Alt-Ac: The First Month

On August 1 I joined Brown University as their first Digital Humanities Librarian. This job is a dream come true. I was hired to help cultivate Digital Humanities projects by working with faculty, students, and staff, and serve as an ambassador for the great digital work already being done by the Brown University Library. I am also Brown’s new English subject librarian. I’ve decided to blog about my transition from history PhD student to library staff in the hopes that it might help others who are considering making the transition themselves. If future posts on this topic would be of interest, just let me know.

/* alt-ac is short for Alternate-Academic, referring to those of us with graduate level training in the Humanities who have chosen to work in non-tenure track positions within the academy, often (but not exclusively) in university libraries and Digital Humanities positions. To learn more, head over to Bethany Nowviskie’s blog. */

My first month at Brown has been an interesting combination of diving in head first and learning the ropes. On the DH front: I’ve already started working on a few longstanding projects, helping out where needed. I’ve met with faculty who are interested in starting new projects. And, anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I’ve begun a DH Project Documentation survey, which consists of interviewing everyone in the library who is currently working on a DH project and documenting the project to date (goals, accomplishments, work remaining, technical specifications, etc.)

On the Librarian front: I’ve been learning the library’s systems for acquisitions, collection development, gift appraisal, and cataloging. I’ve joined the Exhibits Committee (group of librarians who coordinate the Library’s physical exhibit spaces). I’ve met with a faculty member who wants to set up an exhibit in one of the Library’s museum spaces next year. My office is right off one of the main study areas in the Library so several people have come in with reference questions and several more have called my office after finding me on the phone tree. All my colleagues have been extremely helpful and patient as I learn how to do this better. Seriously. I’m not just saying that in case some of them find my blog.

All in all it’s been a busy month! But getting back to the question of transitioning from graduate school to full-time staff . . .

Honestly, one of the biggest changes is simply having a 9-5 job. I was certainly busy at the University of Virginia, but I worked from home and set my own schedule. I’m enjoying having an office and a place where I can focus my energies, but when I get home I’m basically wiped. Hopefully this will change as I get more used to the schedule. For now, I’m drinking too much coffee and trying to remember I need to be in bed by 11pm. I was originally going to post this last night, but at 11:30 I still wasn’t done. Two months ago I would have pushed on and posted at 1am, but these days I can’t sleep in to compensate for a late weeknight.

Another change relates to my not-quite-finished dissertation. I’m working on it after hours at the office before driving home, usually spending 1 – 1.5 hours a day. It’s hard to find tasks that work well in that timeframe for where I am in my work cycle. Despite my occasional use of #scholarsprints on twitter, I typically write in 2 hour chunks. Though I still have a ways to go in pages and workflow, I’m finding that I like (and even look forward) to working on my dissertation to a degree that I haven’t felt in years.

As a closet generalist in a PhD program, I quickly tired of my favorite subject in all the world simply because it was all I did. Day in. Day out. All history. All the time. Now that I work with a number of disciplines and projects, I find myself looking forward to spending time with my Early American diplomats. Assuming I got to bed at 11pm the night before, working on the dissertation is more like a treat at the end of the day than a looming anxiety.

Finally, and this may be hard to express, there has been a change in how I relate to the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. I contributed and consulted on several DH projects at UVA, but always in the capacity of a graduate student who happened to be around. Sometimes the project was a summer job, sometimes consulting was part of my fellowship, sometimes I just had conversations with people who wanted a sounding board for their ideas. What I do at Brown hasn’t been all that different thus far, but my opinions have more weight and the activation energy required to turn one of my suggestions into a plan of work is much lower than last year.

It’s gratifying, but also somewhat intimidating, how quickly some of my ideas have taken off, so I am being very careful about what I suggest. The DH Documentation Project, for example, was something I suggested at the end of my second week. Within five days it had become one of my primary goals for the year, and I was assigned to interview dozens of people. If I had suggested something like that as a graduate student, I can’t imagine things would have moved that fast (assuming the project ever got started).

The best part of the job, however, is getting to help people. This is what I missed most in graduate school, where I often struggled with the feeling that I wasn’t a productive member of society (which may account for my decision to develop open source software). In my new position I help people, whether faculty, students, or fellow staff, all day long. Like I said at the beginning, a dream come true.

4 thoughts on “Alt-Ac: The First Month

  1. Hello Jean! (We sorta met at THATCamp) Congrats on the position and best of luck as you continue to dig in. I hope you’ll continue to blog about it, as it is my dream job too and I’d love to read about it from the insider perspective.

    Take care!

    Micah V.

  2. Hi Jean! Geez, change a few details and I could have written this. Your experience sounds a whole lot like what mine has been, too. After a year on the job I still haven’t transitioned out of being wiped after work, but I have gotten better about leaving work at the office. And I’ve had the same sense of unexpected pleasure about returning to my research subjects. Anyway, great post!

  3. Miriam: Thanks! I remember reading your post on starting in an alt-ac position back when I was applying for jobs. It was a big help and clarified a lot of things for me.

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