The Alt-Ac Track

Josh Kim writes about why colleges that prioritize teaching and discovery are best for non-faculty educators.

September 13, 2017

Navigating an alternative academic (alt-ac) career is tricky. Ours are largely academic careers without a map. Career steps and milestones are poorly defined. Examples of those who have cleared the path are few. We often exist in a liminal state somewhere between faculty and staff.

We share much with our faculty colleagues -- including similar training and credentials -- as well as activities such as teaching and scholarship. At the same time, we are not faculty, instead employed in administrative units or centers. Most of us don’t work in traditional departments organized around the academic disciplines in which we trained. We may engage in scholarship and teaching, but alt academics are employed mostly to work initiatives and programs.

What is the best sort of institution for an alt-ac to work?

This sort of question may be beside the point for many alternative academics. We work where we can get a job. Some of us ended up as alt-acs because we trailed a traditional academic partner to the institution or geographic area. For some of us, an alt-ac life was plan A. We knew that we wanted to finish our traditional academic studies -- to get that terminal degree -- but not follow a traditional academic path. For others, an alt-ac life was plan B, something that developed from one academic gig after another.

Scholar-Educator Model

To the extent in which we have agency in determining our alternative academic careers, I argue that a good place to shoot for is a school that is organized around a scholar-educator model. What is the scholar-educator model? There are probably as many definitions as there are institutions. Moreover, most colleges and universities will claim that their faculty are scholar educators.

I’d argue that a scholar-educator institution is one where equal value is placed on both teaching and research. At these institutions, faculty are recruited and promoted for both their research productivity and their commitment to teaching.

At the best scholar-educator institutions, a true effort is made to integrate undergraduates into the research of their professors. The goal is to move students as early as possible in their college careers from consumers to producers of knowledge.

A scholar-educator institution is one where the professors not only assign the books, they have also written them. They are places where faculty are recognized thought leaders in their disciplines, while at the same time these professors think about undergraduate teaching as integral and inseparable from their scholarship. Schools where students are largely taught by adjuncts would not qualify as scholar-educator institutions. A commitment to investing and nurturing full-time tenure track faculty is an institutional prerequisite for a scholar-educator designation.

So far much of what I’ve said above can be debated, extended and improved upon, which I think is a good discussion to have. I’d like to make the claim that a scholar-educator institution is the best place for an alternative academic to work.

First, I think that the academic culture of a scholar-educator institution is most conducive to the acceptance and nurturance of an alternative academic. Second, I think that there is something about the challenges of excelling at both teaching and scholarship that predisposes faculty to see alt-acs as colleagues.

Every alternative academic that I know has their feet in two worlds. We are campus practitioners, working each day to build and run academic programs and initiatives and services. At the same time, we are also interested in scholarship. We want to advance our fields and our disciplines, and we rely on skills and the methods that we learned in our training in graduate school to engage in that scholarship.

These efforts, to combine applied work and scholarship, are very similar to what faculty at scholar-educator institutions must do to be successful. These professors must excel about both their teaching and their research, and ideally find methods to integrate these two tasks. Research must flow into teaching, and vice versa.

This creates a culture and a climate where scholarship matters. Alt-acs bring a different sort of scholarship to our work. We may be less likely to write for peer-reviewed journals, although we do do that. Instead, our scholarship may be more public and more applied, aimed at a less specialist audience and conducted on emerging scholarly and social media platforms. But the goals of this scholarship -- to advance knowledge in our disciplines -- overlaps with the scholarly goals of traditional faculty.

Higher Ed Caste System

The final point is that faculty at scholar-educator institutions are likely, in my experience, to view us alt-acs as colleagues. There is a pervasive but largely unacknowledged caste system in higher education. The structural position of tenured/tenure-track academics in relation to other academics (from adjuncts to instructors to alternative academics) is not equal. Tenure-track and tenured academics enjoy rights, privileges and status that those not designated as such do not enjoy.

The observation that traditional faculty and alternative academics work together as colleagues at scholar-educator institutions is therefore significant -- if it is indeed true and generalizable. My experience as an alternative academic at a scholar-educator institution may not map to your experience, and indeed may not be representative of higher ed as a whole.

Perhaps we could put this claim that an institution based on the values of scholar educator is a good place for an alternative academic to work as a hypothesis that should be tested. We have far too little research on the careers of alt-acs. We don’t know much about their career paths, or the types of environments in which they thrive.

What has been your experience as an alternative academic at a scholar-educator institution?


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