March 17, 2018

Get Ready for Alt-Higher Ed | From the Bell Tower

Sometimes you see a new phrase that you wish you’d thought up on your own. That’s how I felt the first time I encountered “alt-career.” The term was foreign to me, but I read on and soon learned about the movement to help Ph.D.’s, who are experiencing difficulty finding traditional tenure-track jobs in their disciplines, find higher-ed jobs elsewhere. Hence, an “alternate career.”

Many of the alt-career seekers are in the humanities, where traditional faculty jobs are the hardest to obtain. A grassroots movement has emerged to take a new and different approach—that is, an alternate approach. Expect to see more of this in higher education, where opportunities for starting something new are riper than ever.

The origin of “alt-”
I have no idea where this all began, but I do know that we’ve always had alternatives to whatever passes for normal. Just look at alternative rock and alternative medicine. Each is characterized by replacing accepted practice with radical divergence. But how do alt-movements get started?

Movements are often started by rebels who want a revolution. A perceived or real injustice may leave people with no choice but to break tradition and start something new. I have no proof, but I suspect that the current popularity of the prefix “alt-“ may be related to the Twitter craze. “Alt-” seems like the perfect way to save six letters while spreading the word about your movement

The “alt-ac” movement
Upon further exploration, I learned that “alt-career” is not the most precise term for this new movement. The more correct form is “alt-ac,” as in “Alternate Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars.” According to the official website of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons’ project, “alt-ac” is short for “alt-academy.”

The odds of joining the professoriate in a full-time tenure-track position, especially in the humanities, are growing ever greater. Yet they are not putting off new applicants to Ph.D. programs. I recently asked a faculty member about his teaching load, and he said that he currently supervises ten doctoral students. I asked about their prospects for finding jobs in higher education, and he said that the students know the odds are stacked against them, but each one believes he or she will be the one to beat those odds. But many are realizing they need to move on, and alt-ac is providing inspiration and motivation to do so.

Not a second choice
If folks can’t become faculty, and decide it’s time for a change, what do they do? They look for suitable jobs within the academy other than traditional positions. Here’s how William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI, and blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education, described the movement:

[F]or people with extensive humanities training who want to remain in the academy but don’t want to work as adjuncts, the alt-ac path is an option that more of them are exploring. That can include working with libraries, academic publishers, museums and various government positions….The alt-ac route, for many scholars, is not a second choice.

Beth Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, a leader of the alt-ac movement, offers additional insight into this movement on her blog:

The term “alt-ac” primarily is itself meant to provide an alternative—an alternative to the prevailing notion that, for graduate students, there is one straight and narrow career path to fulfillment and return on the investment of their humanities educations…and that is to follow the tenure track…[A] couple of years ago, I began to see a clear need for a banner…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.

If what I read about the alt-ac movement comes to fruition, we may have many more humanities scholars who make an alt-career their first choice, so they can stay in higher education.

Another area ripe for the alternate treatment is the textbook. Faculty and students alike are looking for new options, preferably free or low-cost.

I’ve been writing columns about the textbook dilemma for a few years now. At first I referred to this new revolution as a curricular resource strategy. That term seemed to resonate with no one, so I instead discussed the possibilities for containerless education.

More recently, I decided that “alternate textbook” project was a better way to describe this movement. Then it became just plain “alt-textbook,” which is a good fit for the project. You could even call it “alt-text” if you want— but what really matters is that the campus community understands the point of the project. With the alt-movement growing in popularity, it’s likely that librarians will start their own alt-text projects on their own campuses.

It’s all alt-HE
An alt-movement is shaking the foundations of higher education itself. The traditional path to a college degree, enrolling in a four-year program at a brick-and-mortar college or university, is being disrupted by alternate providers of higher education. The demand for lower tuition, greater convenience, technology-enhanced learning, and global access is leading more individuals to seek out alternatives, and those willing to provide them are rapidly evolving.

You may already know about Khan Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare, whose learning content reaches millions around the globe. But you may not know about bargain providers like StraighterLine. What divides these alternate colleges from the real thing is that they offer no accredited degrees. But that may be changing.

It’s unclear what new alt-movements will emerge as the crowd, assisted by grassroots leaders, seeks to improve the accessibility and affordability of higher education. It may all happen under a large umbrella called “alt-higher ed,” where we’ll see great change, new options for learning, and all types of associated structures and content. Then again, perhaps that term is too long. Make it “alt-HE.”

Where does the academic library fit into the new world of alt-HE? More on that later.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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