Introduction: Austerity and the Alt-Ac
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Austerity and the Alt-Ac

This set of papers was developed in two Committee for Professional Concerns (cpc) sessions at the accute 2013 conference at the University of Victoria. Together, they offer an ungainly whole (or two halves that do not make a whole, as Adorno would say): on the one hand, the dire and less-dire job prospects both inside and outside the academy for our graduates; on the other hand, an analysis of how the politics of austerity have shaped that very academy. Marilyn Rose’s contribution helps to set the scene regarding the challenges and opportunities involved in developing professional skills training programs for our graduate students, programs that can promote a broad range of professional skills that will prepare students for possibilities “Beyond Academe.” Elizabeth Hodgson, Tiffany Potter, and Julie Walchli at University of British Columbia, for instance, outline one such strategy: a co-op program for PhD students. April McNeil similarly emphasizes the need to prepare graduate students for multiple possible career paths by arguing for the role career educators can play. Michael Lesiuk’s survey of the alt-ac literature (alt-ac equals alternatives to academic careers) is sobering, with the hopefulness of being drafted like a track star to a football team but also the reality of prospects of living on welfare while holding out for the mythic tenure-stream position. [End Page 1]

The vexed question here, then, is the relationship between the abilities of institutions to train graduate students for the job market (a job market that is a dubious metaphor, if not outright myth, as Marc Bousquet argued ten years ago) and the conditions—austerity—under which these institutions now operate. Thus Heather Latimer takes issue with the very concepts of time and futurity that underwrite the ideologies of austerity, arguing that the hope for a good job in the future allows many of us to accept undesirable employment conditions in the present (short-term contracts, no support for research, no job security or benefits). If Latimer is inspired in part by the queer futurity of Lee Edelman’s No Future, Mervyn Nicholson’s critique is similarly positioned, arguing that the metaphor of austerity treats citizens (including students and academics) as children. Finally, Herb Wyile’s linking of austerity to the broader context of neoliberalism reminds us that the Thatcherite slogan “There is No Alternative” (tina) subvents much of university administrations’ Janus-faced protection of and gutting of traditional humanities programs.

What our bringing together of these discussions of austerity and the alt-ac speaks to is the Catch-22 that humanities programs are currently facing. To embrace strategies for allowing our graduate students to pursue alt-ac paths may represent a positive step toward dealing realistically with our students’ dwindling chances of securing tenure-stream positions. Supporting our graduate students so that they can have many opportunities after graduation seems logically as if it could be a nicely positive evolution in our thinking about graduate programs. Not only does this shift in thinking suggest a means for promoting our students’ well-being and sense of fulfilment but also it can serve to justify the existence of graduate programs. If we can, by suggesting graduate programs lead to multiple career paths, bridge the assumed distance between academia and the so-called real world, then we may be better able to refute current waves of thought that stereotype academic pursuits as self-interested navel-gazing. In other words, by embracing the alt-ac, we may more firmly establish our relevance.

And yet, jumping on the bandwagon of the alt-ac also could threaten to obscure the ever-increasing need to fight against the rhetoric of austerity that threatens the integrity, if not outright destruction, of our undergraduate and graduate programs. We can, and should, better train our graduate students for multiple postgraduation possibilities, but that does not mean that we should abandon the fight to see more possibilities for them within the professoriate. In the midst of an environment whereby budgets are informed by prioritization processes like that at the University of Guelph [End Page 2] where units like food services and residences...