Alt-Ac by Accident

An Anthropologist Reconsiders the Field

Contributed by Andrew Asher Assessment Librarian at Indiana University
January 06, 2014
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Just over a decade ago, I began my graduate studies in cultural anthropology. If a fellow ethnographer had asked me at the time to predict the title of the job I’d be doing in ten years, I doubt Assessment Librarian—my present position—would have made my list. My aspirational answer would have certainly been a tenure-track professor, but I might have also listed positions with NGOs, in public policy, or possibly even in product design or marketing. I probably could not have thought of a reason why a library—the only place I’ve worked since I finished my PhD—might want or need an anthropologist on its staff.   

My training as an anthropologist was traditional: I attended several years of classes, took my comprehensive exams, spent a little more than a year abroad conducting ethnographic fieldwork, and returned to write up and defend my dissertation. This is more or less how anthropology has conducted itself since the early 20th century. Because my research was fieldwork-based, I rarely needed to go to the library except to locate secondary materials and check books out—and my library’s convenient campus-mail delivery option usually allowed me to avoid even that. My interactions with librarians were rare, and limited mostly to the occasional reference request to help locate journal articles or books published in unusual places. 

Ultimately, my dissertation examined how people experienced the multiple, hybrid, and transnational citizenship identities created by the expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe in 2004. I conducted my field research in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany and SÅ‚ubice, Poland, two border cities that were divided from one another by the westward shift of the Polish-German border after World War II. For cultural anthropologists, fieldwork is generally considered a rite of passage: a transformative experience that helps define one’s professional identity (anthropologists often form professional organizations and connections based on the geographic locations of their fieldwork). While this view of fieldwork is certainly part myth, and what it means to be “in the field” is beginning to change as the internet and other communication technologies make it less difficult to work “from a distance,” many, if not most, anthropologists develop enormous professional and personal commitment to their field sites, and having “been there” continues to be one standard for assigning authenticity and legitimacy to anthropological knowledge.   

However, as soon as I began working in non-teaching positions such as the one I now hold I found that the confines of a twelve-month contract were making “not being there” my professional reality.  Anthropology doesn’t necessarily lend itself to  “normal” professional work schedules, and it quickly became clear that it would be difficult to return to the Polish-German border for any extended period of time with any degree of frequency. With very limited new data to work with, this absence from the field potentially meant the end of my work in what had been my primary area of research. I found this situation extremely problematic, not only because I had spent many years developing expertise in a particular region but also because it destabilized what I thought of as my professional identity.

While I am now a professional librarian, I inhabit both the title and identity uncomfortably.  I have neither the training nor the credentials typical to librarianship, and unlike some #Alt-Academy authors, I wound up on an alt-ac trajectory mostly by accident and circumstance rather than intentional choice.  Perhaps for these reasons, navigating and resolving the tensions between these two professional identities have been, and continue to be, central issues in my alt-ac experience, beginning with my first position after graduate school.  However, before discussing this experience in more detail, I think it is useful to briefly provide some context for how my job search transpired.       

A Failed Search  

My academic job search experience will be familiar to many readers and has become such common story it borders on cliché. I started my search in the fall of the final year of my graduate program, about nine months before my dissertation defense.  The tenure-track job cycle in anthropology begins around September or October as position announcements are posted in preparation for conducting preliminary interviews at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, usually held in late November.

Like most of the students in my department cohort, I prepared dozens of application packets for these positions and naively looked forward to receiving interview invitations. While I realized it would be difficult to get one of these positions, especially without a “Ph.D. in hand,” my advisor assured me I was prepared and with some luck I’d be fine.

I received no invitations.

Disappointed, I redoubled my application efforts in the spring semester as announcements for tenure-track positions gradually shifted to post-docs and short-term appointments. Although I had never limited my search geographically, I expanded the scope of my search to include almost any position anywherethat was even tangentiallyrelated to my areas of expertise.  

As my defense date approached, I became increasingly frustrated at the lack of interest in my applications, as well as more apprehensive and pessimistic about what I would do after I completed my program. I became a little more hopeful after I got a handful of telephone interviews, and finally, just a few days after my dissertation defense, a single campus visit for a one-year sabbatical replacement. However, I wasn’t offered that position either (and, insultingly, the department failed to reimburse some of my travel expenses).

With the completion of the summer semester my graduate stipend ended, and while I managed to find a course to teach as an adjunct at a community college about an hour drive from where I lived, I was essentially unemployed. The chair of my graduate department indicated that it was unlikely that there be any adjunct teaching opportunities for me in the future, explaining that current students had to have priority. While sympathetic, my advisor was also of little help; he had been fortunate enough to land his position while still in graduate school and could offer no practical advice or experience about what I should do next.  

By this time I was depressed, angry, felt like a failure, and I wasn’t sure how my family would support itself. This feeling of failure would nag me for several years, even though my employment outlook soon changed.   

Accidental Alt-Ac

I very nearly didn’t apply for the alt-ac job I was finally offered. A consortium of five university libraries in Illinois was searching for an ethnographer to lead a research team investigating how students locate and use information for their academic assignments. This seemed like a long way from my area of expertise, and based on my experience in the job market I thought that they would surely find someone more qualified than me. However, since I understood the research methods they planned to use and the position was located close enough to where I lived that my family wouldn’t have to move, I decided to apply anyway. Although it initially promised to be only a nine-month appointment, this study eventually expanded into the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries Project(ERIAL), which lasted almost two years and included more than 650 participants, making it the largest ethnographic study of libraries to date.  As the lead researcher on the project, I worked with a team of academic librarians and another ethnographer to collect and analyze detailed interviews with students, faculty members, and librarians about the practices and processes of research assignments and to conduct observational studies of how students actually located the information they utilized in their work.     

Despite the success of the ERIAL project, I often felt that I was gradually becoming less employable in a traditional academic position. Anthropology has a long history of alt-ac careers (which the discipline typically labels “applied” or “practicing anthropology”), and many anthropologists work in fields such as public policy, government, NGOs, museums, and cultural resource management, as well as in industry (a fact that The Atlantic recently discovered). Unfortunately, this type of work is not always valued by “traditional” academic anthropologists, who often view it as theoretically underdeveloped and sometimes ethically problematic (especially in corporate and some government settings).  Even though applied anthropology is an institutionalized subfield within the discipline, there is sometimes a strong social division between academic and applied anthropologists. Like a lot of anthropology departments, my graduate program sought to prepare its students only for tenure-track faculty positions and did not offer courses or training in applied anthropology. Other types of alt-ac employment in the academy or beyond were rarely discussed, and acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in these types of positions was not considered part to the curriculum.  My feeling was that this kind of applied anthropology was implicitly judged as second class or inferior to “real” anthropology.

For this reason, I continue to believe that work like the ERIAL project, which utilized anthropological methods to achieve the practical goals of improving library services and instructional practices for the universities involved, is judged as less valuable by search committees composed of tenured and tenure-track professors. The alt-ac track can therefore become something of a self-fulfilling process. Because I wasn’t publishing in the “right” anthropology journals or doing the “right” kind of work, I became less qualified for a traditional position. Having been thoroughly socialized to define post-graduate success in the narrow terms of a tenure-track position, this realization reinforced my feelings of frustration.  Nevertheless, I was simultaneously becoming more qualified for other types of “alt-ac” jobs.

Because the ERIAL project was initially a short-term contract, as I worked on the study I continued to apply for tenure-track and temporary faculty positions during the next academic job cycle with results that were predictably similar to the previous year. As the ERIAL project drew to a close, I began to think about how I might use the new experience I had working in academic libraries, and a colleague and former fellow told me that my profile might fit well into the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellowship in Academic Libraries program. Given my lack of success in the tenure-track job market, this seemed like an apt recommendation. 

Using my experience working in libraries during the ERIAL project as the basis for my application, I was offered and accepted a two-year CLIR fellowship at Bucknell University as the library’s Scholarly Communications Fellow and was charged with leading the university’s open access programs. This position was principally administrative and involved large amounts of committee work as we drafted an institutional open access mandate, shepherded it through faculty governance process, and eventually obtained approval by a full faculty vote. Parallel to this policy work, I provided general scholarly communications support for faculty members and did technical work implementing and managing Bucknell’s institutional repository. During this time, I continued to conduct research on students’ information practices, especially how students conduct searches using library discovery systems, but this work—even when it was targeted at improving library services— was secondary to the administrative functions of my position. In the little time I could spare, I wrote articles based on my dissertation research, but as time passed it became increasingly difficult to keep up with the literature and new developments in the region as my fieldwork data began to age. Striking a satisfactory balance between the administrative requirements of my position and the applied and theoretical research interests that I wanted to explore was a persistent difficulty in this position.  

While at Bucknell, I continued to monitor postings for faculty positions in anthropology, but as more job cycles passed my enthusiasm waned and the number of applications I submitted dwindled. I began to carefully evaluate the time and effort necessary to produce application materials. I also became more aware of alternative possibilities available to me, both inside and outside the academy, and that I, in fact, had transferable and in-demand skills—such as the analytical tools required to efficiently collect, analyze, and derive meaning from large amounts of data. I gradually began to consider only positions I thought would be interesting and challenging to me intellectually and that were located in places where my family and I wanted to live.

Once my CLIR fellowship ended, I was fortunate to have my position converted to a permanent staff line in the Bucknell library. However, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I soon decided to actively pursue other opportunities, this time focusing on academic libraries where I could apply both my research expertise and my library experience. Assessment positions appeared to offer this balance (despite assessment’s baggage as a current buzzword within the academy), and this observation led me to my present position as the Assessment Librarian at Indiana University Bloomington.

Working in the Field

Now in my third alt-ac position, the last few years of my work history might in hindsight appear to follow a logical course.  However, they have also involved considerable emotional and intellectual struggle as I shifted away from what I perceived as my core area of professional expertise. While I initially thought the applied research questions I was working on in libraries were a temporary diversion from my more theoretical work on citizenship, I soon found that these questions, such as, “How do students locate information?” or, “How do search engines affect information use?” were are also extremely interesting theoretically and relevant to broad discussions in anthropology. As a result, I began to reshape my personal research agenda to more closely align my research interests with the demands of my alt-ac positions.I began to think of libraries as a new field site; I designed and pursued projects that addressed practical problems and sought to make recommendations for library services and policy makers.  These projects simultaneously allowed me to address anthropological questions about the nature of information use and its interrelationships with other cultural processes. Viewed in this way, the ERIAL Project and my CLIR fellowship served the transformative function of fieldwork; they changed and expanded the ways I thought of myself as an anthropologist and as an academic.

Nevertheless, as an alt-ac professional, I’m not always fully in control of my research agenda. I often have discreet projects with specific deliverables, which sometimes align with my research interests, but sometimes don’t. Research and academic writing by alt-ac professionals is also not always seen as “value added” by university administrators. Nor is it always considered valid by “traditional” faculty members. However, the alt-ac track has required me to give up less much less than I might have initially thought. My position is less “alternative” than I initially imagined, given that I contribute to the research, teaching, and service missions of the university like any other faculty member, albeit in different proportions than my “traditional” colleagues. I continue to write and publish both in anthropology and in library science, and my scholarly output has actually increased rather than decreased the longer I’ve held alt-ac positions, as has interest in the results of my research. I teach periodically, both as an instructor and in course support as a librarian. Because of my administrative roles, I’ve gained a great deal of perspective about how universities are organized and actually run on a day-to-day basis, and I have had to opportunity to work directly with university administrators at the highest levels. Finally, and importantly, because my alt-ac positions have forced me to work in many areas in which I did not have previous expertise, I feel that my network of professional colleagues is much more diverse and intellectually interesting than it would have been had I been in a more traditional position.  

As I learned in my dissertation fieldwork, hybrid spaces and identities are often simultaneously uncomfortable and productive, and my experience as an anthropologist-librarian certainly fits this description.  While initially destabilizing to my sense of professional identity, my alt-ac path has challenged me to develop additional and interesting areas of research and expertise I probably would not have pursued in a traditional academic position. Becoming a hyphenated academic has thus made me a better scholar, even if my path to “getting there” began with circumstance, a little luck, and a lot of frustration.