Alt-Ac in Archaeology

Go over and check out the newest issue of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (JEMAHS) for their forum on alt-ac (alternate academic) careers (and you might want to download it all now since I don’t think it’ll be freely available forever). These are careers for individuals who either shifted their attention from their graduate programs to other, typically related careers, or received their Ph.D.s and either did not entire the academic job market or could not find jobs. As the academic job market has become all the more constricted for Ph.D.s in the humanities, alt-ac careers are becoming more common. This year is my first as our department’s director of graduate studies and I’m paying a more attention to the job market as our Ph.D.s and M.A.s graduate and find their way.  

So after chewing on these articles for a bit, I had three thoughts

1. Ph.D. programs have to change. For a long time, I’ve thought of Ph.D. programs (particularly in history, but for archaeology too) as professional programs for historians and archaeologists. The goal of a Ph.D. program is to prepare a historian for a rather narrow view of the academic job market. This involves developing more sophisticated research methods, producing book length arguments, managing long term projects, and balancing teaching and research responsibilities. I contend that most Ph.D. programs continue to do a good job with these things. 

It is another issue whether these things continue to be essential elements of professional development in our discipline. For faculty who will teach more and research less, it seems reasonable that we shift some emphasis toward not just teaching, but to integrating research and teaching in the classroom. I’d like to think that our D.A. program at UND which requires students to demonstrate a broader chronological and topical foundation does a better job in preparing students for certain types of teaching positions (and our almost perfect placement rate over the past decade would tend reflect our confidence). In the D.A. program students are required to develop broad expertise in both European and American history and teach under supervision both the Western (or World) History survey course, the American history survey as well as to develop a more specialized course. In place of a traditional dissertation, our D.A. candidates develop a research project that must include a teaching component that explores how the candidate can integrate their research in either teaching or public history environment.      

2. Alt-Academia is a scary place. Reading the various contributions to this volume emphasized to me how much the serene world of tenured academia relies upon a fragile world of alt-acedmic positions. Sarah and Eric Kansa’s discussion of their situation as directors of the Alexandria Archive Institute which supports the invaluable Open Access archaeological publishing platform made clear they their position, both in financial terms and in terms of academic freedom is not as secure as a that of faculty. Chuck Jones made clear that he made decisions to move because of the opportunity for tenure. 

I’m incredibly lucky to have the security of a tenured position, but I can say with absolute confidence that I am neither as good at my job as Chuck or the Kansas (Sarah and Eric, not the state or the band), nor is what I do as important to the field. (And this observation applies, undoubtedly, to many of the other scholars who shared their experiences in this volume, but I know these three better than most of the others). The contributions in this volume made very clear how much key aspects of our academic work are not afforded the same protections (and freedoms) that tenured faculty have. This is hardly a shock as the number of adjuncts teaching continues to rise nationwide and universities continue to erode tenure protections through appeals to economic emergencies, personal conduct, and imagined institutional futures. It is something that should cause us worry, though. Our opportunity to pursue independent research is only as good as its institutional context. Libraries and  digital repositories (as well as granting agencies, publishers, and other institutions that support and shape academic work) require the same protections as tenured researchers.  

3. Disciplinary Deskilling. As I begin my term as director of graduate studies for our small graduate program, I do worry about balancing the need to prepare our M.A., Ph.D., and D.A. students for academic positions and alt-ac positions. On the one hand, I recognize that much of our traditional academic training has some value to a candidate interested in alt-ac positions and our commitment to professional education in our various disciplinary traditions has (often unintended) utility outside our academic worlds.

On the other hand, I continue to worry that by looking to prepare our students for the potential of alt-ac jobs, we run the risk of diluting our professional degree programs. For example, in discussions of creating a Master’s level “public history” track at UND, we’ve talked about requiring courses in non-profit management, marketing, accounting, education, computer programing, web design, and museum studies. These courses, of course, would introduce students to key skills vital to a career in the world of public history. At the same time, requiring even a few of these classes will inevitably squeeze out courses in disciplinary history. 

As we think about what we can do to make the Ph.D. a more practical degree in recognition that most of our Ph.D. students will not become tenured faculty, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to start to shift what we emphasize in our Ph.D. programs to adapt to this reality. The problem is, of course, that the alt-ac world is a much more diverse and dynamic place than academia and looking to expand the foundation of Ph.D. education will always risk contracting the specialized, professional training that remains the core of what a Ph.D. is. We’re witnessing this on the undergraduate level, albeit in a bit of a different context, where training in history has increasingly taken a back seat to the development (and invariably assessment) of “transferable skills.” After all, the opportunities in the field of history for a B.A. student are relatively few and history has long established itself as useful training for a range of other kinds of work. The risk is, of course, if history largely serves to train students to do things other than history, wouldn’t it be more efficient, affordable, and useful to just train students broadly to do this other kind of work? Why teach them history as a way to develop skills rather than just training them in those skills? Because history is interesting? Is the historical method and subject matter the spoonful of sugar (for the medicine of workforce development)?

I’m not sure that I know the answer to this question and how much any discipline should give in their undergraduate or professional training to the realities of a changing workforce, institutional cultures, and professional expectations. The careers of the people features in his volume of JEMAHS offer some thought-provoking case studies that will continue to inform the conversation. 

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