Alt-Ac’s URI History: An Interview with Donna Bickford

If the term “alt-ac” is unfamiliar to you, it won’t be for long. The 2013 Modern Language Association Conference held a special session “How did I get here? Our ‘Altac’ jobs”; searching for “alt-ac” in the Chronicle of Higher Education returns around 60 results; and, the term is quickly becoming commonplace in academic departments. Alt-ac is short for “alternative academic,” referring to careers held by scholars in the academy that are outside of the traditional tenure track, often in administration.  Those in alt-ac careers are generally Ph.D.-holding staff members, who not only work in administration, but also research, write, and teach. While these “administrator scholars” are valuable assets to the university, the lack of a clear support system and lingering hierarchical tensions still needs to be addressed in order for universities, departments, and students to benefit fully from this resource. Attention has, therefore, turned to the need, at departmental- and university-levels, for further discussion of alt-ac careers and an array of related issues, including the growing use of adjuncts, digital humanities, and graduate/professional student preparation. While alt-ac careers do not “solve” the myriad hiring issues within the humanities, they are fast becoming recognized as legitimate and attractive options for those who do not see themselves in tenure-track positions, but who still have much to offer to the academy.

I was fortunate enough to conduct an e-interview with Donna Bickford, one of the leading voices in the alt-ac community, and an alum of the University of Rhode Island, having earned her Ph.D. in English. Links to her two Chronicle articles, co-written with Anne Mitchell Whisnant, can be found below, along with other pertinent writings on the present and future conditions of alt-ac careers.

Q: To begin, can you give a brief summary of your own journey, focusing on any specific experiences (at URI or elsewhere) that were particularly helpful or even discouraging?

DB: I had a very long and circuitous journey through my undergraduate career. Although I was accepted to Ohio State University as a double music major (voice and oboe), I decided I wasn’t ready to go to college immediately out of high school, which was a real shock to my parents—neither of whom had the opportunity to get a college degree. I took a short business course and started working as a secretary, always knowing I would go to, and finish, college at some point. I started taking evening courses; at one point I did two years full-time until I ran out of money; and then I finished up in the evenings again while I worked full time. It took me 14 years. What’s relevant about this for the alt-ac conversation is that because of my work history, I developed a lot of skills that are relevant for academic administration.

After I earned my BA in 1992, I was accepted at URI – first to the M.A. and then to the Ph.D. program, where I worked with some amazing teachers and mentors – including Mary Cappello, Jean Walton, Nedra Reynolds, Rosie Pegueros, the late Dana Shugar, and others – and had access to a number of useful experiences and opportunities. After Dana died, the (then) Women’s Studies Program opened a position as a lecturer, for which I applied and was ultimately hired. I held that position for 6 years (with one semester in absentia while I taught as a Fulbright Scholar in Finland) and continued to seek tenure-track jobs. Certainly the market is terrible now, and it was also terrible then, so eventually it became clear that I needed to think about other options. Around that time, an assistant dean at URI with whom I had worked closely sent me a job ad for the position of Director of the Carolina Women’s Center (the women’s center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). I applied and was ultimately selected for that job. I served as the Director of the CWC from June 2006-December 2012 and in January 2013, I began my current position as Associate Director in the Office for Undergraduate Research.

Q: Can you give any advice on the job search for alt-ac jobs?  What was your experience like?  How did you become the Associate Director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Office for Undergraduate Research?

DB: Alt-ac began to catalyze as a label/identity/community in 2005, but I wasn’t aware of it until 2010 – I wasn’t intentionally searching for alt-ac jobs, or even aware of the possibility. My first alt-ac position at the Carolina Women’s Center happened because I’d built strong relationships with colleagues. I hadn’t even seen the ad for the CWC job, nor were academic administrative jobs even on my radar screen. If the assistant dean hadn’t thought of me when she saw that ad, I never would have applied (or even known to apply). When I decided I was ready to move on from the CWC, I wanted to stay at UNC, so I simply kept my eyes open for any potential opportunities here.

The process of searching for an alt-ac job has become slightly less daunting since then, with many alt-ac positions listed in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Education, and with the development of alt-ac-specific resources, like Versatile PhD, #alt-academy, the Chronicle’s Vitae, Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s list of resources, AltAcademix, PhDs at Work, PhDeviate, and others.

Q: Do you have any suggestions, advice, or tips for ways in which Ph.D.s (and M.A.s, particularly in English) can market themselves for alt-ac work?  What skills should we cultivate and emphasize?  What positions would you recommend Ph.D.s look for (based on your experiences and those of your Altac Working Group)? Do you have any insights from your time at URI in particular?

DB: One of the great things about alt-ac is that there are positions everywhere. One of the challenging things is that there are positions everywhere! Many of the things that made me competitive as an alt-ac candidate are the professional development opportunities I had/took advantage of in addition to teaching and writing my dissertation. For example, as a graduate assistant and then lecturer in Women’s Studies, I organized programs, worked on curriculum design and assessment, and advised both individual students and student groups. While I was a graduate student, I served as the graduate representative to the department and on the graduate liaison committee and, thus, was involved in governance. I served on the Violence Prevention Committee and on the Advisory Boards for Civic Engagement and the Women’s Center.

Some traditionalists would argue that these activities took time and attention away from my research. There are certainly ways in which that is true. But, anyone interested in alt-ac needs experiences at the university that provide skills other than those associated with research or teaching (and, frankly, I think potential faculty members do as well). I made connections across the university, I learned a lot about how departments and institutions of higher education operate, I developed expertise in particular areas of the university outside of my own department – all of those are useful skills for moving into academic administration or other alt-ac positions. Of course, any graduate student in English has developed (or should have developed) effective oral communication skills and be a talented writer and editor – those abilities are relevant to any number of potential jobs.

The fact that I had experience in corporate America meant that I knew something about budgets, personnel issues, etc. That kind of exposure, those kinds of skills, can also be developed in student government, or through service on boards of community non-profits.

And, there is no way to emphasize strongly enough how important networking is. For many scholars, that term has negative associations and seems very manipulative and conniving – but it’s simply about building professional and collegial relationships. Networking was important to me in getting an alt-ac position to start with, and it’s been crucial to my success as an academic administrator as I’ve been able to build productive and mutually useful connections across the university.

Q: In your 2010 article, “Building a Corps of Administrator-Scholars,” you explain that your research has been relevant to your administrative work.  You work in a research office, so the connection seems pretty clear, but would you share an example of this?

DB: It’s been relevant in both of the alt-ac positions I’ve held thus far. At the most basic and utilitarian level, the fact that I have maintained a scholarly research/publication agenda (albeit at a glacial pace, compared to tenure-stream faculty) and been able to teach periodically (in other words, stayed professionally active in faculty-like activities that are not directly part of my administrative position) gives me credibility with faculty members and often with students. It also provides me with experience and expertise that can help guide program development. And, the skills we develop as researchers – finding gaps or inconsistencies in a body of work or a data set, figuring out what other/new/different questions need to be asked and how to answer them, synthesizing the results and developing the language to present those results to multiple constituencies with various levels of interest and expertise – those skills are eminently transferable and valuable for multiple kinds of alt-ac careers.

Q: Unlike the administrative work of faculty, it sounds as though the scholarship of administrators is going largely unrewarded by universities.  In light of this, can you outline some benefits you and your colleagues in the Altac Working Group have experienced in working as administrator-scholars?

DB: Certainly I take a high degree of personal satisfaction from staying active in my discipline(s). I mentioned earlier that it gives me greater credibility with some faculty and students. It also means I’ve been able to continue to serve on thesis and dissertation committees, which I find valuable and interesting.

Q: Can you give any advice to alt-ac administrative-scholars who might want to organize the way you and your colleagues have?  What are some of the largest obstacles?  In your conversations with “relevant campus administrators and other constituencies” what responses have you received?

DB: My co-conspirator, Anne Mitchell Whisnant, and I started by just having conversations with other colleagues – here at UNC, via the Twittersphere and other social media, and at professional conferences – about our experiences as alt-ac folks.

In 2010, our university issued a call for suggestions for the Academic Plan Steering Committee, which was in charge of writing the academic plan that would guide the University’s activities for the next 5 years. We wrote a proposal making the case for the value and importance of the alt-ac folks on campus, and suggested a range of opportunities/resources that could be made available to help recognize, reward, and leverage the power of our contributions. As far as we could tell from reading the Academic Plan that was produced, our proposal was basically ignored. Our first article for the Chronicle was an abbreviated version of that proposal.

We continued with a series of informal coffee chats, to build community and to learn what kinds of challenges other alt-acs were facing. We then sought support from the Institute for the Arts and Humanities – a highly respected campus unit led by an innovative and visionary colleague – and received funding for a one-year working group. This was really beneficial because it gave us an institutional home and increased our visibility. We were very intentional about the composition of the working group and made certain we had representation from across the University. The goal of Altac Working Group is to develop and present a formal proposal to senior university leadership that argues for the benefits and value alt-ac professionals provide to the institution, and to suggest ways UNC can better recognize and support our work.

One of the difficulties we had at the beginning was simply figuring out who our alt-ac colleagues might be, outside of the ones in our individual networks. We were fortunate because one of our working group members, due to her administrative role, has access to an HR database that let her search for employees via highest degree offered. We then looked at staff members with a Ph.D. who looked like they were employed in areas not directly related to their doctoral discipline. We identified a population of about 140 staff members that we think fits the alt-ac profile and are currently conducting a survey of those folks to understand more about their situation as alt-acs. The results of this study will inform our proposal.

We have invited a number of guests to our monthly meetings and, again, have been very intentional about those invitations. We wanted to hear from advocates for other campus constituencies who have successfully worked to broaden opportunities (like fixed-term faculty). We wanted to develop synergies with folks involved in overlapping conversations (like the Graduate School). And, we wanted to raise awareness about the existence of and challenges for alt-ac professionals with senior administrators (like the Provost). We feel that all of these conversations have been useful and provided us with relevant pieces of information, or ways to frame our arguments, or additional suggestions to explore as we move forward.

Basically, we will be arguing that by building a comprehensive and intentional system for developing and nurturing its alt-ac administrator-scholars, Carolina has a unique opportunity to design a visionary and innovative program that advances the University’s academic mission while also making more efficient and effective use of existing (human) resources.

For further reading:

Bickford Donna M.  and Anne Mitchell Whisnant. “Building a Corps of Administrator Scholars.” 

Bickford, Donna M. and Anne Mitchell Whisnant. “A Move to Bring Staff Scholars Out of the Shadows.”

Posner, Miriam. “The Jobs We Want.”

Sanders, Ashley. “Going Alt-Ac: How to Begin.”

Special thanks to Kim Evelyn for her help with the questions for this interview.

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