Alt-Ac Training

I've noticed, here and there, more and more discussion and questions about training in DH, and in #altac. It is not surprising to me that there is such a strong correlation between DH and #altac. But, that actually isn't a good thing. I think that it is an accident of the route that many people took into DH being accompanied by technological advances that make it easier to do awesome things with technology. And so, people in academia discover the possibility to do awesome things, pursue that awesomeness over traditional academic techniques and lifestyles, and suddenly a humanist has become an #altac DHer.

That's obviously happened within the context of rightful worrying about what graduate programs do and train people for. Thus, I've seen the question of what can graduate programs do to facilitate altac directions. Too many, I think, have sought to try to codify altac into an aspect of the traditional degree program. Basically, assimilate altac into trad-ac. That, I think, is the latest installment of "Missing The Point Theatre", and so I'd like to offer something of an alternate (personal) history that might hit toward a better balance.

The Ph.D. program I was in (UW - Madison) had a minor. Honestly, I don't remember if a minor was required or not, or what the requirements of a minor were. I do remember that I could create a "custom" minor, in which I argued for how a specific set of courses fit together into a coherent picture of a scholarly pursuit. Mine was some combination of Latin courses and some medieval literature courses outside the English department under the rubric "Reading Medieval Texts" or somesuch name. I'm sure that there were some requirements about the level of courses that could be part of a custom minor. Again, long, long ago; don't remember what they were. And that worked well as part of my training -- it let me take courses in some of the particular things that I was interested in -- always connected to techniques and knowledge needed for my dissertation -- in a flexible and versatile way.

Now, let's imagine expanding that out to something altac-like, but doesn't co-opt it into something about the department or program, but rather keeps it focused on the future of the Ph.D. candidate.

I'd been tinkering around with coding and teaching myself a few things, but that was just a break from Ph.D. work. I enjoyed it a lot, but obviously had to keep that separate. What could coding have to do with my clear career trajectory toward being a professor of medieval literature, afterall?

Not so much, and so my minor was all about supporting my dissertation. But what if I had been able to see where I would be now?

I would have pursued classes for a "minor" that connected with my growing passion for coding to make a difference in teaching and research. I would have taken courses to build up coding skills.

But arguing that those would support my dissertation would have been untenable. And, the 100 and 200 level courses wouldn't have passed the sniff test of the department requirements.

And so, let's imagine what an altac "minor" that could work would look like. First, department would have to be hands-off. It would've been about me, and pursuing my interests, not the interests of the department. I got into grad school by pursuing my passions as an undergrad; dammit, as my passions change during the many years of grad school, let me keep pursuing them!

That said, there would have to be a tradeoff and balance. It really is totally unreasonable of me to think that the grad school and department will let me get credit for my "minor" for just taking classes that are hard to demonstrate are part of my research.

So, if there were such a thing as an "altac minor", I need to give a bit. I think it'd be fair to say that, since the level of courses is lower than other well-established minors for a Ph.D., I need to do some extra things that traditional minors don't do. Let's say that the big additional thing I need to do is produce something that is not traditional scholarship. Moreover, I have to put together a committee, either internal to the university or -- even better -- outside the university to evaluate that product. Afterall, the point of an altac minor is that my dissertation committee and professors have no idea how to evaluate it. It's outside their expertise. So it is up to me, the Ph.D. candidate with an altac bent, to develop the relationships and connections to pull together outside evaluators of my work.

In my case, that would have ended up with me producing a website with an argument about my research. Or maybe a database of scholarly materials openly accessible. Or maybe a web app to facilitate developing critical thinking skills in a composition course. That's the product. Then I'd have to get out there and find people doing similar work -- inside or outside the department, or even university -- to provide my committee an assessment of my work before I got credit for that altac minor. That sounds to me like a much tougher task, but one that would be professionally and personally much more rewarding.

So. An altac Ph.D. minor: department is hands-off about requirements, but in return I have to produce something, and pull together the right people to evaluate it and present their findings to my department. My case would have been something like a fancy (by 2000 standards!) web site to do something awesome, and I would have had to get to know the experts out there to give it an honest evaluation to present to my department.

That's the closely-coupled DH-altac version, that makes sense with my history. Now, let's imagine the same structure without the DH.

Imagine someone, who realized that she really likes studying the specifics of performances of plays, especially the set designs. Having an artistic (rather than a codic) bent, she spends time sketching out the set designs of various productions she is researching for her dissertation. She never really pursued it much as an undergrad, but the more she gets involved in studying plays (we read a lot of plays in literature grad school), the more she's interested in this artistic and design aspect.

An altac minor for her might involve taking undergrad courses in set design, maybe even sculpture to think about 3D objects and their relationship to their surroundings.

The product here might be building the set design for a local or campus production of a play. The critics of the play could serve as the evaluators who present their assessment to the department. Department, hopefully, doesn't get crusty and dismiss their evaluations out-of-hand.

That would give academic credit to Ph.D. students for work that supports possible altac directions while keeping trad-ac momentum going.

The idea is that there might be a way for Ph.D. programs to support the variability of job prospects while maintaining scholarly training. The key, I think, is for a trade-off of the school accepting being hands-off to let individual new scholars pursue passions, in return for them producing something and doing the work to get the outside evaluations of it.

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"Any medium powerful enough to extend man's reach is powerful enough to topple his world. To get the medium's magic to work for one's aims rather than against them is to attain literacy."
-- Alan Kay, "Computer Software", Scientific American, September 1984

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