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Discussion on how adjuncts balance creativity issues with teaching obligations

Room for Creativity?

July 9, 2014

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: academic Twitter can be incredible. Natalie Dorfeld emailed me after the column featuring Jessica Lawless and Miranda Merklein ran and asked what she could do to help. Noting the “kick ass work” these columns have been doing — why thank you, Natalie — she volunteered to participate. After learning about some of her professional experiences and interests, I did what any academic connected to social media would do: I crowdsourced to find a partner for an adjunct interested in ESL pedagogy, creative writing, narrative theory, contemporary poetry, and contingent labor issues. Not long after I tweeted my request, Ishai Barnoy volunteered. He didn’t know Natalie, so they approached their interviews as strangers with common interests and experiences.

I’m thrilled with the work they’ve done here.

“Room for Creativity?” raises the question of how adjuncts try to balance their own creative and/or scholarly interests with teaching demands. I asked them to cover how they’ve both balanced (or tried to balance) their interests in poetry and other creative work with what they’ve been allowed as adjuncts to teach in the name of “course coverage.”

Natalie Dorfeld is assistant professor of English at the Florida Institute of Technology. Although a full-time faculty member, she is not on the tenure track but a renewable nine-month contract. She received her B.A., B.S., and M.A. at Slippery Rock University and her Ph.D. at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has taught American literature, creative writing, business writing, public speaking, and ESL classes at Thiel College and Penn State University (Shenango). Additionally, she works as a freelance writer for Salem Press and serves as an advisory board member for Wadsworth Publishing and Pearson/Allyn & Bacon Publishing. Her latest article — “The Walmartization of Higher Education: Congratulations! You Are Disposable” — was just published in CEAMAGazine, the peer-reviewed journal of the College English Association-Middle Atlantic Group.

Ishai Barnoy is an adjunct professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Virginia. He received his B.S., B.A., and M.F.A. at the University of Maryland at College Park. Since starting at NVCC at 2008, the very August following his final graduation from UMD, he has taught an array of first–year college composition courses, which are his essential bread-and-butter as a professor, as well as a selection of developmental writing and reading courses, some poetry workshops, and one Introduction to Poetry course. Recently, he has started to act in several theaters in Baltimore, MD, where he now resides. Way back when, in 2008-2009 or so, he published two poems, one in Tikkun and another in The Threepenny Review. He has independently studied screenwriting and playwriting. He’s now working on a play.

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IB: As a creative writer and an adjunct, how do you see the relationship between the two facets of your profession (or, possibly, your vocation), teaching and writing? These two facets might be summed up as just what you do, but I’m curious about deeper connections: How do these parts come together in your sensation of who you are? Or if you don’t really see a clear or consistent relationship between the two, then how do you negotiate the demands of continually both teaching as an adjunct and writing as a poet?

ND: I worked as an adjunct for four different schools in northwestern Pennsylvania. I am currently an assistant professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, a position I thoroughly relish and hope to maintain for the next 35 years, but the school has no tenure tracks. I’m on a renewable, nine-month contract.  

As an adjunct, I put poetry on the back burner for the obvious reasons. In fact, writing as a whole was merely an afterthought because I was too busy running from job to job and paying for dinner with rolls of pennies. (Let me tell you, I was quite a hit in the Taco Bell line.) So, in that sense, I was very disconnected from the craft. The only time I really wrote poetry was in class with my students. It was enjoyable but brief. Again, my main concern was saving enough money to pay for my doctoral program and praying my VW bug would not break down, which turned into a monthly debacle. I truly believe schools set up adjuncts to fail because they are placed in positions that require a lot of work outside the classroom (e.g., checking papers), and that leaves little time, energy, or motivation to work on one’s own writing work.

As an assistant professor, it is a different kind of pressure. The Ph.D. is done, and that’s all well and good. However, now begins the “publish or perish” diversion. Seeing that we are primarily an engineering school, research in the form of articles, books, and presentations is encouraged. We are given a 3/3 load to work on scholarly pursuits. That being said, it is not implicitly stated that peer-reviewed journals are preferred over creative works, but we all know what promotion committees are looking for at the end of the day. Now, when I think of writing, I think of JSTOR before leisurely walking along the shoreline and jotting down what comes to mind.

If I had my way, creative works would hold the same clout as scholarly works, but I know that’s not how the game is played. My fear is losing part of myself if I do not make it part of my routine. If I write a poem whenever it comes to me, well, we all know how that goes. The bottom line is this: I came into this profession for the love and purity of creative writing, and I want to go out the same way.

IB: What do you do to motivate and develop your writing as an adjunct? And conversely, what do you do to motivate and develop your teaching (or, possibly, your research) as a poet? More specifically, how do you see your expertise or experience as a creative writer — maybe uniquely as a poet — entering into either or both of these processes?

ND: I taught Creative Writing: Poetry at Thiel College. It met two days a week. On Tuesday, we would discuss the poets in the textbook. On Thursday, we would critique each other’s work in a circle, often outside if the weather was agreeable. Because I wanted the students to write freely and without fear of ridicule, I asked them to use pen names, and I threw my work into the mix also.

I think to be a good professor, you have to talk the talk and walk the walk. I would freely point out that writing poetry is tough. It’s essentially, like many authors have paraphrased, sitting down and opening a vein. Words get in the way. Feelings get muddled. It’s downright messy, and we are constantly bombarded with messages of what is right and wrong. (For the record, they don’t have to rhyme. Professors that insist upon this should be placed on eraser-clapping detail.)

Above all, I simply wanted my students to have a connection to their craft. Be it good, bad, or ugly, I wanted them to possess a gut reaction to their work. In the end, we all bound our poetry together in book form, which included original photographs and artwork. Some of my students spent weeks on their books, and they really turned out nicely. Were they pitched after class? I hope not, and I really don’t think so. As an overly sentimental educator, I wish they can pull this collection off the shelf in 15 years as a reminder of who they were way back when.

IB: What kinds of poems, or even what bigger projects, are you working on now? What has motivated these kinds of poems or projects?

ND: On the research realm, I try to write about my interests, the adjunct phenomenon in composition studies being at the top of my list. I also dabble in ESL pedagogies, writing center theory, and the implementation of electronic media in the classroom.

Personally, I just moved from the rust belt of Pennsylvania to the space coast of Florida, which has been a huge adjustment but a creative jackpot. I have basically traded flannel and skis for board shorts and surfboards. Everything from the landscape to the attitudes to the student population has changed dramatically, and I find metamorphosis pieces interesting.

If I could find a way to combine the two, perhaps adjuncts writing about their struggles through poetry or some other creative genre, I believe there could be an audience for it. [JF: At least two adjuncts have. See the recent column from Gordon Haber and Alex Kudera.] In the end, I think our stories, horrific tales of contingent labor, have a familiar chord. With new articles and YouTube clips coming out almost daily, I think it’s just one more medium to get the message across.

In academia, we know what’s happening. To those working outside it, there’s still the misconception that professors have a cushy life, working 12-hour weeks with holidays and summers off. That could not be further from the truth. I fear the situation, the growing reliance and abuse of part-time faculty members, will only worsen without drastic action.

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ND: Knowing what you know about the field now, would you encourage any of your creative writing students to pursue a graduate degree in humanities? Do you feel it’s our duty to warn them of the current academic landscape?

IB: Amusingly enough, my college experience has already replicated this model, no matter how precarious the professor in question might be. That is to say, my professors have always had the job of, first, instilling a love for teaching and learning in their students and, second, scaring them the hell away from academia, which, they say, is a one-way ticket to incurable indecipherability and other terrible afflictions.

Of course, none of that kind of behavior is helpful. Sure, academia sucks for most people trying to get jobs in it. Yes, it’s a pyramid scheme, the way it currently works. Don’t get me wrong; everyone I’ve known who has full-time employment in it is great, a real model of an academic, and all the rest of it. Then again, I guess I’ve tried to take on this “running interference” model in my advising of students. Maybe I’ve taken it more in the direction of encouragement, or at least an approach that incorporates some measure of, oh, actual listening. I guess I try. I haven’t had to advise that many students in my college about entering academia, since so few of them seem to consider it, and those who do are already several years down the line from my courses. I think my students would be glad to figure out what they could do to make a decent living first and foremost, and most of them don’t bother to consider whether academic jobs are worth the work.

I do remember advising one student who specifically asked me about becoming a creative writing teacher — “a teacher like you,” she said. What I ended up telling her was that teaching is creatively draining work. I didn’t qualify or contextualize this comment beyond saying that most people nowadays change jobs very often, and that this is a reality we should be mindful of. I even tried to correct myself a little bit, saying that teaching might only make you feel as if your creative energies are drained. You see, there were a bunch of full-time colleagues around at the time, and I felt increasingly self-conscious spouting too much bitterness. Honestly, I can’t say for sure what this student made of my advice.

Now that I think about it, I even remember another student before her, who said the same thing to me, “I want to be a teacher — like you,” but then, he didn’t come to me for advice; he just informed me of his plan to become a teacher, and that was the last we’d spoken to each other.

ND: Given the loads that most adjuncts teach, coupled with courses that require hours of grading outside the classroom, how do you make time for writing? Is daily time set aside, or do you write whenever you can catch a breather?

IB: Well, essentially, I don’t. Sure, I often start semesters with writing projects in-progress. Oh, yes, breaks are great to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, it helps to be working on a lesson plan and a creative project (or two) side-by-side, much in the same way that in my painting days it helped to be working on at least two paintings at once, or two paintings and some poems, or three paintings…. But then the semester starts. And anxiety about my students getting what I’m telling them sets in. And more anxiety, about grading, sets in soon enough after that. And then the flame seems to have died, and the desire to steal an hour here and an hour there sort of goes away, never to return.

To be honest, this semester I have been the most responsible I have ever been, in terms of finding and using extra time to do writing. I kept regularly irregular writing hours, if you know what I mean. An hour here and an hour there, you know, but keeping to an everyday thing, or at least an every-other-day thing. I was really good about it. Until about a week into March. Well, I was also starting to work hard rehearsing for a play that I’m currently, as of this writing, acting in — which is a blast. I love acting. But the writing, by now, seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Eh, well, at least I’ve got about three-fourths of a first draft written out, with notes for all the other pieces, and even some revision notes to help me move to the next draft. As I said, I’d been unusually organized and well-behaved in the portion of this semester that I did get writing done. I was good; I kept a paper trail. I remember where I left off. And I’ve got notes to remind me where I was planning to go from there. So maybe I’ll return to this project and finish it as soon as the stress decreases. I’ve even got some ideas about who to show a finished play, where to get it put up, and so on, which is what inching my way into the Baltimore theater community has afforded me.

ND: If you had to do it over again, would you choose this path? (There are many adjuncts that love what they do, but they are often paired with more financially stable partners and/or retired.)

IB: I’ve been fortunate, throughout graduate school and now, to always have someone who can support me. For most of my life, it’s been my parents. No, they didn’t pay for me to go to college, even though I went to state school as an in-state student. I got partial scholarships for college, and I took loans to cover the rest. But still, I’ve always lived with people (my parents or my brother), and they paid for most of the food and rent. I worked certain summers, off and on. But mostly I didn’t work until I started to see the end of graduate school on the horizon. Even nowadays, when I work as an adjunct, my family still helps me, but added to that is my girlfriend, who helps me in many ways, too. We live together. She, you might say, is the breadwinner of the house.

That being said, I’m not completely sure I feel positively about my so-called path. Even to say that I’ve been supported by others, to say that this support has won me the ability to choose this path in the first place — to say nothing of how this support has won me the great deal of free time I’ve had to work within this path and “find my voice,” as they say — ignores the vast amounts of unhappiness that I’ve experienced, as I suppose anybody must. This might also mute the intense hang-ups I have about writing and sharing my writing, hang-ups that I feel are closely related to being supported by others and to their assumption, rightly to some extent, that they are allowed to demand progress reports on their “investment.” Again, these are hang-ups, mostly. They are a function of my subjective reading of the situation in which I’ve lived. But then, that’s nevertheless part of my situation — my strong desire to shut people out of my writing process, for instance, my need for privacy.

Honestly, I don’t have a real response to this question. I just like it because it raises the important issue: Could we have chosen something other than adjuncting? Should we have done so? Well, I don’t know. I certainly gained a lot from being allowed to teach. I even matured a great deal simply from considering the precarity of my job, noticing how I’m being used to do work that my full-time colleagues do for greater pay and stability. Even just learning to grade better, to face my students more honestly and fairly in class has helped me mature immensely. But all of these things — grading, teaching, working precariously — seem to have killed the confident, prodigious young poet and painter that I used to be. And yet, that young poet and painter was a spoiled reactionary shithead who had few pretensions regarding certain people “deserving” good things. I’m glad I’m not that guy anymore. Adjuncting, to a large extent, has given the better me an “out.”

But that jerky young poet and painter had one thing right: He had a real interest, even if it was a cynical interest, in the system in which he wrote and, occasionally, worked. I don’t have that kind of interest anymore. I can’t see the worth of publishing either academic or creative writing, other than some form of careerist maneuvering.

In my job, too, I feel that I’ve grown into kind of a mole-person, a great teacher in the classroom, but an unpleasant presence in the college otherwise, and a miserable wreck when it comes to grading — a task which, I must tell you, I do exceedingly, painstakingly well. I’ve only recently grown to seriously realize that I can, and should, apply to jobs in the “market,” though I haven’t mustered the courage to do so with effective regularity. And would I have been better for going “on the market” earlier in my life, before or instead of adjuncting? I can’t say for sure. I might have still lost most of my creative energy. But I might have remained, to some extent, the terrible person that, happily, I feel I no longer am. I just wish it didn’t seem like such an either-or kind of situation. I wish that growing up and developing creatively/professionally were a little more separate from one another, a little more mutually exclusive.

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Like so many of us off the tenure track, Natalie and Ishai have largely taught the high-demand, intro-level courses in writing or literary studies, instead of advanced or upper-level courses in our areas of expertise. In many cases, we’re unable to sustain any kind of mentoring or working relationship with upper-level students. Natalie and Ishai have also on occasion had to let economic and professional reality — i.e., needing to adjunct for financial reasons — trump other interests. What for them is poetry or acting could for other adjuncts be blogging, creative nonfiction, art, or other kinds of interests that lack the C.V. weight to help them get a full-time position that extends past the current year.

Lately, I’ve done some modestly paid writing projects that, while virtually worthless on my C.V., have been incredibly fulfilling and incredibly useful for networking. If money is tight, this kind of paid non-scholarly work is tempting.

Natalie and Ishai clearly aren’t the only adjuncts who’ve struggled with balancing creative and professional work. Help us add to this ongoing adjunct narrative:

If you’re an adjunct, how have you tried to balance your academic and teaching work with what might be more meaningful creative pursuits? What successes and struggles have you had?

How have adjuncts — either you or your colleagues — tried to combat what Ishai aptly sees as “such an either-or kind of situation”? Why is it such a zero-sum game when it comes to creative and professional development in academia?

How, as Natalie says, do “schools set up adjuncts to fail”? What, if any, are the solutions to schools’ knowingly overusing and exploiting adjunct faculty?

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As always, I’m looking for participants for future columns. If you’re a contingent faculty member at any level of higher ed, contact me via email or Twitter. I’ll pair you with someone who’s had complementary experience as an adjunct, and you’ll be able to generate your own questions for each other.

 

 

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