Alt-Ac's Shining Moment


  • Public Writing


  • Graduate School
  • Higher Education

First published on Medium, May 8, 2020. View on Medium

I had a meltdown on twitter the other day. I wrote a thread, and then I deleted it, and then I wrote another thread. The gist was this:

I cannot save academia.

I am, by many measures, an academic failure. I do not have the title of professor, the privileges of tenure, the access and prestige of a university affiliation. My name will not make it onto my department’s list of successful alumni. This is a painful truth. I am bitter.

And yet suddenly, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, I have also become a success story.

By any measure that is not the tenure track, I am incredibly lucky. I have a job that draws on my scholarly expertise and on skills I developed through my PhD. My work directly supports the research and teaching I believe in. I am paid well, and my contract is not term-limited nor dependent on soft money.

(Added bonus: my colleagues are brilliant, dedicated, and supportive.)

So as universities have instituted hiring freezes and the academic job market for the humanities, which was already abysmally poor, has begun to disappear altogether, departments have started looking to people like me for help.

By inviting a post-phd success story to speak to their graduate students, they can provide comfort and hope to people who are quite rightly angry and anxious and scared.

By outsourcing the labor of professionalization onto people who they saw, six short weeks ago, as failures, they can also shrug off responsibility for a crisis that they couldn’t have foreseen but that has also been decades in the making.

I have done many of these departmental visits since I left academia nine months ago, and I hope to do many more. I do them because I care so deeply about graduate students, about your futures, your anxieties and fears and angers and hope. I do them because I like to think that maybe, in some small way, I can help someone who is struggling find their way to a better place.

But I also have very mixed feelings about serving as a bandaid for a system that let me down.

I cannot fix the academic job market. And the alt-ac market will not solve the problem that academia is facing now.

A few months ago, I created a spreadsheet of post-phd success stories, people who are willing and able to talk with grad students about their careers.

When the pandemic set in, and the job market crashed, I made the spreadsheet public. There are more than 30 people on the list now, and the variety of jobs is incredible. Some people work in academic libraries and departments. Others in k-12 education. Others for media and game companies. Others for the government or for nonprofits.

Damn these people and their lives are cool.

And damn, they are generous with their time and their energy, offering themselves up to the internet, to the students who are looking for help in this time of need.

I think of these people, many of whom are my friends, and I think of how to get to a place where they could stand up and shine, they first had to go through suffering and loss and heartbreak and betrayal.

So many of them went to graduate school because they wanted to be professors. So many of them were destroyed by higher education, cast out by their departments, left to flounder and struggle and sink. And still they offer themselves freely to the institutions that hurt them.

What models of academic generosity they are. We are.

I do not want this responsibility. I am fucking angry that it is mine to bear.

A friend shares an email that was sent by their doctoral program:

Classes are winding down, this year’s job cycle is mostly over, and a lock-down summer looms before us. And let’s face it: the job market hasn’t been good — neither the academic market or the private sector. But there’s a silver lining: there has hardly ever been a better time to explore career possibilities.

We laugh, and laugh, and laugh. My friend writes:


Way back in the 90s, you may recall, there was a job market crisis across English departments. People wrote then about the obligation that academic departments have towards their students. They wrote about how graduate recruitment and education and stipends should change to meet a changing world.

And when that didn’t happen, those scholars went and found jobs in other industries and they paved the way for people like me.

Way back in 2008, you may recall, there was an economic recession. People wrote then about the obligation that academic departments have towards their students. They wrote about how graduate recruitment and education and stipends should change to meet a changing world.

And when that didn’t happen, those scholars went and found jobs in other industries and they paved the way for people like me.

For thirty years (and more!), academic departments have failed to address problems in their design and structure so big that they betray the very mission of higher education. Problems like equity in recruitment and career outcomes. Problems like exploitation and student debt. Problems like racism and sexism and ableism and classism and xenophobia and harassment and abuse.

For thirty years (and more!) faculty have failed to change their departments to address these cancers at the heart of higher education. #NotAllFaculty, of course, and #NotOnlyFaculty. But at some point we have to acknowledge that the people with job security, cultural capital, and a mandate to care for students have not done nearly enough.

The fact is that a robust and generous community of phds working outside of the tenure track exists despite universities, not because of them.

But oh, they need us now.

It is my opinion that the generosity that post-phds have to offer should not be boundless, and it should not come without strings attached.

If you are a graduate student, I am here for you.

But if you are a faculty member, a department chair, or a dean, I have demands.

I appreciate that many of you are thinking about emergency relief for humanities students. (In my day job, I am too.) Here’s a great thread on how to act in support of graduating PhDs, the people who are most vulnerable in the immediate future.

But we cannot afford to delude ourselves that this crisis is short term, and that it is only the class of 2020 that needs our help. The change needs to be widespread and it needs to be radical and it needs to begin yesterday and yes, we need you on board.

First, any post-phds who are providing professional development support to your university deserve respect in the form of financial compensation. Consider it reparations. Pay them for the harm you’ve caused. And pay them for their expertise.

Second, it is time to eradicate language and regulations that prioritize academic careers from your department. Stop justifying exploitation or unreasonable expectations with the elusive promise of a tenure track job. Stop tying student achievement to their professional success in higher education. Stop punishing students for imagining other futures.

Third, it is time to reevaluate your criteria for accepting graduate students. If only fifty percent of your graduates get faculty jobs, then you should either accept fewer students, or accept students who want to do something other than work in higher education.

If you choose the latter, then you are going to have to make a lot of changes.

Fourth, it is long past time to change how we do graduate education. It is my completely ordinary and unradical position that even if the goal is to train future faculty members, seminars, comprehensive exams, and dissertations need to be restructured to better meet the changing expectations of higher education. If the goal is anything else — if you really want to support alt-ac career outcomes for graduate students — then everything is going to need to be different.

Finally, if you haven’t already, it is time to educate yourself about the future of higher education. Here are some places to start:

  • Putting the Humanities PhD to Work by Katina Rogers
  • Generous Thinking by Kathleen Fitzpatrick
  • The Great Mistake by Christopher Newfield
  • Presumed Incompetent edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris
  • Academia Next by Bryan Alexander
  • What the Humanities Do in a Crisis by me
  • Rocking the Academy by Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill
  • Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom
  • Postdoctoral Laborers Bill of Rights (collectively authored)
  • She Works Too Hard for the Money by Rebecca Colesworthy
  • Escape from New York (And From Columbia University) by Eduardo Vergara Torres trans. by the author with Douglas Kristopher Smith
  • The Pandemic is the Time to Resurrect the Public University by Corey Robin
  • Collaborative Essay: Could Coronavirus Make Academia Livable Again? by Ana Almar Liante
  • Black Exodus: Young, Black, Gifted, and Exiting the Academy by Lori Latric Martin. ht Kim Gallon

Post-script to anyone who wants to make change in their department: you can start with this handy questionnaire, created with the help of many colleagues on Twitter.

Post-script to my alt-ac friends and colleagues: Thank you.

post-post script to those looking for more information about inviting alt-acs to speak on campus: read this handy companion-piece.