Blog Post

Notes from Alt-Ac Workshop, HASTAC 2011


These are my notes from the Alt-Ac session at the HASTAC 2011 Conference at the University of Michigan. They were written in haste, so please forgive any errors.  I may come back in and enter some more comments, thoughts.  All personal notes/queries are indicated by italics.  You can follow me on Twitter for a real-time reaction during the conference--@greeney28

Shana Kimball (mostly missed notes on her talk because I was eating dinner)

She said historically, these types of jobs have always existed, but today a lot more attention due to digital humanities.

She dropped out of PhD program at Michigan. Thought about getting into academic publishing but was told they were struggling. So she turned to the library and got involved

She was worried about limited technological skills (i.e. self-taught web designer): “Turns out that just getting your hands dirty…can yield amazing results.”

She looks for people who are comfortable moving between different domains, critical thinkers, willing to learn on the job.


Next speaker:  Aaron McCullough, PhD in Lit from U. of Michigan

Ann Arbor used to be radical, but things have changed.  In terms of the way that the scholarly professionalization scheme works, it is very old fashioned.  He felt uncomfortable with that.

His story:

Also an MFA in poetry from Iowa Writers Workshop.  Creative work is important to him.  Tenure-track positions in poetry suck (direct quote).

            The laughs keep coming---the PhD in Lit was supposed to be his security position.

He just kept following the things he love to do—three inspiration figures.  Father (archaeologist—lesson to son: “evolve or die”).  Joseph Campell (“follow your bliss”).  Gilles Deleuze (schizo-analytic model).  So he’s been adrift in professional landscape.

When job market came up, he reached end of trail of doing things he wanted to do, and time to pay piper, but he didn’t want to do so under the conditions available.  So lectured for a while.

Director of library approached him about a project—a encoding project.  He worried he was giving up on a dream.  Yet each interview he went on at MLA just made him mad (“these people are idiots”).  At the library, he likes the questions being asked.  In the library, he can be sincere.  (He says, “that may sound lame, but sincerity never seemed welcome in the academy.”) 

Dark passenger of his talk: if you don’t think I’m professional, maybe you should look at yourself.


Brian Croxall

"As many of you may know, I’m a failure.  But I’m fucking successful at being a failure.  That’s where my genius is."

Finished PhD in Emory in 2008.  Tried to get a job but didn’t do so hot at that.

He never got good fellowships. He worked in writing center, center for interactive teaching (working more hours than peers, therefore).  Yet it turns out that those not good things I ended up doing became most useful things for where I’m working now.

He can say to people, “I know how to talk to grad students about integrating technology into their teaching.”

He wanted to be a tenure-track faculty member, but found out quickly that it wasn’t working out. 

Tenure-track process—only 3 MLA interviews.  Never a campus interview.

Alt-Ac track—66% success rate in getting interviews since 2009.

So he’s been successful at doing what academy thinks makes him a failure.

But he’s still not in a permanent position at Emory (post-doc ending), so back on the market. Even for TT jobs

If you do traditional academia, your path is laid out from the get-go.  No one else in the world gets jobs that way.  In Alt-Ac each person’s path is idiosyncratic.  What’s important about hearing narratives from people on Alt-Ac track is that there is another thing you can do. 

CLIR post-doc is a good thing to do. Program puts recent PhDs in spaces for two years.  Gives opportunity to build skills and get experience in stuff you didn’t do in grad school.  After two years, you aren’t anathema to the academy, could go back that route.


Elizabeth Whirby (I have no idea if I spelled that correcty)

Considers herself an outlier.

Works at Rackham

It is her job to help grad students find alternate paths

            Maybe small liberal arts, maybe gov’t agencies, maybe museums or libraries.

Her background is non-profit.  Made the conscious choice given her values (culture, community, connections—“arts in citizenship”), wanted to explore mission of higher education

They provide grant funding for students to devel. Research based partnerships (alternative forms of scholarship, etc)—things with broader public benefit.  Also has internships for grad students.

Croxall is right that every person’s Alt-Ac path is idiosyncratic, but there are some general rules.  Say “yes” to all experience you can get, because you never know where you can use it later on.  Be nice to everyone, because you never know who may be a connection for you.  Ask everyone with a neat job how they got there—anecdotal advice can be inspirational, if not pedagogical. Never underestimate the value of your own experience—try to find connections rather than assume you don’t have the goods.


Now we are looking at job calls and accompanying cover letter

First job—for MITH Community Lead

            Problem #1—letter seems too similar to academic job letter—only mildly tweaked

            Problem #2—don’t talk too much about dissertation—makes it seem like you didn’t spend much time on the letter.  Need make it about each individual job

            Problem #3—doesn’t speak to the job call specifics (no mention of projects mentioned in the job)

            Problem #4—need explain what value you add to the needs of the hiring team

            Problem #5—doesn’t make connections btw her experience and the job

            Problem #6—doesn’t include any experience apart from grad school


Second job—Digital Humanities Librarian

            This letter is much better

                        Density of detail—use hyperlinks to prevent letter from becoming bogged down

                        Unique font

                        Every sentence is jam packed with information, in unambigious terms

                        Helps that she’s done awesome projects that correspond to job call

                        She was able to mention a talk she gave at the hiring university—found a way to connect to the place, show she was familiar with it

                        Mentions that she can translate information for less-technically experienced team members

                        Only mentions research/diss briefly.  Doesn’t make it about her work—instead makes it about the institution’s work (letter appeals to variety of people likely to be on committee)


There’s some antagonism in this room about lack of support for Alt-Ac within academy, i.e. your committee won’t like you spending time on these types of cover letters.

            I’m not sure that is true.  Or it may be true for the speaker, but it is a rough generalization.  Perhaps committee members feel unable to help their students in ways beyond the R1 TT—that is where their experience is, after all. Maybe faculty need to learn about Alt-Ac as much as grad students do.


Should we be burning bridges or trying to find ways to transform academia?

            McCullough: Tenure is a problematic model.  Once you get it, you are set, but still put younger faculty through hazing ritual of tenure

                        He doesn’t like model that you can’t

            Croxall—we can’t transform academia as an adjunct.  Responding to my question about teaching and Alt Ac (fun!).  Why don’t we let librarians teach in our universities?  Maybe that would give alternative vision of the future.  Maybe would make it easier for grad students to think about different paths.


Q for grad students—what are we doing, and how do we ramp up skills?

            Response 1: grad student just applies for jobs. To see what is out there. To experience the process. Implies he’ll decide not to finish degree if finds right job fit

            Response 2: transform projects into something with broader impact, relevance (can use later as experience)

            Response 3: what if jobs assume you’ve had professional experience?

            Response 4: to what extent does the myth of the “techie” haunt those considering an alt-ac path?


Q for grad students about attitudes of universities toward Alt-Ac

            Several speaking up for the openness of their university (some are even realizing how traditional may be the universities where they are applying, even if their program is not)

Now Croxall is getting tricky—he says Alt-Ac isn’t necessarily a promised land.  He never gets his research done.  Instead, he helps other people do their research (though he does teach a class).  But he leaves work at 5 and spends time with his family.

            This is another issue.  People need to know what kind of life they want.

In general, I was struck by a few things.  First, there was a lot of anxiety in that room.  And I don't just mean the usual anxiety over whether you can find a job.  There was an additional layer of anxiety about exploring an Alt-Ac career path.  Said anxiety may derive from a personal sense of failure, a fear of others thinking of you as a failure, a fear of inadequacy (on multiple levels--for both TT and for Alt-Ac jobs), a fear of technology (at a digital humanities conference of all places), and a fear that the vision of your future may not ever be realized.

Certainly, fear is a part of each person's job search, but I sort of marvel at the narrow expectations of most people entering the academic job market.  In my experience, a lot of R1 TT scholars tend to live a super stressed filled existence--and this is after they have achieved that elusive TT job.  Is anxiety therefore a part of the personality of the typical academic, or is society increasingly moving away from the type of "life of the mind" to which we all cling?

The discussion of tenure was also fascinating.  I am not an expert in the origins of tenure, but I feel some confidence in stating that part of the function of tenure was to support academics in taking risks.  And isn't working within the digital humanities somewhat of a risk since it reconceives of the products created by research and scholarship?  Does the impulse to throw tenure out with the bathwater perhaps threaten the intellectual freedom of the digital humanist?  If we all enter into a "soft" money relationship with our employers (see also Tom Scheinfeldt's "Toward a Third Way"), are we falling victim to a neoliberal model that evaluates the worth of a particular employment position against a profit-generating standard?  A world in which you have to win grants to justify your existence because the university does not deem your work worthy of direct support?  These questions are not easy to answer, but the issues raised are concerning...





1 comment

This is really fantastic Karen; as someone stuck on the West Coast (where, granted, it's not nearly as cold as it is in Michigan right now), I was quite sad to miss this panel. A group of us out at the University of Victoria just pitched a colloquium panel for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute ( for next summer on graduate study and the alt-ac "track." 

I'm really hoping a conversation keeps going about this sort of thing, on HASTAC, in the Chronicle, and at conferences. 

Again, thanks for the notes!