As digital scholarship takes hold at steadily more universities, I want to raise a few questions about a discourse about labor that has emerged from and become identified with the digital humanities. The term for this work is “alt-ac,” which stands for “alternative academic.”
Jason Rhody, a senior program officer for the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, coined the term in 2009 to describe the scholarly work performed by many of us in and in the orbit of the academy who do not hold traditional faculty jobs but do perform scholarly labor. The neologism touched a nerve. Since 2009 we’ve heard the voices of a great many people who identify with the term, and we’ve seen steadily more interest in the alt-ac job market from universities, philanthropic organizations, and scholarly societies. “Alt-ac is the future of the academy!” declared Elliott Shore, Bryn Mawr College’s library director, in 2012.
Alt-acs need not be digital humanists, but digital humanists have found the term to be particularly congenial, since many of us happen to hold these hybrid jobs, and since a founding principle of digital humanities work — that one can think through and articulate humanistic principles in unconventional ways — complements the nontraditional, praxis-based scholarship that many alt-acs perform. Alt-acs need not be Ph.D.s, but given the current status of the academic job market, many Ph.D.s have seized on the alt-ac movement as a beacon of hope in an otherwise fairly depressing situation.
Had I been aware of the term alt-ac in graduate school, I’m sure I would have gravitated to it. The notion that we can celebrate and encourage work that generally escapes the regard of the academy would have appealed to me, a frustrated Ph.D. candidate who suspected that a traditional faculty role would be too solitary, competitive, and insular for her. And, indeed, I delight in my current role at the University of California at Los Angeles, where I teach, do administrative work, and build projects in a digital humanities-focused job that was explicitly advertised as alt-ac.
So for a while I celebrated every time a university, scholarly society, or philanthropic organization touted alt-ac jobs for Ph.D.s. “No more Plan B,” said the American Historical Association. “Yes!” I said. “No more Plan B!” I admired (and still do admire) the American Council of Learned Societies' public fellowships and the Council on Library and Information Resources' postdocs for Ph.D.s who want to work in libraries. The alt-ac movement has already had the salutary effect of prompting academics to think twice before they classify a non-professor’s work as non-scholarly, and in doing so it has broadened and strengthened our ideas of what the humanities can be.
For many grad students, alt-ac has been a revelation. It’s important for Ph.D. students to know that you can, in fact, work as something other than a faculty member with your Ph.D. And you can love this work and feel that you’re using what you’re learned in your program, too.
You can! But increasingly I feel that you shouldn’t have to. And that’s what has discomfited me as I hear universities and scholarly societies making what I perceive to be a slip between suggesting alt-ac as a possibility for some Ph.D.s and touting it as a solution to the academic jobs crisis.
For one thing, there aren’t enough alt-ac jobs. I’ll wager that I watch these jobs as closely as anyone else out there, out of a desire to place our graduate students, and I see maybe a couple dozen jobs a year that I feel comfortable recommending to our students. Of course, I’m watching specifically for alt-ac jobs in digital humanities; but, then again, many commentators seem to believe that digital humanities represents the greatest growth potential for alt-ac jobs. And as someone who watches these jobs closely, I feel pretty confident saying that there is no way that the number of digital alt-ac jobs out there can absorb the current number of job-seeking Ph.D.s.
Many alt-ac jobs, of course, are not in the digital humanities. Alt-acs can do non-digital work in university administration, the nonprofit world, private industry, and many other sectors. But let’s take a moment to imagine where these people will go, and the potential implications of this shift for scholarly labor. We’ll see many humanities Ph.D.s heading to cultural heritage institutions, like libraries, archives, and museums. But of course there aren’t that many of these jobs, either. Moreover, these institutions are peopled by professionals who have trained to do these things and will, if you ask them, confess that they’re not delighted about the influx of Ph.D.s and the attendant credential creep.
An alternative, or complementary, scenario is that we’ll create more of these alt-ac jobs. Perhaps we’ll see that happening at universities. That would make sense, since if digital humanities continues to catch on, we’ll need more people who can help accomplish big projects while lending them the benefit of deep humanities training.
But let’s talk about what a job like mine is and what it isn’t. It is fulfilling work — challenging, consuming, and rewarding. But it is also flexible, in the neoliberal sense. I could be let go. Alt-acs like me generally don’t have a voice in faculty governance. (Sometimes they do, but usually not.) My job is relatively cheap. I’m fairly compensated for my work, but my position represents a relatively short-term commitment for the university, not the indefinite investment of a tenure line. My position is a 12-month (as opposed to 9-month) job, with an allotment of vacation time and sick leave, meaning I fill out time sheets and ask permission to do things like go to conferences. I have a boss. I don’t own my work in the way that faculty members do. When a faculty member writes a book, it’s hers. Her name is on it, she owns it. I do work that I love but that I will likely not take with me when I leave.
Don’t cry for me, Inside Higher Ed readers. As I said, I love my job, and I’m well-suited to it. But I do hope to give you pause as you consider what a university would look like if it were populated by many more people like me: flexible employees, carrying out a great deal of administrative work, whose time is managed by someone else, who do research when they can carve out the time, whose work belongs to someone else, and who have no voice in faculty governance. The picture begins to look a lot like a corporation. These alt-ac gigs can be great jobs, but they differ in some fundamental ways from faculty jobs as they have been traditionally understood — and not because we’re doing different work, but because we’re doing that work on very different terms. I think we begin to see why so many administrators have embraced the alt-ac model, and why we need to ask ourselves whether this is the future we want for scholarly labor.
“It’s better than adjuncting!” you might say, and indeed it is. But with that argument, we accede to the narrative of inevitable casualization, and I hope we want something better for ourselves.
Perhaps our Ph.D.s will go on to do other things entirely. Perhaps they’ll work in all kinds of interesting industries and bring their humanistic training to bear on all kinds of interesting problems. I hope they do. But we should be mindful that as we encourage an exodus of Ph.D.s from the professoriate, we are not simultaneously replenishing the ranks of the tenure-track faculty.
If humanities graduates go out in the world and do exciting, novel things, that’s all to the good. But we don’t need to send them out there because there’s an overproduction of Ph.D.s. We’ve chosen to send them out there because we’ve drastically reduced the proportion of decent academic jobs to the number of undergraduates we’re educating.
Many of my students tell me that they suspect alt-ac is right for them, that they, like me, feel called to apply their skills to practical problems and to work in close collaboration with people of varying backgrounds and skill sets. For their sake, I’m so happy that alt-ac exists as a category of job. How healthy, how liberating to understand that intellectual labor doesn’t have to fit one mold. How exciting to be able to tell them that to do this work is not to fail.
So alt-ac, yes! We should celebrate the possibilities, excitement, and challenges of this work, and we should use this new term to forge alliances with humanistic thinkers of all stripes and backgrounds. But a solution to the academic jobs crisis? I’m afraid we need to look elsewhere for that.