Alt-Ac and Gender at the 2014 MLA: a Proposal

Last Spring at the height of the frantic “propose papers for the next MLA Convention!” I got contacted by Sarah Werner about a special session she was proposing on alt-ac and gender. I thought it was a fabulous topic and I wrote up a proposal, and Sarah (as panel proposers do) did a lot more work and submitted it to the MLA. We were lucky, and the session was accepted. Also fortunate for me was the fact that a special session on steampunk was accepted—the first of its kind at an MLA—as well as the one that I organized on behalf of the ACH on Beyond the Digital.

Unfortunately, that meant that I had three presentations at the Convention, and the MLA’s (totally reasonable) rules only allow a participant to be listed in the program twice. This meant that I had to withdraw from something, and since the alt-ac and gender panel was the last I’d joined, I regretfully did so. To add insult to injury, the alt-ac and gender panel is scheduled at exactly the same time as the one on steampunk.

Given this history, I wanted to share my short proposal for the session. It’s not that the abstract is anything particularly fleshed out or brilliant. Indeed, I hoped throughout the summer and fall that I would find the time to write a “real” version of the presentation that I could share today. But I think it’s important to share in part because through these accidents of programming the panel participants happen to all be women. I know their work, and they will all do a fabulous job. But I want to publish this proposal as a small way to suggest that issues of “gender” are not only of import to women.

You probably didn’t need the reminder.

Abstract for #altac and gender panel at #mla14
“No More ‘Plan B’?”

When people speak about careers outside the tenure track, they often cast them as “Plan B.” The pervasiveness of this conception of alternatives to traditional faculty employment is apparent in Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s 2011 essay, “No More Plan B.” Seeking to dispel with the notion altogether, Grafton and Grossman still cannot help but fall back on the phrase that subtly suggests an abortive start to one’s career.

Perhaps it is only coincidence that this moniker for alternative academic careers is one that is shared with the commercial form of levonorgestrel, the synthetic progestogen that is used in emergency contraceptives. But then again, pharmaceutical name development has a big business built around it and is far from random (see “Pharmaceutical Name Development”). What do we discover, then, when we start to think about the junctures between Plan B, the contraceptive, and Plan B, the alternative academic career?

In this presentation, I argue that our conception of alternative academic careers has been shaped by a logic of gender that equates these “nontraditional” paths with “women’s work.” It is not simply that many of these positions are in fields that have “traditionally” been the realm of domain of women, such as the library, development work, pedagogy, campus life, or nonprofits. The misogynistic associations of “Plan B” are tied to these concepts of “tradition,” where those with advanced degrees who do not obtain and/or pursue a tenure-track job are seen in the role of women. The perception of “failure” that is associated with Plan B, I argue, is also tied to its association with women and, as is the case with the contraceptive, carries with it a suggestion of one having been negligent or not properly prepared.

Given these conditions, participation in “Plan B” presents an interesting conundrum for a man. I will speak from my own experience about how success and failure are understood within the context of the academic job markets, as well as my (acculturated) desire to provide for my own family.

In the end, “Plan B” requires us to confront how this degree—the PhD—is not one (pace Irigaray). It is the thinking of difference within academia, made possible by the “B” that then makes it possible to imagine other “alts”—plans C, D, and E—as well as to envision a structure in which these alternatives become valued and understood on their own terms that have always already broken from tradition.

Works Cited

Grafton, Anthony T., and Jim Grossman. “No More Plan B.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 9 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter & Carolyn Burke. Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.
“Pharmaceutical Name Development.” Addison Whitney. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.