Introduction: Two Tramps in Mud Time

Contributed by Bethany Nowviskie Director of Digital Scholarship at University of Virginia Library
June 01, 2011
nowviskie's picture
[First published, June 2011.]
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"[[

One sunny, crisp November afternoon, I left a swanky hotel conference suite in Washington, DC, feeling pretty good. The Scholarly Communication Institute, a 9-year old Mellon-funded project for which I serve as associate director, had just concluded a two-day summit with a some of the most interesting organizational thinkers and do-ers I had yet encountered in the academy: leaders from CHCI, the international consortium for humanities centers and institutes, and from centerNet, its brand-new and energetic digital counterpart. This gathering culminated a process that had begun a year before when, together with SCI's director (like me, a humanities PhD working off the beaten professorial path), I hosted an event on humanities centers as sites for innovation in digital scholarship. After a January meeting in Tucson — where grapefruit were ripe in the hotel courtyard — and a series of less paradisiacal conference calls and proposal drafts, the two groups whose relationship we had fostered were now poised for meaningful collaborative action. There was a palpable sense in the room that we were hatching plans to change the way business is done at humanities centers, digital and otherwise. In fact, something like a five-year program was emerging, and the two consortia had just outlined a series of co-sponsored ventures, joint meetings, and big-picture goals.

Happiness makes me obnoxious on Twitter. Before I packed up my laptop, I tapped out two messages:

"SCI-sponsored CHCI/centerNet meeting is winding down. Stay tuned for announcements from the two groups working jointly in the new year." [1]

"& struck again by dues-paying crap I skipped in deciding against tenure-track jobs. How many junior faculty sit in on discussions like this?" [2]

I held no illusions about my role in the process SCI had facilitated. SCI (from the insider's point of view) is about listening, helping, and nudging. In the conference room at the Hotel Palomar, I was Note-taker-in-Chief, pausing only a few times to add my own perspective — as a recent humanities PhD, a person who had held one of those rare digital post-docs we were discussing, as a member of the research faculty at an R-1 institution, and (now) as someone who had exercised the "expanded employment options" that are often brought up in conversations about improving methodological training in graduate education. My day job is as Director of Digital Research & Scholarship for the University of Virginia Library. This is a department that includes the Scholars' Lab, a growing digital center which mentors graduate students and awards them fellowships, offers vibrant intellectual programming, undertakes its own grant-funded research-and-development work, and partners with humanities and social-science faculty on projects in text-based digital humanities and geospatial and statistical computing.

I have a pretty sweet gig.

You might, too — or you may aspire to similar, unconventional employment in the orbit of the academy. But even if, like me, you never struck out on the traditional scholarly job market and have met with a reasonable level of success in an "alternative" career, years of grad school may have taught you some no-longer-relevant things: about your own market value and position in the hierarchy (which is to say, your latitude for action); about what constitutes honorable work; and about the relationship of single, blessed career trajectories to success.

I tweeted obnoxiously, and before I knew it, I was editing this #alt-academy collection. #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.

For those on the #alt-ac track, keeping our talents within (or around) the academy is often more psychologically difficult than examining the color of our parachutes and gliding off to fabulous private-sector careers. Class divisions among faculty and staff can be profound, and the suspicion or (worse) condescension with which "failed academics" are sometimes met can be disheartening. As one contributor to this collection asks:

"In an arena where people spend so much time trying to think in nuanced ways and where we ostensibly celebrate the wide dispersal of sophisticated ideas, why is so much energy expended in maintaining fixed categories and squelching the intellectual contributions of those on the wrong side of the fence?

In an environment dominated by research agendas that often seek to right historic wrongs, question power, undermine hierarchy, and give voice to the voiceless, why are intellectual status and respect given so grudgingly to smart and engaged people who have jumped off the tenure track?" ("I am Natalie Henderson," from A 'Non-Academic' Career in Academe, Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 June 2005)

For all that, we love our work. The "#alt-ac" label speaks to to a broad set of hybrid, humanities-oriented professions centered in and around the academy, in which there are rich opportunities to put training in scholarly disciplines to use. Although the array of employment options is vast, much #alt-ac conversation (and this is certainly true of our present collection) gravitates toward the digital humanities, a community of practice marrying sophisticated understanding of traditional disciplines with new tools and methods. The digital humanities attract scholars who exhibit restless, interdisciplinary curiosity, mastery of relevant research tools and methods (old and new), and uncommon comfort — even in a world that defines expertise as specialization that narrows to a vanishing point — with a general assumption that capable practitioners should be jacks-of-all-trades.

Many of us (within and outside of the digital humanities) will tell you about the satisfaction of making teams — and systems, and programs — work, of solving problems and personally making or enabling breakthroughs in research and scholarship in our disciplines, and of contributing to and experiencing the life of the mind in ways we did not imagine when we entered grad school. On the "#alt-ac track" are: administrators with varied levels of responsibility for supporting the academic enterprise; instructional technologists and software developers who collaborate on scholarly projects; journalists, editors, and publishers; cultural heritage workers in a variety of roles and institutions; librarians, archivists, and other information professionals; entrepreneurs who partner on projects of value to scholars, program officers for funding agencies and humanities centers, and many more.

If they are to serve us well, para-academic institutions require a healthy influx of people who understand scholarship and teaching from the inside. That our culture for many years has labelled these people "failed academics" is a failure of imagination. Those who gravitate toward #alt-ac positions during or after completing graduate study are often driven to set things in motion in the academic environment, and to set things right. Couple the attractive #alt-ac mission of building systems (social, scholarly, administrative, technical) with an exceptionally sorry academic job market, and it becomes clear that more and more graduate students, post-docs, junior faculty, and underemployed lecturers will be stepping off the straight and narrow path to tenure.

This means that, if the academy cannot foster more appealing and fruitful options along the #alt-ac track, we will have trained a generation of humanities experts, only to lose them. The primary danger motivating my own #alt-ac work — both in seeking to create healthy spaces for such professionals at my university, and in building community and fostering conversation, nationally and internationally — is that our educational system, institutional structures, and academic social norms will not keep pace with the ambitions, needs, and talents of aspiring "alternative academics." I want to keep my wonderful colleagues, and see their ranks grow.

Doing better by them means (among other things) preparing our graduate students for #alt-ac jobs and not training them to see non-tenure-track careers in fields like publishing, museum work, the public and digital humanities, library and information science, and higher education administration as paltry consolation prizes. Even the least technologically-engaged faculty in our academic departments must recognize that those who gravitate toward high-level humanities seminars and have made personal sacrifices in order to become more sensitive readers, researchers, and teachers — if they can also acquire the skills necessary to become builders as well as theorizers — are precisely the people we need as equal partners in the wholesale digital transformation of our shared cultural heritage — transformations that are proceeding at breakneck pace.

Speaking to this, and in the small, introductory cluster of the #alt-academy collection, Willard McCarty has contributed a set of reflections that are deeply humanistic and characteristically humane. His "Working Digitally" might have fit neatly into our first major section, on labor, but it appears here because it so beautifully frames — in terms of a very human world of work — the institutional reconfigurations that are part and parcel of what McCarty calls our "great project:" the collective, digital transformation of the humanities. Many concepts he raises will return as debates in the essays comprising the #alt-ac project: the relations of our institutional forms to the individuals who shape and work within them, the benefits of and dangers inherent in professionalization and tenure, the call to examine valued praxes (like interdisciplinarity and collaboration), and the lure of the bandwagon. I am grateful to him for providing this foreword to the collection.

The clusters with which we are launching #alt-academy include: the present one ("Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars"); a look at Labor and Labor Relations; a set of essays ("Making Room") on institutional forms and alternative spaces within them; a collection of dialogues and personal narratives examining "Vocations, Identities"; a section on professionalization and qualifications ("Careers and Credentials"); and a set of "signpost" essays and dialogues, called "Getting There." All are open not only to your commentary, but to formal extension by means of new contributions and offers to edit and assemble additional clusters. See "How It Works" to learn about #alt-academy's grassroots, publish-then-filter approach to networked scholarly communication — and about how you can add your content to the MediaCommons network and propose it for inclusion on our site. We are honored to have a special commentator on the project — Tim Powell, who will be seeding discussion here at #alt-academy over the coming weeks and months. But please don't wait: our thirty-three initial authors encourage your interaction and anticipate commentary on the collection with great eagerness.

This is a collaborative project that started, as so many seem lately to do, with a couple of throw-away comments made within a committed and interesting social media network. It seems appropriate that I close my introduction with two more such tweets:

Another reflection after a full day of work on the #alt-ac collection: it's exciting because we don't know where we're going… [1]

In contrast to trad'l discourse on professionalization of humanities faculty, our articulating #alt-ac isn't about reproducing *ourselves.* [2]

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. Similarly, McCarty encourages us "continually [to] worry the ideals by which we live." Our contributors are worriers, in the best sense of the word. You will find #alt-academy to be written from the points of view of well-educated, experienced, and imaginative humanities professionals, largely of a rising generation — harbingers of things (we know not what) to come. The contributors to this project are here to tell you about their work in the academy and its allied institutions: work that is generally non-professorial but far from "non-academic" — that is satisfying, delightful, reasonably stable, deeply intellectually engaging, and (occasionally) a damned hard row to hoe. I am immensely grateful to them for their candor, energy, collaborative spirit, and great good sense.

Comments

briancroxall's picture
Response from
Brian Croxall

March 15, 2012

Updating the hashtag

I just wanted to point out that Bethany's description of the "alt-ac" hashtag on Twitter is a practice that is shifting. Due to the difficulty of tracking the tag, the community has recently shifted to using "#altac."

tipowell's picture
Response from
Timothy B. Powell

September 03, 2011

Thank you

I want to thank Bethany and all of the contributors for putting together such a thoughtful and important collection of essays.  Teaching at a school (Penn), which has no official or unofficial program in the digital humanities, #alt-ac feels like (to quote Neil Young) "a homeland I'd never seen."  These accounts of navigating the academy without a compass are so familiar that one almost immediately feels a kinship to the writers, though I have not met most of them.

As Bethany writes, "Many of us (within and outside of the digital humanities) will tell you about the satisfaction of making teams— and systems and programs— work, of solving problems."  #alt-ac, to me, is a way of solving the problem of how to strengthen and change the field of digital humanities from within, at this early and awkward moment in its formation.  By bonding together and producing a serious piece of scholarship, this is an important, revolutionary first step.

kfitz's picture
Response from
Kathleen Fitzpatrick

June 22, 2011

Re: Introduction: Two Tramps in Mud Time

Bethany, I'm thrilled to have the #alt-ac community developing its conversations here at MediaCommons, not least because of how much I have to learn as I take my own side-step out of the traditional path. Thank you — and thanks to all of the #alt-ac contributors — for bringing these conversations to us.

nowviskie's picture
Response from
Bethany Nowviskie

June 20, 2011

Re: Introduction: Two Tramps in Mud Time

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