Alt-Ac Reflections

All, Education, Rants

Usually I blog about writing, technology, teaching, and the many ways they intersect in National Writing Project work, but I’ve been meaning to write about my alternate academic track experience for some time and my usual end of the semester reflection, in true Profhacker 3×3 fashion, seemed the right time. I wrote my traditional course evaluation featuring my first experience teaching First Year Seminar featuring the Walking Dead and Superheroes last week (see Embracing Zombies) and now this week I will share my evaluation of my first semester holding an alternate academic (alt-ac) position.

I’ve been struggling with how honest to be about my current position. If I worked in Kansas I certainly wouldn’t write this post, but I work with Lee Skallerup Bessette and she still gets her paychecks so here goes.

you-shall-not-pass

I have worked at Morehead State University since 2001. Until this Fall I was an English Instructor. I try not to be bitter about the fact that the English department was happy to use my skills, experience, and education to teach upper level classes in the major as well as graduate classes and lead their National Writing Project, and yet never saw fit to pay me more than freshly minted MAs with no college level teaching experience. As you can see, I’ve coped magnificently with my bitterness. I was not the only underemployed, underpaid, underappreciated Ph.D. working in the department (and Lee is not even Exhibit A) and some of our MAs have years of classroom experience as well as other expertise to offer. While Morehead does offer many adjuncts full-time jobs with benefits, there is no career track available in the English Department (not true for other programs where instructor positions are regularly converted to tenure lines) and no differentiation for those who take on service, research and/or professional development above the very heavy composition teaching burden.

In addition, my work with the Morehead Writing Project offered more reasons for my dissatisfaction with the English Department. The primary mission of the National Writing Project is to improve the teaching of writing. This meant supporting teachers (K-16) in this endeavor, but neither teachers nor writers seem important to the English Department mission. It was frustrating when MWP was only working with practicing teachers, but infuriating when we began our Writing Studio and our work impacted both preservice teachers and college writers. So when I was offered the position of College Readiness Coordinator (in part because of that Writing Studio work) I took the leap of faith and left the English Department – and took the Morehead Writing Project with me (see What Career Path? to learn more about my professional journey). I hope my experience in that position will help others contemplating an alt-ac position.

This new position has brought with it many wonderful benefits. First and foremost, is the unit itself – University College. This is such a strong benefit I am counting it twice. University College is the attic of the institution – we house many units without a clear academic home – and we are the emergency room of the institution as we perform triage and apply treatment to students with academic needs including provisional admissions, students with remedial needs (much overlap there), and other student groups with unique needs. While this may make our purpose a bit difficult to describe to an outsider, there is no confusion in University College. Our mission is to serve the students and support their success. It is wonderful to work in a unit with such a focused mission – a mission that I believe in and can contribute to. It is equally wonderful to work with people all dedicated to that same mission – people who respond with enthusiasm to new ideas and programs that support our common mission. I think these two benefits are often true of alt-ac positions. The purpose is clear and the people you will work with share the same purpose. This is pretty heady stuff and cannot be dismissed lightly as far as job benefits go. A final benefit for me personally was the ability to continue my work with the Morehead Writing Project and to integrate that work into my new position. MWP has never before received such support for all our programs at the institutional level (at least during my tenure as director) and this work has really helped our Writing Studio work. We have taken that work in new directions that I find very exciting and we are integral to the development of Morehead’s new writing center.

not-quite-what-i-expectedHowever, it has not all been sunshine and roses. Many aspects of my new job did not work out as planned and I offer them up as object lessons so you can learn from my naiveté. I did not receive the pay raise I was told to expect and to rub salt in the wound I did not receive any supplemental pay for work I performed on top of my existing duties during the previous academic year and summer. My lesson is to always get it in writing before committing to any work. My pay raise fell victim to a leadership reshuffle rather than deliberate misrepresentation, but the end result was the same. On the plus side, due to the extreme unfairness of this situation I have been able to work out a much more flexible schedule than I could have otherwise and I received some conference travel support I might not have otherwise. An additional challenge has been that my new position is a reinvented position that was left unfilled for more than a year. Due to the leadership shuffle I already mentioned and other forces, the actual job title and description as well as its general security are still in flux. While this is certainly anxiety-ridden, it is also exciting to be part of creating something new and reinventing a whole program. Ask me in six months how that has all worked out for me and the students I serve as right now I couldn’t begin to make a prediction. Obviously, we could have detailed the job title and description before I embarked on this journey but I wonder how much that would have restricted my freedom to invent and create over the past months.

What needs improvement? Support. Support. Support. I love many aspects of my current job, but I need support to continue doing it – this means a clear title, adequate reimbursement, and a budget. In addition, I need administrative support for policies and programs – this means someone to help enact new policies and support new programs but also to provide access to information and tools. Finally, I need continued access to a team (like the one we have assembled in University College) where we can leverage the resources and knowledge of various programs to serve all our students better.

Yes, I would still make this leap of faith, but I would not have done it without certain guarantees in writing. The future is murky at best, but I still have learned and grown and benefited from this experience as has the Morehead Writing Project – and I hope that the work we have done and are doing benefits the students and teachers we serve. Is an alt-ac move right for you? Ultimately you have to decide what is important to you. I am still able to teach and as a policy leader I’m impacting many more students. These are important to me. It is both exciting and frustrating to work within so many new partnerships on a number of new initiatives. This is the part of the work I love, but it is not everyone’s cup of tea. In academia we are accustomed to a certain level of autonomy that my current position sacrifices for collaboration. It works for me because of the people and the programs, but I could see that changing if circumstances change. Uncertainty is also a part of the alt-ac scene. I’ve been told that it doesn’t mean I will be unemployed, but my job (including boss and coworkers) may change. When you contemplate the alt-ac path you must consider all the aspects of the job as well as the terms of your employment — what are your deal breakers?