A while back, I was invited to contribute an essay to #alt-academy, a collection exploring “unconventional or alternative careers for people with academic training,” edited by Katina Rogers of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The term #altac, short for “alternative academic,” emerged from the digital humanities community back in 2009 as a way to refer to careers within the academy other than traditional tenure-stream faculty careers that leverage the knowledge, skills, and dispositions developed within PhD programs.
Here’s Bethany Nowviskie, founding editor of #alt-academy, on the term, from 2012:
“The term ‘alt-ac’ primarily is itself meant to provide an alternative – an alternative to the prevailing notion that, for graduate students, there is one straight and narrow career path to fulfillment and return on the investment of their humanities educations and meaningful contribution to the profession – and that is to follow the tenure track… I began to see a clear need for a banner (a temporary one, I’ll emphasize) under which to host conversations about the special challenges and opportunities facing humanities scholars who choose to keep their talents within the academy but who work outside the narrow zone for which grad school prepared them.”
Since then, the #altac term has been widely adopted, not only within the humanities, but across the academy. I’m proud to say that, as a teaching center director with a PhD in mathematics, I have an #altac career. I mean no slight to those on the tenure-track, but… there are other paths.
Last month, my contribution to the #alt-academy collection went live. It’s called “An Indirect Journey to Indirect Impact: From Math Major to Teaching Center Director,” and you can think of it as my secret origin. How did an undergrad with dreams of becoming a math professor at a small liberal arts college end up directing a center for teaching at a research university? That’s the question I answer in my essay. It’s part of the “Looking for Signposts” cluster, edited by Brian Croxall of Emory University. Like Brian, I’m often asked by graduate students (and sometimes faculty), “How did you get your job?” Now I can point them to this essay.
One of the themes of my essay is echoed in the other “Signposts” essay published last month, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association. Comparing her #altac career option to the security of a tenured professor position, she writes:
In the other direction lay a path along which I could only see a short distance. I had no real sense of where it might turn next, of what I might do beyond. Such an unknown future presents a terrifying prospect, when one has been accustomed to untrammeled clarity. But it may be that only in the unknown does real possibility lie.
I experienced a few “unknown futures” in my journey from math major to teaching center director. As Brian notes in his introduction to the “Signposts” cluster, #altac career paths are “highly idiosyncratic,” but, just maybe, my story (and Kathleen’s) can help other academics facing unknown futures approach those futures with a little less terror and a little more possibility.