Alternatives to Success: Power, Social Identity, and Alt-Academic Labor

Contributed by Lisa C. Knisely Assistant Professor of the Liberal Arts and Freelance Writer at Pacific Northwest College of Art
October 05, 2014
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Part of the Cluster:

Power, Privilege, and Social Identity

When I first proposed the idea of the “Power, Privilege, and Social Identity” cluster for #alt-academy, I wasn’t really certain what sort of essays would result from the call for papers. For me, thinking through the ramifications of “alternative” academic careers clearly necessitated a conversation about social power and identities. The link, though, was more intuitive than explicitly theorized. Although the relationship between being a contingent laborer in the academy and being a member of a socially oppressed or disadvantaged group is becoming clearerand clearer, the relationship between the alternative academic career path and larger issues of social power has been less rigorously theorized.  Do alternative academic career paths create opportunities for intervention in the academy to disrupt unfair power hierarchies and outmoded traditions of injustice? Or, are alternative academic careers more accurately thought of as supplements to these systems of power, preserving the status quo, and helping to consolidate institutional power for the already privileged? Just how “alternative” is the alt-ac?

Reading through the three essays in this collection, many commonalties can be found, but perhaps the most interesting thread that unites them is that each essay takes on the idea of what academic success, or failure, should entail. Each essay takes a slightly different approach to this question, highlighting the ways in which the “alternative” in alt-ac is ripe for debate. Stephanie Murray uses a playful comparison between monkey bars and jungle gyms to re-define success on feminist grounds. Andrew Rihn encourages us to embrace a more ambiguous, queered position in which success would be nebulous, shifting, harder to define.  And, Ji Young-Um embraces failure for its radical potential to disrupt and resist not only institutional forms of unequal power, but also larger sociopolitical systems, as well. All the essays, then, stake a claim for redefining normative identities and aspirations in the academy as something beyond the tenured and tenure-track roles.

Pushing back on the idealization of tenure as the “best” career path for everyone, in her essay “On the Alt-ac Jungle Gym: Toward a Feminist Approach,” Stephanie Murray considers whether there are explicitly feminist possibilities for alternative academic careers, and if so, where and how those feminist moments can arise. Advocating for the rethinking of academic career trajectories as non-linear, multiple, and collaborative, Murray wants to redefine our models of academic success via the metaphor of the alternative academic jungle gym. She writes,


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…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.


Murray envisions alternative academic careers as having the potential to provide academics the opportunity to “play,” with their own career trajectories and with each other, collaborating in non-traditional ways usually outside the parameters of academic labor and production. This space of play opens feminist possibilities for resistance within the academy as we move beyond thinking about the academic labor we do as measured against the norm of tenure and tenure-track career expectations. Success takes on new meanings for alt-academics working together in innovative and less hierarchal collaborations.

In contrast to Murray, in “On Being a Failed Professor: Lessons from the Margins and the Undercommons,” Ji-Young Um rethinks the idea of academic success altogether. She tells her readers that she has come to understand herself as a sort of “failure” within traditional academe, something many of us can surely relate to, but she finds this idea of “failure” to be a resource for continued resistance and critical thinking. Speaking of the possibility for resistance from within alt-ac positions, she notes:


Mine is not the only kind of ‘failure’ engendered by shifting academic paradigms. The specter of failure also haunts those who leave academic institutions entirely, as well as those who pursue hybrid and/or alternative academic paths: diversity officers, research center administrators, student support staff, and many others whose academic credentials are similarly rendered suspect by the institution. Those of us who live in the margins of academia, contingent and adjunct faculty, share something with the ‘alt-ac’ workers: the strategic necessity of occupying a space of belonging and exclusion.

Recognizing the ways in which the two positions overlap and implicate each other is necessary in order to get at the conditions that reproduce and reinforce these experiences and positions as ‘failures.’ Otherwise, both groups risk becoming complicit in the reproduction of the hierarchies, inequalities, and privileges that structure institutional life.


The essay importantly raises the issue that while there is an opportunity for alt-ac positions to respond to contemporary shifts in the structure of the academy in a way that is productive, and potentially even liberatory for academic workers, an alliance between alt-ac workers and contingent and adjunct laborers is not a given. It is just as easy for those who work in alt-ac careers to use their positions to consolidate power in their academic institutions rather than choosing to vigilantly critique unfair power imbalances around them. No doubt, the relative contingency of many alt-ac positions means that opportunities for intervention in the academy may be limited. Still, the question remains: Can we imagine a more just, less hierarchal academic structure in which alt-ac careers and the laborers are central to institutional efforts to create a more just academy and society?

Rounding out the essay in the collection is Andrew Rihn’s “‘To See Around the Corner of Everyday Usage’: Bisexuality, the Writing Center, and Burke’s ‘Perspective by Incongruity.’” In the essay, Rihn finds potential in the ambiguity of alt-ac positions, arguing that the uneasy and uncertain status of alt-ac labor in the academy is a resource for productive slippages and incoherence. Writing about his job at a college writing center and his identity as bisexual, he asserts that alt-ac positions have a queer valence to them, or can be used to queer to the academy. He asserts:


Our line of sight, then, is bent. But what about the line of sight that is trained on us? When we consider how we are viewed—how we are within view—we must consider the straightness of the line of sight. Our incongruous angles exceed such straightness. Our bodily texts are only partially displayed, unable to be read wholly (if such wholeness is indeed possible, which may not be the case). We are out of sight to some degree, a presence hidden “around the corner,” beyond the line of sight. Alternative academics are at work around the corner of the everyday usage; alternative academics are sometimes out of line.


In other words, the illegibility of the career identities of alt-ac laborers can be productive in revealing the assumptions and norms of an academy trained into only one way of seeing and knowing itself.  Identifying differently, queerly, within the academy alters our very notions of success and failure from the start, pushing us beyond such a simple binary, disrupting and reorienting our expectations about what is we do and who we are.

As a whole, the essays in this collection point towards the need for continued discussion on the topic of power, privilege, social identity, and alternative academic careers. As academic laborers struggle to redefine our careers and our identities within institutions that no longer clearly lay out paths for our career success (financial or otherwise), we should be vigilant in noticing the ways that this situation is an opportunity for positive transformation within the academy, as well as a situation that requires us to be ethically engaged to work against unjust power relations around us. Rethinking and reworking the power structures of our own institutions, and of the academy in society, is certainly one crucial task on the long “to-do” list of alternative academics.

*Image by Urs Steiner (