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.) ((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.))
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. ((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.))
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.