In 2009, Brian Croxall made headlines at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting by not showing up. Mr. Croxall, then a visiting professor of English at Clemson University, delivered a paper in absentia about the trials of trying to land a steady gig in academe that would pay enough to let him attend scholarly meetings and afford luxuries like food.
Fast forward to 2013. Mr. Croxall is now a steadily employed digital-humanities strategist and lecturer in English at Emory University. Not only did he make it to the association's meeting here this year; he has become a notable advocate for so-called alternative academic, or "alt-ac," careers.
Mr. Croxall and others who have carved out nontraditional niches in academe have been highly visible here, bringing a counterbalancing spirit of optimism to a conference that has emphasized the grim working conditions of many non-tenure-track faculty.
"My story is about pointing out that there are different pathways," and no two pathways are alike, Mr. Croxall said at a panel called "How Did I Get Here? Our 'Alt-Ac' Jobs."
More than 7,900 people registered for this year's meeting, according to preliminary figures from the association. (The number excludes 600 or so exhibitors, staff, and others who also signed up.) That's a notable rise from last year's final tally of 7,412 regular registrants.
Membership in the association was down slightly in 2012, to 28,563, a decline of about 1.3 percent, according to Rosemary G. Feal, the association's executive director. But gifts from members were up 5 percent, she said, and the group is in good financial health.
As always, the program was rich in the kind of text-focused, period-centric scholarship that's a fixture of the annual meeting. But sessions on the digital humanities attracted overflow crowds, as they've done in the past several years.
One panel offered tips for humanists on "scaling and sharing" or managing their research data, something scientists and social scientists have long done. Newer channels of scholarly communication were explored in panels on "serial scholarship" and "middle-state" publishing (sharing research via blogs or social networks, for instance) that breaks free of the traditional monograph or journal article.
MLA Commons, the association's new social-media platform for members, made its debut at the meeting, although most people didn't have a chance to do more than sign up for the service. The now-usual Twitter back-channel was hopping (hashtag #mla13). Many participants used additional hashtags for individual sessions, creating a multistranded online conversation.
All of that contributed to a sense at the meeting that a new normal is taking hold, for better or worse, even as many of the old ways remain frustratingly entrenched. For instance, it came up again and again, at panels and in conversation, that graduate education needs to be updated to prepare students for the labor realities they'll face.
One tweet, from Daniel Powell, a graduate student in English at the University of Victoria, summed up the zeitgeist shift as it affects job prospects: "Most provocative & truthy idea of #MLA13 so far: the TT [tenure track] is the true #altac in the modern academy." In other words, getting a tenure-track job is the exception now, not the rule, a conclusion justified by the kinds of data being collected by the Adjunct Project.
For some, especially those who have carved out an alt-ac route, that turnabout has turned out not to be a hardship. Katie Linder, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Suffolk University, took part in the "How Did I Get Here?" panel, one of several sessions devoted to alternative career paths.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I just kept going to grad school, which is maybe what some of you are doing as well," she told the audience.
Then she realized that she liked working with faculty but didn't need to be a full-time professor. "Even though I didn't want tenure, I did want to help others achieve it," she said. That realization led her to her current career in faculty development. "I teach, I facilitate, I share knowledge, I guide, I help, I teach undergrads throughout the year," Ms. Linder said. "I get to publish without pressure."
Ms. Linder said that, for her, skipping off the tenure track did not mean settling for less. "This is not a second-class position," she said. "This is a career. This is a choice."
Another alt-ac panelist, Sarah Werner, works as the undergraduate program director at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington. She talked frankly about the struggle to combine satisfying academic work with family demands, and recounted how a seemingly random series of jobs—filling in for faculty on leave, for instance—created a path to her current career.
"Another way to think about luck is to think of it as the residue of design," she said. "It wasn't luck that I got a job. It was years of hard work."
Pay attention to possibilities, she advised. "If you don't know where you're going, you're not going to see the giant signpost leading you there," Ms. Werner said. Her remarks struck a chord with at least one audience member, who caught up with Ms. Werner later in the hallway to tell her how encouraging her talk had been.
All of the panelists emphasized the need to be flexible and to acquire potentially useful talents along the way. Learning administrative skills, for instance, comes in handy whether you work in faculty development or as a digital-humanities project manager or any number of other jobs in and around academe.
Another panelist, Donna M. Bickford, is associate director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The solutions," she said, "need to be capacious enough and flexible enough to respond to our different situations."