#Alt-Academy: An Interview with Bethany Nowviskie

During the Digital Humanities 2011 conference in Stanford, Bethany Nowviskie launched

July 24, 2011

During the Digital Humanities 2011 conference in Stanford, Bethany Nowviskie launched #Alt-Academy, a site within the Media Commons project.

#Alt-Academy offers an ongoing collection of essays on the theme of unconventional or alternative academic careers through a “bottom-up, publish-then-filter” approach to scholarly publishing and networked community building. I asked Bethany about the initiative...

Ernesto Priego: You’ve already written a compelling introduction to #Alt-Academy here. You’ve defined the project as “something between a meditation, a home-coming, and an antidote.” Could you please say more about these three aspects?

Bethany Nowviskie: That might have seemed a little cryptic! I think you’ll find that the two dozen initial contributions to #Alt-Academy speak to multiple audiences in overlapping ways. They’re all deeply thoughtful pieces, in their different modes, and together they offer a serious meditation on the roles that scholars play within the academy but outside its professorial ranks, and on what our increasing numbers and visibility -- particularly in the digital humanities -- may portend. One of the most important contributions made so far by the “#alt-ac” label (problematic and complex as it may be!) has been to create a sense of interdisciplinary and energetic community among people in such positions. Hence the “homecoming.” This project also works to demonstrate to graduate students -- and, indeed, to the increasing numbers of faculty members who are looking with interest at “alternative” academic careers -- that there is deep commitment, vibrant intellectual life, and a great deal of satisfaction to be felt in careers that they may have been acculturated to see as consolation prizes for so-called “failed academics.” (In fact, I’ve found in my work for the #Alt-Academy project that most of us have sought out non-tenure-track jobs as a first choice!) Clear and positive statements about the reality of #alt-ac choices are an antidote that particular poison sorely needs.

EP: This may seem obvious to you or to others who are deeply involved in current discourses around higher education, but would you mind explaining what are the main obstacles that those without tenure-track jobs (either by choice or not) face, and how do you see an online platform like #Alt-Academy challenging and offering alternative ways to established academic career paths?

BN: Well, it's no surprise that most books and websites addressed to PhD students and scholars seeking jobs outside of the normative, tenure-track professorship stream have been cast as resources about "non-academic" careers. Social and institutional challenges face people who stay in or around the academy, but outside what has come to be seen as the single path to success and self-worth for humanities PhDs. A major one is the base assumption that you’re not doing academic or scholarly work if you’re not employed as a full-time teaching and research faculty member. Others relate to the job security and intellectual freedom that tenure is commonly accepted to provide -- although several essays in the #Alt-Academy collection question that assumption.

Other challenges are more systemic: for example, university policies related to intellectual property can impinge differently on employees classified as faculty vs. staff. This means that equal collaborators, identically-trained and doing identical work on a project, may have different rights to the products of their own intellectual labor. And some types of knowledge work are so new to the academy that established paths for career advancement do not yet exist within them. #Alt-ac employees may experience this uncertainty either as energizing (we are fashioning our own careers in a more entrepreneurial way than many of our grad school colleagues) or as stressful: we have not been trained to blaze trails in this way!

It's my hope that the #Alt-Academy project can help us, collectively, interrogate our current situation and offer some potential models through which readers can inform not only their own career decisions, but also broader hiring practices, institutional policy-setting, curriculum development for graduate studies, and a host of other concerns.

EP: It seems to me that open online resources used in academic activity (for research, teaching, networking), both institutional (custom-made) and employing “off-the-shelf” web tools embody a conceptual and pragmatic shift more established structures can find challenging. How do you see #alt-ac practice intervening in these structures?

BN: Perhaps the most interesting aspect of #Alt-Academy in this regard is what I’ve called its grass-roots, bottom-up, “publish-then-filter approach” to networked scholarly communication. While the initial set of essays, narratives, and dialogues in the collection were solicited and edited in a fairly traditional manner (in part because we were flirting with print publication), our partnership with MediaCommons has allowed us to release the project in a much more extensible, sustainable, open, and interesting way.

Any user who registers for an account on the site (or who already has one within the MediaCommons network) is able to compose and publish a post at #Alt-Academy. I intend to do only the lightest possible vetting of this kind of unsolicited content -- mostly to make sure that it is not abusive and that it’s roughly on-topic. Posts like these will be made immediately available to readers at a stable #alt-ac project URL, and they’ll be indexed for discovery in our regular search interface. However, they won’t become visible on the #Alt-Academy home-page or in one of our existing, edited “clusters” until I or another editor have selected them as featured content. So we have a platform in which thematic and aggregated publishing can happen as freely as it ought to, on the Web, and yet where measures of quality control and coherent arrangement come into play as well. Readers of the site will see a call for contributions, and a call for cluster proposals as well. Some people have already expressed interest in adding further essays or multimedia contributions, or in working with collaborators on a new cluster or taking over editorship of an existing one.

The #Alt-Academy project seemed to me like the perfect place for this kind of experimentation. Many of us on the #alt-ac track gain no special professional reward from publishing with prestige journals or presses, or from adhering to established standards of academic peer review. So why not try something new?

And that question, in itself, probably sums up the project’s ethos better than anything else I could say!


Bethany Nowviskie is Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library. She chairs the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology and is vice president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities.


London, England in the UK

Ernesto Priego is a regular contributor at University of Venus.


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