• 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.


Wasted Potential

'Tis the time of year for reflection and recrimination.

May 11, 2015

Grades in, this is the time of the year I think about all the things I have done, and am doing wrong.

Right now, I feel like I’m just flat out done with the traditional first-year writing “research paper.” I understand its pedagogical purpose in theory, but even after trying a lot of different approaches, I can’t seem to make it do what I want. It is not the capstone to a semester of writing in the academic conversation I wish for, but is instead, an artifact of exhaustion, deposited by students with shrugs, rather than smiles, indifference, rather than pride.

This is, I believe, a “me” problem, or at the least a problem only I am going to solve. Students make great progress over the course of the semester in embracing the idea that the ideas and arguments they are exploring in their writing matter in the world at large, but this is somehow undone when I assign this thing that seems so familiar to them, even as I tell them all the ways it is different than what they’ve done in the past.

The results are not bad, by any stretch, and some of them are even inspired, but I can’t help but think we were all capable of more just a short month ago.

Perhaps it is a mistake to put it at the end of the semester, when so many other pressures have built to maximum PSI. Students may be giving me exactly what they are capable of.

Whatever the case, I will be doing something different next semester.

As career-long contingent faculty, this is also the time of year when I assess how much longer I will be doing this work.

One annual question is whether or not my place of employment will have space for me in the coming year. On that front, things look good.

As with the past 14 years, I have been judged better than satisfactory, and am on a trajectory to be invited to extend my visit for another year.

If and when the invitation comes, I will be accepting, but barring some kind of change in my status, this semester has also put what feels like a clock (ticking slowly, yet ticking nonetheless) on my teaching career.

As I wrote in November, after 10 years of teaching a mix of creative writing, literature, and advanced composition courses, I will most likely be teaching first-year writing exclusively from here on out.

I feared burnout, a mental collapse under the pile of grading, but this did not happen. I am already looking forward to trying to reinvent the course for the Fall.

At the same time, long term burnout seems almost inevitable.

That’s the wrong word, though, burnout. In terms of the amount of work, I think I could teach three sections of first-year writing indefinitely. Yes, the grading is a burden, and the person-to-person conferencing that I believe to be crucial to teaching writing is time-consuming, but as I learned this semester, it is doable.

What I will be facing is not burnout, then, but boredom.

The reason I am drawn to teaching and to writing is because the challenges do not repeat and to meet them it is necessary for me to work beyond my abilities. Because I am lazy at heart, I need this.

Writing is so much fun because there’s an endless array of new things for me to try. Each new form or different audience is a fresh challenge[1].

Looking at the path ahead, I can sense a time where the challenge involved in teaching first-year writing will not be sufficient for me to overcome my worst instincts.

Teaching is too important to me to allow myself to be bored by it.

Additionally, with each passing year of contingency I grow frustrated at my wasted potential. Like many other contingent faculty, I have much more that I could give to my institution if I worked under a structure that was willing to assign it value.

I would gladly do advising, or sponsor student organizations, join committees, attend commencement. Each of those different experiences, things that need doing, by the way, would easily prolong my ability to continue teaching.

But I can’t do them as a volunteer[2].

It is this waste of potential that is most distressing, because it is a waste multiplied by thousands across all of higher education. The amount of capable faculty members whose potential is underutilized because of adjunctification and contingency is staggering. Just imagine if these people could really be put to use. The value to their institutions would greatly exceed any additional cost.

But you can only take the jobs that are available. I’m more than qualified for anything a tenure track job has for me. I am not alone among contingent faculty in this. Even outside of the traditional tenure system, there are countless other ways contingents could contribute if we had the will to challenge the structure of contingency.

It’s a dumb system, but it’s not one that’s going to change for me or those like me, or those much worse off than me any time soon.

So for now, I will keep visiting, and some day, I will have to decide when it is time for me to leave.



[1] I sometimes look at the publications listed in my CV and can see how my interests in what I write about and how I write about them have change over the years. There was a time when 90% of what I published was political satire. I haven’t even attempted that kind of piece in years. Different times, different interests, different challenges. I think this is also why you’ll see novelists working well into their later years, only stopping once they run out of energy, not desire. Having worked in the form, I can’t really imagine a point where one feels like they’ve got the problem solved.

[2] I did this at Clemson and it did not result in any kind of improved status. It only accelerated my personal bitterness.


I'm hoping to be less active on Twitter this summer as I work on another book.



Back to Top