July 7, 2011 — Bethany Nowviskie traces the origin of #alt-academy, a new online publication and community for humanities scholars who have left the tenure track, to an off-hand message she fired into the digital ether after a particularly satisfying meeting.
In addition to her day job as the director of digital scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, Nowviskie is the associate director of the Scholarly Communication Institute. In November 2009, she was on hand when the group hosted a meeting of top faculty minds from both digital and traditional humanities centers.
Nowviskie was struck both by the quality of the discussion and by the fact that she'd likely not have been in the room had she secured a tenure-track junior faculty position after completing her doctorate in English at the University.
"So my off-hand comment to my colleagues on Twitter after leaving the meeting was that I couldn't believe I had skipped all the dues-paying required to be part of a conversation like this," she said.
The online response was instant and unanticipated.
"There was an immediate outpouring from people who had made similar career choices to the ones I had made, and also a big call from people who were finishing up degrees in the humanities or were post-docs, or people who had been attempting to get tenure-track positions," Nowviskie said. "Those people who were getting frustrated in the academic job market immediately started writing in to say, 'How do I get a job like that? How do I shift gears? Can you lay down some signposts for people like me?'"
The result was #alt-academy, a new online hub for humanities scholars who have either left the tenure track or were never interested in it to begin with, but still want to work in the academic orbit. Nowviskie is editing the site, and serves as one of its 33 contributors.
As a nod to the medium that helped create it, the site name uses a "hash tag," or a punctuation mark commonly used on Twitter and other social media to denote a subject area.
"Alt-ac" jobs (the emerging shorthand for "alternative academic") include positions in academic publishing, within libraries and archives, in university-based labs and centers and in museums or federal agencies that touch on humanities work.
Institutions benefit greatly from filling humanities-related positions with scholars trained in research, and scholars uninterested in tenured positions often find great satisfaction in these jobs while maintaining their own research or scholarly interests, Nowviskie said.
She said she wants to push back against the notion that people with advanced humanities degrees who are not on a tenure track are failed academics. For her part, she said she's been able to work in a non-tenure academic position she greatly enjoys while still fulfilling her desire to research and teach.
As the director of digital scholarship, a position she's held since 2007, Nowviskie oversees the University's Scholars' Lab, a program that caters to the digital research and scholarly analysis needs of faculty and advanced students in the humanities and social sciences. She also has scholarly interests in the intersection of algorithmic or procedural method and traditional humanities interpretation, and is working on an edition of A.C. Swinburne's 1866 "Poems and Ballads."
As part of her work with the Scholars Lab, Nowviskie hosts a fellowship program for U.Va. graduate students and collaborates with faculty on projects as diverse as databases of metaphor, websites on the architectural history of the Caribbean, and online publication of audio recordings of William Faulkner made during the author's tenure as a writer-in-residence at the University in 1957-58.
The new #alt-academy site – it rolled out at the end of June – offers a series of essays, dialogues and narratives from humanities professionals and scholars who work in non-traditional or emerging areas of the academy.
"I really want to stress that this site is not a negative reaction to the academic job market," Nowviskie said. "It's not 'Oh no, I can't get a job.' Alt-ac can be a first choice for people."
Nowviskie originally pictured a book of essays, but the online community hosted by Media Commons offers a chance for the content to grow and expand, she said, and people who sign up for accounts can reply to existing posts or create their own, which could then be highlighted by site editors.
"It's a grassroots, bottom-up publishing mechanism," she said. "If you want a label for this approach, it would be publish-then-filter."
Nowviskie said publishing a printed collection of the essays in book form still isn't out of the question, but that right now she's content to let the site grow and evolve on its own.
"What I would really like would be to hand off components of it to other editors," she said. "There are so many people who are eager and are feeling energized about this topic. I'd love to offer the site as something that's a big contribution, but that is extensible and that other people could help take on."