Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts


#Alt-Ac, or Possible Futures for the Humanities Ph.D.

#Alt-Ac, or Possible Futures for the Humanities Ph.D.


What is the career path for academics in the humanities who choose not to become professors? What can graduate students do to prepare for a rapidly evolving employment landscape, and just as importantly, how can the university itself change to accommodate these alternate visions of the academy? On Monday, September 15th, CALS hosted the #Alt-Ac Symposium at Foster Auditorium to explore these questions, which touch upon some of the thorniest issues in higher education today. Short for “alternative academic careers,” #Alt-Ac began as a Twitter-inspired neologism for positions that exist within and around the academy but outside the ranks of tenure-track teaching faculty, such as those found in university libraries, writing centers, and research organizations. In many PhD programs—especially in the humanities—any deviation from the graduate student-to-professor trajectory onto such “unconventional” career paths has often been stigmatized. Such a traditional mindset ignores radical changes in academic employment in recent years, however, including the decline in tenure-line appointments, the increase in adjunct faculty, and the creation of digital humanities and technology roles that previously did not exist. To address this sea change in academic employment, CALS Director Sean Goudie invited thought leaders from the #Alt-Ac movement (most of whom earned their doctorates in fields like English, History, and American Studies) and professors for a full-day symposium to reconsider the alternative academy in the twenty-first century university.

Bethany Nowviskie, one of #Alt-Ac’s leading voices, kicked off the event with a brief history of the movement, including its etymological origins as a response to “non-academic” careers, a term that has historically diminished humanities scholars and discouraged graduate students from exploring novel career paths. For Nowviskie, who serves as Director of Digital Research & Scholarship for the University of Virginia Library, the #Alt-Ac label rejects the academic/non-academic binary by creating a space where the entire spectrum of careers in and around the university can be reassessed with an open mind. After her opening remarks, she led a lively Q&A session with the audience, which drew faculty, administrators, students, and staff from across the mid-Atlantic region as far away as North Carolina. While some audience members voiced their hopes for the event and others shared their future vision of the university, all shared in the timeliness and urgency of the symposium.

Given the rapid evolution of the #Alt-Ac label since its inception in 2009, the first panel attempted to answer the complex question of what does #Alt-Ac mean today? For several participants, #Alt-Ac is an umbrella term for a group of professions they find more satisfying than the standard professor role. According to Paul Erickson, there was “nothing alternative” about becoming the Director of Academic Programs at the American Antiquarian Society since this was the exact type of job he wanted when he started his American Studies PhD program. Tim Powell similarly felt that his work as Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at the American Philosophical Society, which involves working directly with Native American tribes to preserve their culture, has a far greater impact than a traditional teaching appointment. One of the major themes of the conference was the role of technology in the alternative academy. Both Dan Tripp and Patricia Hswe saw their respective digital strategy roles in the Department of English and University Libraries at Penn State as positions that were fundamentally changing the way the academy operates. For many of the invited speakers, #Alt-Ac also represented a necessary culture shift for departments and individuals alike. As Rebecca Schuman, who served as both a symposium panelist and an education columnist covering the event for Slate, summed up, “#Alt-Ac is a state of mind” for recognizing that all jobs, whether academic or non-academic, are worthy of respect.

The second session focused on training graduate students for #Alt-Ac careers. One recurring message among the panelists was the need for students to acquire non-research related skills while still in school. Megan Doherty, a program officer at the German Marshall Fund, described how she gave historical tours and volunteered for several organizations while a History PhD at Columbia, whereas Professor Rosemary Jolly, Weiss Chair in the Humanities at Penn State, had an editing career planned in case her academic job search proved unsuccessful. Other panelists called for the university to do more for graduate students. Brian Croxall, Digital Humanities Strategist and Lecturer of English at Emory University, proposed that graduate students intern at various academic units to understand how a university worked while gaining non-research experience. Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education Chris Long elaborated on this idea with the Graduate Internship Program (GRIP) currently in place at Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts. On the faculty side, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature Michael Bérubé, who also serves as Director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities at Penn State, highlighted the need for faculty to prioritize the happiness of their graduate students, not all of whom would seek tenure-faculty positions.

In the wrap-up session, Nowviskie emphasized that the most important aspect of the #Alt-Ac symposium was a sense of purpose—the idea that alternative academics like her were laying the foundation for new leaders of the movement to build upon. “This is a generational mission,” she said. For Nowviskie and many of her fellow speakers, the symposium marked the start of the overall academic environment changing for the better, and she encouraged others to join her at the forefront of that change.

Brian Croxall proposes changes in higher education to assist #Alt-Ac careers.

Rebecca Schuman explains how #Alt-Ac requires, above all else, a mentality shift.

Panelists field questions from the audience about future directions of the alternative academy.

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