Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Time to Write and a Time to Teach

With school back in full swing out here, I’ve been getting to that stage of hectic busyness that always leads me to wonder whether or not teaching is really the best job for creative writers. We often talk about teaching like it is, and I think there are a lot of pretty great benefits to being a teacher that work well with writing, not the least of which is that you usually get winters and summers off. If you really focus, you can get a lot done in that time. Summer break, for example, is sufficiently long for a person to buckle down and write a first draft of a complete book-length work. Then that person could spend the more limited time during the school year revising.

But setting that oh-so-appealing three to four months off aside: is teaching really conducive to a successful writing career? Well, I think there are a lot of strikes against it, and I can never quite seem to make up my mind on the issue. Let’s look at it a bit more closely, shall we?

I feel that there are really two main components to a job as a teacher: planning lessons and grading papers. Both involve a fair amount of mental focus, and both are comparable to the mental powers you use as a writer. Planning lessons uses the same brain functions that you use when you’re drafting, and grading papers uses the same mental muscles you exercise when you’re revising and editing. So if you spend all day doing the things you have to do to teach, you don’t always have the energy to keep using your brain in that same way for another hour or two to write.

In addition to that, I find that teaching takes up way more time than a regular nine to five job. Sure, a good deal of those extra hours can be spent at home in your jammies, or at the coffee shop or wherever you like to hang out, but regardless, you spend well over forty hours a week if you carry a typical full time college teaching load – at least I do, and I’m not even technically full time, although I do teach the same number of classes as the full timers at my school. See, besides planning lessons, grading papers, and the actual contact hours of regular class time, I spend a fair amount of time each week responding to student emails and reading and giving feedback on the additional drafts my students pass my way (because I figure if they’re willing to put the work in to revising more thoroughly, I better be willing to put the work into giving them feedback).

So once classes really get going, I inevitably start to wonder if this is really the right career. I like teaching, don’t get me wrong. It’s fun (most of the time, anyway) and rewarding. But it’s extremely difficult for me to spend fifty or sixty hours a week using these exact brain functions and then try to write as much as I want to at the end of each day. And if I don’t get to write as much as I want, I start to feel like I’ve lost my way because writing has always been the thing that keeps me going, it has always been the force that pushes me through life. If I don’t have the energy to write anymore, well, pushing ahead in a career, even a great career like teaching, doesn’t really feel worth the price.

This is not to say that I absolutely believe that teaching isn’t a good job for writers. It’s just something I’m thinking about, something I think about often. During the winter and summer you can write your ever-loving brains out, and maybe that really is enough to keep it in balance. Eight months out of the year you work work work, four months out of the year you get to be a full time writer. Those eight months, though. Those eight months can be pretty hard, let me tell you.


Justus said...

I've definitely thought about these same issues, and I've come up with some points that make it easier on me or help me keep the dream going or something.

1. Down the line, it will be different when we are full time creative writing professors. At that point, writing is basically part of the job, and there is the expectation that you are regularly writing and even can count those hours as basically working time. Maybe I'm being unrealistic, but I actually think that as a part timer now, my job is more labor-intensive than creative writing professors in an MFA program. But if I work hard now, it could pay off in five or ten years. Plus, full timers get Sabbaticals. Working hard eight months a year might or might not be worth getting the other four months off, but think about having an entire year off every seven years.

2. Sometimes you have to be willing to do less, to accept that you aren't being paid to work fifty or sixty hours a week, and it's okay to simply not do it. I don't accept multiple revisions from students between the official drafts I collect. I'll look over their work in my office hours if they come in to see me, and I'll answer quick questions through e-mail, or I'll look at a revised thesis statement. But if there's a draft due in a week and they want me to read an entire paper over the weekend and offer more comments, I refuse. It's simply not fair to me as a teacher (especially a part time one) to expect that much, and I think it's reasonable for me to say no. Another thing I sometimes do is set a limit on how often I check my e-mail. If I'm getting excessive e-mails from students (especially the kind the night before a paper is due asking me questions they should have asked weeks ago), then I stop checking my e-mail more than once a day. Again, I think it's perfectly reasonable to limit my workload like that.

2.5 I guess this is sort of the same point, but I think the reality of the world is that most people are mediocre at their jobs, and I think it's fine not to strive to be the best. I think I'm a good teacher and that students learn a lot from my classes. But I also feel I could be amazing if I devoted many, many more hours to it, but I'm not willing to do that. It's not my priority, and I'd rather be good and have it be a subsection of my life than be great and have it be my entire life.

Justus said...

(My post was too long, so I split it up)

3. Another point that I think people sometimes ignore about the benefit of teaching writing as a writer is that it can strengthen your skills. You're totally right that it uses a lot of the same brain functions, but that can be a good thing. You get a constant workout of those areas and stay in form even when you're not working directly on your creative writing. You're always thinking about how words work together. Since I've had to explain this stuff to my classes over and over again, I know I'm way more thoughtful than I used to be about basic sentence construction and the differences between complex and compound sentences and why I would want to use a semicolon in some instances rather than a period. In that sense, I think teaching can make one a better writer even as it drains some energy and time.

4. Although grading papers will always be time consuming, planning lessons gets more streamlined the longer one teaches. When I'm teaching a class that I've already taught several times, and I'm doing the same lessons again and going over the same chapter, it doesn't take me that long to prepare. I can review past notes quickly and skim the chapter rather than reading it in depth. Some of this stuff really gets easier the longer I do it, and, as with my first point, I think looking ahead to the future, it will be even better. One tough thing about the stage we're at right now is that we really have a bum deal. We get the most labor-intensive, least interesting classes, and we get paid less to teach them. I genuinely think that if we pay our dues now, ten years down the road, teaching could be the absolutely ideal career, but it's tough to put up with it in the present.

PancakePhilosopher said...

Sometimes I stop and have to reassess my chosen post-grad path. Do I REALLY want to teac college writing and still try to be a bona fide writer, what with everyone tells me about how little time there is?

I think, for me, the answer is yes. I actually work best and feel the most content when I'm not always doing the exact same thing. The idea of a months-long block of teaching, then time off from teaching to relax and write what I've been thinking about all semester, really appeals to me. When I write and write and don't do anything else, I get burned out and somewhat bored of writing. Not bored of the creative process--the "inside me head" stuff--but the actual physical process starts to get boring, humdrum. I guess we'll see.

Sounds like you're a good teacher, Ashley, and I'm sure you're students will be thanking you down the road.

PancakePhilosopher said...

argh, I hate not being able to edit comments...stupid simple mistakes