Monday, February 25, 2013

A Brief, Working History of the Alt-Ac and Post-Academic Movements

This timeline originally appeared on my blog, Mama Nervosa, on 12.27.2012. This version includes a few additions to the first version of the timeline.

As the humanities unravel, as alt-ac gains steam as "the future of the academy," as our stat counter registers more and more hits from folks distressed, disillusioned, and desperate in their post-academic lives, I've felt like there's more need to articulate the relationship of our website, or more accurately, of the post-academic movement with the rest of the crisis in higher ed. I've been putting together a timeline that I think traces the roots and chronology of the modern "post-academic movement." Currer and I are working on a post that more fully fleshes out what it means to be post-academic (versus alt-academic, or whatever) because we feel like being "post-ac" is it's own thing, it's own branch on this baobab tree of higher ed, grad school, culture, time, history, etc.

I believe that "post-academic" can be used an umbrella term that indicates the counter-academic movement within and without institutions broadly: critiques of academia from within (institutional critiques, etc), including concerns about labor structure, grad student exploitation/experience/professionalization, and the contingent faculty movements that have sprung up; and the proliferation of post-academic, ex-academic, and anti-academic blogs and advice books outside the academy. Not that these are equivalent in terms of impact, but more that they're concurrent. I'm connecting dots here. I believe alt-ac and post-ac share the same roots, but are now diverging in key ways (that Currer and I will get to shortly). But this timeline traces those shared roots and tries to highlight key events/moments/ideas. Please feel free to submit additions in the comments or via email (



  • Doctor of Arts programs established -- programs briefly flourish, then precipitously fade in the early 90s (seems related because it is a reformed doctoral degree focusing on teaching and application of research).


  • Process theory gains momentum in composition classrooms. This is significant, IMO, in that it generates some serious cognitive dissonance in the academy, and those effects are borne out through the practices of graduate students.

  • Foucault. Come on.


  • The Wyoming Conference Resolution opposing unfair employment/pay practices for post-secondary English teachers (that is, comp instructors and TAs).


  • Susan Miller writes Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition, which is significant IMO because it (a) uses cultural studies to study the institution itself (b) furthers a conversation about hierarchies and exploitation within institutions and departments and (c) talks about how grad students/teachers are complicit in their own exploitation. (There are many other important publications like this. This is the one I could remember off the top of my head.)



  • Cary Nelson and Michael Berube write "Graduate Education is Losing Its Moral Base," which stated that grad programs had largely become labor mills to teach undergrads, and pointed out the perilous job market for PhDs.



  • MLA President Elaine Showalter promotes alt-ac careers at that year's conference and is met with some serious backlash from the grad student caucus at the time, led by Marc Bousquet and William Pannapacker. Michael Berube writes, "Both, in different ways, have come to regard the enterprise as a shell game, and both, 15 years ago, construed Showalter's call as a disingenuous suggestion that people who had trained for a decade to be humanists could suddenly switch gears and become secretaries and screenwriters."


  • Paula Chambers founds the WRK4US listserv, which served humanities and social science graduate students in career changes. (See 2010 below.)

  • founded


  • Re-envisioning the PhD project founded with goals of improving transparency, suggesting reform, and revamping doctoral education in the US.

  • The Responsive PhD project founded to enhance transparency, improve public engagement, and promote diversity in doctoral education. Concluded 2006 with "goals achieved."


  • Composition starts to come into its own right as a discipline by becoming everything it hates (ok, that's an exaggeration). But still, comp starts to feel its own cognitive dissonance as it gains institutional prestige and all the markings of legitimacy (departments! offices! tenure lines! a zillion conferences and journals with parentheses and slashes in the titles!) but continues to focus on vexing issues of racism, sexism, class, oppression, and exploitation in institutionalized practices and hidden pedagogy.

  • Marc Bousquet presents "The Excrement Theory of Graduate Education" at MLA (later published as "The Waste Product of Graduate Education" in 2002), which argued that degree-holding graduate students are the waste product of higher education.





Is there a chance that the alternative-careers movement (which in many ways I laud and admire) has unwittingly sold humanities Ph.D.'s yet another professional pipe dream? Could it be that all of us -- both those still "in" academe (that is, in the professoriate) and those in the nonacademic realm -- still share a misguided optimism about the marketability of a humanities Ph.D.?






  • M. Berube sums up the crisis in "Humanities Unraveled," remarking that the alt-ac challenge is a good place to start with grad program reform, but also worrying that programs at the forefront of reform are also most vulnerable as investment in humanities programs drops more and more.

 Other bloggers or armchair institutional historians, please chime in with your start dates or other significant contributions. Crowdsource this, people!

1 comment:

  1. [...] attention to the aura of disenchantment and frustration that taints the responses of the postdocs/post-acs/alt-acs who frequent the comment [...]


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