What Does It Mean to Be Postacademic? A #postac Manifesto

What Does It Mean to Be Postacademic? A #postac Manifesto

Currer Bell and I collaborated to write this. We welcome your feedback.

Recently, the crises in higher education have sparked numerous discussions regarding academic institutional reform. Many of these conversations have been started by the various stakeholders in academic cultures — Deans, Regents, tenured and contingent faculty, and current and former graduate students (among others). Also in conversation are those individuals more tangentially related to the academy in alt-ac positions that are affiliated with but peripheral to traditional academic disciplinary structures and organizations.

But what about those who have left the “academy,” literally or psychologically/philosophically? For these individuals, we have taken up the term, “post-ac” or “postacademic.” We feel that there is an important distinction to be made between post-ac and alt-ac, and wish to account for that difference here. In our experience, post-ac is more than just being outside of academia or past one’s academic career: it’s a set of values about, and way of relating to, academia. We envision “postacademic”/”post-ac”/the “postacademic movement” as a separate (but related) phenomenon from alt-ac with its own history and its own momentum. If alt-ac is the good daughter of academe, post-ac is the family’s black sheep–ready to air the dirty laundry in the hopes of shaking up the (damaging and corrupt) status quo.

What Is Alt-ac?

First, we think it’s important to articulate our understanding of “alt-ac.” We draw primarily on resources linked from the Alt-Academy website, mostly written by Beth Nowviskie. This seems to be the clearinghouse for alt-ac conversations, although we know that some might disagree with or dispute our interpretation of this term. In “Alt-ac in context,” Nowviskie writes of alt-ac:

… it’s really about an alternative academia, a new imagination for the systems in which we operate.

Nowviskie coined the phrase alt-ac to disrupt the binary thinking in academia, in which there are only two options: valid, academic careers, and invalid “non-academic” careers. She writes in “Two and a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks:”

Too much of the discourse suggested that, beyond tenure-eligible employment, you may either be an adjunct in Limbo (presumed to be seeking a “real” academic job) or someone who has moved beyond the Pale, to a “non-academic” career. “Academic-as-fulltime-faculty” or a “non-academic” everything-else. That was it, that was the message we were giving our grad students. But my own experience was very different — first as a member of UVa’s research faculty (my final title in that role was Senior Research Scientist – perhaps the only one ever with an English PhD) and later in leadership roles in a library, a digital humanities lab, a university-based think-tank, and a number of professional societies – all of which certainly felt to me like academic employment. So, a couple of years ago, 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.

But Nowviskie goes on to elaborate that in her mind, alt-ac is more than merely about where you find work. It’s also about practices and relations to the academic institution. She describes alt-acers as “hybrid humanities scholars” for whom “service was never a dirty word” and collaboration, sometimes messy collaboration, is standard (versus the lone genius in the tower with a candle) (“Alt-ac in context”). Currer and I note the importance of this open source attitude, evidenced by the Alt-academy website, which is a “grassroots, publish-then-filter approach to networked scholarly communication” (“How It Works”). William Pannapacker believes this fresh and flexible approach to academic training is the reason that “alt-ac is the future of the academy.”  It should be noted that alt-ac is not synonymous with the Digital Humanities. As Michael Berube has written, the two share similar values and mission and have become the repositories of hope for folks in academia: “The alt-ac discussion also tends to be conflated (reductively and mistakenly) with the DH discussion—that is, the emergence of the digital humanities, onto which, in recent years, we have deposited so many of our hopes and anxieties. Somehow we expect the digital humanities to revolutionize scholarly communication, save university presses, crowdsource peer review, and provide humanities Ph.D.’s with good jobs in libraries, institutes, nonprofits, and innovative start-ups.” (“The Humanities, Unraveled”)

See here and here for more lengthy definitional excursions about what alt-ac means. You may also be interested in this Storify conversation, in which I ask a number of alt and post-academic folks to articulate the difference between alt and post-ac.

Currer and I note that alt-ac is at heart scholarly. It is interested in research, publication, and disciplinary conversation. “Academic” is an active and meaningful identity to an altac person. Alt-acers call themselves “Dr. So and So” and/or identify as academics. Alt-ac has people who identify as “independent scholars.” They maintain CVs. Alt-acers often maintain a research (or R&D) and publication profile, and bring their disciplinary training to bear every day on problem sets of great importance to higher education. (“Alt-ac in context”) We also noted that alt-ac conversations often encourage people to finish graduate school and thrive in academia, and to maintain academic activity even if not working on the tenure track. Alt-ac sites/bloggers also invite others to openly share their tips/tricks and “hack” institutional life (e.g. Gradhacker, Profhacker). This seems to be part of the service/open source ethos of alt-ac. To cut through, to a certain extent, the BS.

Alt-acers want to “do academia on their own terms” (Brenda, comment on “Are Post-Ac Bloggers…” at Mama Nervosa). Alt-ac is minimally concerned with the “wholly non-academic (what-color-is-your-parachute, maybe-should-have-gotten-an-MBA) job” (Nowviskie on Prof Hacker). Yet there is an emerging interest in academic entrepreneurship, which expands the definition of “academic” in an interesting way, but also calls into question the parameters that bound alt-ac. (See here as well.) What about people employed at for-profit schools? Are they alt-ac? What if you write novels after leaving grad school, like Barbara Kingsolver: is she alt-ac because she draws on her science graduate work when she crafts fiction? Where does alt-ac end and post-ac begin?

Currer and I feel like there are some problematic hierarchies at work within alt-ac that might reproduce the same marginalization and inequality that already plagues traditional relations in the academy. This is especially concerning when we consider that alt-ac conversations take place in graduate departments across the country, as frustrated faculty frantically try to find places for their graduates to go after the degree. Often, alt-ac careers — Special Collections librarian, grant writing, adjuncting — are the only alternatives to faculty work mentioned to graduate students by their advisors and mentors who do not know/understand life outside the academy.

Who is Alt Ac?

And here we mean more than just who “counts” as an alternative academic, but who is doing the talking about Alt-ac. Who are the alt-ac pros?

Alt-ac includes people with academic backgrounds who now work in “alternative” academic careers (Alt-academy says “off the tenure track but within the academic orbit”). Many proponents of the alt-ac mission hold advanced degrees and have prestigious appointments in traditional academic departments (e.g. Beth Nowviskie, Director of Digital Scholarship), in unique centers or projects housed in traditional institutions of higher learning and affiliated cultural institutions; but many are also adjuncts, grad students, or part-timers.

Alt-Ac is peopled with current graduate students who plan to finish their degrees and seek vocations in institutions of higher learning, or other legitimate and related cultural institutions, but do not plan to apply for or work as tenure-track faculty.

Where is Alt Ac?

And by this we are wondering where these conversations are occurring and how people access the alt-ac world. As we perused articles and websites devoted to alt-ac, we noticed that it is primarily in the academy. It is in universities and sanctioned satellite cultural institutions, such as libraries and museums, but it is primarily in institutions of higher education. Alt-ac conversations take place on websites hosted by institutions of higher education. Alt-ac conversations take place at conventions hosted by traditional academic entities, e.g. MLA 2013 featured panels about alt-ac careers for humanities scholars.

Alt-ac conversations take place on the internet in the form of career path advice websites such as Versatile PhD and #Alt-academy, both of which originated as institutionally sponsored projects (VersatilePhD originated as WRK4US, a listserv affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and hosted by Duke U, and#Alt-academy is affiliated with a think tank and hosted by NYU’s Digital Library). Both are open to the public (except some parts of Versatile PhD, which require institutional affiliation and subscription). Alt-ac is all over twitter as well.

What Reform Does Alt-Ac Seek?

From our reading, we created this list of reform actions that we feel the alt-ac community generally supports. Reform that:

  • Improves the working conditions of adjuncts as an issue of pressing importance to the future of higher ed, and as an issue that addresses troubling class/labor divisions among tenured faculty, contingent faculty, and staff/service “alternative” academics.
  • Transforms graduate education to prepare grad students with more skills for work beyond tenured professorhood. (see for example)
    Opens up the academy, breaks down barriers between the ivory tower and the real world, encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration and conversation. Interested in democratizing knowledge. See for example Visible Margin, a publication of Alt-academy. Alt-ac is willing to acknowledge messy process and the pain of transformation.
  • Transforms disciplinary conversations to broaden the application of their theories and concepts beyond traditional academic genres and roles. Alt-acers maintain a strong grounding in their home disciplines and seek to expand what is legitimately embraced in academic conversations (example: “The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities currently features projects that employ mapping, transcription, and augmented reality technologies to make research in textual fields like history and literature more accessible to researchers and non-researchers alike.  Also see “Who We Are” at Alt-academy.

As already noted, Alt-ac is seen by some as the “future” of the academy. The academy will become alt-ac.

In contrast, we offer the following working explication of post-ac as distinct from alt-ac in definition, population, and practice.


What is Post-Ac?
At its most basic, post-ac is departure from the academy, either by choice or force. This is the most common definition of post-ac, the most literal take on what it means.   But we think post-ac is more complex than this. Post-ac is a separate movement, perhaps developing from, alt-ac discussions. See here for a rough timeline of these movements.

Post-ac can be both a refusal or an inability to engage with the academy. Post-acs opt out or get shut out. Post-ac is at heart a state of disillusionment.

Post-ac is an identity or way of identifying in relation to the institution of academia, and a belief that the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable, and therefore impossible to directly engage with (probably other adjectives could be included here). Lauren once wrote:

I see alt-ac mostly for grad students who plan to stay, selling them the notion that staying is wise and there are options that they can learn to love as much as they loved the fantasy of being a professor. This feels markedly different from the conversations in the post-ac blogging world, which are about breaking with the academy. Our pain is disjuncture from the identity that I think alt-ac is trying to maintain and expand. Our topics and methods feel similar, but our projects feel different.

For many post-acers, post-ac means being “over” academia. It is an identity characterized by completely divorcing oneself and one’s identity as an adult away from academia, as a thinker/writer/worker, away from the academy. (see Jen Polk, Amanda Krauss) Life eventually goes on for post-acers, although the academic experience is indelibly a part of who we are now. However, we claim/practice our academic identity differently than alt-acers. Post-ac makes clear that academia or higher ed is a place of work just like every other place of work. It shouldn’t be exalted as a special place, as a place devoid of conflict or problems, or as an ideal. When the academy is demystified, leaving it or staying in it become less charged choices.

Post-ac is primarily interested in helping the academically disenfranchised move on with life. Post-ac is focused on vocation inasmuch as you need an income to have shelter and food. Post-ac is interested in helping people find any job that can help them be healthy and financially solvent, and eventually a career path (whatever it may be, we don’t judge) that might even be fulfilling. That a post-acer may end up working in an alt-ac capacity is incidental to that person’s particular skillset and desires; we believe that it is possible to work in alt-ac but “be” post-ac. (Lauren, for example, does not consider herself alt-ac although she does work in an alt-ac capacity.) Post-ac is interested in issues of personal life and identity as well as vocational prospects. Post-ac is less concerned with “refashioning academic identity” as it is in helping people move on from their academic experience and build a new life and identity that is not centered around vocation or institutional affiliation. This is a hard process, and we acknowledge a lot of pain. Post-ac acknowledges the enormity of the crisis of un- and underemployment for grad students. Post-ac places a higher premium on being able to pay your bills than on CV lines. Post-ac is interested in survival. Post-ac has no shame about corporate employment, welfare, “selling out,” or the need to talk about dollars and cents when it comes to jobs and debt. Post-ac does not care if you finish grad school or not, and does not share productivity tips or talk about surviving the dissertation. Post-ac is a critique of the academy, its mythology, and its structure.

Post-ac discourages people from pursuing graduate work.

Post-ac no longer feels that school is an answer to many of life’s problems. We are skeptical that institutions will be able to fully address the reform needs of students.

We have a hunch that the future of rich, intellectual conversations might exist outside of institutions or conventions that cost hundreds of dollars. Maybe the future exists on some kind of information superhighway filled with smart people. Maybe.

And we’re kinda hoping to reduce application and enrollment in graduate study a la Pannapacker. (Is Pannapacker post-ac? We think so. Is Berube? Maybe!)

Like alt-ac, post-ac wants to demystify the workings of academia and debunk myths about academic life. We hope to expose the flaws and negativity that exist within current academic insitutions, genres, processes, and relations, and opens the conversation about academia to include negative, dissatisfying, discouraging, sobering, emotional topics.

Where Do Post-Ac Conversations Take Place? Where does Post-Ac exist?
Post-ac is primarily ex (outside) the institutions of academia. It is on personal blogs of people who have left academia. It does not have access to institutional journals. Post-ac did not have a panel at MLA.

Who Is Post-Ac?
Grad school quittas.
People who hold advanced degrees but have not pursued academic employment.
People who hold advanced degrees and tried to secure academic employment but were unable to.
People who adjuncted and then quit.
VAPs and profs who bailed on academic life.

Some individuals who are currently in the academy — administrators, faculty, and graduate students — but dissatisfied with its current state and are actively seeking reform might consider themselves post-ac.

Post-acers may or may not maintain a strong allegiance to their home disciplines, and may not feel a strong need to talk about their fields of former study much once they’ve abandoned them. Although obviously all post-acers draw on their graduate education to find employment, and in their daily lives, they are not preoccupied with the synergy between academia and the real world, or their regular jobs.

Post-acers do not typically  identify as academics, use their official designations (PhD, Dr.), or call themselves “independent scholars.” They may go on to craft an identity (not just a career) that is completely removed from their former life as an academic. Some may call themselves “recovering” or “ex-academics.” If you’re recovering from academia, you’re probably post-ac.

Post-Ac is Interested In Reform That:

  • Encourages people to look beyond the tenure track, but also beyond institutions of learning, for meaningful work.
  • Is practical and serves the needs of graduate students, not the needs of faculty, departments, or schools.
  • Improves working conditions for adjuncts but also encourages people to quit adjuncting.

Because we’re writing this history as it happens, we know this may change over time, that these movements might merge or diverge more than they do now. But we think it’s important to note that post-ac and alt-ac are not completely synonymous. We hope folks will chime in and add their perspective to this conversation!