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.”1 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.2

Alt-ac’s need not be digital humanists, but digital humanists have found the term to be particularly congenial, since many of us happen to hold these hybrid jobs, and since a founding principle of digital humanities work — that one can think through and articulate humanistic principles in unconventional ways — complements the nontraditional, praxis-based scholarship that many alt-ac’s perform. Alt-ac’s need not be Ph.D.s, but given the current status of the academic job market, many Ph.D.s have seized on the alt-ac movement as a beacon of hope in an otherwise fairly depressing situation.

Had I been aware of the term alt-ac in graduate school, I’m sure I would have gravitated to it. The notion that we can celebrate and encourage work that generally escapes the regard of the academy would have appealed to me, a frustrated Ph.D. candidate who suspected that a traditional faculty role would be too solitary, competitive, and insular for her. And, indeed, I delight in my current role at UCLA, where I teach, do administrative work, and build projects in a digital humanities-focused job that was explicitly advertised as alt-ac.

So for awhile I celebrated every time a university, scholarly society, or philanthropic organization touted alt-ac jobs for Ph.D.s. “No more Plan B,” said the American Historical Association. “Yes!” I said. “No more Plan B!” I admired (and still do admire) ACLS’s public fellowships and CLIR’s postdocs for Ph.D.s who want to work in libraries. The alt-ac movement has already had the salutary effect of prompting academics to think twice before they classify a non-professor’s work as non-scholarly, and in doing so it has broadened and strengthened our ideas of what the humanities can be.

For many grad students, alt-ac has been a revelation. It’s so important for Ph.D. students to know that you can, in fact, work as something other than a faculty member with your Ph.D. And you can love this work and feel that you’re using what you’re learned in your program, too.

You can! But increasingly I feel that you shouldn’t have to. And that’s what has discomfited me as I hear universities and scholarly societies making what I perceive to be a slip between suggesting alt-ac as a possibility for some Ph.D.s and touting it as a solution to the academic jobs crisis.

For one thing, there aren’t enough alt-ac jobs. I’ll wager that I watch these jobs as closely as anyone else out there, out of a desire to place our graduate students, and I see maybe a couple dozen jobs a year that I feel comfortable recommending to our students. There is no way that the number of alt-ac jobs out there can absorb the current number of job-seeking Ph.D.s.

So, many humanities Ph.D.s will head to cultural heritage institutions, like libraries, archives, and museums. But of course there aren’t that many of these jobs, either. Moreover, these institutions are peopled by professionals who have trained to do these things and will, if you ask them, confess that they’re not delighted about the influx of Ph.D.s and the attendant credential creep.

An alternate, or complementary scenario is that we’ll create more of these alt-ac jobs. Perhaps we’ll see that happening at universities. That would make sense, since if digital humanities continues to catch on, we’ll need more people who can help accomplish big projects while lending them the benefit of deep humanities training.

But let’s talk about what a job like mine is and what it isn’t. It is fulfilling work — challenging, consuming, and rewarding. But it is also flexible, in the neoliberal sense. I could be let go. Alt-ac’s like me generally don’t have a voice in faculty governance. (Sometimes they do, but usually not.) My job is relatively cheap. I’m fairly compensated for my work, but my position represents a relatively short-term commitment for the university, not the indefinite investment of a tenure line. My position is a 12-month (as opposed to nine-month) job, with an allotment of vacation time and sick leave, meaning I fill out time sheets and ask permission to do things like go to conferences. I have a boss. I don’t own my work in the way that faculty members do. When a faculty member writes a book, it’s hers. Her name is on it, she owns it. I do work that I love but that I will likely not take with me when I leave.

Don’t cry for me, ASA. As I said, I love my job, and I’m well-suited to it. But I do hope to give you pause as you consider what a university would look like if it were populated by many more people like me: flexible employees, carrying out a great deal of administrative work, whose time is managed by someone else, who do research when they can carve out the time, whose work belongs to someone else, and who have no voice in faculty governance. The picture begins to look a lot like a corporation. These alt-ac gigs can be great jobs, but they differ in some fundamental ways from faculty jobs as they have been traditionally understood — and not because we’re doing different work, but because we’re doing that work on very different terms.3 I think we begin to see why so many administrators have embraced the alt-ac model, and why we need to ask ourselves whether this is the future we want for scholarly labor.

“It’s better than adjuncting!” you might say, and indeed it is. But with that argument, we accede to the narrative of inevitable casualization, and I hope we want something better for ourselves.

Perhaps our Ph.D.s will go on to do other things entirely. Perhaps they’ll work in all kinds of interesting industries and bring their humanistic training to bear on all kinds of interesting problems. I hope they do. But we should be mindful that as we encourage an exodus of Ph.D.s from the professoriate, we are not simultaneously replenishing the ranks of the tenure-track faculty. 

Many of my students tell me that they suspect alt-ac is right for them, that they, like me, feel called to apply their skills to practical problems and to work in close collaboration with people of varying backgrounds and skill sets. For their sake, I’m so happy that alt-ac exists as a category of job. How healthy, how liberating to understand that intellectual labor doesn’t have to fit one mold. How exciting to be able to tell them that to do this work is not to fail.

So alt-ac, yes! We should celebrate the possibilities, excitement, and challenges of this work, and we should use this new term to forge alliances with humanistic thinkers of all stripes and backgrounds. But a solution to the academic jobs crisis? I’m afraid we need to look elsewhere for that.

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. We can, of course, dress up these jobs with some of the trappings of faculty lines: research time, teaching options, and travel funding, for example. These are all vitally important amenities, and I am exceedingly glad that I benefit from them; in fact, I benefit from them precisely because of the work of alt-ac advocates such as those who participated in the Off the Tracks meeting on digital humanities labor. But these perks don’t change what I see as two crucial differences between alt-acs and faculty: tenure eligibility and a voice in faculty governance. []
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4 Responses to What Alt-Ac Can Do, and What It Can’t

  1. Liz T says:

    I think this is a great article, and it expands the career conversation in useful ways for academics. But, I am struck (once again) at the woeful lack of discussion around the ways the alt-ac route has been forced on MA humanities grads for(ever) some time now. And the ways those MA grads have weathered & navigated this often blatant exclusion. And all the valuable work they’ve done– particularly in alt-ac higher ed positions, despite a lack of support from fellow PhDs and a lack of understanding from fellow higher education professionals… How does this conversation speak to them? What is substantive about this perspective?

  2. Miriam says:

    Liz, I want to make sure I understand your comment. Are you talking about MA grads’ exclusion from alt-ac jobs due to credential inflation? Or from traditional academic jobs?

  3. Miriam: thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I agree that security of employment (tenure) great and well worth fighting for. Shared governance, as it currently exists, is not that great. Faculty are generally not in a position to defend their mutual interests vis a vis management, or even to recognize that they have mutual interests with other faculty. So one potential response for Alt-Ac and Trad-Ac workers is organize in ways that assert their collective interests more effectively. This might mean a union, it might mean something else.

    Could we imagine an “Alt-Ac Workers Center” that combines advocacy, research and organizing? Worker centers have become a vital new trend in the labor movement. Typically they develop in sectors that have little hope of unionizing in the traditional sense: day laborers, undocumented workers, restaurant workers, etc. Like some of these workers, Alt-Ac and cultural heritage workers generally have precarious employment situations. They might be highly contingent/part time, or if they are lucky enough to have a full time job, their pay and benefits are woefully inadequate because their employers are under-resourced. Meanwhile, they’ve acquired debt in order to gain their credentials. So even if their pay is technically high, their income to debt ratio is unsustainable and unhealthy. Of course, they have their status as highly educated white collar workers–but you can’t eat status.

  4. Miriam says:

    Thanks so much for this comment, Toby. Alas, ’tis true, you can’t eat status. Since I published this piece, I’ve heard from a number of faculty members on the governance question. It’s true that our particular historical moment, shared governance seems more like an elaborate performance than a real power-sharing agreement — but I do wonder how much of that ineffectiveness has to do with the fact that the ranks of faculty are thinning anyway (and so many people are nervous about their jobs). Which is to say, the growing ineffectiveness of shared governance and the rise of alt-ac labor are linked phenomena.

    I love the worker center idea.

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