• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

This Is Not a Quit Lit Essay

And yet, I'm quitting my teaching job.

May 2, 2016
 

This is not a “quit lit” essay.

But I am quitting my full-time teaching job.

--

When I got the call from my department chair that I would not be a finalist for a tenure track opening in fiction writing at the college I’ve worked for the past five years, the closest word to the emotional experience is “grief.”

Not quite full-blown grief, because I know what that is, but something like it. A cousin. Maybe a first cousin, once removed.

I was told by the chair that I’d done “nothing wrong,” and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about where I must’ve made the misstep. I’d passed through the preliminary submission of materials, into a Skype interview. Did I say something disqualifying?

Perhaps the failure had deeper roots. As a creative writer, my CV looks pretty good – five books published, dozens of short stories, essays, and interviews – but one of those books was done primarily in colored pencil, and much of the writing I do now is in order to earn money because non-tenure-track teaching does not pay very well. For years, I have not pursued placing stories in prestigious, but largely non-paying journals. I cannot take the time to apply for long shot fellowships or conferences because I have weekly writing deadlines.

I also, truth be told, prefer writing that seeks public engagement to that which is valued in academia. I would rather hash things out in the comments on this blog than travel to a conference only to add a line on my CV. I much prefer writing a weekly newspaper column to slogging through a critical essay that will require layers of peer review and be read by a small handful.

Because of these and other things, despite fifteen years in academia, I do not wholly resemble an academic. This being my first and only application to a tenure track position is probably another giveaway. [1]

But I love teaching, and the place I’ve been “visiting” is an excellent fit. I’ve done well here. My annual reviews say so. My students seem to agree. I’ve done extra service advising independent studies and supervising the college colloquium. I was once profiled in the school’s glossy alumni magazine. Big picture, looking professorial, even though I’m a visitor.

My desire for the tenure track position was so I could enmesh myself more deeply into the cause here, to diversify my teaching portfolio, to be a full part of the team.

The anger part of the stages of grief was mostly self-directed, how much I came to desire it. After achieving the Skype interview I started planning for how I could make a difference, assessing which of my outside work I would jettison in order to make more space for the job. I just knew if I became a finalist I could convince enough members of the department that I was the right person for the job.

Of course, there were probably 30 or more applicants “right” for the job, if “right” means “extremely qualified.” For sure, no one could raise an eyebrow at any of the finalists who were invited.

But “extremely qualified” and “right” for the job aren’t the same. There was only one job and it isn’t going to be mine.

It hurt. It hurts.

It hurts because the committee consisted of colleagues who know my work – both creative and pedagogical – intimately, and whose work I admire deeply.[2]

It hurts because while I believe I am good at a number of things, I am best at teaching, or it is at least the thing I am most passionate about, and in that moment I knew that I would never have the chance to stretch myself even further.

It hurts because I knew my “career” as a teacher of college was over, and the notion it ever was a “career” to begin with had been entirely illusory.

--

Last January, because of administrative edict, I was switched from a mix of classes (composition and fiction writing) to an exclusive diet of first-year writing. Even at the time I worried about the effect of teaching only one course, particularly first-year writing, which is a time-consuming and emotionally draining experience.

To stay fresh and interested, I’ve experimented, most significantly with grading contracts, and by focusing on “writing-related problems” instead of essays.

It's been hugely rewarding. This degree of focus has allowed for significant growth as an instructor. I’m teaching better than ever, finally achieving something close to a pedagogical practice that is reflective of my most deeply held values.

It has felt great, liberating, for me and the students.

But having missed out on this opportunity for advancement casts this work in another light. For me, this is it.

I’ve had to ask myself, is it enough?

--

The answer is yes.

But also, no.

I am not burnt out on teaching. I do not resent the students. I see as much or more value in the work as ever.

But because I am human, I do resent the system. I have been offered renewal of my visiting position. I can continue to work at this institution for 2/3  of the salary I would earn if I’d secured the tenure track job. It’s a better position than the full-time adjunct faculty who teach the same load as me, but earn another 25% less.

Still, I’ve decided, it’s not enough. I’m done with spending the bulk of my time working at a job where I’m forced into offering a discount.

I love the work, but going forward, I’m worried that the resentment may build. I have no desire to quit the work, but I don't see a different choice that preserves this thing that means so much to me.

--

I’m lucky. The partner who keeps me location-bound has a career that could keep us fed and sheltered, even if I didn’t earn a dime. (That said, my dimes come in handy at improve our financial security and ultimate future.) Indeed, it is her career that has allowed me to even teach at all, since my teaching salary has never exceeded $37,000 a year and has often been significantly less.

I also have forged a reasonably robust writing and editing practice that brings in more compensation than teaching, even though it receives a significantly smaller fraction of my attention. The editors at Inside Higher Ed indicate they would be pleased to have me contribute more often.[3] I have two education-related book projects that seem to have some promise. I already have replaced most of the lost income.

There’s a novel in the works. Maybe I’ll finish a short story or two and send them to prestigious, non-paying journals now that I have time to spend on these things.

I will have time to go to a writer’s colony or fellowship if I so desire.[4]

And I have decided that while my career, such as it was, is over, I will still teach, an adjunct in the manner they are intended to be used, a person with some experience that can be of use teaching one class. If other things are going well, I will donate my salary to the local animal shelter.

Objectively, it’s going to be good. This is the right thing to do. No one I’ve talked it over with believes otherwise.

But man…I’m sad.

 

[1] I am location-fixed, happily, because I love where we live and who I live here with, and for lots of excellent reasons, my partner’s career takes precedence over mine.

[2] Of course, this could be the origin of my misstep. Perhaps I have made an incorrect assessment of how I was perceived. Maybe somewhere in the last five years I did or said something disqualifying. I’ll never know.

[3] I think I just heard some groans from a handful of regular commenters. Don’t hate the game, hate the player, or something like that.

[4] Can’t imagine it, but who knows?

 

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