“Alt-Ac” No More

After five years on the “alt-ac” track, I’m leaving and doing what some consider unthinkable. I’m going to join the dark side of the academy. Effective this August, I’m joining the Department of History at the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) as a tenure-track assistant professor. For those uninterested in where I’m going who want to get to why I’m leaving the alt-ac track, you should just skip right ahead to the bolded section header below. Those interested in why IUPUI, stay right here for a bit.


For me, IUPUI is a great home for a variety of reasons.

The history department has a really strong commitment to both undergraduate and master’s level teaching. They support a vibrant public history program and are looking to more fully incorporate digital history into their teaching and training.

IUPUI’s department of history has a really strong sense of ethical admissions. They limit the number of students they admit at the master’s level every year so that they can provide living wages and support packages for their advanced students. As someone who spent eleven years as a masters and ph.d. student, that investment in producing students who aren’t just educated but have minimal debt struck a huge chord with me. I remember that panicked feeling you’d have when bills came due and you had to frantically check to see if your paycheck had been deposited. I don’t want that for students I mentor.

At the undergraduate level, IUPUI is having the same conversations many campuses are—how do we increase the number of history majors? how do we update the curriculum? how do we better prepare our students with the skills they need to survive in the 21st century job market? Yet, what resonated with me at IUPUI was that these conversations weren’t just conversations where everyone lamented that the humanities were getting creamed by the sciences. Instead, it felt like the faculty, staff, and administrators are actively trying to create solutions that don’t turn the humanities into a tool or by-product of student’s education, but instead keep the values of the humanities (critical reading, writing, thinking, asking hard questions, providing multiplicities of answers) central to the student experience.

A major trigger for me at some campus visits was being told that the humanities should just emulate the sciences in undergraduate classrooms by creating large-scale laboratories. (I should note, this wasn’t every campus visit…but enough that I could sense the theme.) While that sounds entirely feasible, when I asked about funding those types of facilities and courses, the answers were less than reassuring. Administrators hadn’t really thought through the repercussions of moving to that type of model on a massive scale and seemed to think that one faculty member with some support from campus IT could produce high-end research products in just 15 short weeks.

Part of what I love about IUPUI as a department was that they were interested in my entire teaching and research portfolio: not just digital humanities but also critical sport studies, Native American and ethnic studies, and cultural history in the more traditional methodological form. They want me to teach across all of my areas of interest and seem really excited about my scholarship being used to broaden what the department wants to be doing. They also didn’t look askance when I talked about wanting to move back and forth between “traditional” (read: plain old archival reseearch) and digital methodologies and analysis. No one thought it was crazy that I’m already plotting my third book project—that likely won’t have any digital component at all—and my next major digital project—a large-scale project with a former colleague where I’m going to be the main technical workforce.

Administratively, there were some other major positives that weighed into my decision. At every campus I visited, I nosed around a bit about how the department and the college viewed the relationship between tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track faculty, staff, and administrators. I love that IUPUI recognized that it needs to keep excellent folks who aren’t on the tenure track. Non-tenure track faculty who hold permanent positions I spoke to talked highly of the tenure-track folks and the university adminstrators. And more importantly, the permanent folks share in the governance of the department by participating and voting in departmental meetings and committee work. Given the continuing decline in tenure-track positions, I really appreciated that the department of history was thinking outside of the “us-them” dynamic that permeates many institutions today.

The faculty and staff were actually happy in the department…even when I did the 40% deduction for the sales job that happens at every campus visit. In group settings, everyone was talking to each other, asking about their latest project, course, or family issue. In one-on-one, they talked to me about their professional lives and how IUPUI has worked with them when they’ve had personal and professional opportunities. As someone looking to have not just a professional life but also a personal one, a department that works with people’s lives rather than against it is really great.

Why am I leaving the Alt-Ac track?

For the past five years, I’ve had a variety of alt-ac jobs in the digital humanities: post-doctoral fellow, program manager, associate director, and assistant director. I’ve pretty much lived the digital humanities arc that is being promoted as the future career path for a lot of scholars. I’ve got a good steady job where I get 20% research release to work on my own projects and exist within the confines of a well-recognized digital humanities center that employs some really exceptional people. I spend 80% of my paid time administrating the center—which has taken the form of grant writing, project development, day-to-day management of staffing, running outreach, project managing other researcher’s projects, etc. To some extent, my job is the grab-bag of DH where I get to traipse across the variety of things it takes to be an engaged digital humanist.

At this point, you are probably shaking your head. Why would I leave such a plum DH job to move to the tenure line? Haven’t I heard tenure is dead. Why am I going to become the “man”?

After five years at a variety of different institutions, here are a couple of alt-ac loopholes that have tripped up my career hopes:

1) To teach, I have to teach on overage….as an adjunct….at preset adjunct pay rates. Most semesters this means that to get the opportunity to transfer my research into the classroom, I work not just my 40 hour a week job….but I also spend another 3 hours per week in the classroom plus all the prep and grading that has to get done. I don’t even earn 10% of my rate to teach a class—that tenure-track faculty get 25% of their salary for.

Part of the reason I became a college-level academic is because I love teaching. I like working with students to expand their knowledge of history and grow their skills in researching and writing. But every time I teach a class, I turn into a minimum-wage employee once you add in all the things I have to do to prepare, teach, grade, staff, and wrap up a class. Conservatively, I spend 48 hours teaching, another couple of hundred prepping and revising the teaching materials, and a couple more hundred grading (depending on the number of students). What this means is I make less than $11 per hour…and that is if I can keep the class size manageable.

2) I don’t own my own intellectual property. As as alt-ac staff member, the university HR policy says that any work I do is the property of the university. You wouldn’t think this would be a problem—DH loves open source technology so IP isn’t an issue right? But what about those articles, books, and other research products that can be published and generate income. Turns out, the University can claim 50% of the proceeds from any commercial work I do—even outside of working hours if it pertains in any way to my job. And since my job as DH scholar is writ broadly across everything in the humanities, I own nothing. Even if it is an idea I have in the shower that never uses any university resources. My contract says that if it is related to the humanities, the University can claim it for themselves.

3) There is no promotion track. By and large, with a very small handful of exceptions, to run a DH center at the director-level, you’ve got to be either a tenured faculty member or a tenured librarian. I’ve been at three different institutions in three different states and at every institution when I ask about what the promotion track is for my alt-ac position, I’ve been met with limited options. Without tenure, I’ll likely never get the opportunity to run a research center. No matter how many successful projects, millions of external dollars raised, without tenure, I’m stuck. Even if I didn’t want to potentially one-day become a center director, alt-ac positions don’t seem to have figured out that it might be a good idea that their staff want to evolve in their jobs…doing the same thing over and over again for years and years isn’t fulfilling for me. I want to grow in my job, learning new things, trying out new scholarly approaches.

4) Sometimes it does need to be about the research. I work in a research center. You’d think that I’d get to spend tons of time actually doing research. But I don’t. I spend the majority of my time administrating and managing other people doing research. I miss the archive. I miss getting to play with technologies. And I miss following the rabbit hole of history. One day a week just isn’t the way I work as a historian. Because I’m not eligible for any campus support for research because of my staff status (no grants, here. staff need not apply) and I’m not eligible for sabbaticals (staff need not apply since we aren’t scholars) to do the type of research I need to do to start new projects, I’ve got to bring in external funding. So I’m constantly in a cycle of looking for new money. And sometimes, the projects I want to do just aren’t ones that fit with external funding opportunities.

At this point, you’ve gone from shaking your head at me to probably thinking that I’m a greedy scholar who doesn’t understand the realities of what I’ve given up for the tenure-track. I mean, the tenure-track is a horrible place where you get pulled to shreds between teaching, research, and service. But here’s the thing: at least on the tenure-track there is a clearly articulated set of criteria for promotion and tenure that isn’t being made up as I go along. Universities don’t know how to handle someone like me. I basically do all the scholarly work (teach a 1-1 as an adjunct, book contracts, articles, reviews, sit on multiple committees, do external community service) and all the staff work (committee service, day-to-day running of things, etc.) But in doing both, in trying to keep my scholarly interests alive, I end up with the worst of both worlds. I get restrictive staff contracts with all the obligations of being a first rate scholar….with no way to qualify for the limited support structures that the University offers for scholarly research and development.

So, I had to make a choice: stay in a plum job and give up a huge chunk of my scholarly interest and identity or give up the alt-ac job and join the “dark side”. I’ve decided to bring some light to the dark side. Here’s hoping I made the right decision.



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