Essay on using digital tools to kickstart an alternative academic career
The Rogue Scholar Goes Digital
In January 2013, I decided to leave my tenure-track position at a state university for an alternative academic career. In my last essay,”The Rogue Scholar,” I explained some of my reasons for leaving — commuter marriage, problematic company fit, a sense of being in the wrong niche — but probably the most significant point was this: academic tenure track is not for everyone.
The two responses I get to this statement tend to be shock and (or) a sheepish kind of relief. I’m not surprised. As graduate students, we are often encouraged to think of the tenure-track job as our primary goal. In my own experience, I confess that the thought of finishing without a tenure-track job offer was greeted with a kind of horror, an internal shudder of despair. For between six and ten years, you have labored and toiled for that one thing, only to discover that it is a scarce resource.
A number of panels at the 2013 Modern Language Association discussed revising graduate education in light of these economic uncertainties — and I expect to see more this year, especially given the presidential theme of “Vulnerable Times.” Recognition of the economic vicissitudes certainly provides a space for conversation, but it also adds increased stress to the newly minted PhD whose adjusted expectations do not necessarily come with built-in solutions. What if there is no tenure-track job waiting? Or what if — as in my case — it turns out to be a poor fit? In other words, how can we turn the relief of knowing that tenure-track jobs aren’t the only option into hope for a future career?
From Personal Connections to Digital Networks
I am a medical humanist scholar, but was working as an 18th-century literature professor. As much as I enjoyed teaching in an English department, I most often use literature as a lens for exploring and reflecting on the history of medicine. I wanted to do more. Additionally, I wanted to use my web skills to promote the medical humanities — and the museums and digital collections I loved. The question became how to do it, and in my last essay I spoke a bit about the penultimate steps. I announced my plans to leave my tenure-track appointment in September 2012. After making this official, I began an active networking campaign that began with site visits and e-mails to people I already knew — and one of the first people I spoke to was a man I deeply admire: James Edmonson, curator of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History.
The meeting was a simple one. We spoke about the museum’s extensive collections and its excellent website, but we also talked about ways to make the Dittrick’s holdings more apparent to a larger audience. I wanted to increase the museum’s web presence — and I wanted to do it through the medium I had already been using to promote my own (and others’) medical humanities work: the blog. Edmonson agreed, and before I finished my final semester of teaching, I had begun to work on the museum’s existing blog. By May, I had been offered a guest-curatorial post and the chance to develop an exhibit on birth practice of the 18th century (one of my research areas). This was, I don’t mind saying, an enormously exciting opportunity, and it was followed by several more.
The blog I re-designed for the Dittrick is one of three I manage (either solely or in collaboration). My personal blog is the Fiction Reboot and the Daily Dose, a combined web log that features both my interest in fiction and my interest in the history of medicine and medical humanities. In the past year, the blog has grown in popularity and has become an excellent place to feature not only my own work but the work of others. Since writing my first ”Rogue Scholar” piece, I have connected with more and more alt-ac colleagues, and so added a subsidiary to the blog called Rogue Scholar Salon. Through it, I have been able to promote the work being done by other scholars outside academe proper, including writers, researchers, digital archivists and more. This, coupled with the Daily Dose, through which I promote and support the work of medical humanists, brought more readers to my blog, but also to the other blogs I manage — including one for Death Salon, a conference on the culture of mortality and mourning held this year in LA.
In the midst of all this activity — but also because of it — I was contacted by Michael J. North of the National Library of Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health). He very kindly invited me to speak as the keynote for the Annual Meeting of the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (ALHHS). The talk, which will be printed in The Watermark, was titled “Virtual Memory: Medical History and Public Engagement in the Digital Age.” In it, I discussed how museums and libraries can harness online technology to reach larger (and frequently younger) audiences. I also spoke about how these platforms allow colleagues to connect with one another — the lesson I had learned since leaving academe proper. If you are inter- or multidisciplinary, digital platforms are one of the best ways to expand your community and share your interests and talents.
After the conference, I collected the names of a number of curators and librarians and have since featured them on the Daily Dose feature series “Digital Collections.” I intend to host round-table discussions later this year.. I have since written for the Huffington Post and The Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University, and I’ve been asked to guest blog for Jennifer Polk’s From PhD to Life and NLM’s Circulating Now. Though sometimes considered the enemy of the academic (or the library and museum), digital platforms can actually be a tremendously useful tool and a wonderful way to build your alt-ac network and career.
Going Digital and Seeing Results
“Going digital” has been incredibly useful to me, though I recognize there are also more pragmatic concerns. The largest of these is, not surprisingly, about money. What is the tangible product of my movement into alt-ac? How do I support myself? In other words, having left my tenure-track appointment, have I also left the ability to be a wage-earner, a self-supported independent scholar? One of the most important lessons of my career change has been this: the digital platform is really exactly that: a platform. I have had to work at building on top of it, at using it to promote the unique skill set my multidisciplinary experience has afforded. Its utility is in introducing those skills to the places and people who need and want them.
Since taking over the blog for the Dittrick Museum, activity on our corresponding Facebook and web pages spiked.. The curator, James Edmonson, is pleased with the digital direction: as we build the exhibit on 18th-century midwifery, we (the Dittrick team) are also creating online content through the website, the Facebook page, and the blog. The new exhibit panels will carry bar codes scannable by smartphones that will take the visitor beyond the exhibit and behind the scenes. (A touch-screen computer, also part of the exhibit, will do the same). And so, here at the Dittrick, I have found a unique niche where my skills in research, the humanities, and online platforms can be useful and produce results.
My work for the museum is presently funded through honorariums, but the work has also put me in contact with members of the larger network surrounding Dittrick — such as Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. I will be teaching part-time for Case in the SAGES program (about the history of medicine and Gothic literature). I am also working with Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College to develop the curriculum for their medical humanities program. Additionally, I continue as the managing editor for Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (also housed at Case) — and I continue to write and research for two book projects.
All of these projects are funded, as is my research travel (through two generous grants — one from the Wood Institute and one from Chawton House Library). While my work is yet freelance, I make a humble but livable wage while working toward new endeavors. Best of all, I am doing what I love, working with people I admire and on projects I’m passionate about — in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
In many respects, an alt-ac career seems to be as much about the journey as the destination. While there is certainly risk involved — freelancing can be something of an economic rollercoaster and often without insurance benefits— for me, it has been well worth it. If you are searching for a career outside traditional academe, please know that there are as many paths as there are people to take them. I write this series not primarily as a “how-to,” but more as a hopeful reminder that there is something beyond the tenure track for those who feel inclined to leave it… and a welcoming community of other “rogue scholars” on similar journeys. Stay tuned. It’s always an adventure.
Brandy Schillace is the managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry and teaches part-time for Case Western Reserve University's SAGES program, among other projects.