Announcing a new SCI study on alternative academic career paths

[cross-posted at]

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.

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.)

#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.