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Alt-Ac and Graduate School: A Conversation about Bringing Alt-Ac into the Graduate School Experience

RoundTable XI-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
In recent times, a number of op-eds written by professional academics have raised the alarm on the status of humanities departments across academia, which, according to the scholars, are now collectively in a fatal decline. The university seems sure to follow, according to these heralds -- or, at least, the university as we know it. This roundtable is not an attempt to call for a solution to these issues nor absolve inattention to them from those with power. The solution is as practically challenging as it is conceptually simple, and uncompensated and risky activism from the various echelons of precarious academics are already doing the lion’s share of that work. Rather, this roundtable is intended to address, from an array of graduate students to their peers, practical experiences in doing work in the realm now commonly referred to as “alt-ac,” or “alternate to academia,” as well as unpacking how we have drawn the boundaries between alt-ac and traditional academia. Brought on by the widespread soul-searching provoked by today’s allegedly eschatological age of the humanities, humanities departments are increasingly emphasizing that graduate students have alt-ac plans as a backup. Few tenured academics, however, have had to make alt-ac backup plans of their own and so have little experience in advising grad students how to carve out and build their place in alt-ac spheres during graduate school in preparation for careers after completing their degrees. This roundtable is envisioned to provide a forum for interaction and conversation among graduate students along these lines. Each presenter will draw upon their own professional and personal experiences outside of academia to foreground the conversation with the hope of sparking deeper conversations around the audience’s own perspectives on the ongoing academic crisis that, in one way or another, affects us all. A discussion of what alt-ac is–or can be–should not be left to the end of a graduate school experience, and this roundtable serves to delve into the many questions embedded within the potential opportunities posed by alt-ac experiences and how they fit within our goals as graduate students and scholars.
  • While teaching, research, and coursework are traditionally understood as the main cornerstones of one’s time in a graduate program, an underlying component is the social relations and connections that emerge and develop. Social relationships and networks serve as a bedrock for progressing through graduate degree programs, yet they are often relegated to second-tier importance. However, these relationships sustain and support students throughout their degree, as well as are significant opportunities to realize previously unconsidered avenues for scholarship expansion, both thematically and in terms of reach. Most frequently, these networks and social relationships emerge and grow through the university, as students meet through courses or formal gatherings such as conferences. Alt-Ac spheres, though, also provide similar opportunities, and as graduate students progress through their degree programs, getting involved in Alt-Ac activities can prove to be incredibly fruitful experiences. In this way, this talk seeks to address three main points graduate students should consider in the Alt-Ac discussion. First, many Alt-Ac activities straddle the academic sphere and thus Alt-Ac should be better understood in its relationships to higher education as opposed to being outside of higher education. Second, Alt-Ac involvement does not need to begin at the end of one’s graduate career. Rather than considering Alt-Ac as a career path to embark on following earning one’s degree, Alt-Ac involvement can, and I argue, should, be seen as something to be involved with alongside and a part of the graduate experience. Lastly, and most importantly, Alt-Ac activities can serve a vital role in developing the necessary–but often ignored and under-discussed–networks needed to support and move through academia. To address these above points, this talk will feature a discussion around my own involvement in two Alt-Ac organizations, touching on how these experiences have impacted my scholarly development, as well as provided important relationships that have continuously supported my graduate school career. Alt-Ac very much is what has been foundational to both my success and enjoyment of my academic career so far.
  • Teaching is widely considered to be one of the cornerstones of the academic experience, and it is a skill that has become increasingly central for graduate students to learn as the demands of the academic job market has itself changed. Yet, teaching remains a source of tension for graduate students for myriad reasons. As such, this particular portion of the roundtable will feature a Ph.D. candidate who will talk about their work in teaching Middle East studies courses both inside and outside academia, highlighting common teaching strategies between them. This portion of the roundtable hopes to offer practical first thoughts for encouraging further conversation within the audience during the course of the roundtable’s duration. To do so, this talk will focus on a few interconnected issues—and myths—regarding obstacles to teaching as graduate student instructors in academic and alt-ac settings. The first centers on the fact that, while most universities offer some degree of teaching experience in the form of assisting, few allow grad students to design and teach their own classes. Even fewer offer tutelage on how one might go about this. The second regards the myth that there are few opportunities outside of academia to practice teaching skills and the idea that there is little connection between the content of K-12 education and the knowledge cultivated through area studies in higher education. Finally, many new instructors worry about how to deal with difficult conversations in the classroom, both within academic teaching and outside of it, particularly in light of new censorious state laws and the upswell of public smear campaigns across issues that span queer identity, Palestine, white supremacy, and much more. The fear of reprisal in teaching—whether one does that within academia or outside of it—is something that graduate students must contend with as they begin developing their careers. This talk will therefore address the following three points before bringing in the audience for a collective conversation: 1. Engaging resources for teaching undergraduate classes as a new instructor. 2. How academia-focused content can be translated to K-12. 3. How to deal with censorious forces regarding teaching about topics like race in the classroom, particularly in the context of the US South’s prolific use of anti-CRT and anti-BDS laws.
  • This talk shares some lessons learnt from the process of organizing a public-facing historical exhibition in the Middle East. In recent years, calls for a growing engagement of the university with audiences beyond academia have, rightly, multiplied. While new graduate programs have emerged training students specifically for public history employment in museums, archives, and libraries, traditional graduate degrees in history continue to view the organization of public-facing histories such as podcasts, exhibitions, and library work as avocational. While occasional support for public history projects may exist through external grants, graduate curricula rarely include training in heritage studies, archival record management, memory politics, or museum studies. This exclusion stands in a distinct contrast to other disciplines, such as Art History, that offer training for alt-ac employment more decidedly in their graduate programs. Thus, for a growing number of history students engaging in public history projects, the mechanics of reaching a wider audience, such as finding institutional frameworks, and translating the grammar of academic writing into these frameworks often remain opaque and self-taught. This contribution shares several lessons learnt from organizing a historical exhibition, ranging from logistical details such as setting up websites to handling archival records outside of the archive, rethinking the role assigned to audiovisual materials in history-writing, and the building of a historical narrative in virtual and museal spaces. This talk extrapolates how curatorial practices not only offer alt-ac opportunities of employment but allow us to crucially rethink the ways in which we write academic history. Maintaining that public-facing history should be understood as closely intertwined with our academic practice of writing history, organizing a historical exhibition about regional history in the Middle East behooves us to reconsider how we narrate the life stories of historical protagonists, the ethics as well as emotions of publicizing their life stories, and sheds light on the audience of our historical narratives. As part of a conversational forum organized by graduate students for graduate students, this presentation aims to showcase how public history can not only provide opportunities for graduate students to translate their research for a wider audience, but open new ways to consider a career in history beyond the university.
  • The neoliberal reorganization of the university and its adjacent institutions has produced an environment and market that leave graduate students with less potential to impactfully engage with the world around us. Learning from the long history of political organizing that can be found both in and outside of the university, this paper imagines a vision of Alt-Ac that builds power through such institutions along with the mass public. This presentation—building on theories and histories documented by scholars such as Fred Moten, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Johanna Fernández—raises conceptual questions about Alt-Ac as a means of political possibility in terms of knowledge production and its relationship to the University as an abstract institution. In our envisioning what Alt-Ac can look like, it is critical to understand the university as it relates to society (not above it or in some other way separate from it). In this configuration, we can then understand alternative academia as contextualizing what the university does and imagining new forms of knowledge production beyond its hallways. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons is one-such popular re-envisioning of the relationships that exist within and through the university. Robin D.G. Kelley builds upon this theory in his article, “Black Study, Black Struggle” wherein he advocates for the development of public study groups which are not enclosed by the grammars of the academy, but rather foreground an ambition to produce knowledge that reaches a wider audience. In Johanna Fernández’s The Young Lords looks to the past, narrating the history of a mass movement and the ways in which it engaged with the University as a site of emancipatory knowledge production. This talk will engage the ways in which activism and organizing within our institutions and with the communities outside of them develop a potential roadmap by which we as graduate students can begin to renegotiate the terms of the university’s existence—both for ourselves and for the world at large. In unpacking Alt-Ac as a concept, this discussion explores historical and contemporary forms of extra-university organizing in ways that may allow us to build a base of knowledge production that is not bound to academia. The aim of this contribution is to consolidate and continue a conversation around forging a more harmonious relationship with our institutions for those who participate in it and those who are affected by it.