Reimagining Professional and Community Networks Within and Beyond Academia

 June 9, 2021

Most graduate students would agree that developing a professional network within our fields is crucial as we take the initial steps in our academic careers. But we don’t always stop to think about what this actually means in practice. As early-stage scholars, what kind of networks do we want to form, with whom, and for what purpose?

With the support of The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant, Romance Studies Ph.D. candidate Elia Romera-Figueroa and recent Ph.D. graduate Dr. Anna Tybinko organized a virtual workshop with Dr. Palmar Álvarez-Blanco and Dr. Steven L. Torres, two of the co-founders of the Asociación Internacional de Literatura y Cine Españoles Siglo XXI (International Association of 21st-Century Spanish Literature and Film, ALCESXXI) to learn about how ALCESXXI helps cultural agents from within and outside academia connect with one another in a non-hierarchical community. Graduate students across academic disciplines can learn a lot from this unique professional association about building horizontal relationships, critically reassessing our role as scholars, sharing knowledge and engaging with our communities, and collaborating rather than competing with our colleagues.

Dr. Palmar Álvarez-Blanco and Dr. Steven L. Torres
Dr. Palmar Álvarez-Blanco and Dr. Steven L. Torres

Dr. Palmar Álvarez-Blanco is a Professor of Spanish at Carleton College (Northfield, MN) and Dr. Steven L. Torres is a Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Jordi Marí, Professor of Spanish at North Carolina State University and active ALCESXXI member currently serving as a delegate for social media communication and graduate student outreach, served as a respondent.

Building Horizontal Relationships

Palmar kicked off the conversation by explaining that ALCESXXI is an international platform that brings together a diverse group of cultural agents dedicated to studying the socio-cultural dilemmas facing the 21st century. Members include not only university professors and graduate students from the U.S., Spain, and around the world, but also writers and film directors, independent researchers, cultural and social activists, experts from the publishing industry, teachers, performers, singer-songwriters, and more. ALCESXXI strives to promote reflexive, open, plural, and interdisciplinary practices in research, teaching, publishing, and cultural production.

The association was founded in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crash, when Palmar, Steven, and their fellow co-founders were reconsidering their roles as scholars and researchers in a time of economic, ecological, and educational crisis. ALCESXXI became a space for scholars to engage in critical dialogue regarding these issues. The founders realized that other professional organizations in the field were not considering the objectives in which they were most interested: engaging in an intersectoral and interdisciplinary dialogue between creators, cultural agents, and critics, and actively promoting the public sharing of cultural capital and resources in order to question the privileges inherent in the academic profession. Over the 11 years since its founding, ALCESXXI has grown into a thriving, equitable network of colleagues, a platform for dialogue and collaboration, and a professional and intellectual home for many individuals whose work intersects with Spanish studies. ALCESXXI’s non-hierarchical model for cultivating professional relationships serves as an excellent example for scholars in other disciplines to follow.

Reassessing Our Role as Scholars

Steven proceeded to elaborate on the specific conditions and concerns that led to the creation of ALCESXXI. One of the most pressing problems he described is the neoliberal assault on higher education, that is, the push to frame education primarily through the lens of commercial interests, rather than considering its impact on public welfare. One of the effects of this redefinition of education has been a progressive divestment from teaching in favor of administration and infrastructure, which has increased the job precarity experienced by academic workers (according to a recent study by the American Association of University Professors, 73% of faculty positions in the U.S. are not on the tenure track). Moreover, academics in humanities and liberal arts fields face the increasingly common perception that there is an enrollment crisis in these areas of study. In fact, as Steven pointed out, while humanities enrollments at four-year institutions have indeed been decreasing over the past two decades, humanities enrollments at community colleges increased during that time, suggesting that what is in crisis is not students’ intellectual interest in the humanities, but rather their financial ability to pursue that interest.

Other key issues that the founders of ALCESXXI sought to address include the need to question traditional literary canons and embrace interdisciplinary approaches within Spanish studies, as well as the widespread global problem of information poverty (i.e., the general public’s lack of access to reliable information). ALCESXXI provides a necessary platform for members to work together to tackle these types of issues, and encourages them to think critically about what they want their role as scholars to be, not only within their various institutions and fields of study, but also within their broader communities.

Participants on Zoom
Event participants on Zoom

Knowledge Sharing and Community Engagement

Palmar explained that the founders of ALCESXXI asked themselves what they could do to begin to transform their institutions and make themselves useful to their communities, rather than adapting to the status quo and secluding themselves in the ivory tower of academia. Some of the ways in which ALCESXXI members have done this include actively participating in public debates, encouraging union participation among academics, insisting on shared governance within their institutions, creating and promoting new public spheres of confluence among cultural agents, engaging in dialogue with parents, colleagues, and university administrators, and fostering ties with other groups outside of academia. All of these goals are tied to the core belief that teaching, research, and community engagement should be fundamentally interconnected and codependent with one another. Members of ALCESXXI reject the conception of knowledge as an elite, private good, and are committed to actively sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas with others.

To exemplify this practice, Palmar shared her experience collaboratively designing a flexible model for a course and/or film series on “Ecological and Civilizatory Crisis” that can help forge connections between university students, community members, and activists and jump-start interdisciplinary, intergenerational conversations on how to imagine a sustainable future and a more equitable world. Scholarly research is another area in which ALCESXXI members seek to innovate by developing processes that are collaborative, transdisciplinary, socially implicated, and accessible to wide publics. Steven highlighted two recent books that exemplify transdisciplinary approaches to crucial research topics: Spain After the Indignados/15M Movement (co-edited by Steven with Oscar Pereira-Zazo) and La imaginación hipotecada (The Mortgaged Imagination; co-edited by Palmar with Antonio Gómez L-Quiñones). In the process of creating both of these volumes, ALCESXXI members served as cultural mediators by facilitating the translation of texts between English and Spanish in order to encourage a dialogue between scholars who typically publish in one of these languages but may not be as visible to readers in the other.

Collaboration Over Competition

Collaboration is also at the core of the numerous events and endeavors that ALCESXXI organizes for its members. The group’s conferences offer flexible workshop and seminar formats that foster teamwork and the creation of concrete outputs (e.g., course syllabi) that can be used in the future. ALCESXXI has also been hosting monthly colloquia during the past year that have provided an excellent opportunity for virtual collaboration and sustained communication during the pandemic. The platform’s online journal includes both a rigorous peer-reviewed section for academic scholars and an essay section that allows for contributions from other cultural agents and creatives. ALCESXXI has also developed an Open Proposal on Academic Practices in order to encourage the assessment and valuing of a broader range of teaching, research, and service activities in terms of deciding tenure promotions within the field. All of these efforts help to foster an environment that is characterized by cooperation, rather than by competition, making ALCESXXI a more welcoming and inclusive space and encouraging members’ active and continued participation.

Palmar and Steven’s work to create an innovative platform and build a collaborative community through ALCESXXI serves as an excellent model for anyone in academia looking to rethink how our interactions with fellow scholars and educators can help not just to further our own career goals, but also to serve the best interests of our colleagues, our students, and our communities.

This event was the third in a three-part series on Navigating International Career Paths, following a Spring 2020 conversation with Dr. Kostis Kornetis on developing strategies for a mobile, multi-lingual academic career and a Fall 2020 workshop with Dr. Javier García Fernández and Dr. Guillermo García-Contreras on postdoctoral opportunities and academic accreditation in Spain.


C.J. Enloe
C.J. Enloe

Ph.D. Candidate, Romance Studies

C.J. Enloe is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Romance Studies. Her research focuses primarily on intersections between gender, economics, and media culture in 20th-century Spain. Her dissertation, “Molding ‘la mujer económica’: Conflicting Portrayals of Women’s Economic Roles in Magazines Published During the Franco Dictatorship,” explores the often contradictory messages that women’s magazines conveyed to readers regarding their economic roles within Spanish society during the first three decades of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-68).