Alternative Academix-ing

When I first started this blog, I let it sit for months (literally) before I posted anything.  The thought of putting my work out there, beyond the reach of my advisers and classmates, was a terrifying prospect (and still kind of is).  The immediacy of the digital format is, simultaneously, exciting and intimidating.  Instead of going through months of reviews and revisions, you write something, click publish, and suddenly your work is out there, open for commentary by anyone who might come across it in their internet browsing.  I think this phobia is pretty routine (the responses to this blog by readers on Twitter suggests it’s fairly common), but reflecting on this hesitancy, coupled with the readings this week, I’m beginning to realize that my training as a historian (similar to the way that it has made me look at history as a powerful tool) had a lot to do with these initial sentiments.

Last week, in South African History in a Digital Age, a large part of our discussion centered on historical skills and how those skills are transferred to students.  But the reading this week also points out that historians are heavily socialized in terms of the “proper” routes to success, not only in terms of careers but also in terms of the proper channels through which their work should be distributed to the public.

In “#alt-ac: alternative academic careers for humanities scholars,” Bethany Nowviskie defined “alt-ac” as “alternative academic careers—particularly for positions within or around the academy but outside the ranks of the tenure-track teaching faculty.”  These alternatives can take a variety of forms, as Brenda Bethman and C. Shaun Longstreet explained in “Defining Terms,” noting that

These can be staff or administrative positions, and these positions may (and often do) include teaching and/or research duties, but teaching and research are not the primary focus of the position.  There are also comparable alt-ac positions beyond campus; many alt-ac types are found among public historians, librarians, museum curators, independent scholars, professional writers, etc.

This wide range of possibilities, Bethman and Longstreet point out, make alt-ac difficult to not only define but also give advice about, due to “the very wide variety of positions and different responsibilities within these positions.”

This makes it difficult for graduate programs to prepare us, as Katina Rogers argued in “Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” for potential deviations from the tenure-track path.  “Graduate programs can help prepare their students for a much broader professional world than simply the professoriate,” Rogers argues, “but lacking data or strong models, it can be extremely difficult for individual programs to know what kind of changes would be effective, and also to make a case for those changes.”  According to Rogers’ survey, “students report little or no preparation for careers outside the professoriate, even though we’re at a moment when the need for information about a variety of careers is most acute.”  To address this issue, Rogers suggests that graduate departments look to university staff (who might have found themselves in alt-ac positions) and their own graduates to help figure out what kind of training they could provide for their students to address the rapidly changing job market.

And part of the reason that we aren’t being prepared for either alternative academic positions or proper digital scholarship is because MANY OF OUR PROFESSORS DON’T KNOW HOW TO HELP US!  And this is, at least based on our readings, a result of the discipline’s hesitation to dive in head first to everything the digital has to offer.  T. Mills Kelly spoke to the reality of the reticence of history as a discipline to move forward into the digital age in a May 2008 post, encouraging his readers to remember “how hard it was for women’s history or cultural history to be accepted as valid approaches to historical scholarship” by this “fussy and conservative” tribe of historians.  The process for digital history seemed destined for a similarly slow development, according to a series of blog posts Kelly posted in June 2008.

I wish I could be more optimistic, but in history at least, I think we’re still a full scholarly generation (10-15 years) away from digital history actually “counting” the ways that other scholarship counts. Why? Reference my earlier comment about historians reading their papers at conferences. We are perhaps the most conservative and fussy tribe in academia. And until we, as a community of scholars, decide to be less fussy, less conservative, people on this particular part of the cutting edge of our discipline, this kind of work just isn’t going to “count” the same way a book or a peer-reviewed currently do.  And so, we’re doomed to keep expressing our angst about it all for at least another decade.

Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett characterized historians as similarly stuck in their ways in their chapter for Writing History in the Digital Age (2012).  Digital developments, they argue,

have whizzed by many scholars, especially historians.  Being concerned with the past and prone to reflect on the tempo of time itself, we have rarely been known to do things quickly.  Our dissertations take years to write, and sometimes longer to revise and publish.  A scholar sending off an essay to an academic journal can expect to wait four months to a year for feedback.  Historians thus have reason to be both wary and curious about the prospect of using technology to do what we do differently and, one hopes, faster than in the past.

So, graduate students and junior faculty have a responsibility, it seems, to make things change.  “Once more of us sit on tenure and promotion committees, things will change . . . slowly,” Kelly prophesied, “because we’re historians.  But change they will.”  And, indeed, the discipline has to change or risk “losing touch with a rising generation of young scholars who will see us as nothing more than cranky old scholars who are hanging onto an old system because it serves our interests and not theirs.”

And, from my personal experience, there’s far more to gain from digital engagement than there is to lose.  As Ryan Cordell reflected in a 2012 ProfHacker blog, I too have found that “the more open I have been with my scholarship online, the more professional doors have opened to me.”  My own experience with building and utilizing digital pathways, be it Twitter, blogging, networking for Imbiza, or participating in the Football Scholars Forum, has been nothing but a enhancement to my development as a scholar, even if it was initially terrifying.

Being active digitally has also allowed me to explore additional interests that, if limited strictly to my broader research topics, I would likely never have a chance to publish on.  Blogging is really a dynamic, engaging space that, in my opinion, is conducive not only to creative output but also engagement with relevant contemporary issues.  John Edwin Mason‘s blog is reflective of the use of blogging as a creative outlet, providing a forum for this esteemed South Africanist historian to explore a number of interests, from photography to jazz to motorsportsAfrica Is A Country, similarly, provides a forum for scholars to publish pieces that are both timely and relevant; a rare feat for academics, who are usually chained to the peer review machinery that can take months and even years to get out that timely piece.

While I am still experimenting with publishing my scholarship online, beginning with my initial research on Izichwe Football Club, I fully agree with Cummings and Jarrett on the numerous benefits that digital publishing has to offer.  Digital publishing, they argue,

can offer real benefits to the process of writing as an outlet for expression that is freer and faster than traditional publishing and it provides an arena for collaboration and discussion that can serve the same varied purposes as a graduate school cohort, a writing group, or the peer review process. It also reaches a public for whom our work is otherwise mediated solely by journalists, and thus allows us to demonstrate the writing of history as a worthwhile, entertaining and important thing to do with an intellectual life. These are not small gains.

Hardly small gains, indeed.


This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for March 20th.

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