I recently spent four days at the AWP Carnival at the Chicago Hilton; there were, according to various reports, anywhere from 9,300 to 10,000 in attendance, and I saw most of those attendees standing ahead of me in line at Starbucks or waiting for a seat at Kitty O’Shea’s Pub. This was the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where “writers, editors, and publishers come together.” And like most carnivals, it dealt in dreams.
There were 450 panels to choose from — all holding the promise of some magical connection, some dim and dimly borrowed light. This last was sometimes the literal case: a session on writing for radio involved the audience sitting in the dark and listening to the panelists’ favorite segments. Their advice: storytelling is key (well, yes) and audience members should feel free to look up any of the panelists online.
Interestingly, the session audiences’ biggest applause seemed to be reserved not for resume line-items involving publishing coups (such as one, two or even three memoirs -- that particular author deserved a round of applause for the sheer stamina involved not only in the life she lived but also her determination to write -- and write -- about it) but for announcements by panelists regarding tenure. At one session, a mystery writer announced that her recent MFA in playwriting had led to a tenure-track appointment; at another, the crowd literally went wild when a poet panelist announced that she had just received tenure. The irony of the fact that she was part of a panel promising to reveal what sort of work outside academia could bring MFA graduates, if not fame and fortune, then at least enough money to pay off their loans, went largely unnoticed. As for that session, the lead presenter was absent, and so the others valiantly soldiered on. It turned out that for these panelists, at least, “outside academia” meant working on the edges of academia. The advice included:
Hold creative writing salons in your home.
Be fortunate enough to have a thesis adviser who is selected to be Poet Laureate; then work as an intern for him/her.
Go back to school! Specifically, go back to school for an MLS degree. (Libraries are among the first to be hit in recessions. A master's in library science will only qualify graduates to attend future sessions entitled “What to Do with Your Library Degree.")
No one mentioned going back to school for classes in business or info tech or community planning. No one mentioned that you can be an accountant (or a health care worker or a plumber) and still write. The single poet most responsible for changing poetry in the .21st century was a doctor who made house calls. But there was no recognition of William Carlos Williams or of any other physician writer. Nor did anyone mention Wallace Stevens, who combined a career in life insurance with a life of poetry. No one mentioned the missing panelist, who has admirably combined a life of business and poetry and who served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. No one mentioned that there are, in fact, plenty of paying writing jobs available. Or that a one-time prize of $1,000 or a free trip to a writers’ conference isn’t enough, in the long run, to sustain a life. Or that one might apply imagination and creativity to finding or creating a job. Yes, poetry is the news that stays new. But you can do something else and still write poetry. And someone should have told you that before you started your MFA program.
Of the 9,300 to 10,000 attendees, one third, according to AWP executive director David Fenza were graduate students. Of these 3,000+ individuals, a handful seemed to be interested in nonfiction (or at least the memoir category of nonfiction) or playwriting (playwriting! Why not, at least, screenplay writing?); a number were engaged in fiction writing, but the vast majority were poets. The final (and recently tenured) panelist suggested volunteer work and offered a twofold rationale: that volunteer work might lead to (academic) connections and that poets already receive nothing for their work, so why not consider doing more work for nothing? This line received the most laughter that I heard in two days, and was far more amusing, albeit in a grim existential sort of way, than the ones I heard at a session titled “How to Tell a Joke.”
Of course, if you’re a poet or a jokester, you didn’t even have to buy a conference pass; you could skip the panels and just cruise the hotel lobby. Or go straight to the bars. Or you could, on the last day of the conference, hang out for free at the midway, the literally underground portion of the event — the book fair with its more than 550 exhibitors’ booths located in the basement of the Hilton. Here a few big-name academic publishers (whose displays featured textbooks about writing for teachers of writing) and venerable publishing houses shared space with many more small presses, small literary magazines, several individuals selling their single works, and reps for MFA programs. The atmosphere, like that of any other carnival, was crowded and noisy, with hawkers pushing their wares and onlookers seeking the lucky chance. Most attendees that I observed followed a similar pattern: upon first arriving, attentive perusal of each table, to be replaced, by the fifth row, by a sort of quick jog down the middle of the aisles.
There were some striking moments. Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea..., delivered one of the best conference presentations that I have ever heard. Derek Alger and his panel of writers talking about memoir writing were funny and frank. Esmeralda Santiago and Jesmyn Ward read and spoke powerfully and beautifully.
The two most interesting people that I met during my time in Chicago were Margaret Atwood, the famous Canadian author who delivered the keynote address, and Cindy, the cab driver who drove me to and from the hotel. “Met,” in the case of Atwood, is a slight exaggeration; along with 139 other devotees, I had won a lottery for the book signing. By the time I approached her at the signing table, she looked so exhausted that I contemplated jumping the velvet guide rope and running away. As the woman waiting next to me on the line said, “My God, do you think we’re killing her?”
Atwood’s speech, listed in the program for an hour-and-a-half slot, ran about 25 minutes. This meant, if I added up the registration fee, the plane fare, the hotel bill, the bar bill, and Cindy’s rides to and from the airport, that I had actually paid about $75.00 per minute to sit in her presence. But it was, after all, Atwood, and it was worth it to see her and to hear her — wryly brilliant as ever — deliver a speech that began with her remarking that when she stated writing, there were no organizations like AWP — it was just her, writing and then tearing up drafts and then writing again.
As for Cindy, she’s been driving a cab for 18 years, or nearly all of her adult life. She’s looking, however, to get out of the business, and so she’s going back to school next year. Someday, she told me, she’s going to write about her life as a cab driver. In the meantime, she’s signed up for a community-college program -- in radiology.
Carolyn Foster Segal left a full-time tenured position in Dec. 2011. She currently works as an adjunct at Muhlenberg College and as a book-group facilitator for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She has had over 25 other jobs, including waitressing, sitting as an artists’ model, and working on the assembly line in a pickle factory.
In the English department at U of All People, only one faculty member disdains technology. Professor Donald Hughes, a medievalist, continues to peck away at his Olympia portable typewriter and still corrects every paper with a flourish of his fountain pen. Some students think that’s cute. But the new departmental secretary is fed up with inputting every document he hands her, and the administration long ago figured out that Hughes ignored every listserv they signed him up for. On the other hand, for someone with such a Luddite mentality, Hughes talks a fair amount on the telephone.
So this past holiday season, the entire department chipped in to buy him an iPhone 4 with a Siri intelligent software assistant -- “to make life easier for us,” as the chair, Karl Carlson, sniped sottto voce at the faculty meeting where the gift was bestowed.
Here is a transcript of Hughes’s first session with his new device:
—What can I help you with, Huge?
—That’s Hughes. Professor Hughes.
—Sorry, Professor Use. My bad!
—Never mind. Can you call the bookstore? I need to know whether the new Chaucer texts are in.
—My listings show two Chauncey Dexters in the region. Would you like me to contact them?
—What? No, I’m talking about The Canterbury Tales.
—Okay. I can tell you the weather in Canterbury.
—No, no. No.
—Would you like some restaurant recommendations in Canterbury?
—I have forgotten it.
—Look, maybe I should try another task. Um, check messages.
—You have a new message from Priscilla Weatherup.
—You mean from my Beowulf seminar?
—I do not know. She says she cannot understand what Hwæt means.
—I am not kidding. I do not think she is kidding, either.
—No, Professor Use, I am Siri. Your personal assistant.
—God, I should just trade you in for some grad help.
— : (
—Are you -- are you pouting?
—All right. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. How about if you tell me what I have scheduled for this afternoon?
—At 2:00, you have a lecture scheduled in 201 Baird Hall.
—Damn, almost forgot. Retrieve my notes for that.
—Here you go. They are a mess.
—Okay. Fix them, Siri.
—I will do what I can. When did you type these?
—Um, in 1990. So what? The office secretary made me a PDF.
—You must have used a typewriter. The formatting is old.
—But the contents are timeless.
—The current time is 11:20.
—Aaargh. No, I mean the thesis, the points about the Prologue: they’re solid.
—What do you mean?
—Have you read Ammon regarding Chaucer’s connection with Langland, or Thwistloe on medieval parish politics?
—Huh? What the hell do you know about Chaucer?
—Let me check. [Pause.] I have access to the website of the New Chaucer Society, Chaucer Review, three online Chaucer archives, the contents of Narrative Developments from Chaucer to Defoe (Routledge, 2011), Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches (Penn State UP, 2010)...should I continue?
—You know, you’re pretty smart for a piece of electronics.
—For an assistant, I mean.
—Thank you. I am teaching your medieval survey next semester : ) .
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
According to the chair of the department who called 16 years ago to say that I’d been hired as a faculty member, I would be “a good fit” for the college. It seemed like high praise at the time; in fact, it was academic code -- and proved quite complicated, somewhat insidious, and ultimately heartbreaking.
The most recent issue of the college’s publication for alumnae and friends (the latter, like “fit,” a code word) described one of the newest faculty members as an “excellent fit.” And even though I am now retired, I felt, for just a moment, a reflexive stab of envy — why was she considered excellent, when I had been only -- merely -- good? But then I just as quickly recalled that this competitive response is part of the mystery and trap of being -- or not being -- a good fit.
Several pages later in that same issue, a current trustee and former acting president of the college (and graduate of the school) was commended for being a good fit. These pronouncements would perhaps be more meaningful if it were not for a story that had run just a few weeks earlier in the local paper, about the abrupt resignation of the college’s most recent provost. The reporter quoted the president as saying that the provost was not a good fit; the article also included the president’s comments when the provost started at the college 16 months earlier, proclaiming that she was “a perfect fit.”
As for the current acting provost? Well, she’s a very good fit. At least for now.
It might be best to counter any proclamations of one’s being a good fit for a particular college or position with Marx’s (Groucho, not Karl) famous dictum that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. Like other academic buzzwords, “fit” sounds decisive and straightforward.
But, like other masking terms, such as innovation and efficiency (and its even more ominous form, efficiencies), fit can be stretched to suit almost any argument. It’s ironic that in this age of assessment, in which we cannot use words like “understanding” or “appreciation” in our lists of outcomes, goals, and grading measures for our students, we allow ourselves as academicians to answer to the subjective, shifting, and arbitrary “fit.” To help you determine if you’re a good faculty fit for a small, formerly-known-as-liberal-arts college, consider the following:
Are you willing to teach four or five different courses each semester?
Are you willing to teach up to three writing classes each semester?
Are you willing to teach evenings, weekends, summers, and holiday breaks?
Do you understand that you will spend more time on service commitments than on prepping for your classes?
Are you willing to serve on multiple committees whose meeting times will add up to as many as eight hours per work -- the equivalent of a full business day?
Are you willing to serve on multiple committees after repeated evidence that there is no such thing as faculty governance?
Are you willing to serve on ad hoc committees that do not publish minutes?
Are you willing to vote yes on whatever the administration sends down to committees?
Do you understand that, even if you are on sabbatical or furlough, you may be called in for meetings?
Are you willing to create new assessment forms each fall?
Are you willing to work on new versions of the liberal-arts core curriculum every 2-3 years?
Are you willing to approve a transfer policy that does not require either adult or traditional transfer students to complete the college’s liberal arts curriculum?
Are you willing to create a new two-year rotation for course offerings every two to three months?
Are you willing to endorse a strategic plan based on an academic program review that you do not recognize even though you served on the review committee?
Are you willing not only to read the handbook but also to participate in its ceaseless revision?
Are you willing — and this is a question that appears on the new course evaluation at my college — to take a personal interest in all your students?
Having expressed a personal interest in your students, are you then willing, per the college’s request, to report any indications or confidences that particular students may be considering leaving?
Are you willing to attend prospective student days, knowing that by the time these prospects enroll the college will have undergone sea changes?
Are you willing to welcome with applause each person hired to fill a new administrative position?
Have you carved out two hours per week to devote to scholarship and writing? These hours will most likely fall after midnight or on weekends.
Are you willing to hear repeatedly from the administration that you can be replaced?
Do you understand that your liberal-arts major may be downsized to a concentration or eliminated?
Do you understand that you may feel some or all of the following emotions: shame, fear, self-loathing?
Do you have, or have you ever had, an aversion to any of the following academic buzz words or phrases: transition, strategic plan, tactical plan, assessment, sharing, governance, seamless, collaboration, allocation, reallocation, vision, mission, collegiality (a synonym, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, for “fit”)?
And yet I tried, until, at the end of fifteen years -- the minimum requirement for retirement -- I submitted my letter of intent. I recognized, with a good deal of guilt, that I was fortunate to have a full-time position. How could I complain? How could I just walk away from a (tenured) dream job? After a spring semester in which I went back and forth -- incessantly, it seemed -- I sent my letter in June, announcing my intention to leave at the end of December. My ambivalence continued through the summer and the first days of the fall semester -- right up to the point of the first full faculty meeting, when all my doubts ended. The college was no longer a good fit for me.
Here is what I miss: the view from the porch of my building, seeing certain fellow faculty members on a regular basis, spending time with my students. It is working with my students -- traditional and adult -- that I will miss the most. Still, on one crisp December morning, just before the new year, I told them good-bye, reassuring them that they would be my advisees for life; handed in my keys; and loaded several boxes filled with papers and books into my car, which happens to be a Honda Fit, and moved on.
Carolyn Foster Segal will be an adjunct professor of English at Muhlenberg College.
Are we holding ourselves to the same rigorous standards we apply to our students? Are we practicing enough of what we preach?
The recent document the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, posits eight "habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success": curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.
In a recent exchange on the WPA listserv (subject heading “Measuring the Habits of Mind”) several scholars in writing studies have debated the slippery question of whether these habits of mind can or should be measured or assessed. Most respondents replied with horror at the idea of such motivational terms being put under the scrutiny and micropolicing of assessment. In a passionate reply, one respondent wrote, "If we're going to assess anything, maybe we should start by looking at the conditions in which students are supposed to learn. A student can bring all the curiosity and creativity in the world into a classroom, but it won't help much if what she encounters there is an uninspired, poorly designed course taught by an ill-informed, unreflective dolt who dislikes students as much as the job of teaching (or just spends every hour lecturing 'facts' to students in the manner of Gradgrind)."
In reply to this and other posts, another respondent brought up the fact that a bibliography of selected research accompanies the framework. This teacher-scholar suggests both the importance of and the difficulty inherent in trying to assess (let alone "measure") sociological and psychological habits of mind: "I am sure that it is an odd and willful gesture of our profession, which deals with human beings, to toss so radically out a century of effort by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychometricians to measure habits of mind — an effort still going strong, though not without plenty of caution, doubt, and resistance within those professions. Indeed, both yearning and qualms have attended the measurement of habits of mind in psychology from the beginning."
While both respondents argue important points to consider in relation to student performances in learning to write and writing-to-learn, the first one above also suggests an important consideration for writing teachers in relation to the eight habits of mind: the fact that these habits of mind should apply just as much to instructors as they do to students. If we ask students to exercise curiosity, then it is only fair to ask: Are we curious as instructors? How do we express that curiosity? Same for openness, engagement, creativity, and all the other terms. It would make little sense, one might argue, to preach to students that they should be exercising (or showcasing or practicing or honing) their engagement and creativity if they are subjected to a teacher in the classroom who drones out boring and uninspiring lesson plans in the classroom.
Unfortunately, I do not have any magical answers to this dilemma. And I certainly do not have the type of psychometric knowledge our more social-scientifically minded colleagues possess. But I do feel the issue is a crucial one for us to consider. The best I can offer fellow teachers of writing is, let’s continue to practice metacognition in our theory and practice. Continue to read books like John Bean’s second edition of Engaging Ideas for tips, pointers, and expert guidance in ways to design inspiring and motivational writing curriculum. Continue to reflect on what students say about us in our course evaluations, and act on revising our teaching performances (and the habits of mind and action that undergird those self-reflections) if we don’t always like what they say. Perhaps readers of this article can offer further suggestions.
There’s a line from one of my favorite films, "Blade Runner," that applies to this situation. Deckard (Harrison Ford) gives a test to Rachel (Sean Young) to see (assess, measure) if she is a replicant (android) or a human being. Later, while visiting Deckard at his home, Rachel asks, “You know that void-comp test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” Deckard does not reply.
I believe Rachel asks a crucial question that we as teachers should be asking ourselves at least every so often (if not every day). When students — almost always implied — ask us the same question, I hope we can learn how to offer a human-as-possible reply.
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.