Can I Do the Same Thing Over and Over Again?
At a crossroads, I wonder what's next as I look for wisdom from Jon Stewart and James Taylor.
As long as I stay at my current institution and in my present position, this Tuesday will be my last class period teaching fiction writing as a college course.
In a post from August, I anticipated this moment, and in those thoughts I see myself reaching for a bright side amidst the things I foresee losing.
In all honesty, I’m not seeing as much of the bright side as I hoped for. Some of this is because the class has been fantastic. Sometimes the chemistry among the students just ads up to a giant cosmic "Yes" and this is one of those semesters.
Right now, I’m seeing a path that, not immediately, but ultimately leads out of the classroom entirely.
As I’ve expressed in this space previously, I see first year writing as the most important course I’ve ever taught. But it is also the most demanding course I’ve ever taught, and my own fulfillment in the work derives from teaching it well (which I believe I do) something that requires lots of time-consuming one-on-one consultation with students.
Shortcuts to lessen my load or reduce contact with students that I see as necessary to good instruction threatens to erode that fulfillment, and if that is gone, there’s little reason for me to continue teaching.
Though, I must be mindful of the fact that I am feeling this at the end of the semester as I am on the cusp of receiving the final researched essay projects from my current two sections of first year writing. The grading of these projects (as well as their other essays during the semester) is intense and time-consuming. Two sections will soak up the entirety of my Thanksgiving break.
I can’t quite imagine how I will manage grading another section of 20 students on top of the current load and still do a credible job that I feel good about, but I guess I’ll find this out next semester.
Above that, though, I fear burnout. For how long can I teach the same course three times a day, twice a week, semester after semester? Will I be able to muscle through every last student essay, giving them the attention they need and deserve?
Can I do the same thing over and over again?
I’m just not sure.
This past Friday my wife and I went to see James Taylor perform at the North Charleston Coliseum.
He opened with “Something in the Way She Moves” and played it beautifully to 7000 or so people seated inside a hockey arena. After finishing, he talked about playing the song for Paul McCartney and George Harrison at Apple Studios in 1968 as an audition for their fledgling record label.
I wondered how many times he must’ve played that song, and others like “Carolina in My Mind,” and “Fire and Rain.” He’s probably played those songs as many times as I’ve faced down a student essay.
And yet, night after night, hundreds of times a year James Taylor plays those songs and if he’s phoning it in, he’s a better actor than songwriter and musician. He seemed to invest himself in each note, even looking away from the audience, showing apparent emotion following “Sweet Baby James,” as though he’d swept himself back to the inspiration for the song, the arrival of his nephew into the world.
At the same time he played the old favorites in the ways we expected and maybe even demanded, it became apparent that Taylor also found a few ways to stretch himself, even in the context of 40-plus year old songs.
In “Steamroller,” Taylor delivered the vocals in an kind of over the top comic blues persona, to the point the words themselves were unintelligible, and the song’s conclusion made me think I’d stumbled into a Neil Young concert as guitarist Michael Landau explored Crazy Horse-level feedback.
“Something in the Way She Moves” has changed in smaller, but important ways. This recording from that 1968 period where Taylor auditioned for McCartney and Harrison shows a very young James Taylor doing his best Bob Dylan impression.
And here the song is slower, richer, the guitar surging in between the lyrics, a conversation Taylor has been exploring between his two instruments for more than forty-five years.
I began thinking about how James Taylor had managed to not just be content, but joyous in his work. He has not grown tired or resentful of playing the same songs over and over again.
Maybe there’s a lesson for me here.
Earlier last week I listened to Howard Stern interview Jon Stewart. Say what you will about Howard Stern, but I consider him our greatest long form interviewer alive, including Terry Gross. (Gross may even agree.)
The interview was ostensibly about Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, but much of the conversation focused on Stewart’s work as host of The Daily Show. Stewart told Stern that while The Daily Show is a “perfect fit” for him, he’s also courting burnout. Stern asked him if Stewart could foresee a time when maybe he backs off from his degree of involvement with the show while still doing the hosting.
Stewart dismissed the idea. If it comes to that point, he said, there’s someone better out there for the job.
I think there’s a lesson for me here as well.
For sure there’s a difference between teaching first year writing and being a widely beloved entertainer. For one thing, their audiences don’t hold something between suspicion and loathing for their material as many of my students do at the start of the semester. Taylor and Stewart also look down from the mountain top of unrestrained success, while it’s not even clear to me where I’d find an appropriate mountain for my chosen path.
They are also both financially secure in ways I can barely fathom.
But I’ve long claimed to love teaching in the same way Taylor loves music and Stewart loves helming The Daily Show.
It is our life’s work. I can call myself a writer as much as I want, but deep down, I know I am a teacher.
If I am going to keep doing this work, it is up to me to continue to reinvent the ways I do it like James Taylor has managed.
And if I’m going to step away, I hope I have the wisdom to do so while I’m still doing it well.
 The reasons for this are mundane and bureaucratic and as follows: As a visiting instructor I’m contracted to teach 12 hours per semester. However, over the last five semesters because of my expertise and experience and a pressing departmental need for additional instruction in fiction writing, I’ve been picking up one section of a 3-hour fiction writing course to go with my two sections of our 4-hour first year writing course for a total of 11 hours. Our Academic Affairs department has expressed a directive that 12 hours is 12 hours, regardless of faculty experience or departmental need. I was given the option to pick up an extra course every third semester (for a total of 14 hours), while teaching 11 hours in the other two. Because of my outside writing work, which is a majority of my income, teaching four courses in a semester seemed simply not possible without significantly compromising the quality of my teaching or turning away some of the paying writing work that allows me the freedom to teach off the tenure track. Not quite a Catch-22, but given these choices, I elected to switch to a schedule next semester where I exclusively teach first year writing. I would like to say that this is “unfair,” except it’s difficult to declare a policy meant to ensure equitability as unfair. It is certainly not unfair in the way that we have adjunct faculty who will be teaching the exact same course load as me for less money.
 I often affect modesty in this space and seek to practice humility in my day-to-day life, but I have a record that shows me to be an excellent teacher of writing, both composition and fiction writing. I don’t think my ego is unchecked when I say that my absence from the fiction writing classroom is a loss for my employer.
I'm definitely burned out on Twitter, but aren't we all in search of more followers?
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading