Editing Modernism in Canada


June 8, 2012

Tenure Lack, Alt-Ac, and Generally Talking Back

Throughout this week (my first DHSI!) the lack of tenure-track positions for those currently graduating with doctoral degrees was a major topic of discussion. In personal conversation with wonderful EMiCers and non-EMiCers alike such as Kersta, Melissa, Emily Ballantyne and Emily Sharpe; Alyssa Arbuckle, Sandra Parmegiani, and Caley Ehnes; and Donna Bilak and other new acquaintances at the Institute, dissatisfaction with what Daniel Powell called “the straight and very narrow path” on which academics are set today was palpable. Wednesday’s unconference session on Alt-Ac, DH, and Graduate Training (organized by Powell, Alyssa Arbuckle, Alyssa McLeod, and Shaun MacPherson) provoked denigration of the narrow track from graduate programs geared too exclusively towards the acquisition of pedagogical, professional, and methodological practices necessary for that specific but oh-so-elusive tenure-track position. This particular session focused on restructuring graduate programs as a method of providing academics with more transferable hard skills and thus a wider individual arsenal with which to tackle job market, both Ac and Alt (as in Ryerson’s Literatures of Modernity program – http://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/literatures/. See full notes from the unconference session here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CKuRYHE7D157D6vHrLmySwCPX4ViHD_G6OaAvM1h86k/edit?pli=1). But for me the format of the session itself was the most effective answer to the problem at hand: the meeting provided a timely platform for the type of preliminary autogenic and collaborative work which is, in my view, the best response to a decaying hierarchical structure of academic competition and intellectual siloing. I thought the session, in which graduate students and recent graduates defined their own concerns, articulated their desires, and identified existing models on which to build, was a succinct example of how the soft skills of collaborative brainstorming, crowd-sourcing, large-scale trouble-shooting, and project planning learned in DH can be practically applied to change the largely unsatisfactory existing structures of graduate training and academic opportunity.

With so few tenure-track positions currently available – especially teaching Canadian literature in Canada – it is clear that academics need to create their own opportunities outside the traditional walls of the academy. My experience and discussions this week have solidified my belief that not only is this creative self-sustenance a necessity, but, especially for those in the digital humanities who have been part of collaborative and innovative digital initiatives, it is a very realizable possibility. I think we should look at this dearth of access to traditional, well-defined professional “tracks” which may suit our skill sets but not necessarily our research interests, personalities, or lifestyles less as a major professional concern enhancing collegial competition, as this view leads to further entrenchment of departments in traditional disciplinary models as various fields attempt to protect their practices from interdisciplinary dilution. Rather, the inevitable breakage of this archaic system can be viewed more as an opportunity for junior academics to identify our own individual niches, point them out, and fill them. While this seems idealistic, such examples of collaborative initiatives for intellectuals outside or in partnership with the academy can be found close at hand in DH: the Modernist Commons in which the Digital Editions class has been working this week is one of many examples in DH of autogenic scholarly creation – born, of course, of the mother of necessity. Specifically literary endeavours for academics include Ooligan Press’s Graduate Program, which provides MA and MS degrees in book publishing in partnership with Portland State University, is a student-run press which publishes in both print and digital media (http://ooligan.pdx.edu/graduate-program/); while initiatives like the independent Netherlands-based think-tank Kennisland (http://www.kennisland.nl/en) provide a model for larger and more interdisciplinary (quasi)-Alt-Ac involvement. The more doctoral graduates with experience in DH use their experience in collaborative project planning to plan and build the career they want, the less legitimate the current “one-track-fits-all” mentality will become, and the pressure felt by those within graduate studies to compete with one another to support existing, unsatisfactory structures may be replaced by the impulse to collaborate and create new ones.

Examples of successful Alt-Ac projects, suggestions for new ones, and ideas for funding are welcome!

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