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    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.


Not a Success Story

When a post-academic has success, consider the defeats that success hides.

April 16, 2018

Recently, several well-meaning people have remarked kindly about how much “success” I’ve been having since my decision to transition away from teaching full-time. 

Presented with a dead end off the tenure track and foreseeing a future where I would come to resent that which I loved, I’ve been finding a way to stay involved with these issues I care about – teaching in general and teaching writing in specific – while also forging a path with potential for new challenges and continuing growth.

Objectively, it’s going well. My income hasn’t dropped, and with two books coming out on teaching writing, the prospects for additional opportunities to speak on campuses and evangelize for my own message seem promising. I feel like the books will join a conversation we’re at long last ready for about the negative effects of standardization and accountability in education.

So, yes…success, and I’m grateful for it, but I’d like to push back on the notion a bit by questioning what we mean by “success” and how we define such things.

All things considered, I would rather be teaching. For this reason I do not view my current activities as “success.” They are a fallback position I am trying my best to make work, but they are also an abandonment of my “calling” (if you will).

Of course, no one is guaranteed a job in their “calling,” but teaching college is not singing La traviata at the Met or playing shortstop for the Cubs. Sustainable careers in teaching should not be confined to an elect few, particularly when the election is largely arbitrary. Teaching should not require the kinds of sacrifices we routinely visit upon both K-12 teachers and those of us in higher ed who labor off the tenure track.[1]

Believing I and others like me who have found viable careers after being flushed out of academia due to systemic problems are  “successes” allows an important fiction to live, that the escapees are “better off,” and the harm has been mitigated, if it even existed in the first place.

But the “successful” post-academic as liberated soul is a lie. Not to sound dramatic, but leaving teaching has meant leaving a portion of my soul behind. The system did me no favors by putting me in a spot where I had to make a change. The system did itself no favors by expelling me from its ranks. K-12 education is not well-served by our record numbers of experienced teachers leaving the profession. We would all be better off if we confronted those systemic problems which harm both those who leave and those who stay behind.

Consider the recent widely discussed story on the importance of experienced faculty teaching introductory courses and the importance of good experiences in those courses to putting students on the path to graduation. 

Pardon the immodesty, but I was (am?) excellent at teaching introductory writing courses. I took the mission of introducing students to the discipline seriously. I worked to win over some converts to English and writing, if not to become majors and minors, at least to take another class at some point. Matt Reed writes about the impact of that good “first impression” on students. I fulfilled that mission.

Consider the students with whom I worked and later need recommendations, but find I no longer have an institutional affiliation, and the one I did have, carried little weight to begin with.

Consider the experience I bring having had a “real world” career prior to entering teaching, and a writing and editing practice running simultaneously with my teaching work. Imagine the student who needs advice on trying to make it as a writer, and the ways someone like me could be helpful.

Consider that I am not special, or rather than each of us who has been driven out has the potential to have added something vital to the mix had we simply been allowed to do the work we all claim to value.

No one should feel sorry for me. I’m better than good, as are many of the post-acs who I look up to as they demonstrate how to move forward. But let’s not declare victories where there are really defeats.

Maybe progress will come if we look at post-acs who are “successful” and start asking what institutions and students are missing out on as those post-acs go have their successes elsewhere.




[1] And even some of those who labor on the tenure track.


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