Monday, November 04, 2013

AltAc, TransAc, PostAc and Just Plain Old ACK!

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow published a piece a few days ago in the NYT entitled "The Repurposed Ph.D.," which served as my first introduction to the neologism "post-academic." The abbreviated (and eminently hashtaggable) version of that term-- "PostAc"-- is something like the poorer, sadder and less pretty twin of "AltAc" ("alternative academic"), which has for the last couple of years served as a descriptor for the sorts of jobs that professionally trained and credentialed academics perform outside of the Academy, but that are informed by or utilize graduate-level academic training.  (For example, PhD's who, instead of pursuing faculty positions at colleges or universities, have gone on to be librarians, nonprofit workers or who work in/for government agencies  are considered alt-ac professionals.)  The "alt" in AltAc, presumably, points to the fact that AltAc professionals are still doing "academic" work, albeit in nontraditional venues.  Whereas most people agree that "AltAc" refers to a sort of combo-category of professionals and their professional work (non-academic jobs performed by academically-trained workers), the newer term PostAc seems to carry a more substantial ideological weight. 

I'll just point you to the "PostAc Manifesto" as justification for that last claim.  There, PostAc is described as an orientation, distinct from AltAc inasmuch as it does not merely indicate one's status or professional location as "outside of the Academy," but rather PostAc constitutes and is constituted by a "set of values," a "way of relating to academia," and “a belief that the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable and therefore impossible to directly engage with.” Because PostAc is more of an identity-label than AltAc, which is more of a activity-label, PostAcs get far more backlash for their ownership of that term.  There have been some interesting revaluations of pejoratives like "Grad School Quittas" by PostAcs, but many still see them as something like Nietzsche's last men: weak, barren, bitter and full of ressentiment.

One of the things that I find interesting about the AltAc/PostAc conversations of late is the absence of a third, not-strictly-academic but very-common, category: TransAc.  I'd describe TransAcs as persons who still technically hold academic positions, but who are "underemployed" and by necessity must supplement their academic work with non-academic work in order to make ends meet.  This is, of course, the situation of many adjuncts and VAP's, who find themselves in the last stage before either landing a Golden TTicket or joining either the PostAc or AltAc Team.  And, according to almost all of the data on academic labor, it is here, in what I am calling the "TransAc" stage, that people have to make the deep philosophical decision that distinguishes AltAcs from PostAcs.  That is, TransAcs have to decide whether being an "academic" is an activity or an identity.

I've been in a TT position since I received my PhD in Philosophy in 2007 but, after a negative tenure decision, I'm back on the market for the first time in seven years.  The last (and only other) time I was on the market, the odds of landing a TT job were terrible, and I was very lucky.  Now, the odds are exponentially worse.  So, like many others, I've had to consider the possibility that I may opt to, or be forced by necessity to, "leave" academia.  On this point, I agree with both AltAcs and PostAcs: there is absolutely nothing in graduate school that prepares one for, or even sufficiently informs one about, that (not only possible, but very likely) possibility.  Least of all in my discipline (Philosophy), where that possibility is dramatically more likely than in many other disciplines.

I feel luckier than most inasmuch as I have more than a few AltAc and non-academic job options available to me should I strike out on the academic job market this year.  And should I strike out, I also know enough of the monumentally depressing statistics about TransAcs to know that I should probably cut bait and go fish somewhere else.  Nevertheless, it's very, VERY hard to cut that bait.  The time, energy and money, not to mention the deep, personal-identity-laden investments required to complete a PhD are ties that bind in many complex, complicated and sometimes paralyzing ways. 

Last weekend, at a major Philosophy conference, a good friend and senior colleague in my field said to me: "After three years in VAP or adjunct positions, it's practically impossible to re-enter the market as a real competitor for TT positions. Maybe four years, but probably only two."  If that's true, which my own anecdotal experience seems to confirm, that's an incredibly small window of opportunity.  It's hard to be a rational judge, to survey the so-called "crisis" in the humanities and the state of the university, to review the overwhelming evidence confirming the corporatization of higher education, and not to agree with the evaluation of PostAcs that "the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable and therefore impossible to directly engage with.”  But, at the same time, once you've boarded that boat-- the S.S. Ivory Tower--  and find yourself out to sea, years of training behind you, all that time spent making yourself sea-worthy, miles and miles and (very expensive) miles from shore, and then, all of the sudden, one day you wake up and realize there's water coming overboard.... well, it's much harder to jump ship than otherwise reasonable people would think.

ACK.  Give me a bucket, I guess.

No comments: