Alt-Hacks: Survival Strategies for Alt-Ac PhD Students

Kelsey Norwood

If you’re a PhD student in the humanities, you may have noticed that many of the “rules” you encounter in your academic career—about the “right” way to write, teach, or professionalize, or about how to do something innovative enough to get you a job but not so innovative that you scare people away—are subjective. Much of the advice you receive about how to do it right has been patched together out of others’ worst experiences and near-misses: a ridiculous question they got during a job talk, an irrational and demoralizing comment they received on an article submission, or a practiced coping mechanism for frequent encounters with institutional sexism, racism, or homophobia. Their rules may or may not line up with your own career or the exigencies of present-day graduate education.

            If you’re an alt-ac PhD student in the humanities, don’t waste time trying to learn the rules. It’s exhausting. And it probably won’t produce any positive outcomes. So why bother?

            You should, of course, be a colleague. Scope things out; hear what people have to say. Then, find a corner of the academic landscape where you can hang out and focus on doing your own thing, using one or more of the following tactics:

1. Find your people.

Since the rules are subjective anyway: find a community or academic field where the rules most closely align with your values or professional goals. Study what you want to study, and don’t feel constrained by boundaries that aren’t productive for you. For example, if you love Romantic poetry but can’t stop thinking about how badly you want to write an article about anxious masculinity in the films of Adam Sandler…then do it. Maybe you’ll get it out of your system. Or maybe you won’t—in which case, find a faculty member who doesn’t think you’re crazy and start formulating your dissertation: “Undermined Masculinity in 19th-Century Meter and Late-20th-Century Bro Comedy.”

            Find some other alt-ac grad students in your program. Find ways to support and validate each other. Watch the episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in which Captain Holt experiences imposter syndrome whenever he’s around his husband’s colleagues from the Classics Department. Watch it again. Find GIFs from the episode to send each other later for moral support. (Bonus point for GIFs that include the line, “Who gives a rat’s ass about Boethius, Wesley?”[1])

2. Pick your battles.

During my early years as an alt-ac grad student, I was determined to write a non-traditional dissertation—something I imagined would point to the intellectual viability of the creative work I did outside academia, and act as a critique of the boundary placed between scholarly analysis and the creative production of literature or film. I used to hate it when someone told me,  “Don’t worry about writing a non-traditional dissertation. You can write a traditional dissertation and keep your creative work separate.”

            But here’s the thing. Writing a dissertation is hard. Writing a non-traditional dissertation is extra hard. If you’re an alt-ac grad student with little interest in going on the academic job market or turning your dissertation into a book…are you absolutely positive that you want to move heaven and earth to reshape the dissertation genre, potentially putting in an extra year or two of work, for a document that will be read by a total of three people? Are you that desperate for your committee’s approval?[2]

            And it might be that you do want to reshape the genre. Maybe that’s your thing. If so, go for it. Write your Romantic poetry/Adam Sandler dissertation in a quasi-memoir style and publish it as a trade book marketed toward awesome people.

            If you’re not sure, it might be worth evaluating your priorities and calculating how much time and energy you have.[3] For example, if it’s 2019 and you live in the United States, you probably spend at least 25 percent of your emotional energy summoning the will to get out of bed every morning, because you live in a world where immigrants are being imprisoned in horrifying conditions, children and people of color are frequently killed for no reason, and the abhorrent, narcissistic Cheeto™ currently sitting in the driver’s seat is evidently committed to making things worse as often as possible. Plus, since you’re a grad student, you’re most likely underpaid, living with several annoying roommates, and tired from constantly trying to figure out how you’re going to pay for groceries this week. (Of course those things aren’t as bad as being imprisoned or dying for no reason, but they certainly don’t help.)

            Let’s assume that, on average, you are exerting about 40 percent of your emotional energy just getting through the day and keeping yourself going. You now have 60 percent left to fill with dissertating, teaching, outside employment, professional service, and research work that will help you reach your non-tenure-track career goals. If you feel compelled to reinvent the wheel in one (or even two) of these areas, that’s awesome. But if you try to reinvent the wheel in all of them, you will probably be very, very tired.

3. Do what works for you.

In liberating yourself from most of the traditional rules in academia, you might be tempted to replace them with rules (or another kind of structure) that offer some kind of guidance for your alt-ac life. An accomplished alt-ac scholar might serve as a productive model, giving you an idea of a trajectory or brand with which you can align yourself. There is an undeniable comfort and stability that comes from aligning yourself and your work with a similar model, and you should let yourself use this as long as it’s helpful. But if it ever limits you, don’t let it hold you back.

            In other words: don’t feel compelled to sign up for a course you don’t want to take because it will put you on someone else’s version of a non-traditional path. Don’t obsess over making every hour spent at your graduate assistantship a perfect fit for the nearest career opportunity. You are, by definition, alternate. So be alternate. Take advantage of your freedom to pursue any opportunity that energizes you. Use all the resources at your disposal to do weird, innovative things that embody your non-traditional scholarly identity in its superlative form. Especially if it means your dissertation defense will include a video feed of Adam Sandler reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in the style of Opera Man.[4]

            In the words of many rebellious youngsters of my generation: you do you. In the end, you’ll be happy you did.

            [1] See Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 6 episode 13, “The Bimbo,” written by Madeline Walter & Paul Welsh: the final (delightful) scene in which Kevin Cozner defends his husband’s honor to a room full of classicists.

            [2] And even if you are desperate for your committee’s approval, is there a more efficient way to get it? Like doing some cool departmental service, leveling up your teaching skills, or training a flock of parakeets to provide services to the university as full-time avian research assistants?

            [3] I suggest making a multicolored pie chart, as a coloring project can provide a stressed graduate student with much-needed relaxation.

            [4] “Kubla Khan” and Billy Madison would work, too.

Kelsey Norwood is a PhD candidate in English at Boston College, a graduate assistant at BC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and a comedy writer with a fondness for anachronism.

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