The MLA and “Alternate Academics”

It’s that time of year again (albeit a bit later this year than previous years) — time for the Modern Language Association convention. This also means that it’s time for a flurry of articles talking about the academic job market for Ph.D.’s in English and the foreign languages (not to mention time for a spate of articles from graduate students or recent graduates explaining why they’re leaving the academy. See “because. a manifesto” for an example recently making the rounds). If you’re at all involved in higher education, you know that for the last few years, that job market has been just awful. Indeed, this year’s “good news” is that the number of positions compared to last year is relatively stable. This still isn’t great news, however, as Inside Higher Education points out:

While these findings suggest that the number of openings in English is level compared to 2009-10, the total is 20.3 percent fewer than in 2008-9, and 39.8 percent fewer than in 2007-8. For foreign languages, this year’s total, flat compared to 2009-10, is 16.9 percent fewer than the 2008-9 total and 39.3 percent fewer than the total the year before that (“A Tough Job Outlook“).

The article also includes the obligatory quote from Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA:

In terms of major changes that departments can execute, Feal said that she hoped more graduate programs would “think more of the teaching mission of higher education” when doctoral students are trained. This means recognizing that most of those Ph.D. students aren’t going to find positions where they are expected to write monographs at research universities, but are going to be in faculty jobs where teaching is the focus. So rather than focusing almost entirely on research, graduate programs should be “working with graduate students who have a passion for teaching to help them become prepared for the teaching jobs that exist today,” she said (“A Tough Job Outlook“).

Well and good, BUT what Feal neglects here is that those teaching jobs are also disappearing fast, replaced by cheap adjunct labor. For too many graduate students, the idea of a tenure-track job, be it research- or teaching-focused, is just not a realistic possibility. Many of them are living lives of near-poverty, cobbling together adjunct gigs or leaving the academy all together. What Feal and others often do not mention, however, is that there is a third possibility — what Bethany Nowviskie calls the “alternate academic” track, which she defines as “positions within or around the academy but outside of the ranks of the tenure-track teaching faculty” (“#alt-ac: alternate academic careers for humanities scholars“).

As a holder of a Ph.D. in German Studies who decided early on that I did not want to pursue tenure-track positions, I have managed to carve out an alternate academic path for myself. Currently, I hold positions as Director of the Women’s Center, Acting Director of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program, Affiliated Faculty in German, and Instructor in the Honors Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I also maintain a research program, with one article coming out soon and a book and article currently in progress.

By now, you may be wondering how my story relates to the above quote from Rosemary Feal. Or in other words, do I actually have a point? I do indeed have a point and it is that the most useful experience I had during my time in graduate school was my administrative assistantships at the DEFA Film Library, where I worked as Assistant to the Director and later as a Conference and Grants Coordinator. It was there that I learned how to be an administrator, which is after all my main job these days. But I never hear Feal or others recommending that humanities graduate education be revised to include administrative experiences in addition to research and teaching — and that is what I think would be most useful as it could also help with job searches outside of the academy. It would also serve academia well as the students who do go on to tenure-track postions and then become administrators would have had some prior administrative experience. The MLA, as one of the largest scholarly associations for the humanities, could help by talking not just about research and teaching, but about alternate academic paths when talking about graduate education.

8 thoughts on “The MLA and “Alternate Academics”

  1. Terrific conclusive paragraph. I rarely hear of programs recommending internships within higher ed administration, though many of the admins creating vision and direction for the universities are Ph.D.s in the liberal arts and sciences. I hope your testimony here informs the discussion of the #alt-ac at MLA11.

  2. Oh I could hug you for writing this.
    I’ve been told again and again by various professors that I was “destroying my career” by choosing to be a writing center director and then the director of a very small department (and writing center) while finishing my PhD. I kept on thinking “You’re wrong. How can you not be wrong? The other students aren’t getting jobs. Why should I do what they are doing?” So I didn’t do what they did.
    I’m finishing, I’m at MLA, and I have had a number of successes so far (campus visits lined up) though it’s too early to say if I’ll get offers or not. I’m pursuing the type of job I love, still get to do research, and have the experience to open up opportunities I would not have had otherwise. I’d be happy to advise graduate students to pursue similar paths, because it’s like having the best of both worlds.

  3. I’m glad this resonated with both of you — and I’m really thrilled to hear other success stories as I think that’s key to changing the way this conversation takes place and to opening up new paths. I really hope this is taken to heart by the MLA as they have the power to urge departments to change (on that note, I’ll add that I was pleased to see Rosemary Feal’s response to this). This job crisis is only going to get worse, I fear, so it’s up to us to help change things.

  4. Caroline McCracken-Flesher

    I entirely agree. In fact we could think more widely again. Too often the academy considers those who find employment elsewhere as failures. This year I went to the MLA’s Careers for Humanists session, as a faculty member in a department pondering initiating a Ph.D.. I hoped to hear what alternate employment our students could consider (and we could consider in their education), and why these were good options. The doctoral candidates at my table learned a lot from the people running the session, who identified many possible careers, but these students lamented that no one discussed why working outside the academy might be a GOOD thing. Here are some thoughts: in our current climate of punditry, where the Chronicle and New York Times weekly celebrate the death of the Humanities (this position is usually mounted by a disgruntled English professor who actually has a full-time faculty responsibility), students who go on to careers outside universities may provide the strongest voice for what we do. They, of all people, know what they gained in their doctoral studies that makes them an outstanding member of another profession. At a time when, despite the collapse of Wall Street, it’s the Humanities that come under attack, the voices and energy of these colleagues may prove the most valuable in arguing publicly for the Humanities in general and English in particular as an essential civic and professional good.
    cmf Wyoming

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