The #alt-ac workshop on alternative careers in academia that opened (or preceded) the HASTAC conference last night was phenomenal. Part of what I appreciated so much was a discussion of how the whole idea of #alt-ac, looking for careers after your PhD other than tenure track faculty positions, is a response to the general crisis of education that we're all living through. Cathy Davidson has recently written an excellent article about the UC Davis police brutality against students simply engaged in reimagining education and demanding better education. I was heartened to hear, in response to my question, that yes, the presenters of the workshop see the idea of #alt-ac as a way of responding to the changing nature of academia but also as a possible means of staying in academia and transforming it from within. While there have been some important critiques of the idea of occupation as a strategy for liberation, if you're interested in #occupy, see my recent post on #OccupyData, happening in a city near you!
One presenter, though, responded by saying that the idea of tenure is problematic because it reinforces unnecessary hierarchies. I think there is along conversation to be had there, but I do worry about the trend away from tenure signalling a larger trend of neoliberalization of education, rather than a radical horizontalist pedagogical approach.
Another issue that struck me was the underlying politics of so much of the discussion that went largely unstated as we discussed job calls and cover letters. One workshop attendee told me afterwards of how her interest in #alt-ac is partly driven by the immigration issues she faces, pointing to the way that adjuncting, while grossly underpaid and overworked, is still even a privileged path that some people can't take. The discussion also made me recall a woman of color faculty member in the UCSD Visual Arts department who was in a Tenure Track job but was denied tenure, also pointing to the larger social conflicts shaping our chances of getting academic jobs.
One thing I realized in the workshop was that I had been an #alt-ac for a while and not even known it. After graduating from UCSD with my MFA (and having an MA from EGS and tons of student debt) I tried being an adjunct for almost two years. The constant instability and constant need to find a new job every ten weeks was grating. Upon hearing that there was a position opening up literally one building over from the Visual Arts department, in Sixth College, I jumped at the opportunity. Working with Liz Losh, I was Interim Associate Director of Art and Technology at Sixth College for about a year before I was accepted into a PhD program at USC and decided to move to LA. Yet I could have possibly stayed in that position in the long term. The specific lessons here, in response to the skilshare impetus of the #alt-ac workshop, are that there are a lot of jobs on campuses that you might not be looking for, such as an administrator for an undergraduate writing program or a university art gallery, both parts of my position at sixth. In fact, many undergraduate core curriculum programs are being currently transformed to be more interdisciplinary, technologically and socially engaged like the one at Sixth College. These transformations may mean more job openings for Digital Humanities scholars as well as for scholars in other disciplines. In addition to being a highly engaging and rewarding position at Sixth College, my position even included teaching one course a year, which gets to the point made at the #alt-ac workshops that library positions often are given courses to teach as well. Another of my favorite points last night was that if people other than professors start teaching more classes, maybe students can begin to imagine other futures for theselves and for the world.