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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Alt-ac and Digital Humanities Jobs

In recent years, there has been increased buzz in academic circles about “alt-ac” or alternate academic careers, and “digital humanities.” Sorting out what is meant by those terms is a chore, and the truth is that there are no set definitions. A major figure in these discussions is Bethany Nowviskie, who is President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute. She tweets and blogs frequently about issues relevant to professionals in alt-ac and digital humanities jobs.[1] Nowviskie offers the following definitions:

“Here, ‘alternate’ typically denotes neither adjunct teaching positions nor wholly non-academic (what-color-is-your-parachute, maybe-should-have-gotten-an-MBA) jobs—about which, in comparison, advice is easy to find. Instead, the #alt-ac label speaks to to a broad set of hybrid, humanities-oriented professions centered in and around the academy, in which there are rich opportunities to put deep—often doctoral-level—training in scholarly disciplines to use. Recent #alt-ac conversation online additionally tends to focus on the digital humanities, a community of practice marrying sophisticated understanding of traditional disciplines with new tools and methods” (Nowviskie, “The #alt-ac Track”).[2]

What does this mean for the job seeker?

Because, as Nowviskie says, discussions about alt-ac and DH tend to overlap, some people use the terms interchangeably. Some use alt-ac to mean non-faculty positions at universities, positions which could include administration and other decidedly non-DH jobs. Other times it’s used much more broadly to signify any job other than tenure-track academic jobs, inside or outside the academy. Some definitions are in between these two, where alt-ac can be at academic or non-academic institutions, but make use of academic research skills.[3][4] The term seems pretty consistently to describe jobs that are not on the tenure track.

Digital Humanities

Generally, “Digital humanities” (DH) is even tougher to sort out, in part because it has become a buzzword used in academic job listings to mean everything from knowledge of coding languages to working with digitally archived texts to simply incorporating new media into one’s classroom. Some DH jobs are tenure-track and some are not. These jobs might include “digital humanities” in the name (as in Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities), or they might not, and could either be tenure track or non-tenure track. The term “digital humanities” does not have the currency or recognition outside academia, so even if certain jobs afford the same opportunities to employ digital technologies on humanistic problems, they would not carry that label and may not be recognized as such by digital humanists within the academy.

When used precisely, “digital humanities” scholarship involves using computational methods to approach humanities research. This could mean
•    creating digital scholarship in place of or alongside traditional textual scholarship,
•    creating software that enables teaching or research in humanities disciplines,
•    using technology to archive materials or augment archives, exploring 21st-century issues in copyright and alternatives, and
•    a vast array of other projects.

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. As Brian Croxall says, contra to the way that literary scholars tend to see DH as being within the domain of literary studies, “One of the obvious connections between DH and alt-ac, then, is how extra-disciplinary they both are.” He continues, “More than either an object or method of study, the digital is something that is happening to the humanities in the 21st century. And alt-ac is something that is happening to universities.[5]

Alt-ac and DH Jobs

You can get a more tangible sense of the relationships alt-academics have with educational institutions from the listing of self-identified alt-academics on the website #alt-academy. Many hold positions as
academic librarians,
researchers within higher ed administration,
administrators at humanities or digital humanities centers,
researchers or administrators for professional organizations,
teachers or administrators at private high schools, or
traditional and ebook publishers.

Other possible de facto alt-ac or DH positions might be in software or curriculum development at educational software companies, like Enspire and Ignite in Austin or in larger technology companies like Apple or Dell. The figure below illustrates the looseness with which “alt-ac” and “DH” are used. [6] When trying to determine what any one job or reference actually means, you’ll have to pay attention to clues given by the advertisement or speaker. 

Alt ac and DH diagram

Pros and Cons of Alt-ac and DH Jobs

Proselytizers of the alt-ac and DH movements laud the benefits of these types of positions:
•    they are more collaborative
•    intellectual curiosity can take many forms
•    there are opportunities to build systems and other products other than peer-reviewed articles
•    they provide invaluable services to the organizations that house them
•    they are the future of the humanities or even the academy.

There is a sense of excitement among alt-academics for what is possible professionally and institutionally in this brave new world.

Still, there are some serious drawbacks of alt-ac jobs:
•    they may have no visible career trajectory
•    could be dependent on grant funding
•    alt-ac professionals may be looked down upon by the faculty they come into contact with.

There might be an assumption that the alt-ac professional is somehow a “failed academic,” even if he or she was determined to find this type of work as opposed to a traditional tenture-track job, is extremely happy with the job, or is more productive in terms of publications or other types of output than the traditional professor. The narratives by Anne Mitchell Whisnant under her name and her pseudonym, Natalie Henderson, describe the difficulties she faced both in her alt-ac job and the backlash that occurred when she spoke out about them. [7][8] Since Whisnant’s position in higher ed administration is more specific than the alt-ac umbrella term, more about her experience can be found in the higher ed administration guide, but the troubles she encountered could unfortunately occur in any non-faculty job in a university, even (or especially) for those holding a PhD.

Action Steps

•    Learn about what alt-ac professionals do on the “Who We Are” directory on #alt-academy
•    Read in-depth descriptions of alt-academics' jobs on #Alt-academy
•    Check your skill set against recommended DH skills on “Digital Skills for Humanities Graduate Students" in digitalcultureweek
•    Start keeping up with the #DH and #altac hashtags on Twitter

Digital Humanities Organizations

Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes includes 154 organizations in the U.S. and overseas. They maintain a job list of positions at these centers and institutes, which focus on interdisciplinary research in the humanities.
CenterNet is an international network of digital humanities centers.
Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations “promotes and supports digital research and teaching across all arts and humanities disciplines, acting as a community-based advisory force, and supporting excellence in research, publication, collaboration and training." Members are comprised of researchers, lecturers, librarians, archivists, academic administrators, independent scholars, and others spanning the public and private sectors.
The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) - small informal conferences open to academics and non-academics where participants set the agenda for the conference on the first day, participate in all discussions, and where practical knowledge is emphasized. Conferences are sometimes arranged around a topic (for example, liberal arts colleges or Jewish studies) or make a general call for proposals. They are cheap to attend and very grad student-friendly.
Office of Digital Humanities within the National Endowment for the Humanities
Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) - a nonprofit offering postdoctoral fellowships in digital humanities
Center for History and New Media - a heavyweight in the digital humanities field housed at George Mason University, offers postdoctoral fellowships

Print and Web Resources


Earhart, Amy E. “Digital Skills for Humanities Graduate Students.” Digitalcultureweek, June 8, 2012.
The CUNY Digital Humanities Resource Guide
#Alt-academy - 24 essays by individuals who identify as alt-academics, holding positions that may or may not involve research in administration, digital humanities, academic publishing, or libraries.
Whitson, Roger T. “#Altac and the Tenure Track.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 23 May 2012. Web. 24 May 2012.
Digital Humanities Now - a site for news and blog posts about the digital humanities, some automatically populated from their Compendium of the Digital Humanities, some selected by editors. They also run CFPs, opportunities for funding, and more importantly, job listings. 
Nick's Digital Humanities Daily
Pannapacker, William. “Pannapacker at MLA: Alt-Ac Is the Future of the Academy.” Brainstorm 8 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 May 2012.
Directory of alt-academics
Bamboo DiRT (Digital Research Tools)
Croxal, Brian. “Five Questions and Three Answers About Alt-Ac.” Brian Croxal 7 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 July 2012.
(Text and slides from his talk at MLA)
Henderson, Natalie. “A ‘Nonacademic’ Career in Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2005.
Digital Humanities Manifesto
Whisnant, Anne Mitchell. “I Am Natalie Henderson.” #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers, May 6, 2011. 

Notes

1. The term “alt-ac” was popularized on Twitter, hence the common alternate presentation: #altac.

2. Bethany Nowviskie, “The #alt-ac Track: Negotiating Your ‘Alternative Academic’ Appointment,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, ProfHacker, August 31, 2010.

3. Like museums; see Schlatter’s description for Information Officer/Digital Archivist/Visual Resources Curator

4. Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations

5. Brian Croxal, “Five Questions and Three Answers About Alt-Ac.” Brian Croxal 7 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 July 2012.

6. Thanks to Jason Crandall for help in creating this chart. 

7. Natalie Henderson, “A ‘Nonacademic’ Career in Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2005.

8. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, “I Am Natalie Henderson,” #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers, May 6, 2011.

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