The altac movement at UNC-Chapel Hill is closely connected to a broader conversation across academe about the changing demographics of the university workforce (including the rise of non-tenure-track, contingent and adjunct faculty), and the ongoing challenge of adapting doctoral training to the reality that substantial numbers of Ph.D.s in all fields will–some by choice, others by necessity–ultimately seek employment beyond the faculty ranks. Since about 2011, this discussion has become increasingly formalized, and a number of concrete research, curricular reform, and educational efforts have been forthcoming.
“Altac” sometimes bleeds into “post-ac” (post-academic) — a discussion of career paths beyond the walls of the university, but our concern with the UNC working group is with the subset of non-faculty Ph.D.s who remain within academe.
Altac originated within the humanities and has many strong connections to the “digital humanities,” “public history,” and “engaged scholarship” conversations. There is also considerable overlap between the set of issues we are concerned with and other efforts to address concerns of “contingent” or “adjunct” faculty, “fixed-term” faculty, and other sub-groups of scholars who work off the tenure track. At UNC, the work of the Fixed-Term Faculty Committee (a subcommittee of the Faculty Council) may be instructive.
The resources below provide just a sampling of the national discussion about altac careers, which continues daily on Twitter under the #altac hashtag:
- #Alt-academy: A MediaCommons Project (Edited collection of essays from #altacs that discuss many elements of our work). Edited by Bethany Nowviskie at UVA.
- What’s Your Favorite Alt-Ac Resource? Web collection created by Josh Boldt at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae site.
- Anne Whisnant’s Resources for an Expansive Job Search: Humanities and Social Sciences. List compiled in the spring of 2012 and updated as needed. That page includes an embedded version of the Career Paths beyond the Faculty for Humanities & Social Sciences workshop Anne did at the University of Central Florida in March 2012.
- A larger online discussion of “alternative careers” for Ph.D.s may be found at the Versatile Ph.D. community, one of the oldest and best resources for this conversation.
- Alt/Academix provides “concrete advice on how graduate students and those transitioning from teaching positions can make themselves marketable for academic administrative positions. Our services include workshops, job letter and cv/resume editing, and career transition consulting.”
- The UNC Library has created an Altac Resources Guide (thanks Dr. Barbara Renner!).
- The University of Virginia Library’s Scholarly Communications Institute has proactively sponsored a good bit of research and discussion around the altac and Ph.D. career issue, most notably the 2013 report “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” by Dr. Katina Rogers, which investigated “perceptions about career preparation provided by humanities graduate programs. The survey results help to create a more solid foundation on which to base curricular reform and new initiatives by moving the conversation about varied career paths from anecdote to data.”
- There are many connections between the altac conversation and other discussions about careers beyond the faculty for people in many specific disciplines.
- History: In late 2012, the Mellon Foundation awarded funding to the American Historical Association to undertake projects related to “Career Diversity for Historians.” A first step was the 2013 study, “The Many Careers of History PhDs: A Study of Job Outcomes,” which tracked 2500 History Ph.D.s who received their degrees between 1998-2009. (The research, it should be noted, was conducted by Dr. Maren Wood, a UNC history Ph.D.) Some other resources for historians are here, and, with others, developed materials in the spring of 2012 for a UNC History Department workshop on Historians and Our Publics: Engaging Communities Beyond Academia.
- English/Languages/Literature: The Mellon Foundation is funding similar work by the Modern Language Association. In the spring of 2014, the MLA issued a “Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature,” which takes as a starting point the following recognition: We are faced with an unsustainable reality: a median time to degree of around nine years for language and literature doctoral recipients and a long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track employment for only around sixty percent of doctorate recipients. We as members of the scholarly community must insist on maintaining excellence in our research and teaching by recognizing the wide range of intellectual paths through which we produce new knowledge. We must also validate the wide range of career possibilities that doctoral students can pursue.
- The Modern Language Association’s partnership with the Mellon Foundation has also produced Connected Academics. MLA Executive Directory Rosemary Feal says this about the project: “The Connected Academics initiative is about the world of education writ large and aims to give full recognition to doctoral program graduates who have found professional success beyond as well as in the postsecondary classroom, both on campus and off.”
It should be noted that cautionary articles are also emerging, such as Jacqui Shine’s May 22, 2014 Chronicle Vitae piece, “Alt-Ac Isn’t Always the Answer.” Shine smartly writes:
Encouraging people to think creatively about their career paths is, of course, just fine. And humanities Ph.D.’s can and do find jobs outside of the academy all the time. But we shouldn’t start pretending that that’s what we’ve been training them for all along. Turning a solution that may work for some individuals into a systemic fix isn’t easy—and it’s not necessarily appropriate.
Let’s not mistake the alt-ac option for an answer to academia’s labor woes. To do so is to obscure the problems of the academic labor market. It is to displace those problems onto other labor markets, many of which are equally troubled, with real costs for other workers in those fields. It is to perpetuate a powerful (and class-inflected) myth—that academic training in the humanities is not fundamentally vocational, but is, instead, some sort of updated gentleman’s education.
In the meantime, all the fields that Ph.D.’s can purportedly break into have their own standards, credentials, and training, not to mention legions of qualified professionals already seeking employment. I hate to break the news here, but museums have not been desperately waiting for some humanities Ph.D.’s to come save them from themselves. This smacks of the academic chauvinism that has helped us get into this bind in the first place—the implicit belief that a Ph.D. is a sufficient replacement for the specialized training and experience that curators or writers or preservationists or archivists or high-school teachers receive. This is a fantasy.
Contextualizing Readings for 2014-17 Carolina Seminar
We’ll be doing a good bit of reading on general issues related to scholarly labor in higher education in our Carolina Seminar. A sampling of possible readings is included below:
10 Humanities Scholars. “Don’t Capitulate. Advocate.” Inside Higher Ed, June 24, 2014.
Bickford, Donna M., and Anne Mitchell Whisnant. “A Move to Bring Staff Scholars Out of the Shadows.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 25, 2013.
———. “Building a Corps of Administrator-Scholars.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 14, 2010.
———. “The Altac Track: Carving Out a New Professional Space for PhDs in Academe” Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics, April 8, 2014.
Berube, Michael. “New Model of Tenure.” Inside Higher Ed, March 10, 2015.
Donoghue, Frank. The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
E.W. “Administrator-Scholars: Do They Have a Future in the Academy?” On the Fence, October 15, 2010.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “No Tenure: Ends, Futures, and Transforming the Academy.” #Alt-Academy, 11 March 2015.
Flaherty, Colleen. “Book Argues That Adjunct Conditions Must Be Viewed as Civil Rights Issue.” Inside Higher Ed, January 29, 2014.
———. “House Committee Report Highlights Plight of Adjunct Professors.” Inside Higher Ed, January 24, 2014.
Furstenberg, Frank F. Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press, 2013.
Gerber, Larry G. The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty : The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hoeller, Keith, ed. Equality for Contingent Faculty : Overcoming the Two-Tier System. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014.
Hoff, James. “Are Adjunct Professors the Fast-Food Workers of the Academic World?” The Guardian, January 24, 2014.
House Committee on Education and Workforce Democratic Staff (U.S. Congress). The Just-In-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses in the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education, January 2014.
Kahn, Seth. “Why You Should Sign a Petition Calling for the Department of Labor to Investigate Contingent Faculty Working Conditions.” The Academe Blog, July 14, 2014.
Kendzior, Sarah. “Academia’s Indentured Servants.” Aljazeera, April 11, 2013.
Kilgannon, Corey. “Without Tenure or a Home.” The New York Times, March 27, 2014.
Read, Brock. “Here’s the First Mention of an ‘Adjunct Professor’ in The New York Times.” Vitae, the Online Career Hub for Higher Ed, July 24, 2014.
Reed, Mark. “Shared Among Whom?” Inside Higher Ed, July 30, 2014.
Schuman, Rebecca. “‘I Quit Academia,’ an Important, Growing Subgenre of American Essays.” Slate, October 24, 2013.
Segran, Elizabeth. “The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back.” The Atlantic, April 28, 2014.
Strouse, A. W. “Academe’s Firing Squads.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: The Conversation, July 23, 2014.
Swarns, Rachel L. “Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty.” The New York Times, January 19, 2014.