I have (had) two jobs. The first is the one I usually blog about, the one where I help build a democratic school that addresses the development of the whole child, including the development of his or her or ze’s social-emotional skills. It’s a real gas.
The second job, the one I lost last week, is the one where I provide high-level guidance to college students on the craft of creative writing. The college where I’ve taught for the past eight years faces a crisis-level enrollment challenge and, as an adjunct in the humanities, I’ve just felt, in my wallet, the force of that challenge.
It’s a great college. It not only does exactly what it says it does, but it does so with real passion and force. The professors generally walk the walk, and the staff members I’ve interacted with have all been genuinely kind and helpful. The entire philosophy of the college is that we are all members of various communities, and it’s imperative that we act in a knowledgeable and deliberate way to improve the lives of all the members of those communities and not just ourselves. The people I’ve met and worked with at the college strive to do exactly that.
Unfortunately, this will be the first semester in a very long time when I can’t count myself among them. And that disappoints me.
Luckily, the people I just described are not just my colleagues; they’re also my neighbors and my friends, so I can continue to count myself as a person in their wider communities.
There’s another reason I am disappointed though. Two more reasons, actually. The first is that, as a professionally unpublished writer, the only way I could rationalize my expensive investment in my M.F.A. was by pointing to the fact that an M.F.A. is the minimum requirement to become a writing professor, so if I wasn’t able to pay back the investment through publishing, I’d be able to do so through teaching. But now I don’t even have that. So yeah, that’s a disappointment.
The third reason is that, for the first time in eight years, I was going to do a wholesale strip-down of my bread-and-butter course: an introduction to creative writing aimed at non-major students to get them interested in the major.
Teaching at the college level is different than teaching at the high school level (and incredibly different from the middle school level). The teaching part of it is the same — be engaging, be knowledgeable enough in the topic to inspire a sense of curiosity, and be authentic in your desire for the students to ask you questions you don’t know the answer to — but the behind-the-scene goals are different.
In high school (and even more so in middle school), students don’t have the right to ignore you. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t ignore you; it means that, at the end of the day, society requires them to be there, and its willing to back that requirement up with force. Put simply, in high school (and even more so in middle school) students have a lot less choice.
At the college level — primarily in the first two years, when most students still haven’t invested enough time or money to feel compelled by responsibility — every student you meet must be coaxed to move on to the next level.
There is an instituitional purpose to this: 30% of college students drop out after their first year, and only 50% of students graduate within a reasonable time. With those as statistical truths, all members of the college — including the faculty — must do their best to help students want to stay in school.
But there is also a departmental-level impetus. As a teacher not only in the humanities, but also in one of the softest of soft subjects, I have to include within my responsibilities the need to attract students to my subject matter. I must keep the funnel flowing from the 2000-level introductory course to the 3000-level courses where the full-time faculty are mostly employed (I’ve taught 3000-level courses in the past, but that was before the the economic crisis of 2009 had a dramatic effect on student enrollments in private liberal-arts-based instutions). While education is always the primary responsibility, this need to sell the major is also always there.
This is not a critique. I live in the real world and would have it no other way: at every level, at every point, an artist must sing for her supper. I get it, and I love it. That is not the point here (but for more on that point, read this essay by an anonymous adjunct instructor).
The point is that, for the first time in eight years, I was about to launch a brand new product, and now I’m being told that I won’t even be given the chance.
I’m not taking it personally because no one has yet told me that I should. I know the college’s financial situation, and I understand that, as an adjunct, I am the definition of low-hanging fruit, so I have no hard feelings at all.
But I really wanted to give this new course a try.
It is still an introduction to creative writing, but instead of breaking the semester down by genre — six weeks of fiction, five weeks of poetry, and three to four weeks of screenwriting or creative nonfiction (depending on the semester) — I was going to blend them all together and teach not a genre of creative writing but creative writing itself.
From a business perspective, the goal of the course is to convince non-majors to continue doing work in the major — i.e, to convince new customers to become repeat customers. For the past years, my sales pitch has been akin to an analysis. I wanted to expose the students to ideas and notions about creative writing that they hadn’t yet heard before, to show them, in some way, what it means to take the craft of writing seriously.
My competitors were the high schools. I had to be able to take them deeper into the concept of creative writing than anything they’d done in high school, to make them feel as if they were, in some way, being led behind the curtain.
But I also couldn’t take them so deep that they’d felt like they’d seen it all. The end of the semester had to leave them wanting more.
This upcoming semester though, I wanted to change it up. Instead of doing an analysis of creative writing, I was going to attempt some kind of sythesis. Instead of digging deep into the concept, I was going to dance them atop it, spin them from one place to another with enough joy and verve to trip the light fantastic, leaving them, at the end of the semester, with an artist’s sense of the possibilities, not of what goes on behind the curtain, but of what can be accomplished on stage.
I’m still not 100% sure how I was going to do it. The semester starts in about four or five weeks and my plan was to work on it during the first full week of August when I take a writer’s retreat in my own home (my wife and daughter are visiting my in-laws while I stay home with no obligation but to write, and to write in a serious and purposive way…and, I suppose, to feed and bathe myself as well).
The college course wasn’t the only thing I was planning to work on next week, but it was one of them, and I was very much looking forward to it.
I had a fantasy where, instead of writing a syllabus for the course, I would write a kind of pamphlet, a short and to-the-point kind of textbook whose style would blend Strunk & White’s with Wittgenstein’s to create a style all my own.
In the eight years I’ve been teaching the course, I’ve yet to use a textbook. I figured maybe it was time to write my own.
While I still might attempt it next week, I don’t have the pressure of a deadline now. And that disappoints me too.
Oh well. Here’s hoping the course comes back to life in the Spring.