"Alt-Ac"? Maybe We Need to Dig Even Deeper

AaronThat’s me in my store a decade or so ago, talking to a sales rep while browsing a catalog. The store was called “Shakespeare’s Sister.” At the time this was taken, I had closed the cafe in the back, expanding instead our art and sitting space, “The Artback.”

My former partners and I had named the store in support of the idea that there is creativity in everyone. We wanted to build a place of comfort where all sorts of people could be welcome. Over the 14 years Shakespeare’s Sister was open, we hosted over 100 art shows, numerous readings, musical performances, dramatic presentations… you name it.

We had a good time.

Was that an alternative-academic (alt-ac) career? I think so. Without it, after all, I never would have had the academic success I’ve enjoyed since. It provides a solid foundation for my ideas about teaching and scholarship. Not only that, but everything I was doing was involved with pathways that had been unconsciously created while I was in graduate school in the 1980s.

When I received my PhD and announced that I was going to Togo, West Africa to work in agriculture as a Peace Corps Volunteer, an aunt of mine told me I was wasting my education. But, I replied, I hadn’t gone to grad school to get a job; I had gone simply to read. And I had done a lot of that. Now, I wanted to learn and, perhaps, eventually teach, though I didn’t imagine doing that in a traditional environment. Creating something like Shakespeare’s Sister, where people could experiment and grow on their own–that was more my vision. I did not see an “ac/alt-ac” distinction; it was all one and the same to me. If anything, that would have seemed too narrow. My doctorate did not remain in (or near) the university when I left but traveled with me. It has even grown with me.

I recently read an essay by Brandy Schillace on Inside Higher Ed. Called “The Rogue Scholar Strikes a Balance.” In it, she talks about the sense of belonging in academic environments and about balancing academic and non-academic lives. Though I wanted to like the article, it left me a little perplexed.

My life has never revolved around academia and I have never felt I have to strike a balance with it  or, when I was not teaching in a college, create an image for myself as following an “alternative” path. Only recently have I even considered my life in those terms. I got over the “town/gown” split when I was in high school. My father was a college professor, but I worked at the local IGA and hung out with kids even less interested in college than I was. Even today, I live in a neighborhood that has a low “educated” element. Of the dozen or so people at the get-together down the street last night, only four or five of us had attended college at all, and I suspect a couple of those never graduated.

That I did not go to grad school as a career move but simply so I could read William Faulkner more intelligently has given me a great deal of freedom and, eventually, allowed me to develop an academic career far beyond anything I could have imagined (I was never a wonderful student and gathered no accolades). I didn’t see going to school as a path to anything, and certainly did not imagine that I was choosing an “alt” path when I graduated.

Sure, my choices were so “alt” that they probably don’t, in most minds, even deserve an “alt-ac” designation. People without academic degrees could do many of the things I’ve done just was well (better, actually) than I have. Yet it is the fact of my PhD that allowed me to be so “alt” as to join Peace Corps in my late 30s and, later, to start my store and cafe. When I started to teach in classroom settings again as an adjunct in 2001, it wasn’t to move back, but to expand. That the expansion was greater than planned… well, that’s another story.

Maybe we should stop looking at graduate school as a career platform and return to seeing it, as I did (quite by accident) as a life platform. Something like college should be, but with more intensity. Then we won’t see our choices afterwards as starkly “either/or.”

Let me tell you this: Life is much more interesting when we strip away the categories and chase experience and creativity. I’ve had the luck to learn that.

7 thoughts on “"Alt-Ac"? Maybe We Need to Dig Even Deeper

  1. Aaron, how was your grad education funded? One of the big problems these days is students taking on crippling loans to do grad school, which precludes their doing Peace Corps or opening a café, at least until they’ve paid off most of the debt.

    I think that the defunding of universities has done a lot of damage to non-career paths, except for the independently wealthy.

    • I agree with your last point. However, Peace Corps, then and now, lets student loans be deferred, with a grace period after Close Of Service.

      As for me? In grad school, I always worked. Eventually, I was able to teach as a graduate assistant, but I also worked in garages and gas stations, as a clerk in a comix store, and I delivered bundled newspapers to paperboys and papergirls. Among other things (running a can van for recycling cans and bottles, editing an environmental monthly… there are more, but that’s surely enough). I borrowed when I had to, but borrowed very little, compared to many.

      One of my favorite stories is how I showed up for my first graduate class in a blue uniform with “VW” on one pocket and “Aaron” on the other, a dirty red rag in my back pocket and grease under my nails.

      One does not have to be independently wealthy, simply willing (and able–which can be the kicker) to do what it takes.

      • I think that the ratio between grad school tuition and blue-collar wages has increased substantially since you were in grad school (tuition up much faster than inflation, blue-collar wages up slower than inflation). What was once a reasonable option is no longer very feasible.

        It’s good to know that Peace Corp stops the clock on college loans—or does the interest continue to accrue?

        • Not at public universities such as the one I went to. Not so much, at least. If you take tuition as a whole, yes. But not all schools are equal, tuition-wise.

          No one, in 1978, when I started grad school, thought what I was doing feasible. In 1981, when I turned 30, I lived in a rooming house, ate rice and beans, and never knew if I was going to have enough money for the coming month. Was that reasonable?

          It was the only way I could do it.

          You do what you can. I did what I could, given the time. Others are doing what they can, right now.

          None of that, however, has much to do with the fact that we need more to schooling than job preparation–the point at the heart of my post.

          Interest, for Peace Corps Volunteers, by the way, does not start until the end of the grace period.

  2. I haven’t heard the term “Alt-Ac” before and at first I wondered if it was some kind of predecessor of “Control-Alt-Delete,” although surely I know it couldn’t have been. Perhaps this is the term I’ve been waiting for — the one that pretends to say what on Earth I could possibly be doing with my life as is. Thanks, Aaron. This is a good read. Ironic that my Alt-Ac is about communicating with the poor souls with defaulted student loans. Mostly to say: Yes you do owe this money. So many of them didn’t get much education for the money and it is hard for them to understand why they still owe money when it has been SO MANY years since they borrowed it. Surely it must have evaporated by now. One thing for sure, interest accrues even if nothing else does. It’s good to hear your voice, Aaron.

  3. There are several pieces here that are poignant. Most see grad school as professional school, as most see college as a ticket to a career rather than as preparation for life. You had insight into possibility of college and grad school in ways most Americans don’t. You had, properly, a confidence in your abilities to face what comes.

    I certainly applaud your sense of freedom from and freedom to pursue so many interests. I don’t know, with the eroding of the middle class, the stagnation of wages, how easy or difficult that is today, but many of my community college students are working two and three jobs, and many are a transmission or even water pump away from being able to attend classes, or a sick kid in an age hard childcare choices. Even a community college is a major commitment of time and money, and I don’t begrudge my students a sense of wanting some kind of job training out of it.

    I’m glad your life is the career, or vice versa, and feel in a much more modest way, mine has been as well, and, yes, my learning in grad school contributed greatly.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.