The Rise of the Alt-Ac

How "alternative academics" are changing the nature of academic work

Steve Bransford

Educational Analyst, Library and IT Services

The term “alt-ac” didn’t exist a generation ago. It first appeared in the academic work lexicon around 2010 as shorthand for “alternative academic”—a term that comprises a range of full-time positions involved in academic labor but not in the traditional roles of teaching and research. Primarily they are staff and administrative positions, and often their occupants are trained in traditional doctoral programs. The jobs are often technical in nature, but by some definitions they can also include academic affairs, student affairs, development and research, business affairs, and others. 

Alternative academics have likely been around in some shape or form since the beginning of higher education itself. But as colleges and universities have expanded and become more ambitious over the past generation, huge gaps have developed between what institutions want to offer and what traditional faculty and staff can provide. As a result, opportunities for alternative academics have increased significantly over the past few decades. 

Few alternative academics can cite an early formative moment when they absolutely knew they had to pursue alt-ac. I say this not to denigrate the career choice, because I myself am a practitioner of the dark arts of alt-ac. I say it to recognize that many of us somehow found ourselves there at some point in our career trajectory. Some might have pursued the tenure-track teaching path but realized the increasing difficulty of securing tenure-track teaching gigs, so they decided to find different, non-teaching options within the academy. Or perhaps others started in the commercial IT or software development world and found working on projects within higher education to be a much more satisfying and decidedly less stressful career path. 

My own career path to date has been a series of zigs and zags through education, music, technology, and filmmaking. In the late 1990s I completed an MFA in video and film and taught filmmaking at an art school for two years. Beckoned back to Atlanta by my brother, we started an independent record label and released more than two dozen records in five years. Sensing the collapse of the music business (and our own label), I went back to school for a doctorate in American studies at Emory. While immersed in the endless cycle of grad school reading and writing, I was frequently pulled into media production work, producing music instructional DVDs and video content for the online journal Southern Spaces. I finished my Ph.D. in 2008 and served as a visiting instructor at both Georgia State and Emory. I recognized my chances of finding a tenure-track teaching gig in Atlanta were slim, but because I didn’t want to relocate my family out of Atlanta, I pursued freelance production and documentary work for a couple years before returning to Emory in 2010 to accept a position that fuses my scholarly training with my media production experience.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I see two key areas for alternative academics in the coming years: technology support and media production. Students and faculty now have huge expectations about the technological infrastructure that institutions need to provide in order to facilitate academic work. Twenty years ago, it was noteworthy if a university provided students with a university email address, but today students expect a wide range of academic technologies, including learning management and lecture capture systems, blogging platforms, online exhibition and portfolio tools, and robust digital library catalogs. In addition to keeping up with their own fields of expertise, we can’t expect faculty and students to keep up with all the latest technologies. Technology moves swiftly and is often complicated. That is why the instructional technologist has become increasingly important on campuses in recent years. An instructional technologist helps faculty and students navigate the shifting sands of digital tools and recommends the appropriate resources for a faculty member’s class or a student’s project. 

Digital tools are transforming the whole shape of teaching and research. One of the primary factors driving this transformation is an increasing acceptance of the visual in pedagogy and scholarship. While the transformative power of MOOCs (“massively open online courses”) has undoubtedly been overhyped, the MOOC phenomenon demonstrates the appeal and effectiveness (if executed properly) of online video in education. The short-form video modules of MOOCs feature instructors lecturing alongside slides but can also feature a wide range of other visual materials, including animations, screen captures, and even media captured in the field. Of course, it’s not practical to expect faculty to have the skills and resources to produce media for online courses or for digital scholarship projects. To pull these initiatives off, faculty must rely upon people trained in media production.

I believe that alt-acs have helped bolster the legitimacy of digital scholarship. The debates about whether articles in electronic journals should count as tenure-worthy publications appear to me to be waning. And digital scholarship continues to challenge the hegemony of the academic article as the primary form of scholarship, opening up a whole range of new forms of scholarly inquiry, including visualizations, data mining, GIS projects, and documentary filmmaking. I think about the work I did with Professor Allen Tullos for the Southern Spaces “Poets in Place” project, in which we filmed poets reciting their work in locations where their poems are set, adding a whole new set of visual and performative dimensions to their work. I also think about the many professors I’ve assisted in developing a “flipped” classroom approach, helping them create and deliver online video lectures so that in-class time is more focused on collaborative, interactive, and dialectical forms of learning. The flipped approach reflects the “on demand” nature of learning today, while acknowledging that some forms of debate and inquiry are best handled in a face-to-face context.

I feel grateful to serve as an alternative academic at Emory in the realms of both technology support and media production. As an educational analyst in Academic Technology Services, I consult with faculty about the best ways to use video in teaching and research. I am also a lead video production specialist, assisting specific instructors and departments but also fielding inquiries from anyone who has a question about how to use video in an educational context. On the production side, I am part of the Emory Coursera team. We produced three online classes for the Coursera MOOC platform in 2013 and are set to produce six additional courses in 2014. Beyond Coursera, my production work is also expanding into flipped classroom content and material for projects coming out of the new Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. My managers have been supportive of the creative projects I’ve undertaken outside of Emory, from a tribute to pioneering blues piano that I worked on with my father-in-law, Chuck Leavell, to an in-the-works feature-length documentary about the Decatur-based gardener Ryan Gainey. 

Now that there is a self-consciousness about “alt-ac” as a viable career path, people seem to be pursuing it directly and not just finding themselves enmeshed within it at some point in their trajectories. Who knows? Maybe a generation from now it won’t seem so far-fetched for someone to say, “When I saw that amazing digital humanities project, I knew I wanted to be an alternative academic!”