Are Alt-Acs Underutilized?

What more could we be doing?

February 24, 2015
Are alt-acs (alternative-academics) an underutilized campus resource? 
What academic work would alt-acs happily engage in that faculty would (or should) not?  
The thing to remember about us alt-acs is that we are academics with a different incentive profile than our faculty colleagues. Our career progression and promotion paths are different. Work that might be a detriment for tenure track faculty are a benefit for us alt-acs. 
Without the pressures to publish, alt-ac professionals can invest time in committee and service work at a level that would carry a prohibitively expensive opportunity cost for faculty on the tenure track. Freed up from the enormous time investments associated with carrying a heavy teaching load, alt-ac professionals may have more flexibility to spend time in non-instructional campus roles that have historically been carried out by faculty.
For many alt-ac campus professionals, service and committee work is viewed as amongst the most productive and positive aspects of our positions. 
Committee Work: 
Rather than an obligation to be discharged, committee work enables us to understand the institution better, build professionals relationships, and make a visible contribution to the work of the organization.  Alternative academics will often enjoy committee work because the work plays to our strengths, and builds on our graduate school experiences.  Good committee discussions can resemble good graduate school seminar discussions. 
We were trained in graduate school to bring evidence to arguments and to synthesize and present large amounts of data. These are skills that are often useful in the context of committee report writing. Of course, a bad committee is bad for everyone. Very little can redeem a committee without a clear charge and strong and organized leader. My experience has been that dysfunctional committees are the rare exception, and that most of the work I’ve engaged on in committees has been impactful and enjoyable.
Service is a big broad term to define a great many non-teaching and non-research faculty duties. Committee work of course falls into service. Each campus defines service a bit differently, but it could mean student advising, service to the larger institution (usually through committee work but also in specialized roles), service to a discipline or academic community, and service in the form of community outreach and engagement. (What am I missing?).  Service is the usually the 3rd, and least rewarded leg, of the iron triangle of research/teaching/service for faculty promotion.
Alt-academics are all about service. Our loyalty is to our institutions, not our disciplines  While we may work to build strong relationships with peers and colleagues from other institutions, and we may contribute to professional groups in our fields, our career path is determined by our contributions to the colleges and universities that we work. Any opportunity to serve the institution will be one that we will usually jump at, as service does not detract from time spent on research and teaching - and is usually closely aligned with our “regular” academic tasks. Many alt-ac campus professionals will be, I think, particularly excited to jump at any service opportunities that involve students. We got into academics in the first place often because we liked teaching, and we see ourselves as educators. If we are not teaching (or teaching near a full-load), the opportunity to spend time with students in an education role (say in advising or a residential capacity) is appealing. 
Why aren’t campus alt-ac professionals more often called upon to fulfill campus service and committee roles traditionally borne by faculty? The answer I think, and it is a good one, is faculty governance. Committee and service work are important building blocks of institutional faculty authority. 
What I think we should recognize, however, is that the campus of today contains many different types of academics as when the cultural organizational norms were originally laid down. A PhD working in an alt-ac position may not only have better aligned incentives and more time for service work, they are also likely to share a common set of expectations and values as their faculty colleagues.   Alt-ac professionals have been socialized into their academic disciplines, and while not taking traditional career paths they continue to share many of the attitudes and beliefs of those on the tenure track.  Utilizing alt-ac professionals in traditional faculty service roles may be one way to maintain a valued academic culture, while simultaneously enlarging the pool of contributors.
Does your campus need more academics to invest time in committee and service work? Is your campus looking for educators to serve as mentors and role models for students? Are there non-teaching and non-research activities that make sense for educators to undertake, and which may be good fits for the alt-academics already present on your campus. (And yes, I know alt-acs teach and research, it is just that our career progressions are usually not predominantly determined by our productivity in these endeavors).
Where am I getting this alt-ac argument wrong?
What has been your experience as an alternative academic in committee and service work?


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