humanities complicit with the neoliberal impulse in the modern university?” it asked. “Some say it is, citing A, B, and C. Others say it isn’t, citing X, Y, and Z.” The framework, if unoriginal, had the benefit of being easy to write.

My copanelist Natalia Cecire pushed us to think beyond this cliché. “Let’s start with the premise that it is complicit,” said Cecire, citing Alan Liu’s “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” “Else why would it be so obviously attractive to the neoliberal university? Let’s start with that and talk about what we then do.”

Borrowing Natalia’s framework, I want to complicate a discourse about labor that has emerged from and become identified with the digital humanities. The term for this work is “alt-ac,” which stands for “alternative academic.” ((My critique is not altogether new. Liana M. Silva aired some of these concerns in April. Martha Nell Smith has levied similar critiques of DH centers’ hiring practices, and Bethany Nowviskie has dealt with a number of these concerns in “Toward a New Deal.” I am moved and inspired by this vision of a WPA for the humanities, but I feel that my fundamental objection to some of the rhetoric about alt-ac — that it rests on the flawed assumption that the academic jobs crisis is caused by an overproduction of Ph.D.s — has yet to be answered.)) Jason Rhody, a senior program officer for the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, coined the term in 2009 to describe the scholarly work performed by many of us in and in the orbit of the academy who do not hold traditional faculty jobs but do perform scholarly labor. ((For a history of alt-ac and a snapshot of how graduate programs might equip students for these jobs, see the excellent “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” prepared by Katina Rogers for the Scholarly Communication Institute.))

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A dead-simple weekly email: A little workflow for bringing people together

UCLA’s Digital Humanities program, which I coordinate, is interdisciplinary in the extreme. Unlike some other programs, which sit in English or History departments, UCLA DH is an entity unto itself: a standalone minor and graduate certificate housed within the division of the humanities. In a lot of ways, this is great: We have no particular allegiance to any one department, and our students and faculty come from all over the university.

But they’ve all got a lot of stuff going on, and in many cases, they see their primary home as a different department. (I’m the only person at UCLA who’s dedicated full-time to the DH academic program.) We don’t have a dedicated community space just for the DH program, and while I organize as many events as I can on our limited budget, people just don’t have a ton of time to hang out or attend events.

And yet part of my job is to create a sense of community for the program. What to do?

I’m still working on it, but I have come up with one modestly successful tool: a weekly email digest that gathers events, job opportunities, fellowships, CFPs, and resources relevant to UCLA digital humanities, prefaced by a little introduction from me.

Here’s what one looks like.

This is why I do it:

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