Building the Alternative Academy

Graduate Training in the 21st Century

Contributed by Melissa Dalgleish, Daniel Powell
July 22, 2014
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Graduate Training in the 21st Century

In her introduction to the #Alt-Academy project, Bethany Nowviskie explains that

#Alt-Academy is an open-access publication of MediaCommons, meant to be something between a meditation, a home-coming, and an antidote.

"#Alt-ac" is the neologism and singularly-awkward Twitter hashtag we use to mark conversations about "alternative academic" careers for humanities scholars. Here, "alternative" typically denotes neither adjunct teaching positions nor wholly non-academic jobs — about which, in comparison, advice is easy to find. Instead, we are examining positions within or around the academy and requiring deep understanding of humanities scholarship, but outside of the ranks of the tenured or tenure-track teaching faculty. Such roles are taken up by capable scholars who maintain a research and publication profile, or who bring their (often doctoral-level) methodological and theoretical training to bear on problem sets in the humanities.

Since its initial launch in 2011, #Alt-Academy has become a touchstone for students and recent graduates trying to map out post-degree trajectories, for alternative academics considering their own structural positions within and around higher education, for tenure-track and tenured scholars trying to understand the increasing focus on #altac (as it is now often written) careers as a remedy for tenure-track job shortages, and for those generally interested the contours of a non-tenure track, non-adjunct, but higher-education-oriented career. Particularly for those coming up against the realities of the tenure-track job market, the traditional destination for PhDs, and seeking another way to put their skills and knowledge to use, #Alt-Academy has become a guide, a needed acknowledgement that the tenure track is not the only worthy post-PhD path, and a beacon of hope for the disillusioned. It is a publication by which we are continually encouraged and inspired.

 Elliott Brown

Graduate Training in the 21st Century aims to further the already expanding scope of #Alt-Academy by focusing on the challenges and the potential of the graduate years that precede the move onto the #altac track. This focus is inspired not only by our own experiences as graduate students and administrators, but also by the discussions about graduate training begun by the “Getting There” and “Careers and Credentials” clusters within #Alt-Academy and by Nowviskie’s broader comments on the #altac movement. The discussion we want to foster about master’s and doctoral training is fundamentally informed by the layered meanings of #altac. While “alternative academic” has become the primary association of the term, the brevity of #altac belies its complexity. The prefix “alternative” suggests, indeed helps to reveal, the multiple, varied, often layered academies contained within the seeming monolith we call “the profession.” No longer (and if we’re being accurate, never) just preparing graduate students to become tenured faculty, graduate training leads students into a variety of alternative academies—the adjunct pool, higher education administration, the tenure track, digital humanities centres, university libraries—and alternatives to the academy—government, not-for-profits, entrepreneurial ventures, and private business. In light of our increasing recognition of these many paths beyond the PhD, what does the idea of #altac mean for the nature of graduate programs, their curricula, and the credentials they grant? How does, and how might, graduate training prepare us for one of these tracks, or for many? What does it mean now to be a graduate student, to map out what life will look like beyond or in an academy that is rapidly changing? If we openly acknowledge that the teaching and research work of the profession is distributed rather differently than it once was, and is done by a few tenure track professors, a majority of contract academic faculty, and a growing body of alternative academics, scholar-administrators, and students themselves, what does the present of graduate education really look like? What should it look like, both for now and for the future? These are questions that invite exploration, rather than answers.

Our goal is to bring together individuals with first-hand knowledge of the rapidly changing landscape of graduate training, and who have insights to share about the current state and possible future of higher education and the many paths within and beyond it. We believe that the personal is political, and that the individual has much to reveal about the institutional. The voices found here will largely, although not exclusively, be drawn from communities of current graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, contingent academic faculty, early career tenure-stream faculty, and people with an increasingly diverse range of #altac and #postac jobs. These voices are at once the most able to discuss the changing circumstances of humanities education and professionalisation, and the most difficult to make heard within existing structures of scholarly publishing and power. With Graduate Training in the 21st Century, we are working to create a space in which we and our contributors, from all of these protean alternative academies, can explore the brave new world of graduate education and the many paths that lie within and beyond it.

Of course, we are not the first or the only to raise these issues, and the conversations we will have here are part of larger ones that have been going on for many years. The American Historical Association (AHA) has, since at least 2011, made a concerted effort to understand the contemporary role of the PhD in History in society and within higher ed. The Career Diversity Initiative has published at least one report on job outcomes for History PhDs earned between 1998 - 2009. The Modern Language Association (MLA) has joined these efforts at understanding and promoting the diversity of post-degree career paths for graduate students, and together the two professional organizations have begun formally collaborating on research detailing the multiple career paths those earning PhDs in the humanities have taken. Together, this multi-organizational research on career paths for humanities PhDs and the various components of doctoral-level training promise to shed new light on where PhDs expect to go, how we get there, and where we actually end up. The 2013 AHA report “The Many Careers of History PhDs” is an excellent early building block in this base of knowledge.

As part of these efforts, the MLA sponsored a Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature devoted to broadly considering what the future of humanities doctoral study could and should look like—an initiative inspired, at least in part, by the call of MLA-past president Sidonie Smith to reconsider the fundamental components of the PhD. The report of the task force, published earlier this summer, has already inspired wide-spread and very vocal debate about the future of graduate studies in the humanities. The task force sponsored well-attended and vibrant panels at MLA 2013 and 2014, ones which explored new possibilities for doctoral programs that may better serve the varied post-defense paths of doctoral students. 2011-2012 MLA President Russell Berman has been a vigorous proponent of doctoral program reform, notably in his MLA Newsletter column “Reforming Doctoral Programs: The Sooner the Better” and in his work to enact doctoral reform at Stanford University. Given Berman’s connection to Stanford, where he is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, it is unsurprising that movement has been swift, albeit thusfar limited. Soon after the call, a group of Stanford faculty released a brief document titled “The Future of the Humanities PhD at Stanford” (Word document). The recommendations it contained prompted responses from Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as efforts at the University of Colorado - Boulder, among others, to implement those suggestions. As of May 2013, Stanford has decided to pursue doctoral reform partially by funding PhDs to attend the Stanford Teacher Education program at the Graduate School of Education, in hopes that the K-12 educational market will prove more able to absorb its graduates. How successful this program will be, and what further reforms are to follow, remains to be seen. The recent Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded white paper "The Future of Graduate Training and Education in the Humanities" speaks to similar issues, and to radical possibilities for doctoral reform, from a Canadian perspective.

Anthony Grafton and James Grossman of the AHA have argued that #altac and #postac careers have stopped being Plan B, and that non-tenure-track work—adjunct, #altac, and #postac—must be destigmatized. In response, the AHA was just granted nearly 2 million dollars by the Mellon Foundation to reshape four History programs. Such efforts have sparked discussion throughout the humanities community about the future of graduate education, current graduate training, post-PhD success, and the need to redefine the terms under which we understand both training and success. Like the MLA and AHA, the Mellon-funded Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) devoted a portion of its 2012-13 agenda to “Rethinking Graduate Education.” This focus produced several outcomes: a comprehensive survey of and report by Katina Rogers on alternative academics and their employers, one designed to foreground training; a number of meetings convened to discuss curricular changes in humanities graduate programs; and the founding of the Praxis Network, a partnership of multiple initiatives dedicated to rethinking graduate pedagogy in light of the digital turn. Although, as Leonard Cassuto puts it, “the glow of digital humanities at the moment is eclipsing other possibilities on the MLA horizon,” Graduate Training in the 21st Century invites discussions of graduate training and post-PhD pathways that extend far beyond a focus on DH.

Alongside these major interventions into the discourses of humanities graduate study, there are the innumerable unrecorded conversations occurring at regional association conferences, para-curricular training opportunities like the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching, participant-driven gatherings like The Humanities And Technology (THAT) Camps, and so on. There are also the many conversations that happen in our classrooms, our libraries, our offices, our favourite bars, our kitchens, and our heads about graduate training, higher education reform, and what happens during and after the PhD. These are conversations about who we are as emergent scholars and how we can put our skills and knowledge to use in the world in ways that have meaning and impact. We hope that Graduate Training in the 21st Century will serve as a gathering of these sometimes disparate and lonely voices, a repository of conversation, and as a record of a moment when graduate training in the humanities is undergoing a significant shift, one that may prove to be a profound transformation.

With these interrelated goals in mind, we envision Graduate Training in the 21st Century as a publication that first and foremost gives graduate students a voice in discussions of the issues that concern them most directly. That we do this under the aegis of #Alt-Academy is a testament to the success of that space as a place to think aloud about topics that are just beginning to foster sustained, formalized discussion within programs and departments, or that benefit from being discussed across institutional and disciplinary contexts. That we also envision this project consisting mainly (although not exclusively) of graduate student-authored pieces is at once a new direction for #Alt-Academy and an expression of the project’s grassroots, bottom-up, “publish-then-filter” approach to community-building and networked scholarly communication around alternative academies. Actively drawing on graduate voices—the voices of those newer to, and yet fully entrenched within, the structures of academia—also foregrounds the fact that these alternative academies are already in formation, are everywhere contingent on local circumstance, and may look wildly different for those occupying different positions within academic power structures.

Optimistically, we believe this collection will encourage new and innovative types of publication by creating a space where graduate students can safely and critically reflect on their own training experiences and on the state of higher education more generally. Graduate students are often—if only tacitly—discouraged from experimenting with the traditional academic essay or journal article, falling prey to what Kathleen Fitzpatrick calls “anticipatory remorse.” That #Alt-Academy is not a peer-reviewed publication, and yet falls under the umbrella of MediaCommons, makes it a space that has institutional authority but still encourages experimentation and risk. In that spirit, we encourage originality of content, the traditional aim of academic writing, and a corresponding originality of presentation, a less common aim of scholarship. Our first cluster, on dissertation reform and the relationship between the dissertation and the scholarly monograph, emerges out of the multimedia-reliant and highly structured pecha kucha format, one which we chose to feature a range of alternative dissertation formats at the 2014 MLA convention. While we expect most submissions will take the form of essays, we actively encourage the submission of multimodal, non-traditional types of scholarly work, so long as they can be hosted by or linked to MediaCommons. At times we may reserve clusters solely for non-print content. And as we encourage a diversity of formats, we also encourage a variety of geographical, career-stage, and disciplinary perspectives. We ourselves represent the kind of geographical, career-stage, and academic overlaps that characterize so many in graduate studies: Melissa Dalgleish is a Canadian who is entering her second year as a graduate studies administrator, and is just finishing her career as a PhD student in English. Daniel Powell is an American, in the middle of a digital humanities PhD at a Canadian university, and a recent transplant to the United Kingdom, where he holds a Marie Curie fellowship in digital scholarly editing. Our first cluster, for which we are seeking more contributors, already includes humanities graduate students (and one graduate student/administrator) from Canada, the United States, and Ireland, but we aim to feature voices from across the globe, across disciplines, and across the spectrum of academic, #altac, and #postac career paths and positions.

We have worked to create this space, but we want you, our readers and contributors, to help us shape it to our collective needs as graduate students, former graduate students, and those committed to their success within and outside of academe. While we’ll be publishing specific CFPs quarterly (the current CFP can be found here), we welcome submissions at any time on major issues relating to graduate training in the 21st century and its relationship to post-PhD pathways in alternative academies. These include but are not limited to:

  • the digital academy (if it exists)
  • the “malleable” or “multi-track” PhD
  • public scholarship and humanities training
  • the terminal master's degree
  • PhD time-to-completion
  • humanities postdocs
  • graduate coursework/research and methods
  • activism and graduate education
  • skills transference and professional development for #altac careers
  • mentorship, community, and the social implications of taking the #altac track
  • academies in and outside the ruins of the university
  • personal experiences of moving from graduate school, a postdoc, or a contract faculty position onto the #altac track
  • ideas for (or critiques of) doctoral reform strategies

As Nowviskie writes in the concluding paragraph of her introduction to #Alt-Academy, “This isn't a collection by people who think they know the way — but they know there is a way, and that we have a ways to go.” Graduate Training in the 21st Century attempts to mimic this sense of exploration and, dare we say, of intellectual play. The success or failure of this project is not simply ours as editors, but ours as members of an academy in transition and reformation. Contributors should know they have our gratitude, and our respect, for joining the collaborative search for new pathways, new solutions, new communities. Together, we can begin shaping the multiple emergent academies of the 21st century humanities. 

Image: "University Station," by Elliott Brown