Materials Needed for HASTAC Workshop on Alt-Ac

In the haze of quickly writing something yesterday about the great workshop on alt-ac that will be happening at the HASTAC Conference, I forgot to do the most important thing: ask for your help. I have a few things in mind for how you can help the workshop be more successful, even if you won’t be with us in Ann Arbor.

1. Share job application materials with us. The workshop will include a discussion of how application materials for alt-ac jobs differ from tenure-track positions. We are particularly interested in looking at cover letters. If you have a cover letter for an alt-ac job to which you applied—whether that application was successful or not—and would be willing to share, please send a copy my way. If you have a copy of the ad for the position, that would be even better. We will of course redact your name and any other information that you feel concerned about.

2. Share advice with us. If you were going to give someone tips about alt-ac—about applying for jobs, about seeking mentors, about the positives or the perils, anything—what would it be? Please leave comments to this post or submit them via Twitter using the hashtag #altacadvice. We will collect this information and share it publicly with the workshop and with the wider world.

With your help, we can make this workshop better and more effective for those who are exploring the interesting interstices of the academy.

11 thoughts on “Materials Needed for HASTAC Workshop on Alt-Ac

  1. My #altacadvice: Be prepared to explain why the job that you’re a candidate for requires both academic experience AND whatever other experience it is that’s being asked for (administrative, coding, cataloging, &c). My point is that some job descriptions and hiring committees have not necessarily thought through whether their expectations for what a job entails best serve the job’s needs. Case in point: a friend applied for a job running a fellowships program at a humanities institution. Hiring folks wanted someone who was a scholar first, rather than someone who combined an active research profile with administrative activities. That is, they thought the admin part would just sort of take care of itself. It’s in your interest to point out that the multiple skills you bring to a job serve the job and the program/center/division/whatever. It might turn out that the committee isn’t interested in the multiple perspective you bring, in which case it’s good to know that in advance of taking the job!

  2. Advice I’d offer — both for job market and for #alt-ac life in general — is to look for the ways that the “alt” part is actually a natural progression that makes just as reasonable a narrative as other career tracks. In many cases, the alt part makes more sense than some of the trajectories in academia. My example of going from teaching positions to instructional technology to working on Omeka at CHNM is a pretty easy example — my teaching and research interests led naturally into the realm of #alt-ac. That can go into a handy easy narrative about where I could contribute most to higher education, and where I could make the most of my skills. Again, that worked well both for thinking about the different directions I was choosing and for cover letters.

    Whatever road into #alt-ac you’re on, the nice thing about #alt-ac on the job market is the versatility that it can give you in your cover letter. Since going #alt-ac involves unusual directions, choices, experiences, skills, etc., you’ve got some flexibility in how you pitch yourself and how you view the job — this echos Sarah’s advice. It’s easier to construct a narrative tailored to why you are awesome for the job and why the job needs you when you aren’t stuck in the narrow confines of traditional academic tracks.

    Hope that helps!

  3. The first rule of #alt-ac is to be useful to the project of academic work in ways that traditional academics are not able to be, given the limitations that the tenure process places on their time to develop deep skills in digital representation. This means learning some particular area of technology very well — such as coding in one or more specific languages or building databases or designing user interfaces or producing video — in addition to having a general knowledge of digital media. Learn this by doing and reading on your own in addition to attending workshops and classes and participating in collaborative projects. Aggressively pursue technical knowledge that you may think is beyond you. The second rule is to invest time in the scholarship of digital media in addition to that of your core content domain (which you should have). Learn the history of the field, which goes back to at least 1945, and gain an historian’s awareness of the *longue duree* of technological developments which, for all of their apparent novelty, are often variations on known themes, or are new in ways that are not obvious to those who promote them. Regard digital media — from hardware to software to interactivity — as cultural subjects of interpretive play and not simply as natural products of practical rationality, and explore the space that digital media opens up between these two perspectives. The third rule is to strive to achieve a higher synthesis, which is never by any means given, between interpretation and mechanism, which the academic use of digital media enables. Occupy the liminal zone between the two cultures (and their variants) and make it yours. Help create a language that makes sense of this space. Finally, envision solutions and produce products that reflect this understanding. This is best protection against that view that digital representation is just a species of typing, or that digital work can be handed off from a content specialist to a technologist without significant and on-going collaboration. Never forget and do not let others forget that technology, and the praxis of digital representation, are not transparent additions to academic work, but are parts of an ongoing history, dating back to the paleolithic period, in which mind and media, epistemology and technology, are interwoven in ways that remain wonderfully indecipherable.

  4. This workshop looks great, Brian! I think I’ve mentioned this before in a different context, but my (unsolicited) piece of advice would be for the preparation of a CV (and this is fairly generic advice, but maybe even more relevant for alt-ac jobs). Avoid a simple enumeration of “skills”, technologies or software packages. Such lists are too easy to make and as a potential employer it’s difficult to tell if you’re competent at it or if you’ve just visited the company’s website. Much more effective, if possible, is a short history of projects that you’ve been involved with that includes a brief description of how the different technologies were used and what your role was. A small portfolio’s not a bad idea if possible and if it’s relevant to the job (I think building portfolios need to be much more emphasized in humanities education, especially when it’s DH-inflected).

    And I trust you’ll let folks know about ACH mentoring…

  5. If you are considering an alt-ac career, seek out internships, projects and/or jobs that will help you develop skills and build a portfolio. As Sarah and Patrick suggest, shape your cover letter based on the type of job you are applying for. Understand the job duties, and explain clearly how your experience and skills will help you meet them. For instance, if you are applying for a position as an instruction librarian, your experience as an instructor of, say, English composition will be critical in helping you understand what students need to know and how best to help them. Likewise, if you are applying for a job as a grant writer, explain how writing a dissertation sharpened your ability to uncover information, make connections, and present complex ideas coherently. The knowledge, habits of mind and skills you develop in graduate school have wide applicability beyond traditional academic jobs.

  6. For scholar-programmer types:

    Do some work in public. There are lots of venues for publishing ongoing projects (github, sourceforge, google code, etc.) so put some of your work out there. Write about it. Resist the temptation to hone your project to perfection before you put it out there. In other words, forget what you (probably) learned in grad school about keeping your ideas to yourself before letting them out into the world. Collaborate with other developers on projects.

    Don’t be afraid to go outside the academy to look for work.

    Network. This goes along with putting projects out into the world. Hiring good developers is *hard*. In my experience, it’s usually more successfully done via network. I’ve only had one job where they’d never heard of me before they got my resume, and when I’ve been on the hiring side, referrals or outright recruiting almost always bring better results than just posting an ad and seeing what rolls in.

    Broaden your skills. Don’t pick one single language/platform to specialize in.

    Don’t assume the person who wrote the ad knew what they were talking about in terms of requirements (or that they wouldn’t be willing to negotiate). If it looks interesting, contact them and ask.

    Know what you’re getting into: ask about research time, support for professional development, equipment and software budget, and telecommuting, for example.

  7. I would agree with everything above, and add a bit of advice I picked up at a recent career services panel I was part of on careers in research. The other panelists spoke about internships and other personal connections that led them to their current position. Since alt-ac positions don’t have the traditional apparatus of the academic job search, figuring out how to find these positions is key. Work on a digital project as a grad student may help provide skills, as Stefan mentioned above, and also help make connections with potential employers or even just a network to share potential opportunities.

  8. Great stuff here and also at #altacadvice. I’ll add:
    (1) Alt-ac jobs tend to be deeply collaborative–much moreso than most grad training experiences. Create opportunities to work on projects with others: if you’re a good person to work with, your colleagues will happily vouch for you in recommendations. Be prepared to talk about how you like to manage collaborative projects, how you communicate with others–and prepared to give specific examples that illustrate your approach.
    (2) Alt-ac folks are always trying and learning new helps if you enjoy these experiences. Think about how you deal with frustration upon encountering new situations, technologies, subjects, environments, anywhere where things don’t happen as you expect them do you deal with that frustration? Be prepared to give an example.
    (3)Related to this: how flexible are you really? Be honest with yourself about this or you could end up in the wrong job.
    (4)Jen Guiliano mentioned (on Twitter) being prepared to talk about your work from a theoretical perspective–smart advice. People who can do this can often see relationships between the “big picture” of the HE/non-profit/government/corporate worlds and the little day-to-day decisions you make on the job–this is a great skill for any alt-ac work.
    (5)Take a second look at resume, letters, your self-presentation in interviews and job talks, even your conference persona, and think about what’s there that might be interpreted as negativity. Cynicism may be a survival tactic in grad school, especially these days, and you might be harboring doubts or insecurities about your career choices (just like all the rest of us) but be careful about how these things come out during those precious few moments you have to make a first impression. It’s important to be smart and capable, sure, but it’s also important that people actually want to spend time with you. There is almost always a way to cast what might be perceived as a negative into something more positive or proactive, to turn conversations about problems into conversations about potential solutions.
    (6) Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that you can grow into, especially if the job will take you in a direction you want to grow.

  9. I love #alt-ac, but then, it’s worked out for me so far. In the U.S., times are perilous for knowledge workers whether you’re alt-ing it or not, so my biggest piece of #altacadvice is: don’t forget you’re playing the job lottery. It’s almost completely unpredictable, and may get harder and last longer than you anticipate. In 2007-08, before the economy really tanked, it took me eleven months to get a job.

    And so what? This often happens in more traditional academic paths. And since you’re courageous enough to go an alternate route, relish that. Think about what you want to do with your life, and chase the dream of having what pays the bills and what feeds your soul intersect at least a moderate amount.

    Be flexible. Present your best work self in terms of the skills and strengths that you have, and the amount of learning you’re capable of doing in a short time. Be realistic about your own abilities, but don’t be afraid to extrapolate what you might be up for, given what you’ve already done.

    When you see a job advertised and aren’t sure whether you might be up to the challenge, ask yourself whether you could see yourself getting into it on a personal level. If the answer is yes, go for it. Chances are, the people writing that #alt-ac job description don’t have very much experience with what they need, either; if you think you might be able to help them work it out, then apply.

    A combination of a solid grounding in theory and an equally solid praxis is a powerhouse. Challenge yourself to remain a knowledge worker no matter what the pursuit at hand.

  10. How one reacts to cover letters and CVs is likely strongly influenced by personal preferences but I think it’s safe to say that no-one wants to read the same “I’m excited at the opportunity to..” type boilerplate again and again.. I certainly reacted allergically to this. Be respectful, polite and a little conservative, yes, but also be yourself. That is, write in your our own voice as long as this doesn’t come into conflict with the above and don’t be afraid to highlight a particular strength, especially if you feel it fits well with the needs of the job. Just don’t overstate this, instead (think enthymeme..) let your reader connect the dots. You want them to feel smart. You already know you’re smart. I’d go so far as to say – don’t try to please or otherwise try to express the authenticity of your desire for the job or get them to empathize with you. Don’t tell the reader you’re excited, thrilled or happy.. no matter how true this is. Reading a bunch of cover letters induces many emotions but seldom happiness. If in doubt, a little more Darcy, and rather less Bingley, please. But if all this worries you more than helps then that’s ok too – keep your cover letter very short, polite and business-like. It won’t hurt you one bit. Just being neutral puts you ahead of 1/3 of the other letters. One last thing about the CV.. never, ever, ever be tempted to overstate your technical skills. You’re able to adapt someone else’s CSS or PHP in a WordPress template? Great. Find a way to say that.. don’t just plop down “Knowledge of PHP” under Technical Skills. Don’t assume you’ll only be interviewed by a friendly but slightly befuddled associate dean of whatever whom you can dazzle with an array of glittering acronyms.. there could (and should..why not?) be a programmer or sysadmin on the committee as well.

    For the interview, I think the best preparation is to do your homework about the institution. Read their websites carefully and critically, take a look at their past work, think about what you like and what you don’t like. Don’t worry about how & where you’ll use this knowledge. It’ll come to you at the right moment in the interview. If the institution has done its job, it’ll have scoured your CV, examined your past work, and carefully googled you as well.. you doing the same for them is (in my view) actually a sign of respect. We took the time to do this, and so did you. Next, remember to prepare some questions (critical questions are ok) about the job, especially the context of the job. This is the best way to indicate to them that you’re serious about this job in particular and not just fishing. Be self-aware and try to make your implicit assumptions about the job explicit. For example, do they see this more as an #ac or an #alt position? Is that what you want too? Is what you want realistic or even possible at this particular institution? Candidates sometimes forget that they’re interviewing their employer too. You’re both committing to each other, after all. Final tip: effectively, in a final interview, though the committee will already have a preference, they’re effectively signaling that they can’t decide amongst the last three candidates. Much can and will be overlooked if you are well-prepared, friendly, self-assured and easy going – in short, simpatico. Notwithstanding what I wrote above, at the interview, definitely a little more Bingley and a little less Darcy.

    So you got the job.. congratulations! You’re now in that rare, fleeting state of grace where everything about you is great and good. Make the most of it. Negotiate for a better salary (up 15% is a good rule of thumb), insist on some money to go to two professional conferences a year, make sure you can update your laptop every 3-4 years and can buy some software or books etc. Remember that self same dean of this or that or department head will likely be used to far, far, far more vexing demands from the faculty they likely also hire. Be polite, but be firm. If they refuse, very politely ask for a day or two for both sides to reconsider. Chances are they’ll blink since in the big scheme of things (their context) what you’re asking for in extras is peanuts. Worst case you can always back down. But try! Hiring people is an incredible time sink for institutions. As a rule of thumb – the greater the time & effort the institution spent in hiring you (number of interviews, phone calls, meets & greets etc.) the more leverage you have once they select you. Use it. You won’t have the same leverage later.

    That turned out to be rather longer and more generic than I had intended. Sorry! Many of these points were already better covered in Bethany Novwiskie’s excellent write-up here: Read it. Everything there is spot-on.

  11. I really enjoyed Tom Scheinfeldt’s reading (“Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment“), which echoed
    and better articulated how I feel about my alt-ac job (esp. in regards to academic freedom). An additional reason why these alt-ac jobs are becoming so important is, I think, directly related to growing calls for public universities in particular to showcase their productivity and contributions to the public good. This means that we need people whose job it is to promote and build value in the institution, and I’m not sure that tenure-track folks are not always in a position to do this because the tenure and promotion system orients them towards promoting their own work to a scholarly society/disciplinary community. I’m also finding that we need bridge-makers on campus who have the flexibility to attend lots of meetings, network, and basically catalyze conversations, collaborations, and new projects and capacities at the institutional level. Again, I’m not sure that tenure-track faculty are always in the most convenient position to do this, although certainly many do it very well. So, perhaps these more ‘organizational’ considerations may be broadening our faculty as well? I’m not certain, but it’s something I’m thinking a lot about these days.

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