Working Nine to Five
What a Way to Make an Academic Living?
Lisa Brundage, Karen Gregory, and Emily Sherwood
What are you doing over the break?” Every December and June, I get asked countless times what I will do with the stretch of unstructured time that, as an academic and university employee, must surely lay before me. Former advisors and academic colleagues also ask, implicitly or explicitly: “What research are you working on? How are your job materials coming along? When will you go on the market?” Even though summer is my busy season, my inability to articulate a narrative of work that mirrors theirs exposes a failure on my part to reproduce the academy. My labor, though great and in service to the academy, is not measured by publications and therefore not easily understood, valued, quantified. In response to my explanation that as an instructional technologist and program director, I work a twelve-month, 52-week, everyday professional schedule, some from outside academia are reassured and others are bewildered to find out that universities don’t just shut down between semesters. Friends on the tenure track (or already tenured) often shift to explaining the work they must tackle over the break: syllabi, lesson planning, research, and writing deadlines. The break will be very busy, they assure me. Doubtless it will be; their work is genuine, urgent, necessary, and challenging.
Yet it is those writing deadlines that tug at me. Announcements of publications, status updates from coffee shops about good and bad writing days, accountability groups. I miss it. As I have stared down the blinking cursor at the beginning of this piece, I have questioned how I can both romanticize writing—it is incredibly difficult and frustrating—and how I have struggled so much to get any done at all. I spent years churning out seminar papers, presentation papers, dissertation drafts. I was trained to write, in all its misery. I used to have self-discipline, I think. Maybe I have lost my edge, I wonder.
Maybe this is what scholarly writing always feels like, and now that I do it infrequently, I have simply forgotten. But my professional life is not structured in a way that encourages production of scholarship; absent requirements or incentives to publish and even semi-protected time to devote to it, it is shockingly easy for the skills necessary for producing academic writing to depreciate, as our involvement and knowledge of our professional fields—educational technology and digital humanities—increases. As academics, we are conditioned to believe that scholarship is proof of our labor (even when we know it is not); in alt-ac positions, the burden of proof is lifted by our daily presence and professional interactions. A daily record of emails, Slack chats, conference calls, webinars, spreadsheets, meeting requests, and the like hold uncomfortably in the balance. I used to think of “my work” as my scholarship—even if most of my labor went to teaching work—but now my work is developing and keeping a university program running. I truly enjoy the work I do, and the colleagues I have, but the reframing of “work” is not a small shift, personally or structurally.
—Lisa Brundage, Notes from the Academic Office
We start this chapter, on the labor of alternative academic (alt-ac) professionals in the university, with a short autoethnographic note, written by Lisa Brundage. The excerpt is taken from a series of ongoing notes that the authors of the piece have been keeping over the last four years, as we each graduated from the Instructional Technology Fellowship (ITF) at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. This fellowship was a foundational experience for us, as it brought together graduate students from across disciplines and allowed us to creatively engage with digital pedagogy, to teach and be active in digital classrooms, and to learn new digital methods that were applicable to our own research projects. The fellowship also introduced us to a collaborative and interdisciplinary model of work that valued the skills and labor discussed at length in this piece. The fellowship, in many ways, prepared us for a university that does not yet exist: a university where hierarchies between research, teaching, writing, and digital technologies have been flattened and where scholarship looks much more like active, community support for research and teaching.
We feel it’s important to begin with a such a personal statement, as this cowritten and collaborative piece has emerged from our variegated academic experiences with alt-ac labor in American universities, where positions can range from postdocs and fellowships to full-time program coordination. Brundage writes from her own position as an instructional technologist and program director, but she speaks for each author as she captures a key thesis of our chapter: alt-ac positions—nonfaculty jobs for which an advanced degree is a baseline requirement or that pertain to an area of expertise that was developed via advanced or terminal degree work—are the result of structural shifts in the nature of labor and scholarship in the university and of the ability of universities to increasingly rely on PhDs to work outside of faculty or tenurable positions. Despite the impersonal nature of these shifts, we often experience these labor conditions personally and viscerally, particularly if we still feel the tug of our scholarly training and our home disciplines.
In this chapter, we suggest that the feelings of guilt and pressure that Brundage captures here are by no means personal; rather, they are illustrative of the bind that alt-ac finds itself in: at once necessary to new forms of scholarship, particularly digital scholarship, yet not acknowledged or valued as such within traditional academic structures. We take the feelings Brundage describes as an invitation to interrogate the nature of alt-ac work, its relationship to domestic and other feminized forms of labor, and its inability to, as we suggest, “reproduce the university.”
While alt-ac work is a relatively new phenomenon (Jacobs), the conditions it emerges from are not. By the late 1970s, scholars (Tuckman) were already aware that the university (both the U.S. university and abroad) was on the verge of a major shift in the composition of faculty. Such a shift has entailed a radical lack of commitment to the creation of tenurable faculty positions, passed over in favor of the production of contingent, fixed-term, and part-time positions. While this shift to contingent or “casual” work in the university has mirrored larger trends in the global economy, such as the embrace of “flexible” and on-demand labor (Harvey), the increasing instability or precarity of labor arrangements (Kalleberg), and the feminization of work (Standing), it has now resulted in what has been labeled a full-blown “adjunct crisis” for those teaching in the university. In the wake of the adjunct crisis, however, the university has seen the rise of administrative and managerial positions, coupled with the rise of instructional staff, postdoctoral fellows (postdocs), and alt-ac jobs. It is no coincidence that the increased reliance on alt-ac and postdoc positions in the humanities has corresponded to the rise of digital humanities (Jacobs), and created a cadre of academic professionals who are prepared to take on a wider range of tasks within the university than joining the professoriate. Considering the paucity of tenure-track jobs, digital humanities postdocs and alt-ac positions have been upheld as ways to have relatively stable employment and to be engaged in the academy. Taken together, instructional staff, postdocs, and alt-ac form what might be called an “invisible university” within the restructured university—a network of labor that has worked to help the university transition to digital research, teaching, and administration.
We suggest that we must understand the development of digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy and their reliance on the use of postdoc and alt-ac work within larger gendered and racialized labor histories and will critically interrogate the language that often accompanies these positions. Here, we draw connections between that language and the day-to-day labor realities of such work. We argue that if the digital humanities is to provide ethical pedagogy and scholarship it must not only address its labor history, but must find a way forward that is capable of recognizing new and emerging forms of valuable labor in the university. This does not simply entail new forms of digital scholarship, but the very “support” work that makes such scholarship possible. While many of these support jobs may be full-time, professional positions, they are also often contingent fixed-term posts reliant on grant funding that accompanies new programs and initiatives. Even permanent, full-time alt-ac positions typically are not eligible for tenure nor are they considered “faculty” appointments, despite the range of pedagogical and technical skills required. Often staff in these positions struggle to maintain a publication agenda outside of their regular work week, but feel pressure to do so because of colleagues in similar positions that retain at least partial faculty status. Alt-acs must grapple with two different systems of career growth: the tasks that their daily work and job descriptions demand, and the social fabric of academia, including publication, disciplinary conferences, and the like. Furthermore, a PhD in a typical academic discipline is often a threshold to entry for these jobs, even if the content area expertise of the job incumbent retains little value to the position or even as a bargaining chip in establishing relationships with tenured faculty. While romanticized notions of the professoriate living the life of the mind can be contrasted with the ever-swelling, overworked, underpaid league of contingent workers, the place of alt-acs and digital humanities workers who are often neither tenure/tenure-track nor adjuncts is unclear in the polygon of university roles and relationships. Our argument is not that the daily working conditions for those in alt-ac positions are generally burdensome. These types of jobs can come with relative stability, fair remuneration, and great satisfaction in the work itself. We instead advocate for our work to be recognized as coequal with scholarship production and, though we will use the term throughout the article, not really “alt” at all. While alt-ac work broadly includes work done by PhDs in the nonprofit and corporate sectors, this chapter focuses primarily on alt-ac work within American higher education institutions. We hope that future research will create more accurate and clear data about these types of roles, including postdoc, full-time, and contingent workers who manage, facilitate, and maintain digital scholarship projects, centers, and programs.
For many years, the postdoc has been held out as an option for recent graduates to establish themselves professionally—focus on their research agenda, prepare their dissertation for publication, attend conferences, and, to a lesser degree, gain teaching experience—so that they are more competitive in the academic job market. Rather than visiting assistant professor positions that often entail a one-year contract renewable yearly for up to three years, the postdoc provides more stability in the form of longer contracts from the outset and the assumption that with these positions come time and monetary support for professional development and research. In many ways, the rise in postdoc jobs is a new and simultaneously old-fashioned solution to the glut of humanities PhDs who face diminished opportunities in their academic fields. Built on a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) training model, postdocs are both functional and, at times, exploitative. Within STEM fields, progression from doctoral degree work to postdoc research and then to tenure-track work can exacerbate gender gaps in abandoning research and academic careers. In data and analysis published in Nature, Helen Shen (“Inequality Qualified”) finds that the postdoc is a specifically precarious career stage for women in science, combining low pay, lack of role models, career instability, and reproductive choices. Citing Mary Ann Mason’s research, Shen asserts that “female postdocs who become parents or plan to have children abandon research careers up to twice as often as men in similar circumstances” (22). Given that the humanities lack the structure of research labs that can serve as a productive career way station, the humanities also lack cohesive understandings of what types of work are suitable in postdoc positions (Dunn), which provides an opportunity to systematically understand the gendered inequities that can accompany STEM postdocs but also risks re-creating them or codifying a hierarchy between faculty and career alt-ac workers who enter their specialties through postdoc positions. While some postdocs may be structured around providing the holder with large amounts of time to network and publish, making the individual more competitive on the traditional market, other positions can require significant amounts of labor, especially in service roles, project management, and professional development.
Increasingly, the expectation of considerable research time for postdocs has shifted, as more and more postdocs focus on job-training skills to prepare graduates for alt-ac careers. For example, the CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) Postdoctoral Fellowship program and the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) Public Fellows program help facilitate the shift from academic to administrative or otherwise alt-ac jobs. CLIR explicitly states that its postdoc program “offers recent PhD graduates the chance to help develop research tools, resources, and services while exploring new career opportunities” (“CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship Program”). CLIR provides significant and ongoing training opportunities for its postdocs with an initial summer boot camp, monthly webinars, and funding for conference attendance, specifically, the Coalition for Networked Information and Digital Library Federation conferences. These conferences, often new to postdocs who have spent the majority of graduate school attending their subject area meetings, expose CLIR fellows to a different side of academic, often institutional, conversations. Similarly, training topics introduce fellows to issues of metadata, sustainability and data management, building communities around digital humanities, project management, developing digital scholarship centers, and learning about the capabilities of various digital tools. Though placed at institutions around the country, CLIR’s postdocs enter the program as part of a cohort. The cohort model promotes a sense of community and support that extends to the broader network of former CLIR postdocs holding a range of tenure-track, hybrid (part tenure-track, part administrative), alt-ac, and administrative positions. While some CLIR postdocs are granted time to work on research by their host institutions, the percentage of time varies and is often fairly minimal. However, CLIR encourages their postdocs to collaborate on research and writing projects, even offering small grants for such work. Training and support offered by programs such as CLIR are crucial, particularly as postdocs struggle with choices regarding their future career paths and the new types of knowledge needed to be successful in these emerging fields. However, the apprentice aspect of these programs limits the research time for fellows, which further stymies their ability to produce scholarship. The products of these positions are frequently valuable to the university, and can certainly be résumé builders, but typically do not belong to the individual who manages them in the way that published work normally does. This creates a benchmarking problem when publications are still used as a default for measuring academic professional success.
The skills that accrue to workers in these sorts of positions—knowledge of digital methods, communications, project management—readily transfer to other types of employment, which further exacerbates failure in terms of reproducing the university, but as Jacqui Shine (“Alt-Ac”) and Yasmin Nair (“On Writers”) have pointed out, flooding other employment markets with PhDs is not a tidy solution to shrinking full-time opportunities with the academy. As the postdoc becomes the training for a career as an alternative academic, such work is touted as a viable and more stable career pathway through the increasingly precarious university. As Rebecca Schuman (“‘Alt-Ac’”) notes, alt-ac work takes a variety of forms ranging from individuals with doctorates working in “archives, libraries, think tanks, non-profits, museum, historical societies, journalism—even within academic departments as, for example, digital technologies specialists.” In digital humanities initiatives and research, alt-ac work looks like glue: piecing together programs, goals, professional development, and student services that an overworked and contingent faculty labor force cannot. In this respect, alt-ac is like much staff work in the university: it allows the university to function. However, to further create divisions in the class hierarchies within academia, alt-ac workers inhabit a liminal space between more traditional staff roles, often predicated on service, and faculty. PhDs have the credentials of the latter, but perform many types of feminized labor inherent in the former. Despite the increase in numbers and visibility for postdoc and alt-ac labor in the digital humanities, the best and most skillful glue jobs are defined by their invisibility. As is typical of other types of feminized labor, when things go well, the labor is unseen. Think of the myriad of tasks necessary to ensure that a project is completed on time, a conference runs smoothly, grant requirements are fulfilled and reported to the appropriate stakeholders. In each instance, the project manager, conference planner, or grant administrator rarely receives the credit of the scholar, organization, or principal investigator, and yet none of this work is possible without the invisible labor of the former. It’s hard not to draw parallels between other types of hidden affective labor that build the world we inhabit, namely, domestic labor, supplied both in familial and market contexts. Alt-ac positions help facilitate creative and engaging scholarship and pedagogy; however, as a career pathway alt-ac is still searching for footing in the highly structured and increasingly administrative university hierarchy. As this work is less visible, the paths to promotion are less clear, if they indeed exist.
Statistics about alt-ac career tracks are hard to come by, made no easier by the ambiguous borders and short timeline since the emergence of these types of jobs. In fact, survey categories can obscure a clear picture of the field by allowing for tenure-tenure track faculty, non-tenure-track academic, and nonacademy work; full-time, permanent, nonfaculty academic work seems to defy categorization, which may contribute to its invisibility. For example, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report The Employment Status of Instructional Staff (Curtis) tracks full-time tenured faculty, full-time tenure-track faculty, full-time non-tenure-track faculty, part-time faculty, and graduate student employees. Amid numerous calls to reform graduate programs and prepare PhD holders for varied careers, startlingly little research on long-term career outcomes is available, as noted by the Council of Graduate Schools in its report Understanding PhD Career Pathways for Program Improvement (Allum, Kent, and McCarthy 2014).
Some of the most noted commentary on the alt-ac field comes from an MLA 2014 panel, “Alt-Ac Work and Gender: It’s Not Plan B,” convened by Sarah Werner. Our arguments make use of the participants’ work, including Brian Croxall, Stephanie Murray, and Amanda French. Werner’s own contribution to the panel included presenting results of a survey she developed on alt-ac and gender. Werner purposefully sought qualitative data in her questions, and while self-selection may have created sample bias in the responses she received, 79 percent of those employed in or searching for alt-ac work were female. Among those, over half said that gender impacted their decision to seek alt-ac work (though within that number, many chose “It’s complicated” rather than an unqualified “Yes”). Many respondents noted that the job market and tenure clock influence decisions about childbearing, parenting, and geographic location. One commented that alt-ac emerging as a family-friendly alternative to tenure-track work might have negative consequences for the makeup of the professoriate. But another noted, “[In my previous job] lots of service demands were placed on women faculty, who were then less rewarded for being less ‘productive.’ I wanted a role in which what had been dismissed as service could instead be recognized as leadership” (Werner). The road to leadership in an alt-ac career, though, is neither straightforward nor stable.
Within the research on career outcomes that does exist, it is difficult to see where alt-ac careers within institutions of higher learning fall in terms of career paths, income, stability, and satisfaction. A study published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University (Main, Prenovitz, and Ehrenberg) examined career outcomes at six months, three years, and eight years postdegree, of nearly five thousand humanities and social science PhDs. Using the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Graduate Education Survey (GES), the researchers found that many of the subjects working outside of the academy had higher job satisfaction than those working in tenured, tenure-track, and nontenured faculty positions. The data did not account for PhDs working within the academy but outside of faculty roles. While it is important to have empirical data that support positive long-term career outcomes for PhDs who leave the higher education field entirely, future research must also study career paths within academe. Alt-ac should not be construed as non-ac.
Compounding problems of hierarchy within alt-ac work is the fact that while the postdoc traditionally has been conceptualized as a position that prepares an individual for the tenure track, increasingly postdocs perform the sorts of alt-ac work that has burgeoned along with the digital humanities. Digital projects, whether research or pedagogy focused, require a heftier team lift than traditional academic research and publishing channels: program structuring, content strategy, preservation planning, technical training, interfacing with university IT teams, budget management (including work with university offices, vendors, contractors, and reports to funders), keeping stakeholders informed, and maintaining relationships across various parts of the team. As such, digital humanities postdocs are often charged with the support and development of digital scholarship efforts on campus, while inhabiting what we think of as crucial “glue positions,” which are also precarious due to their contingent status and temporal limitations. Many such positions, at least initially, are grant funded. While grants help institutions test and develop new initiatives, they come with significant pressure to produce tangible results quickly, including institutional support though measured impact that proves continued interest in the initiative beyond the life of the grant. While some institutions find funding to retain postdocs in more permanent alt-ac positions, many postdocs face funding limitations, their jobs contingent on securing the next grant.
Further, bringing in an emerging scholar to train more established colleagues in new pedagogical and scholarly approaches can expose the postdoc to power inequities amplified by the postdoc’s position as both a temporary resource and a staff member who lacks faculty status. Despite these challenges, digital humanities postdocs are expected to learn the politics and players of their institution at breakneck speed so that they can perform their glue jobs: connecting various aspects of digital production; translating needs and expectations between scholarly and technical players; developing digital humanities initiatives at their universities; and conceptualizing a sustainable model so that when they leave at the end of their term, the programs may continue without their labor. It would be a mistake to conceptualize this work as simply par for the course, as it often requires the deeply gendered emotional labor of creating “good” feelings or pleasant working environments among various actors at different locations within the hierarchies of the university. Digital humanities postdocs, in theory, can help retrain recent PhDs for these interstitial administrative positions that have become increasingly important in supporting and facilitating digital scholarship and pedagogy initiatives in higher education. In the contingent grant-funded scenario, however, the successful digital humanities postdoc renders their labor not just invisible but unnecessary.
Given that more and more time is now spent off the tenure track for the majority of individuals teaching and researching within the university, there have been calls to reconceptualize what an academic career can or should look like. In one of the most frequently cited and debated pieces on careers and the academy, historians Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman (“No More Plan B”) exhorted departments (in their “Very Modest Proposal,” no less) to stop thinking of production of new scholars only in terms of the tenure track, and to stop castigating what falls outside of that “Plan B.” But as Brian Croxall (“Alt-Ac and Gender”)—playing off the metaphor of emergency contraception—noted, the language of “Plan B” “suggests an abortive start to one’s career” and even a failure to appropriately plan. Taking a Plan B career, we argue, is a failure to reproduce the academy. This view is understandable as mentors and dissertation committees expend considerable labor in developing their students. While all of us found support for growing the skills and networks necessary to pursue alt-ac careers, the majority of that support was found in our communities of practice within DH and experimental pedagogy or from faculty who work across disciplines. The pressure to reproduce by conforming to the career choices of those who have trained us neglects the reality of the academic job market or the right for graduate students to pursue their own career paths. This reproductive failure is complicated by the desire for departments to show high placement rates for their graduates and an increasing understanding that many newly minted PhDs will spend several years working as postdoctoral fellows or visiting assistant professors, as if this were the pre-tenure-track track. The emphasis on tenure suggests that those in alt-ac positions have settled for something rather than selected a different and viable path.
Beyond the “failure to reproduce the academy” conveyed in and through the way we speak of postdoctoral and alt-ac work, such a “failure” is also curiously marked by the digital humanities’ frequent focus on maker culture and public scholarship, making tenuous those of us whose untenured professional work is bound up in making connections, making things happen, making people feel cared for, making good teachers, making organized events and meetings, making the coffee, and the myriad other ways in which what is made is often affective and ephemeral. Like domestic labor, this is work that is both highly valuable and, when done well, highly invisible. In fact, the more skilled alt-acs become in providing affective and support labor, the more invisible the effort becomes. The parallels between success in these fields and good housewifery are evident in this notion of invisible labor: a well-run house and well-behaved children are unremarkable; so too are smoothly run grants, events, and digital scholarship projects. Choosing to hide this labor is at odds with the digital humanities’ explicit focus on making scholarship in the humanities more open and public. Instead, on many campuses, alt-acs tend to what Steve Brier and Luke Waltzer after him have called “the ugly stepchildren” of higher education: pedagogy, professional development, and scholarship of teaching and learning.
It comes as little surprise, then, that the work conducted in postdoc and alt-ac positions (as has long been the case with librarians and other careers construed as “support” for professors), along with the language that is used to talk about it, is gendered, and furthermore often framed in terms of reproduction, parenting, and care. The development of this new class of academic labor aligns with what Holly Ann Larson (“Emotional Labor”) terms as “pink-collar duties” that include “nurturing and caring.” Even for tenured professors, AAUP research demonstrates that women who perform more service labor at the associate professor stage experience significant slowdowns in reaching full professor status. Women who participated in the AAUP focus groups generally felt more pressured to fill service roles, while also being frustratingly aware that this labor was of low value for promotion to full professor (Misra). Stripped of the tenure ladder, how can service-oriented alt-ac labor reckon with the hierarchies of scholarship and service? As one recent job ad for a digital humanities postdoc claimed, the person would have, among other responsibilities, “the opportunity to play an instrumental role in nurturing the growing digital humanities community” (MLA). The assumption that “nurturing” a “community” of digital humanities practitioners is a unique opportunity for the postdoc neglects to acknowledge that the postdoc is explicitly creating opportunities for other academics to produce digital scholarship: the alt-ac and postdoc nurture projects and labor in their production, but the scholar maintains the intellectual property and credit over the offspring/digital product. Similarly, the MLA Connected Academics program, aimed at helping doctoral students “use their humanistic training in a broader range of occupations than doctoral programs have, up to now, characteristically acknowledged and honored,” lists the following words as the start to the bullet points describing the work it does: supporting, organizing, compiling, expanding, working, and offering. These alt-ac jobs function as handmaids: nurturing, growing, and supporting another’s legitimate work.
The radical promise of alt-ac and digital humanities work remains latent, if not abandoned entirely, when work done under the auspices of DH works to repackage oppressive, gendered, and racialized social relations as “new forms of scholarship” (Posner). For example, if those doing the work of growing communities are simply seen as support staff for “researching” faculty, DH will have done little more than “encode” outmoded labor relations. However, getting to the nitty gritty of these labor politics is difficult. Very few, if any, respected scholars would claim to support the denigration of “staff” work, yet they might not think twice about “speaking for” or even speaking over a staff member in a meeting. Those same faculty who show interest in a staff member’s summer research plans—not understanding that summer is often our busy season with training, workshops, grants to administer and planning for the school year—complain about slow email response rates when that staff member is stuck in administrative meetings or, even worse, that staff member is taking one of the set number of vacation days. Furthermore, as work at all levels in the university comes under administrative purview and managerial pressures, it remains unclear how faculty and alt-ac staff, who may not have clear visibility in the university hierarchy, can properly negotiate the disparate risks of doing innovative work. Alt-ac workers often do not “own” the products of their labor and may be at greater risk when budgets, departmental politics, issues surrounding academic freedom, or administrative winds change course.
In collaborative and creative environments, many may labor out the brainchildren, but in academic and DH environments that often prioritize products, or the process of making (however open, free, and collaborative these products and processes might be), it is time we pay greater attention to the various forms of overlooked and often invisible labor that are required to sustain successful projects and work environments. Broadly, we might call this labor “care work” or affective labor, but it is worth being very specific about the nature of that work. While the digital humanities may prize the language of nurturing and of “community development,” in reality that must translate to various forms of labor that can range anywhere from project coordination to endless “let’s meet for a coffee” chats in order to network and build community buy-in. As anyone who has worked on an academic digital project knows (whether it be at the project level, curricular level, or simply attempting to get your computer up and running), digital work and digital scholarship require new types of trust and negotiation. The building of relationships, the formation of community, which may be highly valuable to the university at large, only comes through a number of small, often invisible and expected forms of work.
In any given week, a digital humanities postdoc or someone in an alt-ac position might need to coordinate between any number of university sectors: budget offices, facilities management, vendors, upper-level administrators, faculty across various departments, program directors, librarians, IT departments, legal services, funders, the many assistants who help us get our work done, students, and more. The digital humanities require people who are makers, but also people who are connectors, and superiority should not be ascribed to the former at the expense of the latter, despite a gendered and privilege-inflected urge to do so. As Debbie Chachra put it in her article “Why I’m Not a Maker,” “The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.” DH needs to build a stronger ethic of care, but as Bethany Nowviskie (“On Capacity and Care”) has brilliantly pointed out, “over-identification of caring praxis with the social and professional roles that have been afforded to women and brutally assigned to people of color frames oppression as a virtue and perpetuates unjust systems.” So valuing care must not emerge as a way to uphold entrenched patterns of racialized and gendered employment within the academy. Care, in Nowviskie’s formulation, is an essential component of sustaining work in DH, not a mere nicety, and it is one that can be spread through different parts of projects.
Despite multiple challenges, working in interstitial spaces, as many in alt-ac positions do, is not without benefit: these jobs can carry with them deep satisfaction and joy, and be ripe with possibility. Moving between spaces in higher education allows us to develop rich understandings and relationships across disciplines and perspectives, sometimes breaking long-held silos. Freed from classroom teaching and grading, we can consider new ways to meet students’ needs and promote meaningful educational experiences. Katina Rogers (“Humanities Unbound”) uses the metaphor of the sprinkler, explicitly calling attention to the joy and play of the image, to describe the potential outcomes of graduate school. Instead of a pipeline emptying into a singular pool, we can productively, happily spout in all directions. Following Pattie Sellers’s exhortation to women to think of their careers as jungle gyms rather than monkey bars, Stephanie Murray (“On the Alt-Ac Jungle Gym”) uses the comparative metaphor to conceptualize alt-ac spaces as full of feminist potential: nonlinear, collaborative, and available to multiple people for use in multiple ways. The monkey bars are a straight-up and across structure, to be crossed one person at a time (and as Murray notes, beyond childhood, images of monkey bar training are frequently associated with the military). Jungle gyms, by contrast, have multiple paths—over, under, around, and through—and can be traversed by groups. In many ways, such alt-ac work speaks to those of us who understand that the “traditional” model of The Academic is outdated and an ill fit for our lives and politics. Such a figure—of the solo, often male figure, toiling away on his own in the library or office, producing “individually” authored works, which find their ways to proprietary and locked gardens such as most academic journals—is for many people not a goal to aspire toward. Alt-ac contains unspoken potential not only for personal fulfillment but, one would hope, for the production of consciously configured power relations within the university.
Right now (and perhaps this chapter inadvertently adds fuel to this unfortunate state of affairs) faculty work exists as a specialized sphere, a college in a multiversity that provides an array of outputs and services. Dichotomizing research, writing, and teaching from other fundamental aspects of university life and labor is a failure of imagination, and one that is founded on a long history of devaluing gendered and racialized forms of labor. We can do better. For example, digital humanities workers in universities who are off the tenure track may have accomplishments that include management or support of large, complex projects but little scholarly publication. The project output must be considered scholarly work; an institutional or even collegial expectation that alt-ac workers also produce scholarly monographs about the work in order for it to be recognized as authentic academic production is an unacceptable standard. Furthermore, alt-ac work often fundamentally links research, new methods and methodologies, teaching, pedagogy, and digital infrastructures. Alt-ac is where you will find an uncommon nexus of faculty, staff, and student. As such it often offers a microcosm for rethinking “the digital university” and possibilities for collaboration and inter- and transdisciplinary work. This is highly valuable work, not only in terms of service but in terms of revenue to universities. While we have documented here the ways in which alt-ac work is made invisible, our suggestion is that alt-ac labor be highlighted and studied as model for conceptualizing the future of the university. Integrating and providing substantive, institutionalized support for the care work that underlies alt-ac positions—indeed, ceasing to conceptualize them as “alt”—is a path to better universities that can produce more research, create more diverse and innovative ways to present work and engage the public, and, moreover, improve what we offer students. If such connections were nurtured with a true focus on labor in its myriad forms, and the ways in which value is currently being created in our institutions, they could become a path to reimagining a more egalitarian and more sustainable university.
1. We acknowledge that instructional technologists are generally staff positions and therefore lack requirements or time for publication while the status of program directors differs between—and sometimes within—institutions. At some institutions, program directors are faculty or a hybrid of faculty/staff lines with publishing and/or teaching requirements. However, this is not the case at all institutions, which causes further confusion and false expectations when staff program directors fail to participate in scholarly conversations through publication. The larger issue is the structural pressure to publish as evidence of professionalization and indeed academic labor regardless of whether or not that specific form of labor is required or even encouraged within the terms of the job. Defining academic labor in such narrow terms further underlines the class divide in academia between faculty and nonfaculty positions and between tenured faculty with research obligations and contingent faculty whose primary labor is teaching.
“About the Project.” Connected Academics, 2016. Modern Language Association. https://connect.commons.mla.org/about-connected-academics/.
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