News | 14 October 2013

THATCamp Invites Graduate Students to Consider Alt-Ac


J.Beard-That.CampNo one disputes the fact that the job market for tenure-track positions in the humanities and humanistic social sciences is extremely competitive these days and only a select few of Ph.D. students will secure those coveted positions. But there is little consensus about what to do about it.

Rather than contributing to the glut of blog posts complaining about the lack of good jobs in the academy, doctoral students at UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley and Northeastern and Stanford universities chose another, in their words, “more optimistic” approach.

Jessica Beard, a sixth year doctoral candidate in literature at UC Santa Cruz, and Anne Kingsley, an English instructor at Diablo Valley College who is ABD in English literature from Northeastern University, invited students, faculty, academic administrators, and industry leaders from tech companies such as Google and Microsoft to a THATCamp on Oct. 5 and 6 at UC Berkeley.

“Most of us are aware that there are very few tenure-track jobs listed each year and that one needs to put multiple years into multiple applications in order to find a job, if one ever does,” Jessica Beard posted to the THATCamp blog. “This conference is a space to think outside of this option and explore the many opportunities our talents and experiences can afford us.”

THATCamp means literally The Humanities and Technology Camp and enlists what creators call an “unconference” model with panel sessions proposed on the spot and all attendees, humanists and technologists, recruited as active participants in the discussions. THATCamps generally come with a theme, and for this event at UC Berkeley the co-organizers decided to focus on alt-ac, a shorthand used to refer to those pursuing alternative academic careers in industry, academic administration, libraries and government among other fields.

Panels proposed on the fly included a session titled “Pitching the Humanities in Unexpected Places,” proposed by Sarah McCullough, who received her Ph.D. in cultural studies from UC Davis last spring and now serves as the associate director of the Humanities Center at UC San Diego. McCullough, a former graduate student researcher at the UC Davis Humanities Institute, said her panel would encourage participants to construct “elevator pitches” about the importance of the humanities in unexpected venues such as NGOs, policy teams, medicine, technology projects, and advocacy organizations.

“It is not always apparent to the existing organizations and projects the value a humanities scholar brings to the table,” McCullough explained. “This workshop will provide a venue for articulating our contributions and skills, and encapsulating that information into short, accessible messages. … The goal will be to develop a strong, clear message around our value that can be inserted into written communication (including grants) or face-to-face conversation.”

UC Davis had a particularly strong showing at the event. In addition to McCullough, Erin Hendel, Jenae Cohn and Kristen Aldebol, all doctoral candidates in the English department at UC Davis, were there to join in the conversation.

“Without a strong infrastructure and network in place to streamline these conversations, it will be difficult to point to the large impact that training in humanities has in industries outside of academia,” said Aldebol. “Connecting these individual impacts … would allow us to demonstrate the great value of the humanities to a larger audience, and I think that this Berkeley THATcamp and centers like the Davis Humanities Institute constitute steps towards that type of connection.”

Although Hendel was disappointed that more industry professionals did not make it to the conference, she came away with a renewed sense of optimism. “As graduate students, it’s easy to get discouraged by dismal news on the academic jobs front. This conference reminded us all of the exciting paths beyond academia, and it drove home the point that humanities Ph.D.s need to think creatively and take charge of our own career paths,” added Hendel.

Also, John Marx, professor and graduate advisor in the department of English at UC Davis, dropped in to “learn more about the resources and contacts useful for grads at Davis and, more self-interestedly, for my collaborative research on the idea of a ‘humanities workforce’.”

“I was glad to see our Ph.D. students there conferring with others about where their training can get them in the job market beyond the academy,” said Marx.

Beard hopes to continue the conversation after the meeting and identify an appropriate medium or network where students can share their experiences, tips and tools including sample resumes, cover letters, and the like.

More information can be found at the official THATCamp Alt-Ac conference website.