Alt-Ac, 5 Years Later

I was reminded today that five years ago, I officially received a job offer to join CELT at the University of Kentucky, kicking off my Alt-Ac career as a faculty developer/academic technologist. Morehead feels like another lifetime ago, not five short years. I have (finally?) settled down and found my perfect alt-ac job here at Georgetown, for which I am immensely grateful. A year went by fast, but over-all, the transition has been good for the whole family.

The tweet screencapped above crossed my social media feeds multiple times over the past few days. I didn’t retweet it myself, as it bothered me in a lot of ways, feeding into certain narratives about alt-ac work (not to mention the people who do them). Maybe (probably) I took it too personally, but I’ve seen the arguments over even just the label alt-ac, and I know all-to-well the frustration that informs this tweet. Maybe being five years in, I have been able to let go of some of the frustration, the anger at Academia, and settled into a position where I am able to thrive, alt-ac or not.

I absolutely could not have gotten the job I have without my PhD. In faculty development in particular, having teaching experience with a PhD ads legitimacy to your position, legitimacy that faculty respect. We can debate this particular position that faculty take vis-a-vis staff who don’t have PhDs, but I got my job, kept my job, exceled at my job because I have a PhD. This doesn’t even account for my research skills, my presentation abilities, my writing skills, my critical reading skills, and my networking skills, all honned during my PhD “training” and subsequent work that I got because I had a PhD (teaching contingently, but still).

I am mad at the Academy more generally for the adjunctification of the field, more specifically for being inflexible in their treatment of those both on and off the tenure-track. I would have made an amazing professor. I would have gotten tenure. And I wouldn’t have my family. That was the choice, and my family came first. This is the surest sign of disloyalty from the Academy, but I don’t know why it has to be that way. I am disposable, but at the same time, invaluable. The cognative dissonance that the Academy needs today to keep running is astounding.

But I love my work, and while I know I would have been an amazing professor, I sometimes think I am better suited for the job I have now, a job that (sigh) didn’t even exist when I started my PhD. There is plenty of debate right now between using the term “instructional designer” versus “learning engineer,” with the instructional designers reminding the rest of us that, no, it’s a “new thing” but a profession with a long(ish) history that is being erased. HOWEVER, this particular blend in my job of academic technologist, instructional designer, and faculty developer (not to mention working on Domains) certainly didn’t exist in 2001.

Ok, someone SOMEWHERE was probably doing this work, but it was invisible to me, to just about everyone.

If there is one thing I am grateful for in the Alt-Ac movement (there are lots, but, topic) it’s that it has brought to the forefront all of the important work “staff” have long done in the service of student learning and student success. Yes, I was blind to these realities, to these positions, to how important we all are. That’s what a PhD does, and if learning about Alt-Ac jobs does nothing more than to help PhDs understand there is more to a university than professors, then good.

But back to the idea of this job being a better fit for me. It is a much more collaborative environment than being a Humanities professor; it’s why I was initially so interested in moving toward Digital Humanities, an equally collaborative space. The work is varried, I get to meet people from all over campus, hearing about their work and research and teaching, which is something I really enjoy and gives me energy. I may still be mad at the Academy, but I am still finding enough people here, both in terms of employees and students, to make me hold out hope.

Academia never really knew what to do with me – this weird polyglot with ADHD and too many interests and words and energy and questions and enthusiasm. I was too much and not enough simultaneously. My current job knows what to do with me, it knows how to create conditions that help me flourish, rather than me flourishing in spite of them. I feel valued, appreciated, understood in a way I haven’t before. I feel like I’m helping to make a difference, which is all I ever really wanted to begin with.

People will often ask if I miss the research. Yes…and no. I still have an academic book project that I would love to one day complete, as well as a DH project that is my dream to see happen. However, I still get to do research, and I get to do more varried research now, too. It feels good not to have my professional career staked on whether or not I get into the right peer-reviewed journal or publish with the right university press. Research and writing are fun again. I’m writing what I want, on my own time – it’s a serious hobby, rather than a matter of publish or perrish. It’s so much better that way, at least for me. If anything, I’m more productive now than I have ever been with my writing.

I know I’m lucky – I got the job, I got the therapy, I have the support system (my family). I do remember being angry and absolutely despondent about my professional career in the Academy. I just have to go back to my old blog posts if I ever forget. But five years later, I don’t relate to that tweet as I may have when I was still teaching at Morehead. Maybe I have survivorship bias:

Whether it be movie stars, or athletes, or musicians, or CEOs of multibillion-dollar corporations who dropped out of school, popular media often tells the story of the determined individual who pursues  their dreams and beats the odds. There is much less focus on the many  people that may be similarly skilled and determined but fail to ever find success because of factors beyond their control or other (seemingly) random events.[9]  This creates a false public perception that anyone can achieve great things if they have the ability and make the effort. The overwhelming majority of failures are not visible to the public eye, and only those who survive the selective pressures of their competitive environment are seen regularly.

That sounds more like a lot of professors and administrators, not many alt-ac people. I was pretty visible with my failures, transparent about how I got to where I am and how unusual my career path has been, perhaps so unsual that it cannot be recreated.

Maybe I read that tweet as saying that I should feel bad about being happy and successful in my alt-ac role. That somehow my happiness and satisfaction is complicit in the current state of the Academy. But I’m tired of people inside and outside the Academy trying to police my feelings, my self-worth.

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the past five years of alt-ac is that I don’t have to apologize for finally getting to happiness.