Who Counts as an Alternative Academic?

Do you?

December 12, 2017

To classify is to exclude. We want to develop a working definition of the alternative academic as an occupation. Counting who’s in and who’s out is important for research, but it comes at a cost.

When it comes to alternative academics, an already excluded and marginalized population, placing some outside the circle should not be done lightly.

To my knowledge, nobody has come up with a generally agreed upon definition of who should be classified as an alternative academic.

I know that I think that I am one.  Being an alt-ac is an emerging part of my professional and personal identity. (As for academics, those professional identity boundaries are particularly fuzzy). As a professional, I’d like to know who my people are. As a social scientist, I’d like to study this group.

Here are some tentative, incomplete, and probably incorrect definitions of how we might count our alternative academics. If alt-ac is as central to your identity as it is mine, and you are excluded from the definitions below, please accept my apologies and offer your corrections.

#1 - Education / Training: Alternative academics will have completed, are in the process of completing, or are actively contemplating enrolling in a terminal degree program in an academic discipline.

#2 - Faculty Status:  The primary occupation of an alternative academic is not one of faculty of any rank (instructor, adjunct, visiting, assistant, associate, or full).

#3 - Tenure: Alternative academics do not have tenure, or the possibility of receiving tenure.

#4 - Education and Scholarship: The professional responsibilities of an alternative academic include activities related to education and/or scholarship.

#5 - Organizational Home: Alternative academics are employed by an institution of higher education, with a primary appointment outside of a disciplinary-based department.

Okay, what do you think?

What is just plain wrong? What is missing? What blind spots and biases do my definitions reveal? (I’m sure there are many, and they will all be painful to discover).

It seems to me that an alternative academic is somebody who is not a traditional academic. They have the same training as a traditional academic, and are working on the core education and scholarship missions of higher education, but are not occupying a faculty role.

Unfortunately, trying to find a working definition so that we can understand the world of alternative academics leaves us with all sorts of problems.   

Is the classification of an alternative academic exclusive?  For instance, can an academic have two (or more) professional identities - say as an instructional designer or academic librarian, and an alt-ac?

Do alternative academics really need to work for a college or university? Are independent scholars the same as alternative academics? Can someone have an alt-ac career working for a think tank, a tech company, or a publisher?

Is everyone with a PhD who is not a professor an alt-ac (I don’t think so), and should one’s degree even enter into the discussion?

Do the definitions above incorrectly exclude those professionals who work in fields outside of education and scholarship? Should someone working in Student Affairs, Athletics, or Alumni Affairs be designated an alternative academic if they came to that work from a traditional academic training  pathway?

There is something in the alternative academic definition that feels like something new, something on the margins of institutional power, and something with an ill-defined career path. Can these aspects of the lived experiences of alternative academics be captured in a way that is conducive to scholarship on this population?

It may be that alternative academic is not a role that we should even try to define.  In the caste system that is higher education, perhaps what is important is that members of our community have the opportunity to define their own roles.  This will make research on this group difficult, as classification by self-identification makes analysis difficult.  Counting by surveying is difficult and expensive.  But perhaps that is a worthwhile price to pay.

Are there any social scientists who have placed understanding the world of alternative academics as their field of inquiry?  Do we have alt-acs studying alt-acs?

Does anybody outside of the alternative academic world care about alternative academics?

What is the relationship between being classified as a staff member, an administrator, and an alt-ac?

Is there an alternative academic community of practice?  A conference to attend?  A journal to read?  A blog to follow?  A hashtag to scan?

If you think of yourself as an alternative academic, why is this so?

How did it come to be that your identity got tied up with such an amorphous, contested, and ill-defined group?

And why would anyone want to call themselves an alternative academic in the first place?

Can we think of positive self-definitions of professional belonging?  Something beyond “not a professor” to define who we are and what we do?

Are you an alternative academic?



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top