• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


I'm Awesome, and You Probably Are Too

On not letting others define your success.

December 20, 2017


A week ago Monday I posted a kind of lament over the person I used to be and the path I once desired – professor of creative writing – and how I’d “failed” to achieve that goal.

It’s been almost two years since I was informed I wouldn’t be moving on in the search to fill an open position at the institution where I’d been visiting, and this has been my first semester not teaching at all since I returned to the classroom in 2001 after a career in the non-academic world. I wanted to explore my “failure” in an effort to understand it, and I do understand it. It’s a problem with the system, not a problem with me. I know this to be true

But even with this understanding,  it’s been a difficult thing to accept, even as I’ve successfully moved on, professionally at least.

In a Twitter exchange following that posting, my friend Paula Patch gave me some advice.

She’s right. I haven’t failed. I’m awesome.

I mean, seriously, look at me. Including graduate school, I have 20 years of college teaching experience. I’ve taught fiction writing, technical writing, business writing, humor writing, narrative non-fiction writing, contemporary literature, American literature, first-year writing, developmental writing, the literature of American humor, public speaking, communication skills, and probably some other stuff I can’t remember right now. I’ve taught 100-level, 200-level, 300-level, 400-level, and 600-level courses. If you called me tomorrow and said you needed me to teach a writing or literature class starting the next day, I could whip something that would work better than good.

I’ve published five books, co-edited three..no four other books. I’m under contract for two books concerning the teaching of writing, one with Johns Hopkins University Press and the other with a little upstart publisher called Penguin Random House.

I have a newspaper column that appears every Sunday in the Chicago Tribune. I’m a contributing blogger to Inside Higher Ed. I do public talks and smaller workshops for faculty for schools around the country. I’m good at this too.

The website (McSweeney’s Internet Tendency) I edited for five years (2003 – 2008), for which I established the approach and tone which continues to this day, is a leading voice of progressive minded humor today.[1]

Roxane Gay blurbed my short story collection, about which which Publishers Weekly said, "Warner successfully layers his satire with rich characters and a general playfulness with form that somehow renders a deep emotional resonance." They gave it a star.

I can play the drums (passably) and guitar (a little less passably). At age 47 I can run a mile in under seven minutes, which isn’t like super fast, but is enough to get a discount on my health insurance. In my over-35 no check hockey league which has ex professional and college players, I’m no worse than a 6th round draft choice (out of 11) and sometimes go as high as the 4th round.

I can name the entire starting lineup, including the pitching rotation for the 1984 Chicago Cubs.

I can’t sing, but I can hum.

Because I am from the Midwest, where it is ingrained that one does not toot their own horn, all of this is deeply uncomfortable, but I’m thinking of it like therapy. Publicly declaring my awesometude may be an important step to finish the healing process. I've had plenty of failures, but the successes are real.

Really, I’m an excellent teacher of writing and literature. Any student would be lucky to have me. I am not unique in this ability by any stretch, but if our systems of higher education had any sense, they would figure out how to make use of people like me.

The hard part of being entirely untethered from the academy is finding ways of measuring my success. While I was ultimately not well-matched with the systems of higher ed, getting re-hired year after year was at least something tangible. I now need to create a personal vision for success.

I may not be the only one. Maybe those who are working inside of higher education institutions would benefit from clearly articulated personal visions for success separate from the institutional definitions of success. The prevalence of mid-career professorial malaise is well-documented. The gaps between what institutions measure and what many faculty wish to do in order to make a maximum impact an live fulfilled lives are significant.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery of Michigan State offers a way forward by creating your own “Academic Index.”

As discussed in an interview with Kimine Mayuzumi, early in her career, Dr. Montgomery recognized a disconnect between the academy’s definitions of success and her personal vision for success.

I quickly recognized that if I did not have a clear personal career vision, others were happy (and frequently “chomping at the bit”) to offer me one or to substitute theirs for mine. When deciding to pursue a career as a faculty member, one thing I have not been willing to cede is defining my own impact. Yes, undoubtedly I know there are standards of progress and success in every ‘institution’ in which I work and seek to build paths of success. However, I prioritize cultivating a personal vision of success, leadership, and impact, then seek to find a place in which that can be possible.

Dr. Montgomery developed a personal index based on “self-reflective” questions including, among others:

  • For what purpose am I pursuing a particular platform such as tenure and promotion?
  • What have I done to help or influence others?
  • How and with whom have I shred knowledge that I gained?
  • What work did I accomplish and how did I accomplish it?

Dr. Montgomery argues, “Rather than undermining institutional success, I believe that our institutions will be enriched when we can more fully embrace diverse definitions of and multiple paths towards success and impact.”

I can’t help but agree.

In the previous post I tagged myself as lacking ambition, but this is obviously not true. I’m hugely ambitious for certain things, but I don’t think I’ve spent enough time doing the kind of work Dr. Montgomery recommends, defining those ambitions for myself and orienting myself towards them intentionally.

I titled last week’s post, “You Can Only Be What You Are, Do What You Can Do.” I think the next step is to figure out who I am,  what I want to do next, and figuring out how to know if I'm on the right path.

That’ll be a question for 2018. For now, this is it for this space in 2017. I hope everyone has happy holidays and a wonderful start to the new year.

Remember, you're probably awesome.


[1] The editor who replaced me, Christopher Monks deserves all credit for growing the site exponentially into what it has become, but I both started the site on the path and had the good sense to identify Chris as the person to replace me.


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