Taking Back Alt Ac

The Job Market. There’s only ever one when you’re talking to an academic, right? Or at least when you’re talking to a tenured academic.

To such professors, working outside of academia is akin to failure. Choose to seek employment outside the kingdom of tenure and your job won’t be featured in the department’s promotional literature about placement or discussed with prospective students. Your cohort will look at you with a mixture of disdain and relief (“One fewer competitor on the Market…”). Your parents will ask what you spent all those years studying for anyway.

This much we know. But what is most curious to me here is that the discourse that associates the “life of the mind” with the institution has been assimilated to such a degree that even those who reject academia proper end up seeking self-affirmation through a perpetuation of its inequalities. In other words, some  in the “alt-ac” ranks seem to be replicating the behavior of their professors and advisors, valuing certain alt ac positions (usually those with some connection to academia and/or universities) over others, as if the .edu connection somehow made those more worthwhile. Not working in academia, or in a cultural institution of kind? Hmmm. You’re not really alt ac. You’re just a quitter.

Let’s face it: people choose the “alt ac” course for a host of different reasons. Some as a last resort, after years of not getting anywhere on the Job Market. Others because they realize that teaching introductory courses (as the sole professor of their discipline, for sub-standard pay, in the middle of nowhere) is not the “life of the mind” they had envisaged. Others because scraping together enough money to live on adjunct or lecturer pay is demoralizing, dehumanizing and often impossible to sustain. Others because despite having landed the covetable tenure-track position at the R1 institution, they find themselves hemmed in by bureaucracy, trammeled by a lack of supportfrustrated and uninspired. Still others, turned off by the lack of community and care in academia, opt for non-academic paths without ever looking at the Job Market.

As the wealth of “quit lit” stories I linked to above can attest, there is no one-career-path-fits-all for people with PhDs. In fact, with that in mind, I  would like to propose eschewing the terms “alt ac” and (especially) “post ac” altogether. Our career choices are neither “alternative” (a term that accepts a center, a norm) nor “post” (one that suggests that there is a temporality, a process of trying to be an academic and failing at it, inherent in the decision to seek non-academic work). They are choices (some made more willingly than others, it’s true) made by smart individuals who believe their professional value to exist not outside but alongside the academy.

Leave a Reply