Alt-Ac Entrepreneur: From Composition Adjunct to Writing Consultant

Contributed by Daveena Tauber Writing Consultant and Professor at ScholarStudio
January 05, 2014
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A small percentage of the new PhDs will get “good” jobs at Research I institutions, but the rest will be relegated to low-paying adjunct positions or into jobs quite unlike those for which they believe they have been trained. There is no middle in this system, only a top and a bottom.  —John Guillory, “The System of Graduate Education”

I was recently invited to attend a student’s thesis defense. Over the previous weeks, I had worked closely with the student on her presentation. I had helped her select and edit her slides, shorten her presentation time, and become conscious of her volume, speed, and eye contact. I had helped the student anticipate likely questions and practice her answers. I knew the thesis itself inside out, having worked with this student weekly for more than two years. Over that time, I watched this student evolve from an anxious, newly-arrived international doctoral student to a confident, skilled writer and scholar. Yet when her thesis chair asked all present to introduce themselves, I hesitated—not because the student had concealed our work together from her committee, but because I was anxious about how I would be perceived by the faculty. Despite the fact that I hold a Ph.D. from an R1 university and have taught college writing for ten years, I was an outsider in that room, a person with no official role. When my turn came, I took a deep breath and said, “I am Dr. Daveena Tauber. I am honored to be here as Nora’s writing coach.”[1]

As an English Ph.D., I expected my career to begin with a sweaty wait in a hotel lobby at the MLA convention, not with a business plan. The market said otherwise. Actually, my academic career started auspiciously enough with a renewable, fixed-term assistant professorship with full benefits in an innovative interdisciplinary program. Two years into the job, however, the program’s staffing was reorganized. After a brutal round of academic Survivor that pitted fixed-term faculty against each other for a few tenure-tracks lines, I was summarily voted off the island. I was not terribly worried. I had almost never walked out of an interview without a job, and I had significant non-profit experience in addition to a very good degree and solid teaching chops. But this was Portland, Oregon circa 2008, and I had no idea that I was facing one of the toughest job markets in the U.S. The next two years would bring a solid wall of rejection—what seemed like an impenetrable barrier between full employment and me. Consistent with the fact that “studies of part-time labor…indicate that women are more likely to be geographically immobile because of family responsibilities” (Schell 7), I found myself faced with the choice of pursuing the professoriate or staying in the same city as my son and ex-husband.

Not surprisingly, the university that had laid me off invited me back to teach for a fraction of the pay, few benefits, and demotion to a crowded office with chairs that can only be described as liabilities on wheels. I would like to say that I stuck it to the university and walked away with my pride intact. But I didn’t. My son and I both like to eat.[2] Most of the literature I read about adjunct work framed my choices in stark terms: leave academe or stay and be exploited. Coming from fellow academics I found this willingness to abandon ship both puzzling and troubling. What would it mean, I wondered, to choose “none of the above,” to reject the dichotomy between leaving and staying, between insider and outsider, even between inside and outside? What would it look like to keep doing what I was trained to do, but outside of the usual tenure/adjunct boxes?

To see this as a possibility took a tremendous perceptual shift. It is difficult to see yourself as high-value professional when the institutions you work for compensate you like a paid intern. There is something fundamentally disingenuous about being asked to represent the idea that education leads to upward mobility by an educational system that structurally prohibits roughly half its faculty from making a living.[3] It can be profoundly disillusioning to realize that the university simultaneously manufactures and demolishes the value of the Ph.D. I decided to start with the radical premise that the work I do as a compositionist is valuable and that I could make a living doing it. This article explores some of the philosophical and practical issues that attend being an academic entrepreneur who serves but is not conventionally employed by the university.

Negotiating the Academic and Entrepreneurial Realms

test tubes, flasks, and a plaster hand

The fields of English and Composition know that they are overproducing Ph.D.s relative to available tenure-track jobs. Unfortunately, the mechanism—high reliance on part time labor—that has made these fields phenomenally successful in supporting graduate students is the same one that makes it difficult for their graduates to secure tenure-related appointments (Guillory 1161). When those working in the humanities discuss alterative careers for surplus Ph.D.s they tend to think in exilic terms: send them to the non-profits, the museums, the think tanks. They do not tend to say, “let’s help them start businesses.” In fact, the term “entrepreneur” is so thoroughly associated with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and business fields that it is difficult to find any references in the literature to entrepreneurial activity in the humanities. Even the appellation “alt-ac” typically connotes people who were trained as scholars, but who are doing other kinds of work within the university or cultural institutions—in other words, people who applied for rather than created their jobs.

Like many English Ph.D.s, my graduate studies in literature were supported by teaching composition and I emerged from graduate school functionally trained to study literature and teach writing. As a graduate student at Rutgers, I was deeply influenced by my training with Richard Miller and Kurt Spellmeyer, whose interdisciplinary approach to composition saw writing and rhetoric as foundational technologies in all academic fields. I am quite sure that my strong conviction about the applicability of composition expertise to the university as a whole was the basis for my initial hire into an interdisciplinary program and is now the foundation for my success as a writing consultant to academic writers and departments in a wide range of fields.

Over the past three years I have been engaged in what is essentially a business start-up process, although it took me while to realize and embrace that fact. My work as a writing coach and consultant began as a stopgap measure to supplement my income while I was drawing unemployment benefits. With very few exceptions, the clients who sought my services were graduate students struggling with coursework, exams, or thesis/dissertation production. As I watched client after client succeed in their respective tasks, I came to think that my work offered value not only to individuals, but potentially to institutions as well. 

The creation of a business like mine faces unique obstacles, both philosophical and practical. While the practical challenges are certainly formidable, I generally enjoy the auto-didacticism that these challenges require and have found myself happily possessed of a range of skills that I never imagined having. Yet the greater challenges, and the ones that interest me most, emerge from the significant ontological differences between the academic and entrepreneurial activity systems. The tension embedded in the work I do stems not so much from the content of the work itself but from the fact that it overlaps with the activity system of academia. It is important to remember that universities actually use external contractors in a wide variety of capacities—executive search firms, consultants who manage reorganizations, labor negotiators, communications professionals, and so on. Increasingly, universities are even outsourcing core administrative functions like recruiting and admissions.[4] The primary difference is that while these businesses do not need to build credibility within the scholarly activity system, I very much do. The fact that my work overlaps with the central mission of the university is, paradoxically, what makes it valuable and suspect at the same time.

The routes to success in the academic and entrepreneurial realms differ in significant respects. Academia encourages its apprentices to acquire cultural capital in relation to the prestige of existing status-granting entities (journals, graduate schools, universities, job titles). The entrepreneur, on the other hand, need not begin with established credentials and is sometimes considered more impressive for not having them. The paradigmatic entrepreneurial narrative begins in a garage and ends in a corporate headquarters (think HP, Apple, or any number of companies whose humble beginnings are a critical part of their brand mystique). The entrepreneur may start outside the institution and then be acquired (think Instagram) or may in fact become an institution that acquires others (think Facebook or Google). For the scholar, it is not so much acquisition by the institution but permission to stay that constitutes legitimacy.

Like Milton’s Satan, the entrepreneur believes herself to be “self-begot, self-rais’d” (Complete Works 322), albeit perhaps with the help of angel investors. The work of the academic, on the other hand, is never self-validating nor is it simply validated by market approval. The entrepreneur’s willingness to declare herself an expert smells like a rat to the academic, who relies on the mechanism of peer review and publication to legitimate her work. For the entrepreneur, legitimacy comes primarily from generating or attracting capital; for the scholar it derives primarily from generating cultural capital in the form of books, conference papers, and scholarly appointments. While the entrepreneur must reach a continually growing audience, the scholar is often content to speak to what Milton calls a “fit audience…though few” (Complete Works 346). The entrepreneur who fails to attract or generate capital may declare bankruptcy or be thrown out of an investor’s portfolio, but is free to start another enterprise with very little loss of status. “Serial entrepreneur” is a title of pride these days and the idea of failing one’s way to success is very much in vogue in the business world. By contrast, the scholar who is thrown out of the institution (by failing to finish a Ph.D., land a job, or achieve tenure) may find very few routes back in.

Academia operates in both systems of capital and cultural capital, but is often unwilling to look squarely at its relationship to the former. The taboo around teaching and money emanates from both inside and outside academia. At the broadest level, teaching has generally been classified with the feminized professions of nursing, counseling, and other forms of human service that typically occupy low cultural status and command relatively low pay. As a culture, we seem to find the idea of teachers working for money anathema to what we imagine it means to teach. Because teaching is understood, at least partly, as a “caring profession,” we do not accept the idea of people “going into teaching for the money” in the same way we accept that money is an obvious part of the draw of, say, law or engineering. While we accept a commixture of profit motive and caring motive in doctors (“I have always wanted to help heal the sick,” say thousands of medical school applicants in thousands of different ways), we do not seem able to conceptualize it in teachers. As a culture, we seem to want to keep our teachers poor so that we know they’re doing it for the right reasons.

The fact that I work with individual clients directly, without the authorizing intermediary of a university, means that my work is sometimes suspect from an institutional point of view. In fact, the most challenging “customers” I face are not graduate students but faculty members. As I will explain, their objections center around ideas about money, equity, and the line between who is and isn’t part of the academic community. Professors have some reason for being suspect of people who do what I do; after all, this is an unregulated field with no official training, credentialing, or review process. Such suspicions might be tempered, however, by considering the fact that many people who do this kind of work were trained and credentialed by the university[5] or by recalling that many professors receive no explicit training in teaching and that many contingent faculty undergo no formal institutional review. To the best of my knowledge most academic coaches work strictly “behind the scenes,” remaining part of a shadow economy that borders the university. Unfortunately, this shadow economy also includes the apparently-flourishing academic ghostwriting industry—a field that I suspect is also staffed to some extent by under-employed Ph.D.s (whom we might think of as alt-acs “breaking bad”).[6] While some of my work operates behind the scenes, I am not content to remain an invisible player. The first reason for this is pragmatic: faculty members who have seen the results of my work with their students have ended up referring me to other students and to their colleagues, hiring me through their departments, and in some cases, using my services themselves. The second, and more important reason is that I am professionally invested in bringing this work out of the shadow economy. My credentials come from the university, my skill set is most meaningful to people in the university, and I believe that the work I do should be legible within the academic economy.

The two primary obstacles I face in selling the value of my work to faculty members have to do with what I call the “capital” and the “cultural capital” objections—the former referring to the taboo around teaching and money and the latter to the heavy significance of institutional belonging in academia. These objections reflect commonplaces of academic culture, and it is entirely likely that I would have shared them if someone in my current role had approached me back when I had a faculty office, salary, and worldview. The problem is that these commonplaces are often grounded in realities that no longer obtain in the university at this historical moment.

The capital objection starts with faculty members’ gut-level sense that students should not have to pay for instruction when they are already paying tuition and fees. On an absolute level, they are right. And yet, for a wide variety of reasons, students sometimes do not receive the instruction and mentoring they need. The reasons for this are myriad. The university does not typically incent the kind of teaching and mentoring that some students require in order to be successful. Graduate programs are not always terribly selective and students are admitted with a wide range of skill levels. Finally, though writing is a key component of academic success, writing instruction has not traditionally been a staple of graduate-level coursework.[7]

When hearing about my work, faculty members frequently dwell, at least initially, on the issue of price rather than on the value to the student or the reason behind the need for the service. The fact that payment is so often the thing they focus on suggests that for many faculty members, the issue of payment is so highly mediated in the university that it does not figure into their thinking about their own relationship with students. The taboo surrounding teaching and money helps maintain the university’s financial black box. The upside of this black box is that it allows teachers and students to relate to each other (at least ideally) outside of the dictates of American consumer culture with its sometimes-problematic emphasis on customer satisfaction. The downside is that it allows full-time faculty the illusion that their relationship with students exists somehow outside the economic realm. Likewise, it shields students from knowing that different faculty members may labor under radically different economic conditions.

Yet as U.S. culture shifts an ever-larger share of educational costs to students, university faculty are actually moving inexorably toward the business model in which I now find myself, which is to say, being paid primarily by student monies. I am by no means approving of this disinvestment in education, the under-employment of Ph.D.’s, or the growing burden of debt our students bear. What I am saying is that the visibility of payment in my business model no more inherently corrupts the work I do than the invisibility of payment in the university inherently exonerates the work of professors. We are all implicated in the economy of education and if we want to survive as a profession, we must rethink some of our tightly held beliefs about the relationship between teaching and earning a living.

When faculty members say, “I would hesitate to refer students to a private writing consultant,” they may, of course, be objecting to idea that a student would need to pay for additional instruction. But they may also be unwittingly reprising the culture’s deeply held belief in the low value and status of teaching. What I have learned empirically through this process is that people pay for what they value. As my business coach points out, the majority of people, even students, have some disposable income. Then too, not all graduate students are impoverished—a fact suggested by the rapid proliferation of ever more specialized graduate programs. Although I do not believe that students should have to pay for additional instruction, I do believe that the choice to spend money on education is something to be celebrated wherever it occurs—evidence of placing value on the work that teachers do. I would be lying if I said that I did not derive a sense of wonder and pleasure at the fact that clients are willing to pay me directly and decently for my work. It is hard to say this without feeling immodest, but one of the things I find rewarding about this work is the fact clients often report that the money they spent working with me was the most important investment they made in their education.

Yet even when they understand the value that additional instruction may offer, faculty frequently raise questions about fairness and equity. Services such as mine raise red flags because they are not accessible to all students. Again, this argument is appealing at its simplest level, but becomes more complex in light of the larger socio-economic forces at work. We know that the participation of women and students of color is responsible for the tremendous growth in graduate studies over the last decade, but we also know that these are the groups are at the highest risk of non-completion.[8] On the one hand, the fact that my individual clients are overwhelmingly women and students of color is surprising to me because I started out with similar assumptions as faculty who raise issues about equity. Isn’t this a “luxury” service that is available only to advantaged students? On the other hand, it is not surprising precisely because historically under-represented students are the most likely to be disadvantaged by the implicit rather than explicit pedagogies (sometimes known as the apprenticeship model) that continue to typify graduate pedagogies—at least where writing is concerned. What I have come to understand is that adequate instruction is actually a necessity, not a luxury, and that students who do not receive enough instruction or cannot “uptake” instruction as offered, are unlikely to complete.

Many of the under-represented students in my practice are undertaking graduate study at great personal cost and with more riding on the outcome than is true of their more privileged peers. In many cases, succeeding in graduate school requires under-represented students to overcome years of institutional inequity. For them the cost of working with a consultant is small relative to their overall cost, and more importantly, to the threat of losing their educational investment if they don’t complete. These are students whose admission boosts the diversity scores of departments but who are, in some cases, not receiving enough support to complete their degrees.

It is important to note, however, that not all of my clients (under-represented or not) are from low socio-economic backgrounds or have low skill levels. This brings me to another misconception that I initially shared—which is that services such as mine are meaningful only to struggling students. In fact, some of my graduate student clients are rock stars in their departments and some of my faculty clients are highly productive scholars. This is important to stress because it reminds me that the work that I do is not intrinsically tied to instructional aporias, poor advising, or institutional failure, although these are certainly factors for some of my clients. In fact, I believe that there is a role for this kind of consulting work even in my best-of-all-possible-fully-funded universities. We tend to think of the successful writer as the one who needs the least help, but it may be that the successful writer is the one who gets the most help by accessing a wide variety of resources. I have come to firmly believe that instruction is not a zero-sum game: there is no reason that a student should not avail themself of all the resources their campus has to offer and use a writing coach, just as someone may join a gym and still hire a personal trainer.

In addition to the “capital” objection, reticence on the part of faculty to collaborate with extra-institutional colleagues stems from what I think of as the “cultural capital” objection, which has to do with the strict boundary between who is and isn’t a member of the academic community. This is the invisible line that made me catch my breath before introducing myself at my client’s thesis defense. As Chris Fosen rightly observes, “a teacher’s credibility with students, administrators, and publics derives in large part from her position within a credible institution and the authority the position accords her” (23). Lacking that position, I have to work exceedingly hard to make myself credible to the community I am most qualified to serve. My weak bonds with the university as an adjunct sometimes lend me greater credibility and intelligibility than the expertise I have developed in working with advanced scholarly writers in a consulting capacity. The presence of this relatively hard line between who is and is not a member of the academic community means that I am endeavoring to do more than simply trying to make a living in my chosen profession: I am working to create a new job category—a hybrid consultancy that has value and visibility both inside and outside the university.

Consulting in Academia

Various magnifying glasses on a table

While Ph.D.-producing institutions are beginning to understand from a pragmatic perspective that they need to embrace the alt-ac concept, they seem largely at a loss for how to change academia’s cultural capital system to value such a thing. Paraphrasing Anthony T. Grafton, former President of the American Historical Association, and Jim Grossman, that organization’s Executive Director, Michael Bérubé, 2012 President of the Modern Language Association, writes that, “‘alternative’ careers should have as much legitimacy as the traditional Ph.D.-to-tenure-track trajectory. The alt-ac option, as it is widely known, has generated much debate in the humanities, but so far little sense of what the viable ‘alternatives’ to academic employment might be” (Bérubé). Bérubé, like many, seems to think of alt-ac primarily as a way to employ graduates outside of academia, yet in the current economy this may prove an elusive goal. Certainly, the two years I spent trying to sell my skills outside the university after my lay-off were indicative of the recession, but they may also point to a market in which specialized credentialism (of the kind now exploding at the graduate level) and “direct experience” have triumphed over transferrable skills. Ph.D.’s are likely to be seen as “overqualified” for nearly everything. I believe that rather than simply asking Ph.D.’s to walk away from their professions and accept the valuelessness of their degrees, we need to create new models of employment that allow those with academic training to use their skills inside as well as outside the university.

While the business world has plenty of examples of low wages for inflexible and insecure work, it also offers the model of consulting, which provides a template for the kind of practice I am developing. Consulting allows businesses, including universities, to acquire expertise and accomplish tasks for which they do not want to assume the significant costs of permanent staffing. Typically, consultants are paid roughly three times the hourly rate of an equivalent employee since the company receiving the consulting outsources the costs of healthcare, retirement, tax preparation, and a host of other benefits to the consultant. The adjunct model, on the other hand, satisfies the university’s need for flexible staffing without paying for the privilege, which is what makes it a classic win-lose situation. Although I continue to adjunct for departments with which I have established relationships, I politely decline offers of adjunct work from departments to which I am marketing consulting services. I am convinced that getting my foot in the door as a low-wage, low-value worker is not an effective route to being regarded or paid as a professional.

For those of us trained in academe, it is exceedingly difficult to create a self-concept without the imprimatur of a job title, department, or university. Indeed, there are few fates more dreadful to the academic than attending a conference emblazoned with the legend “Independent Scholar.” “Alt-ac” has a bit more cachet, but does not exactly have a graceful mouth feel as a professional title. What to call my work has been a matter of some consternation. I knew from the outset that I wanted to avoid the word “tutoring” since it is so often associated with free or low-priced help provided by peers rather than professionals. While I reflexively dislike the word “coach,” which, betraying my prejudices, connotes ersatz certifications rather than academic credentials, the fact is that as a professional category coaches—whether “athletic” or “life”— command higher rates of pay than tutors. Thus, I use the words “coaching” and “consulting” to describe my work.

“Entrepreneur” is not a professional identity I sought, though I have come to embrace it gradually over time. This is partly because I do not encounter the same skepticism among entrepreneurs as I do among fellow academics. In fact, I am constantly astonished at the generous spirit with which I have been received in Portland’s entrepreneur and small business community. I have received significant business coaching and mentorship through the local Small Business Development Center as well as my university’s entrepreneur club. I am extremely fortunate that while Portland has lingeringly high unemployment rates, it also has some of the highest rates of self-employment in the country and has thus developed a culture and infrastructure to support the independently employed (“Portland-area’s”).

The long-term challenge I face is creating a business model that is scalable and sustainable. The biggest obstacle for service providers is to think outside the hourly model, which is where most of us start. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the “market” assigns a general price to different categories of service—and it is difficult to push beyond these ranges. The other important reason is that hourly-based fee structures are generally a losing proposition. For many “solopreneurs” it is impossible to charge enough per hour to make up for all the hours one is not working. Recall that the independent businessperson pays her own medical insurance and retirement costs as well as both the employee and employer contribution toward social security. What’s more, the independent generally spends more time on marketing, billing, scheduling, and other administrative tasks than on actual service. Finally, hourly work is not scalable—there is only so much time in a week.

Diversifying out of a pure service model generally means moving from strictly “high touch” to “low touch” services (such as workshops) or saleable products. I became convinced of the need to diversify my business model when I hit what appears to be my service saturation rate at about 15-20 hours of direct client contact each week. The work demands intense focus—both on texts and on the people creating the texts—and there is a limit to how many clients I can take on and still do my best work. While I am careful to stay within this range, I need to be able to generate “passive income” in order to survive long term. I have recently completed and begun marketing my first online product—a workshop on writing literature reviews. This was a workshop that I gave for free through the Office of Graduate Studies at my university and hired a videographer to film and edit. For now, I have chosen to mount the finished product on the open educational platform Udemy because the site takes a cut of sales rather than charging for hosting, meaning that there is no freestanding overhead. As I create more products I may decide to self host them.

In very important ways, marketing is by far the hardest and most anathema part of entrepreneurialism for the trained scholar. One of the challenges that academics face in seeing institutions and individuals as clients, rather than employers or students, is that of having to articulate our value in ways that are almost entirely unfamiliar to us as professors. As faculty, we are encouraged and encourage our students to see the work of teaching and learning as occupying a space beyond the demands of instrumentalist accountability or cost-benefit analysis. On many levels I am deeply sympathetic to the romance of education for education’s sake and resistant to the kinds of “return on investment” accounting that politicians are paradoxically demanding of higher education even as they bleed its coffers dry.[9] However, the lesson that I think the humanities has largely failed to learn is this: in expecting others to accept the a priori value of our work, we mistakenly believe that to articulate its value is to devalue it. And by largely failing to make the public case for the value of our work, we have helped create a culture that largely does not value it.[10] As I delve into the alien world of marketing, I have begun to understand that the fact that the work we do as educators is partly tangible and partly intangible does not make it less valuable. After all, the challenge of communicating and putting value on the ineffable is hardly the sole province of those involved in the life of the mind. Companies rarely sell pure function; they sell the elusive qualities of emotion and experience and they do it, one might say, using the literary devices of simile, allusion, and association.

This summer I took my first real plunge into the world of advertising, commissioning an ad that explains my business using the robust story-telling tools of video. The five-minute video we produced entailed more work, more learning, and more planning that I could have imagined. Shooting involved a crew of five (my videographer/director, a camera guy, a sound guy, me, and a friend whom I hired as an assistant) plus the two graduate students and two professors whom we interviewed. This video has two primary audiences—individuals and institutional clients. Over the course of editing I came to realize that my highest priority was to address potential institutional clients. This is partly because my individual practice is already flourishing and I want to deepen my institutional reach, but it is also because building institutional credibility is a higher hurdle. Thus I made a point to have the video address potential faculty concerns directly and to speak to the value I bring to programs and departments. I could not have done this without the participation of professors who have hired me or worked with me and who were willing to put their own reputations on the line to vouch for my work. The intelligent, heartfelt testimonies in the video are the product of diligent relationship building over a period of years. I am hopeful that the video will help communicate the value and legitimacy of the work I do to a broader audience.

Thinking Back to Think Forward

Technology has the potential to unbundle education in ways comparable to what has happened in the music and publishing industries. Actually, the potential for teachers and students to find each other directly harkens back to the pre-history of the university when teachers and students were highly peripatetic, seeking each other across considerable distances. As Nathan Schachner writes, “students sought the man, not the school; where the man was, there was the school” (26). Early universities were known as studiium generale and the word generale referred not to a general curriculum, but to the ability of a teacher to attract students from beyond the immediate region (Schachner 25). This criterion has resonance in our own period when teachers can now connect with students globally without the mediation of a university, which is what teaching platforms like Khan Academy, Udemy, Udacity,and Open Sesame promise (see Carey). The downside is that without recruitment, admissions, and other administrative functions covered by the university, the professor joins the musician and the writer in searching for an audience. Yet technology also supplies new avenues for building this audience. I now work with clients nationally and internationally using Skype, email, and phone. Clients find me through Google as well as word of mouth networks that sometimes extend over long distances. A client in Chicago refers a friend in Florida. A student at Oxford University contacts me from where he is living in Scandinavia. On any given day I may be Skyping a client in Iran and then racing to meet another client in a local café.

Universities not only supply an audience to the professor, they supply certification to the student that the professor is not currently empowered to provide, for although professors evaluate student accomplishment, it is universities that issue degrees and thus control the accepted evidence of an education. So while the Udacities and the Khan Academies can teach, they cannot currently issue degrees or academic credit (though that is changing rapidly). For now, the granting of degrees gives the university a unique market, but we may well find ourselves in a situation of competing certification platforms (degrees, badges, certificates of completion). It is possible that the marketplace and the culture will eventually come to accept certification by individual teachers in lieu of “bundled” university degrees. Because the work I do is still very much handmaiden to the university, I have little desire to see the dissolution of the institution.

I share critiques leveled against the mass starvation and consequent privatization of higher education; however, I also believe that a deconstruction of the academic/entrepreneur divide is necessary if we are going to think outside the winner-take-all labor system that now obtains in the university. I am sympathetic to faculty demands for increased tenure lines. However, I also believe that privileging tenure as the only legitimate way to engage in teaching and scholarship ultimately perpetuates this highly bifurcated system. As my composition mentor, Richard Miller, asked more than a decade ago, “What would it mean to consciously train people to work in the system of higher education that is evolving before our eyes, a system where the boundary between academic and corporate culture is being steadily eroded?” (98). Here is what it means for me in this moment: if I want to do this work—the work I was trained to do—I have to negotiate the imperfect academic world as I now find it, not as I wish it to be. What my tenure-related colleagues need to know is that it is not enough for universities to acknowledge the need for alt-ac careers; they have to be willing to acknowledge, use, and partner with those who actually pursue them. There is a Yiddish saying to the effect that when one person’s house is on fire, no one is safe. Such is the situation of academics in the United States at this historical moment. We need to think together about how to save all of our lives.

(All images in this article courtesy of Daveena Tauber.)

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. “The Humanities, Unraveled.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Feb. 2013. 20 June 2013. Humanities, Unraveled.

Charbonneau, Joanne A., and Richard E. Rice. “Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty—and the Price We All Pay.” The Montana Professor 14.1 (2003). Web.

Carey, Kevin. “Revenge of the Underpaid Professors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 20 May 2012.

De Ridder-Symoens, H., ed. A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Dante, Ed. “The Shadow Scholar.” Chronicle of Higher Education 57.13 (2010).

Fosen, Chris. “‘University Courses, Not Department Courses’: Composition and General Education.” Composition Studies 34.1 (2006): 11–33. Print.

Glazer-Raymo, Judith. Professionalizing Graduate Education: The Master’s Degree in the Marketplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. Print.

Guillory, John. “The System of Graduate Education.” PMLA 115.5 (2000): 1154–1163.

Hughes, Merritt Y., ed. John Milton Complete Poems and Major Prose. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1957. Print.

Lewin, Tamar. “Beyond the College Degree, Online Educational Badges.” The New York Times 2012: A13(L). Web.

Lovitts, Barbara. Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001. Print.

Micciche, Laura R., and Allison Carr. “Toward Graduate Level Writing Instruction.” CCC 62.3 (2011): 477–501. Print.

Miller, Richard E. “‘Let’s Do the Numbers’: Comp Droids and the Prophets of Doom.” Profession (1999): 96–105. Print.

Patton, Stacey. “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 6 May 2012.

“Portland Area’s College-Educated Workers Depress Metro Earning Power by Choosing Low-Paying Fields, Shorter Hours.” The Oregonian - 20 June 2013.

Russell, David R. Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990: A Curricular History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Print.

Shaver, Lisa, Sarah Bowles, and Cristy Beemer. “Making the Rhetorical Sell: Entrepreneurial Consultancy as a WAC Model.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 9.1 (2009): 61–76. Print.

Schachner, Nathan. The Mediaeval Universities. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1938. Print.

Schell, Eileen E. Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1998. Print.

[1]My client’s name has been changed.

[2]The very real challenge that some Ph.D.’s face in putting food on the table is illustrated in an article by Stacey Patton entitled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

[3]According to the American Association of University Professors, more than half of university faculty in the United States are employed in “part-time positions” and are thus ineligible for the benefits of full time employees.

[4]For an example of a private business that provides services in recruiting, admissions, retention and course development and management see

[5]I make this assessment about the credentials of other writing coaches by looking at the websites of some businesses who offer services similar to mine.

[6]For one account of an academic ghostwriter see Ed Dante’s book (pseud).

[7]On the historical absence of graduate-level writing instruction see Russell (243).

[8]According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, graduate programs “the social profile of master’s students demonstrates a high level of participation of women, people of color, and international students” (Glazer-Raymo 19). On the attrition of women and students of color in doctoral programs see Lovitts.

[9]For the most reductive type of educational accounting see “2013 College Education ROI Rankings: Does a Degree Always Pay Off?”

[10]Bérubé notices the physical manifestation of the divergent cultural valuation of different fields, writing, “and yet when we look at the public reputation of the humanities; when we compare the dilapidated Humanities Cottage on campus with the new $225-million Millennium Science Complex (that’s a real example, from my home institution); when we look at the academic job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”


ShawnWarren's picture
Response from
Shawn Warren

April 11, 2014

Re: Alt-Ac Entrepreneur: From Composition Adjunct to Writing Consultant

Hello Daveena,

Thank you very much for this piece.  It speaks directly to my work on alternative models for the provision of higher education, particularly the idea of what some have called the “edupreneur.

My name is Shawn Warren.  I am a Canadian with a PhD in philosophy and a decade of adjunct experience.  I too have faced the dichotomies of which you speak: Act 1) stay in Halifax, Nova Scotia so that my (now ex-) wife can pursue her legal career, while I can only hope for a “career” of adjunct work; Act 2) stay in Nova Scotia where I can be relatively secure in adjunct work or move to Ontario to be with the woman I love (and to whom I am now married and live with in Washington state), but with much lower prospects for adjunct work.

By all accounts I am a very good teacher of a difficult and important subject, but I have not taught for five years now.  My abilities are wasted, as are the human resources of so many others in academia.  As you say, “There is something fundamentally disingenuous about being asked to represent the idea that education leads to upward mobility by an educational system that structurally prohibits roughly half its faculty from making a living.”

You ask and answer the question, “What would it look like to keep doing what I was trained to do, but outside of the usual tenure/adjunct boxes?”  I have asked and answered a similar question, but outside of the usual institutional boxes (universities and colleges).

One of my answers is the professional model for higher education.  I write this reply to you because it takes someone like you to appreciate the “tremendous perceptual shift” I propose as reform for higher education.  Beyond the more substantial document I have linked above, I offer some of my thinking on select points you make throughout your piece:

1)     “It is important to remember that universities actually use external contractors in a wide variety of capacities…”/“Consulting allows businesses, including universities, to acquire expertise and accomplish tasks for which they do not want to assume the significant costs of permanent staffing.”/“The adjunct model, on the other hand, satisfies the university’s need for flexible staffing without paying for the privilege, which is what makes it a classic win-lose situation.” My own twist on this is institutions as vendors for academics in private practice or vice versa (to be published at the week of April 14, 2014).

2)     “The fact that I work with individual clients directly, without the authorizing intermediary of a university, means that my work is sometimes suspect from an institutional point of view.”/"Universities not only supply an audience to the professor, they supply certification to the student that the professor is not currently empowered to provide, for although professors evaluate student accomplishment, it is universities that issue degrees and thus control the accepted evidence of an education.” Here is how I think authority could go were institutional intermediaries replaced or merely extra.

3)     “Such suspicions might be tempered, however, by considering the fact that many people who do this kind of work were trained and credentialed by the universityor by recalling that many professors receive no explicit training in teaching and that many contingent faculty undergo no formal institutional review.”  I use both of these observations as the basis for the claim in, “A New Tender for the Higher Education Social Contract,” that a formal professional social contract for academics (as one finds for attorneys, physicians, engineers, etc.) is an appropriate response to the crisis in higher education.

4)     “Finally, hourly work is not scalable—there is only so much time in a week.”  Existing professional do not need to scale their practices to earn a respectable living and neither do professional academics.

5)     “Technology has the potential to unbundle education in ways comparable to what has happened in the music and publishing industries.”  The forthcoming publication at speaks to this but also this blog post.

Like you I seek to create “new job categories,” “new models of employment” (in this case professional self-employ or entrepreneurialism) that not only make it possible to maintain the promise of grad-school but improve higher education for all interested parties: academics, students and society.

I hope you find some use for this work.