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Alt-Ac & Academy Hacks

Last week I had the pleasure of being in the audience for two presentations about working in the academy. (Come to think of it, both were on Wednesday—it was an intense day). The first was an in-class discussion between the students of SGS 901: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and a panel comprised of Dr. Jill Atkinson (Psychology), Dr. Steve Fischer, (Kinesiology), Dr. Brian Frank (Engineering & Applied Science) and Dr. Molly Wallace (English). The second was the final CUST 802: Seminar and Professional Development Series session of the year, with speaker Melissa Dalgleish, who is the Research Officer in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University and also a PhD candidate in York’s Graduate Program in English. I’d like to share with you a selection of what I thought were the best concepts and strategies brought up in these sessions.

The first event, organized by the wonderful instructors of SGS 901: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Dr. Sue Fostaty Young (Educational Developer, Centre for Teaching and Learning) and Lauren Anstey (PhD Candidate, Faculty of Education; Educational Development Associate), was framed around a series of student-generated questions:

  • What do you have (or make) the least amount of time for that you wish you could (or would) move up your priority list? What strategies do you attempt to employ to change this situation?
  • What kinds of innovative ideas have you heard about (e.g., job sharing) for making faculty positions more amenable to living a full and rich life beyond academia? What kinds of systemic or institutional changes would have to occur to make these approaches viable/equitable/sustainable?
  • What are your thoughts about the pros and cons of research vs. teaching stream positions in postsecondary education?
  • In your experience, what has been the relationship between your teaching and your research? (this was my question, as you may have guessed if you read my last post on this very topic)
  • Is there anything that you know now, that you wish you had known when you were in our position?
  • What is the single best advice you received when you were looking for a teaching position or training to become a good teacher?
  • What is the biggest misconception you had when you went into teaching?

The discussion wound up flowing quite naturally between all of these questions (which I reproduce for you here because good questions are valuable, and like most valuable things, they can be a bit rare), and here are a few points so good that I found it necessary to lard them with all manner of asterisks and underlining:

  • On how to find out now what you might only come to wish you’d known when you were younger (the Rod Stewart song is playing in my head right now): The simplicity of this slays me—of course, I said to myself—go watch other instructors’ classes! Do you want to flip your classroom, but you have no idea what flipping actually looks like in person? Ask around, or talk to the Centre for Teaching and Learning to find an instructor who uses the technique and ask to visit their class. Do you love the idea of peer teaching but don’t know how to evaluate it? That’s what colleagues are for. Do you want to tuck a few more active learning activities under your belt? Just ask if you can come to a session led by someone who uses a variety of them. (Incidentally, this reminds me that I’ve often thought that if I had unlimited time, I would just sit in on classes for sake of curiosity about the content—but now, I’d pay attention to the pedagogy, too).
  • On extending this current preoccupation of mine with exploring the relationship between teaching and learning: This is actually a question that you’ll have to be prepared to answer in a job interview for a faculty position! (I hadn’t thought about it from that angle in quite some time). Some ways you might approach a compelling answer:
  • Teaching at different levels, from first-year surveys to graduate instruction and supervision (of your own students and of your TAs), is a way to expand the scope of that texts and interpretations you encounter for your own research program
  • Good teaching builds good researchers. As someone with a growth mindset about your teaching practice and research program, you don’t just think about teaching in terms of content, but also in terms of modeling curiosity and inquiry
  • You have a clear vision of how the goals of your research, teaching, and prospective program fit together, and how you can progress in them through your immediate work and by seeking professional development opportunities in the future.

Now, on this point about preparing for job interviews, let me transition to talking about the second presentation, which was about “Hacking Your Graduate Degree for Academic, Post-Academic, and Alternative-Academic Careers.” As you can tell, Melissa Dalgleish’s main emphasis was precisely that job interviews needn’t be for tenure-track positions. To give you some context, here’s the text of her talk’s abstract:

With many universities facing financial difficulties and the reliance on adjuncts ever increasing, the chances of getting a tenure-track academic job get slimmer and slimmer every day. In response, more and more graduate students–by some estimates, between 50 and 80%–are abandoning the expected career path and venturing into non-academic and alternative-academic careers. Sadly, the stigma around pursuing non-tenure track careers has barely diminished, and students are often on their own in figuring out how to navigate the changing waters of higher education. But there’s good news: even if you aren’t sure yet which path–academic, alt-ac, post-ac–you might choose, you can hack your degree to develop skills and knowledge that will let you move into, and between, multiple fields. Melissa Dalgleish, a PhD student and graduate studies administrator at York University, will talk about how she moved into the world of alt-ac and what you can do to hack your degree.

Bio: Melissa Dalgleish is the Research Officer in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University. She is also a PhD candidate in York’s Graduate Program in English, and is currently completing a dissertation about Canadian mythopoeic modernist poetry. Her work on Canadian poetics and digital humanities has appeared in various publications, and with Daniel Powell she is the editor of a forthcoming MediaCommons collection on graduate education and the #alt-ac. She loves her alt-ac job.

Melissa emphasized how important it is to ask yourself and answer, honestly and with rigorous detail: what do you really want to do in your career? What do you really not want to do (what are your deal-breakers)? It’s completely legitimate to pursue graduate education because you value it, and because it teaches you skills that are valued in other roles that are not just that of the faculty member—roles in the alt-academic and non-academic realms.

1)   know what resources are available to you at Queen’s and to use them. You might start with some of these professionalization and career resources:

2)   start early in your graduate career taking advantage of these services—especially those of you who are not looking to become a tenure-track professor.

These are some of my highlights from a very full Wednesday. What I take away from this overall is that it pays to be deliberate and intentional about your projects on a number of scales ranging from a course to a dissertation to a 5-year plan to a vision for your career—not so that you can devote every waking moment to micromanaging them, but so that you can arrange them to be in constructive alignment.

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One comment on “Alt-Ac & Academy Hacks
  1. Colette Steer says:

    I too sat in on Melissa’s session and saw how easily she was able to convey some simple messages to the class that resonated well to us all. Thank you Cultural Studies for bringing Melissa in to Queen’s. As a professional colleague of mine, we may just need to bring her in more often.

    The 3 minute thesis is on this week (Thursday at 2pm & Friday at 9am in Walter LIght Auditorium) with the final on April 9th at 5pm. Come out and support your colleagues.

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