Blog Post Series: Medievalists Beyond the Tenure Track

The following post by Russell Stone, Assistant Vice Provost for Assessment and Accreditation at the University of Nevada, Reno, is the first of a series profiling a community of colleagues who are using their medievalist skills and training in a variety of compatible careers. Each contributor in the series will explain how his or her chosen career has accommodated life’s changing circumstances, and readers will discover how the tools gained in graduate training have helped each author with these challenges. Although they were not initially aware of it, all of the medievalists profiled in the series are united through their common advisor, Professor Christopher Baswell. In a response piece, Prof. Baswell will offer some reflections on how working with his former students with professional placements beyond the tenure track has had an impact on how he approaches his job as an advisor, a teacher, a scholar, and a colleague.

On the day that I filed my dissertation and submitted all of the paperwork necessary for officially completing my student career at my graduate institution, I stepped out of the admissions and records building with a desire to celebrate but an uncertainty of where to go and what to do. I thought, too, that I should call my mother, and when I took my phone from my pocket, I saw that I had a voicemail from a university number: a department for which I had served as a teaching assistant had lost funding for lecturers for the next academic year, and a position on which I had been counting for income had been retracted. A second anticipated lectureship in my home department failed to materialize, until, several months later, I was notified that there was no money for hiring lecturers for the foreseeable future there either. The assumption that we would all earn our doctoral degrees and go off to begin a tenure-track position at an R1 university was suddenly and without any warning proven to be a fallacy for many of us. So began a year of unemployment in 2009, an unhappy time to earn a doctoral degree in the humanities.

A year later, I was offered, and quickly accepted, a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at my current institution. At the end of this fellowship, I found myself unemployed for the second time, but by then I was hardly surprised, and I didn’t feel quite so unemployable as I had the first time around. In those days, the idea of “alternative to the academy” had gained attention (the MLA had even hosted topics on “alt-ac” at its annual convention during my last year as a postdoc). Some of the careers that were proposed as alternatives seemed equally elusive, extensions of the academy (e.g., those in museums and private organizations), but at least the issue of having produced too many PhDs for too few academic appointments had some light cast upon it. The best advice that I received then – and the advice that I offer graduate students today – is that spending several years of your life at a university or two gives you access to a network of people and ideas. Even if they don’t know you or have nothing to do with your discipline, they may feel a certain kinship to a fellow member of the campus community and a desire to point you in some direction. In my case, a Professor of Education at my doctoral institution encouraged me to explore that network, and a Professor of History at my postdoctoral institution recommended me to a Vice Provost, a Professor of Chemistry who needed an editor for the stream of reports that flowed from central administration.

In my current position as Assistant Vice Provost for Assessment and Accreditation, much of my work requires a scholarly approach particularly suited to the humanities. In overseeing my university’s accreditation, I compile various sources of information relevant to learning, research, and engagement to construct a narrative legible to various readerships, I translate quantitative data into a relatable story for these readerships, and I collaborate with campus and community stakeholders (individuals from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives) to determine whether or not the university is meeting its goals. In designing and revising curricula and conducting assessments of student learning, I rely on my experience in the classroom, an experience that is also vital for working with student leadership and student-facing offices on campus. When I taught general education courses during my graduate and postdoctoral careers, for example, I quickly learned to adjust my teaching style to the array of students who came to class and office hours: first-generation, underrepresented, single parents, veterans, athletes, and majors from all disciplines. In my position in the Office of the Provost, not a week goes by when I don’t discuss with administrators and faculty members how we can foster student learning and improve retention rates for our great diversity of students. I research these topics in a scholarly fashion, visit other institutions to learn from their successes and innovations, and I report our progress to external agencies who hold us accountable for the success of our students.

I also strive to maintain a scholarly agenda, if not career, that allows me to remain rooted, as it were, in my discipline. In publishing an occasional paper or monograph, I wonder whether I’m more contented in taking pride in a professional accomplishment or in reassuring myself that the time and expenses of my graduate training were not wasted. Perhaps I’m driven most by a need for validation, a desire to prove that scholarship can be produced by someone other than academic faculty. There are, of course, challenges and cause for frustration. Without an academic home department, I am utterly excluded from the research enterprise at my university. Faculty in our humanities departments see me only as an administrator and never as a medievalist, I haven’t had a scholarly conversation with any would-be colleagues on or off campus in years, and I have no support for academic conferences or subventions. The senior administrators with whom I work belong to a different generation, one that entered the academy long before the Great Recession, and the younger faculty on campus are forging their own tenure-track careers during a period of economic recovery, at least in our state. I have had to accept that my scholarly activity is a hobby, and occasionally an expensive one.

Still, my career trajectory provides a sense of belonging. When I took up administrative work, I remained consumed by depression and resentment at not having attained the career that I had sought for so long. By that time, I had friends and colleagues who had left higher education, and others who served as roaming adjuncts and lecturers with 4/4 teaching loads. I didn’t have the fortitude to pursue either path. I began to correspond with a still smaller group of colleagues who had found administrative positions, particularly in student affairs, and, in time, I realized that I could still make some contribution to higher education and to a university. I realized that my own alternative was within, not outside of, the academy.

When I speak these days with our graduate students who are intent on remaining in the academy, I even recite with conviction what seemed platitudes to me in 2009: communication and research skills are transferable well beyond a tenure-track career, and you need to seek out positions and work that will allow you to develop other skills necessary for collaboration and leadership. We speak to our undergraduates of these career-preparation skills and we often build them into our general education curricula, but they are valuable, too, for those of us who have spent long periods in scholarly solitude in the archives or hunched over a paper in need of yet another revision. A university is, after all, much more than the sum of the peer-reviewed papers authored by its faculty and the grants won by its researchers. It is a community built upon many agendas, possessing a unique cultural identity, and populated by many individuals serving many purposes. There is room, and even fulfillment to be found, for us beyond the tenure-track ranks.

Russell Stone, University of Nevada, Reno

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