On the Alt-Ac Jungle Gym: Toward a Feminist Approach

How a Non-Linear Career Path Can Create Feminist Spaces

Contributed by Stephanie Murray Director, BXA Intercollege Degree Programs at Carnegie Mellon University
September 08, 2014
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Part of the Cluster:

Power, Privilege, and Social Identity

The tenure track is aptly named: there is a single rail along which candidates must travel. The path to tenure has defined steps and expectations and, if all goes well, rewards when those expectations are fulfilled. Departing from this linear path risks derailment and disaster. The world of alternative academic careers (alt-ac) lacks a similar linear trajectory of accomplishment, instead offering a non-linear array of paths for many academics. At the risk of importing corporate-speak into the academic realm, the ways academics can navigate career paths within a variety of alt-ac fields can be represented by a metaphor presented by Pattie Sellers, Senior Editor-at-Large at Fortune: “Forget the ladder; climb the jungle gym…Think of your career as a jungle gym.”[i] The idea of a career path as a jungle gym is a compelling one, bringing with it the possibility of non-linear movement and collaboration as a necessary skill. It also aligns itself with feminist resistance to rigid institutional structures, making it possible to define academic careers outside the tenure track as a space for explicitly feminist work. Alt-ac careers, as I see them, can encompass roles from teaching- and research-track faculty positions and adjunct teaching to administrative positions and work in public history and the humanities. While many of these positions have existed for decades, the recent focus on collecting them into a named category—alternative academics—makes it possible to recognize the feminist possibility inherent in the field. The skills that support effectively navigating the alt-ac jungle gym are also those that emphasize a consciously feminist approach to scholarship, teaching, and academic administration.

The playground equivalent of the career ladder is the monkey bars, which are just a ladder hung parallel to the ground. You start at point A and move to point B. There is a prescribed procedure for this, though there are other ways to accomplish it. The goal remains, however, traversing a linear path. A prevalent image of monkey bars is their use in military training, as an obstacle to be overcome, individually and as quickly as possible. In contrast, the jungle gym is open-ended, in that there is no set goal for engaging with it. It provides space for more than one person on the equipment at a time and there's no one right way to play on it. Jungle gyms also come in many different forms and structures, having in common only that they allow for climbing around. This non-linear, fractal structure is open to multiple kinds of engagement and ways of perceiving accomplishment. In this sense, the jungle gym is a useful metaphor for thinking of alt-ac careers. Many kinds of alt-ac positions prioritize flexibility and innovation in developing and pursuing paths that did not exist a generation ago. Other alt-ac positions complement traditional linear academic paths by supplementing, supporting, and expanding their goals and duties.

I would also posit that the cultural valence of the ladder is masculine, while the jungle gym is feminine. Further, the monkey bars are competitive; the jungle gym can be collaborative, a place to create new worlds. Much like time spent on a jungle gym, many of my most useful collaborations have been less about product and more about process. I have worked with colleagues to both address problems and to illuminate the ways we approach those problems, making our approach visible and replicable. For example, students in the interdisciplinary degree program I direct must complete a senior capstone project, advised by me and a specialist in one of their fields. Because I am not a specialist in the areas in which my students work, I approach my advising as leading them toward the larger conceptual issues they’re grappling with—how representation happens in different media, how to formulate questions that encourage further investigation, how to present information to a variety of audiences. To best help these students, I must make my approach clear to the students as well as the collaborating faculty. The outcomes of these capstone projects are almost always more about pursuing new avenues of thought and creativity than about performing a particular disciplinary skill set. Encouraging innovation as an outcome resists what is often a rigid disciplinary narrative of achievement. My collaborations with faculty who offer disciplinary knowledge in support of these students have resulted in projects that reflect multiple perspectives, and they have also clarified my own methods of evaluating and disseminating knowledge. My goal in pursuing these collaborations is not to overcome the obstacle of working with interdisciplinary students but to use the full array of knowledge available to us in a creative and productive way.

The academic space of many alt-ac fields is engaged instead in collaborative storytelling, focused both on the project at hand as well as on defining the field in documentary and theoretical projects like #alt-academy. Essays, workshops, conferences, and un-conferences pay particular attention to how those working in alt-ac fields tell their own stories, and this attention encourages narratives that draw upon collaboration, anecdote, and non-linear perspectives.

These kinds of personal and collaborative narratives—these jungle-gym trajectories—produce a space for feminist theories of alliance and resistance to be explicitly claimed by the alt-ac community. As Susan Leonardi and Rebecca Pope argue in “Screaming Divas: Collaboration as Feminist Practice,” an essay that itself takes the form of a collaborative dialogue, “What we need to capture is what happens beyond the divisions of labor in collaboration—the process of negotiation, supplementation, and questioning interchange that goes into creating the product in the first place.”[ii] Twenty years on from this essay, the alt-ac community is working to capture and promote exactly this negotiation, supplementation, and questioning.

My positioning of alt-ac as a space of feminist possibility draws on Kristeva’s concept of “women’s time” as a non-linear space. She argues that cyclical and monumental/eternal time are “traditionally linked to female subjectivity,” and that “female subjectivity…becomes a problem with respect to a certain conception of time: time as project, teleology, linear and prospective unfolding; time as departure, progression, and arrival-in other words, the time of history.”[iii] The linear tendencies of historical time are set in contrast to the larger, more encompassing space of creation that is aligned with the feminine. A non-linear, feminist space is in direct resistance to a traditional career track that evaluates success based almost exclusively on external markers of accomplishment. Instead, I propose, a non-linear trajectory can accomplish both external objectives as well as more internal and subjective goals. I further argue that purposefully integrating objective and subjective accomplishments in an academic career, whether tenure-track or “alternative,” is a feminist project because of how it resists the historical time-marking Kristeva places in opposition to “women’s time.”

The alt-ac space can also be described in less semantically gendered terms as rhizomatic rather than rooted, to use the theoretical model of Deleuze and Guattari.[iv] Academic positions that resist linear assessment emphasize collaborations that, like the rhizome, “ceaselessly establish connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (7). The rhizome resists traditional operations of power in a rigidly hierarchical structure. The rhizome, like the space of women’s time, is an alternative structure that encourages collaborative production at the intersection of multiple perspectives.

My own alt-ac position places me at a number of intersections: between teaching and administration, between arts and academics, between students and faculty. The skills that are most necessary in my day-to-day duties are negotiation, supplementation, and questioning. I advocate for students in their interactions with faculty and administrators. I negotiate curriculum requirements across multiple colleges, schools, and departments within my institutions. I supplement the curricular requirements of my students by encouraging them to see the larger structure of instruction and knowledge that they’re immersed in. I use my background in humanities research and textual interpretation to translate between disciplinary vocabularies. I interrogate the pedagogical philosophies behind curricular requirements, to make sure they’re actually serving their stated goals. Every once in a while, I carve out some time to write up a traditional literary analysis of a text in my sub-field, for a conference or a submission. But even when I’m pursuing the linear path of accomplishment in the field in which I was trained, the approaches I use in my daily tasks inform it. I no longer just hammer out another article on Macbeth; instead, I find my critical approach is influenced by these negotiations, supplements, and questions, producing a critical text that is necessarily non-linear and non-traditional. I take full advantage of the jungle gym, making it into a space that encourages and supports these methodological risks.

This is not to say, however, that tenure-track faculty do not engage with students, curriculum, administration, and scholarship in very similar ways. The difference, as I see it, is that my engagement is necessarily informed by my less-traditional position within the structure of the university. The skill sets of the tenure track and my own career path are mostly the same; the difference is in how those skills are evaluated and rewarded. The expectations for my position are more diffuse than those of the tenure-track, which allows me to explore approaches beyond the standard triad of scholarship, teaching, and service. I do those things, but I also do projects that fall between those categories and that integrate those categories. My teaching does not mean time stolen from my scholarship; rather, my teaching provides me new ways of approaching my scholarship, as well as offering new avenues for research beyond my main field. The intersections I inhabit are not places of crisis, of leaving one pursuit for another, but places of production and possibility, of collaboration and creation.

Leonardi and Pope call for us to “reformulate the political model” of the traditional scholarly track into an approach that posits “collaboration as resistance” (266). The practical routine of an alt-ac position is always an act of resistance, especially in the humanities, because “single-author texts are the only kind our discipline seems to know what to do with, and hence to value, [therefore] collaboration, whatever the subject, whatever the agenda, becomes a political act with political consequences” (259).  In this context, working in an alt-ac position becomes an act of redefining what scholarly production looks like and what should be valued in the academic realm. This resistance is, in my reading, aligned with the feminist project of interrogating and re-working the traditional linear structures of success to which the tenure track, the career ladder, and the monkey bars all adhere.

One of the particular features of the alt-ac field is that collaboration can happen not only within a discipline, but also in interdisciplinary production. In a recent example from my institution, a colleague with a background in Irish literature has designed a class with the head of the School of Art and a faculty member in Computer Science that will facilitate service learning in the emergent area of conflict studies, with a focus on Northern Ireland. My humanities colleague holds an alt-ac position in the undergraduate research office, a position that has allowed her to make connections with faculty, staff, administrators, and students across the university. These connections led directly to this innovative, interdisciplinary course; had she been working on a traditional tenure-track trajectory, she would have had neither the opportunity nor (probably) the departmental encouragement to develop a class that would not have directly improved her tenure file. The benefits of this project for my colleague are both practical—she’ll earn extra pay for teaching this course—and conceptual—she will be able to use this class to expand the scope of her scholarship to include visual representation and technological innovation. In addition, her work in her original staff position will benefit from the connections she has made across the university, as she can more readily guide students toward mentors who are open to interdisciplinary projects. Her navigation of the jungle gym benefits her own career path by paying her for teaching a class, building relationships with other departments where she might teach in the future, and helping her be more effective in her main duties as part of the scholarships office. At the same time, the benefits expand fractally beyond her own career: her collaboration also raises the profile of the institutions involved; builds personal, professional, and institutional connections with international partners; and increases the university’s investment in service learning.

The 2013 survey of alt-ac positions by Katina Rogers for the Scholarly Communications Institute[v] indicated that both employees and employers rank collaborative skills very highly—at the top of the list for employers, behind oral communication and writing skills. Rogers, in her analysis, notes that “It’s not surprising that employers find that alt-ac employees need training in skills like project management and collaboration. Employees themselves also recognize that these are by and large not skills that they acquire in graduate school.” The skills more directly connected with the linear, tenure-track trajectory, such as writing and researching, are considered less essential in alt-ac positions.

I would argue, however, that employer-desired skills such as project management and collaboration are a part of graduate training, though they are not explicitly acknowledged as skills. Graduate training in the humanities is primarily a solitary experience, but there are opportunities, especially in coursework, disciplinary workshops and seminars, conference, and ad-hoc student groups, to consult and collaborate, to work together on long-term projects (such as graduate conferences), to bounce ideas off of colleagues and mentors. Graduate programs must adjust their vision of “professionalization” to include inculcating skills that benefit both the tenure-track trajectory as well as the alt-ac field. These skills are not contradictory, and a tenure-track faculty member will be as well-served by skills in collaboration and negotiation as an alt-ac staff person will be by focused research skills. The theoretical resistance inherent in embracing the model of the jungle gym does not cancel out the traditional training of graduate students; instead, it supplements and promotes that experience.

The challenge, then, is finding new methods of teaching these necessary skills, making them explicit as educational goals, and providing opportunities to practice them. Most graduate tracks in the humanities break into three parts: coursework, writing, and teaching. All three of these areas offer opportunities to resist the model of the ladder and to embrace the jungle gym. Coursework can engage with collaboration beyond the dreaded group work; research and writing can be the focus of writing groups; teaching must be more than throwing grad students into the deep end of composition classes and hoping they float. All of these approaches will require that professionalization be a central part of graduate training, not the last thing that happens before the job search. Acknowledging the necessity of professional training at every level of graduate study will not only benefit students who pursue the traditional tenure track, it will also help grad students see other trajectories and possibilities early in their training. These earlier perspectives give students the opportunities to develop even more specialized skills that will be useful on either the monkey bars or the jungle gym, or wherever else on the metaphorical playground they wind up.

This kind of training with an eye to multiple career destinations is one of the ways in which to establish the alt-ac career as a purposeful choice, not a fallback option or a plan B. It is not, of course, an automatic path to stability and success. A scholar pursuing such a path must still be aware of the possibility of being excluded from access to resources and support afforded those in more traditional roles. The jungle gym approach, however, suggests a method for building a community that extends professional support to those in non-traditional positions. I present the jungle gym as feminist because it provides a space to resist the traditional measures of success as a scholar. On the jungle gym, there is room to build new rubrics for scholarly and pedagogical production, ones that integrate both objective and subjective goals. 

In much the same way that new academic disciplinary fields come into being by being championed as a supplement and alternative to existing fields, the alt-ac community is establishing its own academic centrality and vibrancy by becoming a first-choice path. In my own experience, I have hosted externships with students from my graduate institution who are interested in proceeding directly from graduate work to an alt-ac position that allows them to do both scholarly and administrative work. I’ve also had several graduate students at my current institution contact me about their plans to seek alt-ac positions. Though anecdotal, these interactions suggest that as more young scholars learn about alt-ac options, more will seek those options ahead of the traditional tenure-track. Further work in promoting, theorizing, and interrogating what unifies the disparate fields that make up the alt-ac category must be an equal part of this project, and the jungle gym as a metaphor can be an effective conceptual method for this kind of thought.                                   

                    



[i]Patricia Sellers. “Getting a Grip on Power: 10 Tips for a Successful Career.” CNNMoney, August 30, 2011. http://postcards.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2011/08/30/10-tips-for-a-successf…

[ii]Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca A. Pope. “Screaming Divas: Collaboration as Feminist Practice.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994), p. 264. http://www.jstor.org/stable/464109

[iii]Julia Kristeva. “Women’s Time.” Translated by Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. Signs, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1981), p. 16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173503

[iv]Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 7.

[v]Katina Rogers. “Humanities Unbound: Careers and Scholarship beyond the Tenure Track.” ScholarsLab.org, April 23, 2013. http://www.scholarslab.org/research-and-development/humanities-unbound-c…