The Future is Now: (Re)Training for an Alt-Ac Future

Two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Penn State University for the first time. I was one of several invited speakers for the Center for American Literary Studies (CALS) Symposium on #Alt-Ac. Sean Goudie, Director of the Center, was our kind host and the MC for the day’s discussions.

Brian Croxall speaks at the CALS symposium

The day-long event kicked off with an opening discussion led by the inimitable Bethany Nowviskie. Bethany’s remarks referred to her presentation at the 2012 MLA, “Two & a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks.” (Interestingly, she and I both spoke on that panel, which suggests that we’ve been at this for a while.) In addition to discussing the origin story for the term “alt-ac”, she provided a timeline of what the term has meant to her in each of the years since Jason Rhody coined it in 2009. I appreciated this overview of how the term and conversations around it have grown and changed.

Bethany was followed by panel conversations about “What does #alt-ac mean?” and “(Re)Training for an #alt-ac future,” the latter of which I appeared on. The panelists featured other invited alt-ac individuals and both Penn State participants. I was delighted to get to finally meet Timothy Powell and Rebecca Schumann for the first time and to become acquainted with the work of Paul Erickson at the American Antiquarian Society and Megan Doherty from the German Marshall Fund. The Penn State team included alt-ackers—Patricia Hswe and Daniel Tripp, who told us how every department needs “a Dan”—and faculty—Michael Bérubé, Christopher Long, and Rosemary Jolly, who holds so many cross-appointments that she is all but “alt” to herself.

All in all, it was a day filled with stimulating discussion. For some broad coverage of what was said, Rebecca reported on portions of the Symposium at Slate and CALS recently published a summary. Chris Long has posted his comments, and I hope that my fellow presenters will eventually, especially Bethany whose remarks were characteristically considered and delivered with her trademark beautiful slides.

As I note below, we were asked to be brief in our remarks so as to make as much room for conversation among the panelists and the audience. It’s always interesting to discover how much harder it is to brief than to be expansive. I was glad of the opportunity to finally say in a public forum some of the things I’ve been thinking about alt-ac since my 2013 MLA talk and to learn that some of the things I have been imagining are well underway at Penn State and other campuses.

A steel garage door with 'the future is now' spraypainted on it.

The first and most important thing that I have to say today is that if we’re talking about retraining for an alt-ac future, that future is now. This isn’t something that is coming. It’s already here.

An orange wall with the number 20 painted on it

We’ve been asked to be brief, and so I’ve given myself a total of 20 slides to work with. So I’ve got to keep moving. I’m going to talk about two different things today. First: how to retrain yourself, if you’re in graduate school. Second: how graduate school must retrain itself. And with luck, I’ll have time for a short third thing aimed at the faculty.

A man doing chin-ups

So first, let’s talk about retraining yourself. It’s important to realize that in some ways you’re already training for an alt-ac future. One of the most important skill sets for working an alt-ac job is to know how higher education works. People who work around universities need to understand the incentives that drive the behavior of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. And guess what: if you’ve been paying attention in any way, shape, or form while in grad school you already have that skill set.

A crowded subway car with the word 'Work' written above it

Knowing how the university works is, in other words, a very marketable skill. Most jobs around a modern university need people who understands such things.

The word 'lust' written in red neon lights

That said, there’s something else that these jobs in universities also want: a little bit of experience. It’s so much easier to imagine someone working in the Admissions Office if they’ve ever worked in that office before. Or even someone who had worked in any office environment.

A building with the word 'JOB' written on it in a stylized font

Of course, once you’re out of grad school, you don’t need a “little experience,” you need a “little bit of job.” So here’s how to retrain for the future if you’re in grad school at the moment: get a part-time job. Get one in an office on campus that does nothing like what you are doing in graduate school.

A building wall with street art of Samuel Beckett's face on it

Don’t, in other words, be like me. I got a job in graduate school working as an editorial research assistant for The Letters of Samuel Beckett. My job was to hunt down the materials needed to write the footnotes about whatever Sam mentioned in his letters. If he said “earthquake,” I had to figure out which one.

A small square-headed humanoid figure made out of wood poring over a book

In short, while I was in graduate school, learning how to research, I had a job where I…learned how to research. And guess what: when I graduated, I knew how to research. Far better off, in some ways, were my friends who had worked in a computer lab on campus or in the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.

The word 'NOW' written in yellow neon lights

In short, take time right now—the future is now—to do something more than just your graduate work. Find 5-10 hours per week. It doesn’t have to be here on campus. You can volunteer at a local non-profit or start one of your own. Just find something that will give you experiences that you can draw on down the line.

Several broken pocket watches

And yes, I know that you don’t really have time for a part-time job at the moment. I totally remember feeling that way. But the truth of the matter is that it’s so much easier to get that experience now than it will be once you’ve graduated. And sadly, after graduate you’ll have even less time.

The Penn State Nittany Lion doing one-armed pushps on the floor of a basketball court

So that’s half of my slides and half of my time. Now let’s talk about how the school must retrain itself. And again, let’s learn something from my own experiences. I was fortunate to receive a fellowship for graduate school that not only paid my tuition but also provided me a stipend.

A storm trooper figurine showing a stormtrooper LEGO minifig a Scrabble tile with the letter 'J' on it

Shortly after accepting admission, I got a letter giving me additional details about my fellowship and stipend. One of the conditions of my new position was that I wasn’t supposed to have an outside job. Graduate school was my job and they were paying me for that, so no moonlighting, please.

But since they knew and I knew that I couldn’t live in Atlanta on $12,500/year, there was an acknowledgment that I might need to take a job and that if I did so…

A screenshot of the Emory University Laney Graduate School's employment restrictions. See

…I had better keep it to 10 hours/week or less. Oh, and I would need to get permission from my DGS and the Dean of the Graduate School.

A slide with the following text: 'Welcome to graduate school. Your stipend will be $12,500.  In addition, your first year on campus you will work in the Office of Greek Life. Your second-year assignment will be made in consultation with your DGS. <3, Emory

Let’s leave aside the infantilization and imagine that when I was admitted to grad school that I got a different sort of letter. It might read, “Welcome to graduate school. Your stipend is $12,500. Your first year on campus, you will work in the Office of Greek Life. Your second-year assignment will be made in consultation with your DGS.”

What I’m proposing is that schools start asking us to do more.

A screenshot of the Penn State Graduate Internship Program website,

If something like this sounds difficult, then it’s worth looking at what already exists here at Penn State, the Graduate Internship Program (or GRIP). Graduate students in the program work 20 hours per week at their internship and are released from their teaching and research responsibilities. (Chris Long spoke more about this program.)

A peeling, right-turn arrow on a road

There is only one change that I would make in this program that should be a model for the nation: it should be rolled out to everyone in the graduate programs in the College of the Liberal Arts. This shouldn’t be an “alt” part of graduate school because that simply underlines the notion that going into a non-teaching position is a lesser outcome.

As a school like Penn State retrains itself with something like GRIP, students have an easier time retraining themselves for the present future.

A hedgerow maze

As they are exposed to different experiences on or around campus, it becomes easier for them to imagine different avenues that follow the PhD.

A red toy devil against a white background with a stark shadow

Indeed, they might even learn that the administration on a campus is not quite the demonic force that the faculty often make it out to be. Advisers in this room: can you imagine how hard it might be for an advisee to take a job in some campus office when they’ve heard nothing but complaints about admin for years?

I’m not saying that university administration is always right. But administration and staff jobs aren’t beneath your students. They’re not beneath you.

A group of Stormtroopers at a parade

We have got to stop socializing our students to think that anything less than being a clone of our ideas or our employment is the only option.

A LEGO Delorean with Back to the Future minifigs

That’s a future that I’m totally ready for now.

A picture of The Drums, with one person singing and the other hitting a tambourine