Essay on the value of the alt-ac community
There has been a recent flurry of discussions that grew out of an angry Slate piece a couple of weeks ago. The piece pilloried the difficulties of enduring a graduate degree program. The recent genre of "just don’t go" advice columns, coupled with hand-wringing missives about the ethics of admitting people into Ph.D. programs contribute to advancing the false dichotomy of a "tenure or bust" culture in graduate education.
As the first person in his family to graduate from high school, let alone go to college, Shaun certainly appreciated the several well-reasoned counter-arguments pointing to assumptions around class and what receiving a Ph.D. can mean for first-generation and other underrepresented scholars. Others, including Brenda, have pointed to similar problems about what such advice says about gender, race and institutionalized white privilege in post-baccalaureate education.
Moreover, these "don’t go" conversations reinscribe the harmful rhetoric for Ph.D. graduates: Land a tenure-track job or fail out of the academy. As noted in the Slate article, this places unhealthy stress on the graduate students and new Ph.D.s -- especially for the large number of Ph.D. recipients with their degree in hand and decreasing hope of landing a tenure-track research position. This week, we are restating our contention that the alt-ac community plays a vital role on contemporary campuses and is a central constituent of the future of higher education. Alt-ac careers and the ways to prepare for them need to be reflected in graduate students' education and professional development at the beginning of their careers, not after their dissertation defense.
Alt-ac employees – those of us in academic affairs, in student development and in offices of research and sponsored projects – support the mission of higher education in a very broad sense. Research and teaching are important platforms of any university mission, but colleges have developed broader responsibilities since the introduction of the GI Bill and the greater democratization of American higher education. Accreditation boards and state and federal governments require that contemporary colleges and universities are accountable for a complexity of institutional offerings. Students and faculty have wide-ranging needs for high-quality support services that require knowledge specialists with a variety of talents. These specialists have several paths into entry-level positions that require an extraordinary level of competency in a college environment, excellent communication skills and an ability to synthesize and present multifaceted information to different audiences.
The romantic notion of a simple campus where "faculty could just be faculty," accompanied by pastoral images of sages under oak trees surrounded by impressionable students soaking up knowledge, is simply that -- a romantic fantasy. Such notions reveal problematic assumptions about who should participate in higher education and reveal presumptions about who faculty and students are or should be. In truth, this campus likely never existed outside recruitment brochures. Administrative work has always needed to be addressed, and the more faculty are involved with admin support, the less time they have for teaching and research.
Alt-ac employees work in offices that help create better environments for all students and faculty, both full- and part-time. From student success services to educational development, there are many pillars of support for every member of a campus population. Faculty receive assistance in many different alt-ac forms: instructional designers, grant coordinators, assessment and accreditation directors, professional development staff and recruitment officers.
At the same time, alt-ac staff are not merely support personnel, they are co-educators, including academic program coordinators, co-curricular development staff, advisers, and often student mentors. There are also alt-ac people who teach, and they are good in the classroom, either because of previous experience as graduates and/or because of their great enthusiasm to contribute to excellence in undergraduate education. They are not invited to return if their teaching course evaluations are not up to par.
Their long-term ties to the university as regular staff keep them attuned to the institutional culture, and this can make for a more seamless educational experience for students. Alt-ac employees also include many people who research and publish, sometimes in their original discipline, sometimes in their new career field, but quite often it is in addition to their regular staff responsibilities. They do it because they are motivated to continue contributing to a larger intellectual conversation on campus.
Non-tenure-track, full-time staff are a critical component of the future of the academy because the jobs they fill not only require smart and hardworking folk, but also people who are versatile and able to multitask for multiple functions across different administrations and curriculums. The versatility of the alt-ac employee and their flexibility to serve a broad range of needs make them the go-to workhorses of the 21st century campus where fluctuating budgets and shifting trustee directions require an agile staff.
Moreover, alt-ac workers are the first responders for fulfilling many of the administrative, legislative, and accreditation initiatives and compliance stipulations. As such, they lay the groundwork and/or provide support for the rest of the campus community in times of change. Many alt-ac positions require staffers to work across a broader horizon, and thus bring people from different parts of the university into a conversation for the greater good. These requirements make the jobs interesting and at times frustrating, but mostly they pose daily intellectual challenges whether we like it or not. For the continued success of higher education, we need our best and our brightest to help navigate very complex issues.
All of this does not, and should not, detract from the hard work that research faculty put into their labs, their writing and their classrooms. Nor does this detract from the many hours of service that faculty put into their time on campus. What we contend here is that the alt-ac community contributes to the success of every campus and that faculty and students depend on alt-ac services. The alt-ac community itself must first recognize the importance of these contributions. Only then can this nascent intellectual identity be better appreciated by faculty and graduate advisers. Alt-ac personnel need not apologize for their lack of a tenure-track position, nor are they simplistic figments of administrative bloat at the expense of campus welfare. They fill required positions for the complex institutions that universities and colleges are today; they are vital contributors to, and co-educators within, the larger intellectual community.
Colleges and universities cannot continually tell the majority of society’s smartest and highest-achieving thinkers that they are, in fact, failures. Our hope is that the conversation about broadening career options for graduate students will deconstruct this false dichotomy where people are asked to choose between increasingly unavailable tenure track positions or leave the academy in shame when the need for smart, capable people on campus exists just beyond the department threshold. Alt-ac careers must be recognized as viable and fulfilling options for Ph.D. job seekers.
Brenda Bethman earned a Ph.D. in modern German studies and advanced feminist studies. She is director of the University of Missouri at Kansas City's Women’s Center and acting director of the women’s and gender studies program.
C. Shaun Longstreet earned a Ph.D. in Christianity and Judaism in antiquity. He is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Marquette University.
Bethman and Longstreet are the co-founders of and consultants for Alt Academix.