Tagged: #altac

some #altac advice

I was recently part of a panel organized by Holly Dugan at George Washington University on the topic of #altac and #postac careers. The storify from the tweets is worth reading through for the insights from my fellow panelists, Alyssa Harad, Evan Rhodes, and Meredith Hindley, and for comments from the audience.1 The first part of my talk was a reperformance of the “make your own luck” pecha kucha I did for MLA 2013 and have already shared here, but since I felt the urge to share some advice for students and faculty on the topic of pursuing #altac careers, I thought I’d post those.

For job seekers, this is my advice to you:

"Do not underestimate your skills" and a photo of a boy scout and a girl scout comparing badges

The skills that you mastered working towards your PhD are skills that are directly transferable to other careers. Doing sustained research, mastering new subjects, synthesizing and explaining complicated ideas, making arguments in persuasive language—all of these are things that many professions value.

"Stay away from fearmongers and vultures preying on your anxiety" and a photo of a vulture.

There are people out there who prey on your your anxiety and drive it through the roof. Stay away from them. If your fear creates money and opportunity for them, recognize that their position is not for your benefit.

"Doing something other than teaching is not failure. Being miserable because you never get that job is." and a photo of a sign that says "Miserable Corner"

If what you dreamed of was teaching, if what you believed you were training for was being a professor, it can be hard to do something else. But if you are miserable because you are adjuncting, stop adjuncting. You haven’t failed if you do something other than teaching. There’s meaningful and engaging work in many places, but you’re not going to find it if you’re convinced all you can do is teach.

"Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy" and a photo of a boy in a science mask wearing gloves and holding a bucket of mud

Don’t wait to build your resumé until after you’ve finished building your c.v. Working in a campus office, assisting in a program, creating a workshop, editing a publication—all these things will expose you to new potential careers and will teach you new skills that you can point to. Take chances, make mistakes, get messy. It’s advice that works for Ms Frizzle and it’s advice that works for you. If you don’t push beyond the familiar, you won’t discover the other things that you enjoy and are good at. And if you fail, you’ve learned something new that you can put into practice the next time. Failure doesn’t have to be big to be worthwhile, but fear of failure is going to keep you from being happy and well fed.

Faculty, this is what I have to say to you:

"You are the 1%" and a photo of a Lego mini-figure holding a 1% sign and standing with piles of coins.

The fact that you are standing faculty means that you won the lottery. You might have earned your luck, just like I made mine, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t also incredibly fortunate. You are lucky in ways that your students likely will not be. Do not lie to them. You won the lottery. Telling students that they’ll make it if they just try isn’t doing anyone any favors and it’s just planting insidious seeds that will bloom when they don’t get the job they want or they get the job they think they want and don’t like it.

"Are you running a vocational school or a graduate program?" and a photo from the 1940s of women in a vocational school learning to weld.

Think about whether the program you’re running is a vocational school for R1 professorships. Graduate training has tended to create replica of the faculty who run it. But most PhDs are not going to become R1 faculty: they’re going to teach at liberal arts colleges or at regional schools with 4-4 loads, they’re going to work #altac or #postac jobs. Do you need to write a book to get your PhD? Do you need to require endless 25-page seminar papers to ensure students have learned something? The majority of jobs do not require book-writing or seminar-paper-writing skills. They might require advanced research skills, the ability to synthesize fields and to make persuasive arguments, or project management experience. Those skills are not incompatible with being a literature scholar. But they rarely count in PhD programs.

"You might not be able to advise altac seekers, but you can offer support" and a photo of a statue of Bob Newhart sitting in a chair and a man lying on a sofa looking at him.

You cannot give advice on achieving jobs you never had. But you can support students who are seeking experiences beyond teaching. If they have a job working in a non-profit, don’t tell them that’s taking away their time for research and their time for teaching. That’s valuable work. It can even be intellectual work. You cannot know what makes up your students’ lives and their decisions are not yours to belittle.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard from faculty over the years, from when I was a grad student up through just last year:

  • I was scolded for not applying for a 4-4 job in the rural South, a job that I’d decided as a then-single Jewish woman was not going to allow me to be happy.
  • When I was an independent scholar at my national conference, I was told that it was nice that I’d come to “play with them.” At that point, I had already published a book. The person condescendingly being nice to me had not.
  • After I’d spent 5 years successfully creating a well-recognized and praised program, I was asked when I’d be leaving for a tenure-track job. My career isn’t second-best. It’s not a consolation prize that I’m suffering through until someday I get to be an assistant professor.

Don’t say these things. Don’t be condescending. Don’t be obtuse. Don’t be blind to the realities of the incredibly difficult market for tenure-track jobs and don’t belittle the richly rewarding opportunities out there off the tenure-track.

"Create the colleagues in and out of the academy that you would like to have" and a poster with the text "Make your own luck"

I tell #altac seekers they need to make their own luck. Faculty need to do that, too. Make your own luck—produce the colleagues in and out of the academy that you would like to have.

Some #altac resources

To get a sense of what #altac work is like, these resources are an excellent starting place.

I focused in my talk on the value of seeking #altac work. I did not spend time on the difficulties and disadvantages of such careers, but those are worth considering as well.


  1. Miriam Posner was supposed to skype in but technical difficulties meant that she could only contribute via twitter. []

#altac work and gender

At the most recent Modern Language Association convention (held in Chicago, January 9–12, 2014), I organized a panel (session 757) on “Alt-Ac Work and Gender: It’s Not Plan B.” Stephanie Murray gave a wonderful talk with a feminist perspective on thinking about the metaphor of the jungle gym as a way of exploring the dynamics and value of alternative-academic careers. And Amanda French delivered a moving and powerful paper that used email as an example of the value of “empathy work” as compared to “authority work.” I don’t know what their plans are for sharing their presentations, but there’s a Storify that captured some of the tweets from the session. (Brian Croxall was part of the original panel proposal, but other commitments at the conference meant that he unfortunately had to withdraw. He published his proposed talk—which I hope he might someday expand!—on his site.)1

My own contribution was to share some of the responses that came in to a survey I did on the connections between #altac work and gender. At the time I put the slides together, I had 61 responses, primarily from women working in or searching for #altac jobs, but also including responses from men and from people employed in traditional academic jobs. As I said in my presentation, this wasn’t by any means a scientific survey and I was primarily interested in people’s own experiences of their situations—the survey prioritized their qualitative answers over quantifying them.

I don’t have any conclusions to draw from their answers. In some ways, they contradicted each other—some folks ended up in #altac jobs because they presented more flexibility for family work, while others felt that the regular hours of #altac jobs (compared to traditional professorial work) meant that they had less flexibility. One recurring factor was the amount of time it takes from PhD to tenure, with a number of respondents feeling like their need to support their family or their desire to start having children before the age of 40 led them to search for #altac work.2

In the slides shared below, I presented some of the general statistics from the survey and highlighted some typical and notable answers.  If you’d like to see the full survey results, I’ve now made those public as well. And if you’d like to contribute to the survey, it’s still open. I’m not sure what else I might do with this information, but I do think it’s an important topic and that there’s more to be done in thinking about the intersections between #altac work and gender issues.

  1. For more context, including a rough definition of what “#altac” is, see the MediaCommons project, #Alt-Academy; you might also find useful Katina Roger’s list of #altac resources. Please note that I am not focused on the work of adjuncting here; I encourage you to visit the Adjunct Project for more on that subject. []
  2. There was certainly a perception that female faculty wouldn’t be having kids before they had tenure, although I’m not convinced this is in fact the normative practice of female academics. []

Make your own luck

What follows is a presentation I gave at the 2013 convention of the Modern Language Association (known fondly by many of us as #mla13) in the session “How Did I Get Here? Our “Altac” Jobs.” The session was a roundtable discussion, with pecha kucha presentations, about “alternative academic” careers. You can watch the slides with my audio, or read the presentation and look at the slides on your own. My thanks to Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet for organizing the panel and to my fellow panelists and to the audience for a great conversation.

“Make your own luck” (MLA 2013)

I am the Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a position I’ve held for six years. It’s a job that combines working in one of the premier special collections of early modern literature and culture with teaching a small number of highly motivated and curious students. This is the story of how I got here.

I did a PhD in English, researching modern feminist performances of Shakespeare. After finishing, I was fortunate to get a two-year teaching postdoc, and after that, a one-year research postdoc. At the end of that, I got married to someone who had a job lined up in a Washington DC law firm, and so we moved and I started my life as an independent scholar.

I spent the next year writing my book at the Folger. During that time, I became friends with a local Shakespearean who told me that her department was looking for someone as a leave replacement. So I spent the next year teaching drama and composition at The George Washington University and the following year as an adjunct at George Mason, a job I found again through my Shakespeare friend.

Then I heard from my friend that the head of the Folger Institute wanted to take a year off. And so Gail recommended me to Kathleen, Kathleen went to write her book, and I ran the Institute for a year. At the end of that gig, another contact asked if I’d adjunct at Georgetown, covering his Shakespeare classes, and so my George-trifecta was complete.

At the end of my year at Georgetown I gave birth to my second child (I’d had the first one after my GW stint) and I spent the following year trying to catch my breath and work out how to mother two children with a spouse who was frequently traveling and parents who were aging more rapidly than I was ready to admit. The lesson I learned was that I was not cut out to stay at home.

Luckily, at that point my friend Gail, by now the Folger’s Director, hired me as a consultant on a planning grant for developing undergraduate programming in book history at the Library. So I became an independent contractor, put together an implentation plan, and then became the inaugural Folger Undergraduate Program Director, a job that I love.

I’ve used the word “luckily” to describe how I got to this place, and I certainly benefitted from luck. I live in a town rich in possibilities for Shakespeare scholarship, and I know people who led me to temporary jobs and to my current career. And for a long time I thought of how I got here as a product of luck.

But another way to think about luck is to see it as the residue of design. I wasn’t simply lucky. I worked hard—persistently and creatively—to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities that might come my way. I didn’t always know what it was that I was working toward, but I was working nonetheless. So here’s another version of the story of how I got my job.

While I was turning my dissertation into a book, I submitted an excerpt to Shakespeare Quarterly. My article wasn’t accepted, but I had a nice correspondence with the editor and our paths later crossed at the Shakespeare Association conference. That editor was Gail Kern Paster, and when I moved down to Washington DC, we were both regulars at the Folger and we would chat about our research.

Because she knew my work, she recommended me to fill in at GW. Because I knew the Folger as a reader and program participant, had administrative experience from grad school, and was an active scholar in Shakespeare circles, I was a good fit for the Institute. By this point, I’d come to know the Folger’s culture and resources and that of faculty, students, and administrators at three of the area’s largest schools.

I’d built a network of colleagues across Washington DC and across the Shakespeare community. When the Folger needed to hire someone who knew the Library and local schools, who had the administrative skills and the intellectual breadth to set up a new program, I met those needs. It wasn’t luck that I got my job, it was years of hard work.

Despite what I’ve just said—what I firmly believe about how I came to this #altac career—it took me a long time to believe that I hadn’t just accidentally lucked into it. I’d never intended to do this line of work. I’d intended to be a tenured faculty member; I spent years on the job market trying to get a job like that. But I didn’t.

Because of that history, among other things, it was hard for me to see the planning that had gone into my good fortune. Because I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, I didn’t think I deserved the thing I’d gotten. As some of you no doubt know, it’s really hard to come out of an unsuccessful job search without feeling like you’ve failed, that you’ve fallen short.

In my case, that feeling was exacerbated by the shape my family life had taken. My low-paying jobs were made possible by my spouse’s high-paying job, and while I was grateful, I also felt like a kept woman. Add to that the problem that his career wasn’t highly relocatable, and that once we had kids, it was not going to be practical for me to live apart from them.

With only part-time work coming my way and small children to raise, I squeezed my teaching and my writing into the hours I had childcare and spent the rest of my time playing and teaching and coaxing my kids to eat and nap and use the toilet and make friends and give me kisses, and while I loved my family, I was exhausted.

How grateful I was, then, to have a real job! How fortunate to be dealt such good luck! Gail Collins, in mulling over Hillary Clinton’s wide-ranging and impressive career to date, with its twists and turns from despised to beloved, wrote that she has played the cards she’s dealt. That’s one way to look at it. But I prefer Hillary’s answer:

“I choose my cards. I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with seeing yourself as the beneficiary of good fortune, except for its flip side: if you got where you are by luck and then your luck dries up? You’ll never get anywhere again. You’ll never be more than your spouse’s appendage.

My point here is that I might not have been actively planning my #altac career, but I was keeping my eye open for opportunities to learn new skills and to meet potential colleagues. The years I thought I was nothing but lucky were the years I was unhappy and insecure. Once I realized my own strengths, I knew I could succeed at other things I wanted to do.

Here’s one thing I went on to do: I knew the Folger needed to do a better job explaining the scholarship we do in publicly accessible terms, and I knew that I could do this. Since my job with the Undergraduate Program was ¾ time, I had ¼ of my time I was willing to use to start a new blog for the Library. And I so convinced them to hire me to start The Collation.

Whether you’re looking for an #altac career or you’re not, my biggest piece of advice to you is not to wait for a giant hand to point you in the right direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to see signposts leading you there. You need to make your own luck and trust that you’ll recognize your place when you arrive.