If It Isn’t Counted, Does It Count?

Alternative academics’ work can’t be measured in terms of articles, books and presentations, Josh Kim writes, so they need to consider ways to make evident their mostly invisible output.

October 4, 2017

“What counts can’t always be counted; what can be counted doesn’t always count.” -- Albert Einstein

Few will disagree with this quote from Einstein, but this is wisdom that little applies to careers in higher education. A better quote to describe the determinants of status and autonomy in higher education may be “if it isn’t counted, it doesn’t count.”

On the tenure track, the path to advancement is marked by the number (and quality) of peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and books. Academics count academic presentations, committees served and theses supervised. The markers of accomplishment for academics are measured by the length of the CV.

How does one measure the productivity of an alternative-academic career? The longer one spends as an alternative academic, the clearer it becomes that most of the work is invisible. Almost all the work of alt-acs is in the service of something beyond their own brands.

Alternative academics work on projects and initiatives that are designed to benefit some set of “stakeholders,” be those folks faculty, students, alumni, prospective students or somebody else. The day-to-day tasks that alt-acs devote their time and energy to are almost always collaborative endeavors. Their successes revolve around meeting goals for the departments, centers or units in which they work, as opposed to their individual career goals.

Much of the work alternative academics do consists of tasks that do not lend themselves to a line on a CV. Time spent collaborating with a colleague on conceptualizing and developing a course or a program may be equivalent in hours devoted to writing a paper. This work, once done -- unlike a publication -- will not continue to accrue reputational benefits.

The work product of traditional faculty is often tangible. A grant. A publication. A course taught. A student graduated. For alternative academics, the product of the work is often ephemeral. Days are spent in meetings (although this too is true for traditional academics). Time and energy are poured into conversations, emails, presentations and reports that nobody outside the institution will ever read.

Even the enthusiastic embrace of social media among alternative academics provides only impermanent benefits. Tweets, blog posts and considered comments may build community -- but they don’t accrue toward academic advancement.

The careers of traditional academics -- at least those on the tenure track -- depend largely on their impact within their disciplines. Teaching and service matter to varying degrees at different institutions, but the identity of a traditional academic is almost always as a member of a traditional academic discipline.

It is not clear exactly what disciplinary identity alt-acs should adopt. Many pride themselves on being “undisciplined,” in that they explicitly work across intellectual traditions and established methodologies.

What a discipline framework for traditional academics provides is one lens through which to gauge career progression. You get known within your field through your publications, talks and outreach -- all of which is counted, and which counts.

Alternatively, most alt-acs devote most of their energy to work within their institutions. The success of these projects may be noticed and appreciated by colleagues within the school, but they are obscure to those at peer institutions.

Alternative academics need to give as much thought to advancing their careers as traditional academics have given to theirs. Perhaps more, as the milestones and goalposts of alt-ac career progression are poorly marked.

What are your thoughts on the invisibility of alternative-academic work?


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