Things That Go "Alt-Ac" in the Night

Boo. ("Boogeyman" from Wikimedia Commons).

Boo. ("Boogeyman" from Wikimedia Commons).

I’ve always had difficulty explaining to my parents what exactly I do in graduate school. They’ve always been incredibly supportive, of course, but there are some things that get lost in translation. Discussions of what my research is, or the parameters of my teaching load, or the rigors of publishing are met with smiles-and-nods before the subject is changed--“Are you going to move back home when you’re done?”

It’s not that they’re simple or bumpkins; they just lack context. My father, for example, immigrated from rural Mexico with barely a high school diploma, and he has scraped by in one agricultural job after another since I was a child. He believes that the longer one spends in school, the better and the more stable their job and income will be. “Politicians and lawyers spend a long time in college,” he told me, as though a PhD in medieval literature were the same as a Master of Laws. “You will be fine,” he says. “You are getting your degree.”

Education: the panacea of social mobility.

But saturated as I am in graduate-school culture, I know too well the expressions Adjunct Hell and The State of Academia; my colleagues and I dwell on dwindling tenure-tracks and phased-out departments in masochistic terror. Mention The Job Market to a graduate student and watch variegated coping mechanisms frantically kick into play. There’s no need to elaborate--the phrases are household boogeymen in my little corner of academic culture. But that’s the way of it, we tell ourselves: it’s just the price we pay to join the professorate.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, but it’s far easier to explain to my father what I do at the UWC. He understands why I’m helping students with their writing much more easily than why I’m reading what someone in the ‘50s wrote about an old poem from the 1300s. “Ah, like a tutor,” he says, and I can almost hear him nodding over the phone. “You can do that here, right? There are schools here.”

My father is very concerned that I will live too far away.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I liked my writing center work more than my research, that I found it far more interesting and rewarding. By that point, I had begun to volunteer for project groups--notably, the Presentations Committee. I continued to consult with students on their writing projects, but I also oversaw more general writing workshops.

I began to reconsider my resignation to Adjunct Hell.

When I was one of the Presentations Co-Coordinators, it was like having my cake and eating it, too: I still consulted, still delivered presentations, but now I was getting a peek at the inner clockwork of the UWC itself. After I left Presentations to join the Assistant Program Coordinator team, taking on yet more responsibilities, I had already made the choice to go into writing center administration.

However as soon as I made that decision, I encountered a strange turnabout. While my father was no longer confused by my career, I felt swamped with the need to justify my choice to my academic advisors. I was going into alt-ac? But why?

One of my advisors was especially less than thrilled, trying to reassure me that I wouldn’t really have to go into alt-ac and she has one student at a top university who out-earns her. I couldn’t help but note the implications, and I had the distinct impression that my choice wasn’t just a failure to her, but some kind of self-flagellation. It felt as though alt-ac were a sort of gallows--something one is forced into when they cannot be Good Scholars.

When I mentioned more specifically that I would be quite happy in writing center administration, her response a deeply sympathetic, “Oh, Pax, that would be so sad.”

I was at a loss for words. She sounded like I’d just told her my dog was dying. Tragedy, thy name is alt-ac.

As my boss often points out, writing centers aren’t really “alternative-to-academic” employment--they are academic work. However, while a handful of my professors have acknowledged it as a very practical and sound route, they do so only as an academic alternative. It’s a “smart choice” in this Job Market, but not necessarily independent of that context.

It’s as though no one really chooses to go alt-ac. And while I know it’s leftover imposter syndrome, I fear that my choice somehow casts doubts on my academic abilities: I’m not a Good Scholar who would not succeed on The Job Market, so I have to go into administration. After all, no one in academia is supposed to want to work in a writing center. But I do, and I have every intention of doing so.

My father is still convinced I’ll be making the big bucks, living comfortably in a nice, nearby house that he can visit during holidays. But his optimism, a little too silver-lined perhaps, is vastly preferable to academia’s funeral dirge.


~Pax Gutierrez-Neal (Assistant Program Coordinator for the University of Texas at Austin)