Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Up-Side of Teaching

To be fair (and to make myself feel better about my current situation in life) I want to talk a little bit about some of the reasons why teaching could be considered the perfect career for creative writers. Last week I went over some of the reasons why this might not be true after all, so let me give the other side of the issue a chance to defend itself.

First of all, and as I mentioned last week, once you work your way up into a full time position as a creative writing professor, you generally have a month or so off in the winter and about three months off in the summer. You still get paid a decent annual salary, but you have around four months completely off every year. You can (and should) spend that time writing. As was brought up by Justus in the comments from last week, you also get a sabbatical every seven years, during which time it’s just assumed that you will be writing. Keeping up with your creative writing is, actually, one of your job requirements as a creative writing professor.

In addition to that, as Justus pointed out last week, teaching is good practice as a writer. You are forced to look at writing problems; you are forced to think about what makes good writing and what makes bad writing; you are forced to think about how to improve. All of the things that you teach to your students, you think about again and again for yourself, and every semester you become a slightly better writer than you were the semester before.

But perhaps most appealing of all (to me) is the thought of being part of a literary/creative writing community. Forever. This is one of the main benefits, I think, of going to grad school: to immerse yourself in a community of writers. If you become a creative writing professor, you will always be part of such a community. While there are no guarantees that you’re going to get along with everybody in the department, I feel that there’s a much better chance of developing strong and productive relationships with your coworkers if you work in an English department versus, say, if you work at an office. This is important both for writing purposes, because you gain a lot from interacting with and sharing your work with other writers and literary types, and for general peace of mind, because, after all, you have to spend a lot of time around your coworkers, and how much you like them has a huge effect on how much you like your job. Sometimes, I believe, getting along with your coworkers is even more important than whether or not you enjoy the work itself.

There are other benefits, too, such as having access to a university library and being affiliated with a university who will promote your work, because it benefits them, too, if your books sell well. And perhaps I shouldn’t forget the importance of things like job security and benefits (the employment benefits of being a professor are pretty awesome, often including things like your children getting to go to that college for free).

The trouble, of course, is that most of us have to put up with teaching adjunct – year round and for a weak salary – before we can even hope to land a full time teaching position. And teaching adjunct is a bitch. You’re considered part time, even though you sometimes teach as many or more classes than the full timers, you get paid hardly anything compared to the full timers, and you have to teach the worst classes, the classes that the full timers don’t want. But as my husband Damien keeps reminding me, no matter what job you want and no matter what field, you have to start at the bottom and work your way to the top. Teaching is no different, and if we can put up with the bottom for a few years, and keep our writing wits about us so we actually have a good chance of competing for a full time position, then someday, in the not-too-distant future, it might all feel very, very worth it.


Justus said...

Although I agree with you for the most part, I disagree on one point, and that's about coworkers. You write that "you have to spend a lot of time around your coworkers," so that's a huge factor. I find that teaching is so autonomous I spend almost no time with coworkers. That's potentially an advantage or disadvantage. I go to my classes, where there are no other teachers, and I go to office hours, where I can sit by myself in an office, and I grade papers and do prep at home, where it's just me and the dog. I pass other teachers in the faculty office suites, occasionally say hi or how was your weekend, but teaching is one of the jobs where you spend the least amount of time with coworkers. It doesn't even compare to when I worked in an office or in retail, where I interacted with coworkers a lot of the time on the job. But even though teaching is autonomous and doesn't involve a lot of back and forth with coworkers, there still is the potential for some community (at least I imagine that's the case at the upper levels in a creative writing program, even though I haven't found that to be the case at the community college).

Then again, my experience might be different from others', as it often is. I was fairly unsuccessful in connecting with a community of writers in grad school while you see that as one of the main benefits, so it could just be me.

Ashley Cowger said...

I agree with you somewhat but I think your (and my) experience right now is different from a full time teaching position. If you're a full time professor, you're required to go to meetings and serve on committees with your coworkers. My guess is that it's pretty comparable to an office job, where (in my experience, anyway) you spend the majority of your time at your desk by yourself, but you do have to spend a percentage of your time working with other people on specific projects.

Anonymous said...

Both of you make really good points here. I think though, Justus, that I would rather have no coworkers to talk to than coworkers who don't quite get writing at all. It was hard for me as a mechanic, a profession on "manly men", to bring up my poetry without getting laughed at or looked at strangely. Constantly being around that kind of group kind of made me feel silly for doing what I love. I would have rather worked alone than gone through that crap.
I agree with Ashley though, that when you get to a full time situation, you'll probably meet the people in your department because you'll be in meetings with them more often and on committees and such. I think that there is a bright light ahead of all of us.

Justus said...

I agree with you, Damien, that it would be better to work alone than with people who totally don't get it. Also, it's tough from our current positions to have a complete picture of what the full time faculty life will be like. But I feel hopeful that the future will be good.

Anonymous said...

I like your attitude to toward the adjunct teaching gig. You are right that we might be working our way toward something utterly worth all the headaches. My fear, however, is that it seldom works that way. At my institution (I won't say which) one's chances of advancing out of the anonymous soup of adjunct, part-time faculty are, sadly, next to nil. It is almost criminal the way that skilled adjunct educators are undervalued (and overlooked) at most larger institutions!