Announcing a new SCI study on alternative academic career paths

[cross-posted at scholarslab.org]

I’m pleased to announce that the Scholarly Communication Institute is conducting a study on career preparation in humanities graduate programs. As part of this study, we have launched two confidential surveys: the first is for people on alternative academic career paths (that is, people with graduate training in the humanities and allied fields working beyond the professoriate); the second survey is for their employers.  The surveys will be open until October 1, 2012.

Humanities scholars come from a wide array of backgrounds and embark on a variety of careers in areas like libraries, museums, archives, higher education and humanities administration, publishing, research and technology, and more. SCI anticipates that data collected during the study will contribute to a deeper understanding of the diversity of career paths we pursue after our graduate studies, while also highlighting opportunities to better prepare students for a range of careers beyond the tenure track.

The surveys complement the public database that we recently created as a way to clarify the breadth of the field, and to foster community among a diverse group. If your work represents the diversity of the broad #alt-ac community, it’s not too late to tell us about yourself!

The surveys and directory are being administered as part of the Scholarly Communication Institute’s current phase of work — which includes a close concentration on graduate education reform (largely in the North American context) and the preparation of future knowledge workers, educators, and cultural heritage and scholarly communications professionals.

The survey results will help us to make curriculum recommendations so that graduate programs may better serve future students, and anonymized or summarized data will be made available at #alt-academy at a later date. Please contact me if you’d like to know more.

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A few thoughts on #alt-ac

I’ve been tuning in to conversations about “#alt-ac” — both the concept and the phrase itself — as much as I can lately as I prepare to launch SCI‘s survey of #alt-academics (more on that very soon). What I’ve noticed is that while the concept is something that people are eager to talk about, and while the term itself has both expanded in meaning and proven useful beyond what Bethany Nowviskie initially imagined, there’s also a certain degree of discomfort with the phrase. Some find that it perpetuates an unfortunate (and false) binary of career options — which, of course, is exactly what it was meant to alleviate. Others simply don’t find that the term resonates for them, considering it too narrow, or redundant with existing categories (primarily public humanities). Still others have expressed concern that #alt-ac is being held up as an unrealistic panacea for the perpetually abysmal job market, yet without necessarily creating new jobs.

These critiques are all valid. Personally, I have found that despite its limitations, #alt-ac is useful as a starting point for conversations about a wide range of issues related to graduate education. I don’t expect the term to be around forever, and I think it’s impossible to try and define the borders of the constellations of #alt-ac communities with much clarity. But I also think that this slight unease and ambiguity is a part of what can help us (as the academic, #alt-academic, or other allied communities) clarify our own thinking on what our academic training means and why it’s valuable.

For me, the most useful move that the term allows is the reframing of what is meant by the term “academic.” Anyone who has completed a PhD or other advanced degree is an academic by training, and brings an academic approach to whatever work she takes on. However, in terms of career possibilities, “academic” tends to signify one thing only: the professoriate. But as is abundantly clear, scholars are working all over the place — in cultural heritage institutions like libraries, museums, and archives; in governmental positions; as journalists and consultants. The positions themselves don’t necessarily make an individual an academic, but neither does an individual cease to be an academic in any of these roles. The academic is the person, by way of the training he or she has received, as well as the style of work — but the term’s narrower signification of someone employed within the professoriate often remains the more immediate reference.

#Alt-academic, then, is not so much a specific job, career, or field, but rather an approach: a way of seeing one’s work through the lens of academic training, and of incorporating scholarly methods into the way that work is done. It means engaging in work with the same intellectual curiosity that fueled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place, and applying the same kinds of skills — be they close reading, historical inquiry, written argumentation, or whatever else — to the tasks at hand. It doesn’t mean an all-new type of work that will heal the problems of the job market. (Issues surrounding the academic labor market are pervasive and serious; they merit a thorough discussion that is beyond the scope of this post.)

The responses that people have provided in the #alt-ac database are telling, as they often underscore the ways in which individuals apply their academic training to unusual roles. I expect that we’ll gain much deeper insight through the upcoming survey, and I look forward to the conversations that the resulting data will provoke. Stay tuned!

Learning by destruction

In preparation for my first THATCamp, I’ve been breaking things. I’m new to the DH world, and only recently have I been dipping my toe into the “hack” side of the hack/yack divide. Enchanted by why’s (poignant) guide, I explored a bit of Ruby; then, like many others, I tried (and, by the end of February, failed) Codecademy. Most recently, I’ve been learning a little bit about HTML and CSS (I’m mainly using this book by @jcmeloni).

While the first two attempts to gain concrete technical skills didn’t take me very far, this latest effort is yielding some real results. The difference, I think, has to do with motivation and goals. My first attempts at Ruby and Javascript stemmed from a sense that learning a programming language was something I should do. Though the DH community has taken care to emphasize that coding isn’t everything, my thinking about it hasn’t changed–it’s an increasingly important literacy, and a basic level of knowledge is already important and will become more so, if for no other reason than to understand which problems are hard and which are easy. (My spouse, a programmer, is continually dismayed when he describes some cool new innovation, and I fail to be impressed, not realizing that it solves a very tricky problem.)

I didn’t abandon the lessons because I found them unimportant. I just couldn’t dig into them. This confused me; after all, if I’m good at anything, it’s learning things! Plus, why’s (poignant) guide and Codecademy take such different tacks that if one didn’t work for me pedagogically, it seemed the other should have. But still, I walked away from both of them.

What I’ve come to realize is that without an actual problem that could help me contextualize and apply the new skills, I was having a hard time making the connections I would need to really learn and understand what I was doing. Weeks in, I still didn’t really know what Ruby or Javascript looked like in the wild, and so while I was enjoying making little snippets of code that did things (enjoying it a lot, actually), my interest in both tapered as other priorities came up.

I cracked open the (e-)book on HTML and CSS for completely different reasons. I had been working on the census of #alt-academics that I’ve written about before, as well as the not-yet-public survey that will be its more rigorous counterpart, and I was hitting some roadblocks. Most of these were stylistic: I wanted the logo to appear here, not there, and I wanted it to link back to the site (well, Wufoo wouldn’t let me get past that hurdle, but it wasn’t for lack of trying–and I succeeded on the survey); I wanted a wider margin around the text. In short, I wanted to have more control than the visual editing interface allowed. I picked up the lessons in HTML and CSS because I had a problem I was trying to solve, and that has made all the difference in the way the instruction clicks for me.

My pre-THATCamp efforts have been similar. I’m at a point where I want to start having more control over my site (I am an Order Muppet, after all), so I want to learn more about what I could do with WordPress beyond its ready-made themes; I also want to start doing more with visual and other multimedia materials in my research, so I want to learn more about Omeka. For both of these things, I need to know about web servers and FTP clients, both of which I’m sure are second nature to a ton of THATCamp participants, but they’re new for me. So I have been tinkering, with the guidance of ProfHacker and my stellar colleagues in the Scholars’ Lab.

And along the way, I’ve been breaking things. I had a single triumphant moment in which everything seemed to be working as it should–and then, I went one step further, and managed to completely lock myself out of MySQL, rendering the whole setup unusable.

Here’s where things got tricky, and a little interesting. I had to find a way to dig myself out, and I had no idea how to do that. Most of the troubleshooting instructions I found on involved the command line–which I do not know how to use, much to my chagrin. (Again, following Prof Hacker’s lead, I’ve learned how to do the simplest of tasks–but really, knowing how to create a text file wasn’t going to get me out of the trouble I was having!). I went down a time-consuming and frustrating rabbit hole. As I tried to figure out what to do, I realized a lot of things–among them, I didn’t totally know what MySQL was, why I needed it, or what had gone wrong.

That sounds bad, but it has actually been energizing. The risks for me are still low at this point, but the potential reward is high. I’m finally starting to get a sense of what I don’t know–whereas before, all I saw was an abyss of confusion. My questions at this point are still incredibly basic (and, to be honest, I’m not always comfortable asking them), but I feel like certain elements are slowly coming into focus.

Breaking things has given me problems to solve, which is where the opportunity and desire to learn seem greatest. This is not new news to most of the DH community–@samplereality has argued compellingly that DH is about destroying things, and @jessifer tweeted about giving his students a problem without giving them the tools to solve it. As a pedagogical strategy, it makes sense: that’s how we learn when we’re doing things on our own–with a sense of urgency and a problem to solve.

As I continue to think about reforming humanities graduate training, my own experience of trying to learn, failing, and then needing to learn and (at least partially) succeeding, will remain at the front of my mind. I still haven’t really figured out what all went wrong, but I managed to get things working again (that counts as hacking, right?) and have a much better sense of what questions to ask my fellow THATCampers. Had everything gone smoothly, I would have learned so much less.

Calling all #alt-academics!

[cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab blog]

I’m happy to announce that a census of alternate academics, the first public-facing component of my work with the Scholarly Communication Institute, is now open to contributions. If you have graduate training in the humanities and work outside of the tenure track, I’d like to warmly invite you to add your information to the growing database. Not #alt-ac? Check out the report to learn more about who we are and what we do.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the census has a dual purpose: First, it will serve the many individuals who are employed in (or considering) alternate academic roles by showing the breadth and depth of career trajectories that can follow graduate work in the humanities. The resulting database may help people to discover others with shared interests, find potential project collaborators, or open up new lines of inquiry. Second, it serves as an important first step towards the survey that SCI will conduct, which aims at better understanding career preparation and #alt-ac employment in relation to humanities graduate programs.

I’d like the database to be as broad and truly representative as possible, which means I’ll need help in extending its reach. Please forward the link widely and encourage the #alt-academics you know to contribute–the database becomes more useful as more people join in.

This census is part of a suite of new content and features at #Alt-Academy; the announcement is restated below. Please read, contribute, and circulate!

We are very happy to announce a new phase of publication at #Alt-Academy, an open-access online project at MediaCommons. #Alt-Academy was launched last summer with 24 essays by 33 authors, highlighting the role of “alternative” academic professionals in the humanities and related fields. The four projects joining #Alt-Academy today promise to open the publication to an even richer and more diverse set of voices.

Please consider contributing to:
#Alt-Academy also welcomes proposals for further new clusters and features.  For more information, see “How It Works” on our MediaCommons site.

Coming soon: A directory of #alt-academics

Like everyone, I began January with the best of intentions. My resolution — to write (something, anything!) or take a photo each day — seemed alluringly modest. January was good. February was, too. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t be able to keep going, month after month.

But then, March happened. March, when I changed jobs, and A. and I bought our first home, bringing huge amounts of change to our lives. And suddenly, my goal slipped quietly to the comfy back burner where most resolutions live out their days. The bottom line is that I haven’t been writing much these last few weeks, in part because there’s been so much to do, and in part because I’ve been spending a good deal of time absorbing new information and ideas. It has been a receptive time more than a productive one, intellectually speaking.

So, I’ve been reading and thinking and organizing fixing bookshelves, and took a quick trip to the University of Virginia to check out the actual, physical Scholars’ Lab (my reward for enduring a full-day HR marathon). I have new projects percolating and new responsibilities crystallizing. I am notoriously impatient with transitions — I cannot live in an in-between state for long — so changing both work and home at the same time has taken up a lot of mental energy. The trip to UVa was great in many ways; for one thing, it made the transition to SCI seem a bit more complete, which should help me to stop fussing about changes and spend my energy in more productive ways.

With that, I’m diving into the work. One project — which I’m quite excited about — involves taking a census of people who think of themselves as alt-academics in order to create a directory of the many individuals that work outside of the tenure track. It’s important to me that the census include not only the wonderfully vocal and visible advocates of the alt-ac community, but also the quieter voices that are outside of the Twitter conversations and MLA panels. As I have written about in previous posts, I think (and hope!) such a directory will be hugely valuable for people who are considering, or are already on, career paths that are alt-ac in nature.

The value, I think, will come from a few things: first, I hope that as people demonstrate their willingness to self-identify in an open and public way, the uncertainty and/or stigma that others in similar positions may feel will begin to dissipate. Second, it will be great to see the diversity of career paths that the humanities community has undertaken. Third, the actual names and affiliations may help other alt-ac folks to make connections and perhaps seek out useful allies. Finally, the database will help SCI in our goal of administering a survey of alt-academics in order to determine opportunities for improved career preparation and refined methodological training in humanities programs.

In all, I hope that the directory and the survey will both help the humanities community to have better data to work with, so that we can move beyond the anecdotal and dispel myths in favor of more concrete understanding about our shared field and the opportunities it affords. Alt-academics reading this post, that means you’ll be hearing from me in the not-too-distant future. I know many people have thought a lot about these issues, so one thing I’ll be doing is seeking input about who to seek out for the census/directory that I might not otherwise know about, and also what questions I should be sure to ask on the survey. I’ll post more about that as planning for the project progresses, but in the mean time, please do feel free to get in touch if you have ideas to share or questions to raise. (Also, I’ll be posting from time to time on the Scholars’ Lab site, so watch for updates there, too.)

Time for a new chapter!

I am thrilled to announce that for the next eighteen months, I’ll be joining the fantastic crew at the Scholarly Communication Institute! I’m honored to join Bethany Nowviskie and her team on the current phase of SCI’s work: namely, assessing and rethinking methodological training in the humanities; helping to work on the framework of the stellar Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab; and contributing to the continued development of new-model scholarly publications. (For a fuller description, including more detail on the organizations we’ll be working with, see this Scholars’ Lab post.)

This new step marks an exciting transition for me. Over the past year, I’ve worked closely with Josh Greenberg to develop the Sloan Foundation’s budding Digital Information Technology program. In doing so, I’ve gotten to meet extraordinary people working on innovative projects related changes in scholarly communication in the digital age. In my new position with SCI, I’ll be focusing on a number of the same questions, but from a perspective grounded in the humanities. I’m also looking forward to working more deeply on #alt-ac issues, which I deeply care about (as these two posts reveal).

It will be an intense 18 months that I’m sure will be over too quickly. I can’t wait to dive in!

Risk, innovation, tenure… and secret science

With SOPA protests gumming up the internet yesterday (and leaving me prone to distraction by websites like this one), my evening was free to try something new, so I headed to the Bell House to learn a little bit about the universe. Happily, my first trip to the Secret Science Club was a delight, even though I couldn’t get in the door. By the time I arrived, NYU cosmology professor David Hogg had already gathered an overcapacity crowd in the event space, so I figured I’d warm up a bit and have a drink before heading back home.

The premise of the event is simply great, and I love how much of a crowd it gathered.  People kept pouring in, packing the front lounge, all of them disappointed to have missed their chance to hear a free talk about astronomy. (The recent coverage in the Times couldn’t have hurt.) Actually, I love that it was so full that I couldn’t get in. When 8 p.m. hit and the talk began, I was even happier to find that the lounge had decided to broadcast the session into the bar area–so I could stay cozy on a sofa with my drink and still get my fix of black holes and red shift.

Despite all the mysterious talk of dark matter and neutrinos, the thing that stuck with me most (undoubtedly because I had already been thinking about it) is that our current academic system doesn’t really know how to reward good work on theories that don’t end up holding water. Hogg emphasized the importance of taking risks in order to do truly innovative work, and noted that many times such risk is at odds with the academic credentialing system. Incorrect theories don’t result in published papers, lines on CVs, or items for a tenure dossier. But without risks and innovative thinking, research will only progress by small increments, because incremental advancement is the safe way to garner professional rewards of publishing, tenure, and promotion.

I like to think that at their best, funders can help encourage innovation by cushioning the financial risk that accompanies professional risk, and also by providing a certain validation of the work being done. Still, what matters most in the academic system are academic credentials. As means of scholarly communication are changing and tenure dossiers are beginning to look different (for instance, the recent MLA convention featured a workshop on evaluating digital materials for tenure), I hope that we might be in a moment when the credentialing system is undergoing some changes and is therefore a bit more pliable than usual.

But it’s hard to know how exactly to fix the problem. What would a tenure and promotion system that fostered risk and innovation look like? How can universities incentivize inquiry and exploration that may not result in a provable theory? These are major questions relating to systems deeply embedded in university structure, so I don’t expect simple answers. Still, I find some hope in the fact that the question is being raised not only in academic circles by incredibly smart and thoughtful people, but also at a free science talk at an out-of-the-way Gowanus bar in a room filled with non-specialists who are thirsty to learn something new.