Name That Career: The Difficulties of Writing about Those Jobs
Allen Mikaelian, September 2013
There are many editing quandaries that can be solved with a quick look at a style guide or a clarifying conversation with the author, but the more stimulating ones involve extended discussion with colleagues and research into common usage. And then there are those where all that discussion and research leaves one with a deeper understanding of the problem, but no easy answers.
Here's one—what should we call jobs that are filled by folks with humanities graduate training, but don't have one or more of the following characteristics: teaching postsecondary students, supported independent research, protections of academic freedom, or tenure? If you think that there should be a word or term for that kind of job, do not worry, there are several. The problem is that when you choose and use one, you are likely communicating more than you intended. My problem, as an editor of a magazine that wants to help push the conversation about these jobs forward, is that ultimately, at some point before the monthly deadline, we have to pick one and move on, as loaded as the chosen term may be.
My other problem is that critics of this or that term almost always have a point. The distinctions they draw are not minor. It's true that the terms "nonacademic" or "nontenure track" define a set of career outcomes negatively, as critics of this term argue. It's not hard to sympathize with those characterized as nonacademic when they note that the term defines the academic as the default—making them the outliers. I've seen the phrase "outside of academe" used as a replacement, and I've seen others dismantle it as similarly placing a ring around the supposed best while leaving "outside" the unfortunate rest.
"Alt-ac" has been embraced by a wide variety of writers who hated applying "non" to what is often a positive career choice, and even if the term's not pretty, it's stridently nonjudgmental. When I see it appearing repeatedly on a printed page I wish it weren't so hyphenated, but I also accept that it wasn't invented on or for the printed page. The term was born on Twitter and its spread was facilitated by the fact that it has so few characters and looks good with a hashtag. Unfortunately it doesn't particularly work with a hashtag, as the same hyphen that vexes the printed page breaks the hyperlink at "alt," so a click by an unwary job-seeking PhD leads to lists of tweets about alternative music, latex fashions, and alternative traffic routes. Hence the rise of #altac.
The rapid organic spread of alt-ac has generated a new set of conversations. "Confusion remains, however, about what exactly alt-ac means," wrote Brenda Bethman and C. Shaun Longstreet in Inside Higher Ed earlier this year. Bethman and Longstreet use it "as an umbrella term to refer to full-time non-teaching and non-research positions within higher education." However, it also encompasses "positions beyond campus" including "public historians, librarians, museum curators, independent scholars, professional writers, etc."
This is a thoughtful definition and one that many would accept, but it shows also how the term is not necessarily an all-purpose substitute for "nonacademic," but is often used to define a smaller subset of those who work in jobs that have a significant relationship with the academy or who retain "academic" as part of their identity. Would it include John Lawrence, the former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, who writes in this issue about what his history PhD meant to his career? Does it need to? Or is he clearly "nonacademic" even though he worked on public history projects and observed the Congress, for nearly 40 years, through a historian's eyes?
This is not to criticize the term "alt-ac" or the intentions of those who use it. But it does matter how we use it, or any other term for that matter. As an editor I have to inform casual users of the term that some embrace it as a movement, not just an employment category. On the other hand, we have to seriously consider those who have objected to this term because they work in the academy and believe the term emphasizes the "alt" rather than the "ac," reinforcing a hierarchy between those who are on the tenure track and those who are not. And we should note that others object because they want to see themselves as distinct from the academy, as outside reformers, not parallel followers. Some of these have been arguing for "post-ac" as either an additional or an oppositional term.
We talk about all this frequently at the AHA office: because we want to get it right, because we know we will hear from one faction or another when we don't, and because many of us are PhDs, ABDs, or grad students, we are personally and professionally invested in this conversation. It's clear from our perspectives how wrapped up in individual identities and aspirations the issue can become, and that these discussions about which term to use and how to define it are more than just semantics. It matters that we don't think in terms of "plan B," as James Grossman and Anthony Grafton pointed out years ago in a column in this magazine, and it matters that so many still use that term (even when quoting or citing Grossman and Grafton!).
The shifting terms and the disagreements about them suggest more than anything the unsettled nature of the conversation and the discipline: New opportunities are opening up while traditional ones are becoming less available or less appealing, and the academy is expanding its reach while facing an identity crisis of its own.
But we don't want the unsettled part of this conversation to prevent us from engaging in it, so we will at times publish essays with terms that some find objectionable. The best choice for an editor facing an unsettled vocabulary is simply to flag the terms and ask the right questions—weeding out any unintended innuendo and ensuring that the author uses the term he or she prefers, but is fully informed of how it may be interpreted.
And sometimes we'll take a pass. We launched a series in this issue of Perspectives devoted to history PhDs who are alt-ac, non-ac, post-ac, or non-fac, depending on your preference. I had to call the series something, and ultimately dodged all the issues above (maybe) with the pleasingly anodyne title "Career Paths." No sooner had I happily settled on this unassailable title, however, than I saw the much-retweeted quip attributed to Williard McCarty who "didn't follow a career path but followed the smell of food on the wind," which made me reconsider my choice, over lunch.