But What Do They Want From Me? On Turning a CV into A Resume by Brian Matzke

crumpled-paper

It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out how to turn my CV into a resume. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years:

When turning a CV into a resume, the first thing to bear in mind is length. CVs are as long as they need to be, while resumes are short–one page for recent college grads, two pages for those with advanced degrees and/or a few years of job experience. They’re never longer than two pages. This can feel really restrictive–my CV is seven pages, and cutting it down to two felt crushing. But that work of cutting ended up being really valuable, because the resume is a fundamentally different document from a CV.

This is one of the most important lessons anyone ever taught me about the nonacademic job search: A CV shows your accomplishments; a resume shows your skills. Academia is very results-oriented, so they want to know everything you’ve done. A CV gives academic hiring committees a comprehensive picture of what you’ve done: Here are the articles I’ve published, here are the conferences I’ve presented at, here are the courses I’ve taught, etc. Nonacademic employers care about what you’ve done, but in a different way. What nonacademic employers want is a narrative of your past experiences that answers the question, how have your past experiences shaped you into the kind of person who can do this job? As a result, you might have five or six different resumes tailored to different kinds of jobs, the same way you might tailor your cover letter for different jobs on the academic market.

You might end up cutting things that felt like major accomplishments in your academic career, but aren’t relevant, while elevating things that at the time seemed inconsequential, but that better highlight a key skill. For example, I was recently applying for an editor job, and I ended up including that I had been a research assistant for several professors–a job that would not be particularly impressive in an academic job search, but one that allowed me to legitimately establish in a one-line description that I had several years’ experience editing and preparing manuscripts for publication. On that resume, “Research Assistant” took up as much space as “University Writing Instructor,” a job that takes up more than a page of my CV, because on my CV I list all the various courses I’ve taught.

Finally, bear in mind that when submitting a resume electronically, a computer program is likely going to read it into a database and strip out any formatting, so keep it simple and be mindful of the keywords that they might be searching for. My resume has five sections: Education, Work Experience, Other Relevant Experience (such as extracurricular and volunteer work), Skills (such as language and computer skills), and Interests (another opportunity to insert keywords). Depending on the job and what I want to highlight, “Education” might come first or third, after “Other Relevant Experience,” but otherwise I keep them in that order. I’ve known people who’ve taken their Ph.D. off of their resume entirely, but I’ve yet to do that myself.

Note that this matters when applying to nonacademic jobs, but “alt-ac” is a little different. In the alt-ac world, they often use the terms “resume” and “CV” interchangeably, and depending on the job, it might make sense to submit your full CV even if the posting says “resume.” This is true of jobs at university libraries, university presses, and some academic support staff positions. It’s important to know your audience and use your judgement.

P.S. Brian was awesome enough to provide a copy of his CV-turned-resume for you to peruse! Brian Matzke Resume 2015. If you’re still stumped, here are some places to find more advice on this hurdle of transitioning out of the academic job market (or just looking in two places simultaneously):

From CV to One-page Resume, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Alison Green of Ask A Manager on resume mistakes. 

An Act of Translation: Turning a CV into an Industry Resume at the Northeastern University Career Development Blog. 

All I Need to Get By: An Interview with The Hustle Reading Series

The Hustle is a Brooklyn-based reading series that highlights all of the elements that go into sustaining the writing process: from day jobs that pay the bills to mentors and friends who read drafts, to living situations whose rhythms make it possible to retreat into writing. Last week in Bed-Stuy’s Herbert von King Park, MFA Day Job talked with The Hustle organizers Courtney Gillette, Jennilie Brewster, and Anna Marschalk-Burns.

 LF: Why don’t we just start from the beginning – tell me what the Hustle is, how it got started, how does it relate to your lives?

JENNILIE BREWSTER: I’m pretty curious to hear if we all have the same recollection of how it started.

COURTNEY GILLETTE: The three of us started meeting as something called Writers Support Group,

JB: But I would even go a step back further. Which is that you and I took a class together, and then you and I started our own writing workshop and basically edited our memoirs for several months, then the three of us linked up into Writer Support Group.

CG: Writer Support group was once a month, we’d get together, usually at Jennilie’s apartment, share what we were working on, and then just sit and work quietly for two hours. So it was like, accountability. I was applying for a fellowship and Anna and Jennilie read my cover letter, and Anna was preparing to do a reading, and we helped her pick something to read – that was how it began. And then – how did we come up with The Hustle?

ANNA MARSCHALK-BURNS: We were talking a lot in general just about how people make a living, our interest in how that happens for people, and I think as we were talking about a reading series – I don’t know if it became, let’s do a reading series and then we came up with a theme, or –

JB: I was interning for [The Renegade Reading Series] at the time, and sort of got to see what it would be to do a reading series, and Anna was like, but let’s do it differently.

CG: Yeah, Brooklyn needed another reading series like a hole in the head, so we were like, how will we start a reading series that offers something besides, ‘here’s six of my friends reading’? At first we came up with two ideas: we were either going to do one that was about process, where writers brought in rough drafts of something they had published, and shared both the rough draft and the finished draft, and we also came up with the idea to do a reading series about day jobs. And then we merged the two things, where we said, what if we did one that talked about process and also about day jobs and how you pay your bills, and what does it mean to you to be a writer, etc.

JB: I personally had a hang-up when it shifted from process to day job, because I was like, wait a minute guys, I don’t have a day job – but I could connect to the idea of “hustle,” and working different jobs at different times. Hustle was the practicals of paying your bills, but also ways of finding time to write, what do you read…

CG: …who has helped you, how do you find mentors, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten. In terms of day jobs, it’s like, I have my MFA, and I have worked in education for the last 14 years. My day job has been as the secretary of a nursery school. And Anna works full time as a teacher – so we had that kind of experience of, what about writers who don’t work in publishing, who don’t freelance, who don’t TA – how does that work?

LF: You’re thinking of ‘the hustle’ as less just the job that you permanently do in order to get by with your writing, and more the whole picture.

CG: The response to people wanting to talk about money – it worked out really well because our first event was in March, and I a few weeks before was when that Salon article, “Sponsored by My Husband,” blew up. On social media I could see all these people being like “yeah, transparency.” Is your husband an engineer, and you’re being supported by them? Do you work for a nonprofit? Are you living off a fellowship? People actually saying I write, but I do it in this way.

LF: People are posting about their accomplishments, and you see when someone’s new book comes out, but you don’t see all the stuff that happened to make that happen.

CG: The babysitting gigs, and their great uncle died and they inherited ten thousand dollars – just the nitty gritty. Some people don’t want to talk about that stuff, and that’s totally fair, but for me it’s been comforting in reminding myself that I can write, and I can pay my bills, these things are not mutually exclusive. Also, a lot of solid writing advice I’ve read over the years has been like, sit and write for six hours a day, six days a week, and I’m like that sounds awesome, but what if you’re working full time? What if you’re writing four hours on a Sunday, and that’s it? One of our first guests, Daniel Jose Older, said “one of the myths we have to break is that you have to write every day.’ If you’re working a lot, you can’t write every day, so write when you can. It was so refreshing to hear him say that.

JA: We’ve had two [Hustle readings] now, and we had Daniel, who writes sort of sci-fi/ fantasy, Ashley Ford who’s an essayist primarily, and Cynthia Cruz, who’s a poet, and we also asked each of the guests to share the best advice they’ve gotten as a writer. For Ashley part of that advice was “don’t let people not pay you for your writing” which was really good for people to hear, and then Cynthia was like ‘I’m a poet, there is no money” and that was good for other people to hear.

LF: How does the fact of living in New York play into these conversations – not getting paid as part of a poet’s life may be a thing one has to accept, and maybe that’s easier to contend with in rural Ohio, say, but in NYC, the cost of living is so much higher.

CG: I think it makes the question even more important. I think about Patti Smith making statements like “you can’t be an artist in New York anymore, you have to move to Detroit.” Because there are so many writers in New York, [the question becomes not just] how do you pay the bills as a writer, but how do you pay the bills as a writer in New York? I do pay attention to people outside of that conversation. One of our guests last month was Stacia Brown, who drove up from Baltimore to read, and she said at one point, you don’t’ have to be in NY to do this writing thing. You can live somewhere with a lower overhead.

JB: That was another good ‘myth buster.’

CG: it’s easy to get stuck in that here. This week was BEA, and all my friends from publishing and I were all going to parties, and I was like this is why I live in New York, because I’m standing on a boat with all these Riverhead people, like Edan Lepucki. but I’m sure if I didn’t live in places where I was invited to a boat with Edan Lepucki I might get more writing done?

AMB: I feel like I sometimes have the opposite feeling about it, where the more that I learn about money in NY, the more I feel completely idiotic for living here. I see this incredible privilege of being able to have experiences like what you’re describing, and being able to know you all – those are things I wouldn’t find in other places, but at the same time, I might be able to not work sixty hours a week. So it’s humbling to think about that, and ask, is this actually what I want to be doing with my life? Maybe not. Maybe not for good.

LF: Have any of you had the experience of working a day job with other people who have another thing going on (roller derby, amateur opera, writing?)

CG: I think you get more of that in New York. I have more friends who are writers and have other day jobs, than I do friends who are just full time writers. I have friends who are booksellers, and work for nonprofits, and have worked in magazines, or…babysitters. At my workplace, there’s one guy who’s a painter and a poet, and my first year we all came back from summer break, and we went around the circle and he was like, yeah, I finished a book of poems, and I was like, what? But this job at the nursery school is the first job I’ve had as a writer where people know that I’m a writer, and that I’m just doing this to make cash. And it’s been really freeing. There is some awkwardness – I’m leaving the school after this year, I’ve been there too long, and we announced that I’m leaving, and all the parents are like ‘where can we read your work? this is so exciting’ and I’m like ‘I write lesbian memoir and explicit sex scenes and lots of stuff about how I’m sober and I used to drink a lot.’ There’s a weird professional line – I’m okay with telling you I’m a writer, but I’m not going to share my website with you. But it has been my first experience where people knew I had another interest outside of the job.

AMB: I don’t have that experience at my job at all. The school I work at is very intense, there’s actually not a lot of time for [another pursuit] so, nobody. Everybody’s like, I’m a teacher, or I’m going to leave teaching to become a lawyer. It’s pretty much on the straight and narrow. The one thing that’s been so great about knowing Courtney and Jennilie, is that when things that are good have happened to me in terms of my writing, and I go to my coworkers who I’m close friends with but don’t’ have any stake in this game, they have no idea how to react to it. It’s like oh, that’s neat –? And I’m like no, this is a big deal! I’ve been working so hard for this. So it’s really nice to have people who know all of the blood, sweat, and tears that gets put into this.

LF: A couple of you have done a number of residencies. What did you take away from residencies that you came back and applied to your more harried writing lives?

CG: My most concrete thing was, my writing studio [at Vermont Studio Center] had this big bulletin board above the desk, and I just collaged it. By the end it was covered with quotes and pictures and magazine clippings and I loved it so much that I was like, why am I not doing this in Brooklyn? So my first week home I took down everything above my desk and did the same thing, so when I make it to my desk now, the first thing I see are these inspiring quotes, and the list of people who backed me to go to Vermont, I still have that – a concrete list of 45 people who absolutely believed in me, I can’t refute it – so that was the most literal translation of this was my writing studio in Vermont, and I just brought it home.

JB: The last couple residencies I’ve done I applied to them as a painter, but the last two I’ve been writing at. They were open to that — it wasn’t about production, it was about time and space to explore.

CG: One of the writers at Vermont was in the metalwork studio every day learning how to make knives.

JB: I definitely had the experience of just really connecting to a different kind of pace. It’s very easy to fill up one’s time in the city with “I’m going to meet this person for coffee.” I think I came back from my residency and it was like, I’m not doing all the coffee dates anymore, I don’t need to catch up with everybody.

CG: All the brunch. I love brunch, but goddamnit.

JB: It’s like, there goes a day! It’s allowing a change — the residencies I did were also all out west, and it’s just spatially different, mountains, desert. It’s like geologic time — I guess I try to bring a little bit of that back in my life. But with New York I find myself constantly renegotiating my internal rhythm with the city’s rhythm. It’s very easy to just get caught up in the current, a current that maybe isn’t so conducive to doing the kind of writing I want to do. So just trying to find the psychic space in the city.

AMB: I’ve never done a residency, but I did have a day job four or five years ago that I quit three months before my contract was up in an attempt to give myself time and space to write, and I did nothing. I watched six seasons of Law and Order. And that really scared me, and since then it’s been a terrifying thought to actually stop working, because I think the best things I’ve written are the things I’ve written at 3 am before they’re due for a class that I’m in, and trying to cram things in in the margins of a really full day is when I’m able to get things done. It’s very hard for me to have a wide-open time frame.

JB: Everything changes.

AMB: I might have more discipline now.

CG: At Vermont, I would leave my phone in my room-room, and when I was at my computer it was just me. But I also napped a ton — I had to accept that that’s what my body needed. Maybe you needed to veg out for three months.

JB: I immediately started thinking about some of the stories I’ve read of Anna’s and how the pacing of Law and Order may have affected her fiction writing.

AMB: That’s a huge compliment.

LF: I like to think about two categories: the things that have ‘happened to you’ as a writer or artist – you get into a program or residency, someone accepts your work – and then there’s a category of things that you feel like you made happen. And sometimes those things overlap: someone couldn’t have accepted you to this thing if you hadn’t put work into it. So since there’s a junction between them, but there’s also the way we feel about those two things. What are some things during the last couple years that you feel have happened to you by a stroke of luck, and things you have pushed through and made happen?

JB: One thing that I feel like really good about is The Hustle. That we have gotten together and that this sort of emerged out of our community, and that’s a cool thing that’s happening. And there was no waiting for someone to give us permission, it was about actually building something.

CG: One of my big ones was I sent a story in 2012 to The Master’s Review…and I was a finalist and then one of 10 stories chosen by A.M. Holmes to be in this volume. I later met A.M. Holmes at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I was like ‘hi, I’m Courtney, you picked my essay for this thing’ and her face lit up, and she was like, ‘I remember that essay,’ she was like, ‘I look forward to whatever you write.’ She signed my book, and for a couple of months I slept with that book under my pillow, because I was like, A.M. Holmes likes my work. I will float on that for a while. Because my self-confidence plummets every day. Every day it is like me versus self-doubt. And I think for the ‘working hard’ thing, one of my things has been I just have started to freelance. I’ve always sent work to literary magazines and now I’m starting to send to online publications, because you actually hear back quickly and you get paid, which is incredible. I had this essay I had written for modern love, I workshopped it with some people from my MFA program, Jennilie and Anna read it, I sent it to Modern Love, it got rejected. It sat on my desk for a year, I spruced it up and sent it to Buzzfeed, and they were like, yes, love it. And I worked with that editor back and forth for a few weeks to get it into the best shape, and that was one of those moments where I was like ‘I burned this.’ So I think those are my two —

JB: This isn’t something that’s happened yet, but — I’ve been working on a book project for a long time, it’s a text that accompanies a series of paintings that I did. But I just allowed myself in the past couple months to say ‘I’m a writer,’ this is what I’m doing and it goes beyond this book, and I’m gonna write an essay. I’m gonna untether myself from this one project, and explore writing in another form. I sent it to a few people…and then to a couple other people who’ve been kind of like mentors to me, and who’ve both published a lot. I felt like I was asking my friends who are further along in their writing life for permission – like, can I do what you guys are doing? And I really felt like I got the thumbs up for this essay. Two women have both offered me ‘I’ll give you this editor’s email, or I’ll give this editor the heads up that this essay is coming.’ Who knows if that’s gonna play out, but I feel like it does touch on this idea of luck. It’s like I’ve worked five years to be able to write this essay, and it would be really nice if this personal connection happens and it gets noticed and moved out of a pile of a thousand into a smaller pile. Networking is sort of a dirty word, but the reality is you start to make friends who are doing what you’re doing. So I don’t know. I hope that luck works out for me in this one.

LF: Part of luck is others working on your behalf, to some extent.

JB: Another artist told me: it’s your job to be prepared for when luck happens. Have the work ready.

CG: I’ve tried in the last few years to view it not so much as networking but more as kindness. Whether that’s just being gracious at an event, or offering to read something – to be as generous and forthright as you can be. And that I think has gotten me pretty far in terms of people being accepting, and available. That’s become my framework for it.

LF: There’s a poet who wrote an essay about asking an older male writer for advice on getting into a particular journal – and he declined to give her the information she was asking for, like it was an industry secret that he couldn’t tell her. She said that made her want to tell anyone who asked her the secret information that they were asking for. Like, oh, you want the name of that editor who’s not listed on the website? I have it; you can have it. Do you want to know the best way to write a cover letter? I will tell you; I’ve written a successful one. And she considers that a sort of feminist way of spreading information.

JB: I’ve been looking toward women my age or even younger, as opposed to that older dude who’s part of the establishment.

CG: Binder Con has been a huge forum for women and gender non-conforming writers helping other women and gender nonconforming writers. The Binders [Full of Women Writers] Facebook group was started last summer, and Binder Con grew out of that as a physical conference experience that I helped with in NY last fall and it was magic. I remember standing outside of the speed-pitching sessions, where women editors had come to listen to pitches by women and gender nonconforming writers and these women were coming out of the pitch session high five-ing and hugging each other. It was this camaraderie that I think is absent a lot. There have been a lot of awesome dude writers in my corner, but there was something really unique about that experience.

AMB: Both [getting into Brooklyn College, and] my first published fiction, which came out last year, and felt like so much luck to me. Because it was just a slush pile submission.

JB: I guess I was thinking luck more “when the world sort of smiles at you.” That seems to me, your work had to be so great that it stood out — nobody knew to look for your name.

AMB: I guess that’s probably true.

CG: And your part is that you submitted. When we had writers support group…we’d share which journals we were submitting to, and I remember when [Anna] submitted to [The Atlas Review], and finding out months later that you were being published, it felt like a win for all of us. I think that’s especially with submitting to litmags, it’s such a numbers game. Yeah, you’re going to get rejected a lot, but if you don’t submit, there’s no chance.

AMB: I think getting into the MFA program felt really like luck to me. In part because the person who wrote my recommendation letter is a graduate of the program, close to the program director – I’m sure that helped. But also just the way that the program has been so welcoming and kind, it doesn’t possibly feel deserved. It’s like this is the nicest reception I’ve felt in this particular arena in my life, and I’m confused by it. I think it just brings up a lot of feelings of impostor syndrome, but you know, I feel very lucky.

Follow The Hustle on their tumblr and on Twitter @thehustleseries

Keep the Humanities, Lose the Fetish: A Consideration of Life after the PhD and MFA with Brian Matzke

Leah Falk: Let me start by asking (although I know you’ve covered a lot of this on your blog) how have some of your expectations changed about being a humanities scholar from when you entered the University of Michigan to now?

Brian Matzke: Well, the first thing to bear in mind is, I started grad school at 22, fresh out of undergrad, so to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. And to be honest, if a college student asked me about grad school right now, one of the first things I’d recommend is to NOT go to grad school straight out of undergrad. You just don’t have the perspective. I suppose I was somewhat naive about the process and figured a Ph.D. from a top-tier institution would be enough to secure a professorship. The biggest thing that has changed in terms of my expectations is I know that’s no longer true. 

Leah: Yeah. I think many people starting MFAs, too — whether right out of the undergrad gate or not — also labor under this misapprehension (although it seems to be understood that at least one book publication is also required to be competitive for the tenure-track). What do you think you might have done differently during your Ph.D. if you’d spent a few years out of school? (A sort of impossible thought experiment, I know.)

Brian: Probably the biggest thing I would have done is prepare a “shadow resume,” as some people have put it, and seriously explored alternative career paths. This is something I’ve just started to do in earnest, and I wish I’d done it 5 or 6 years earlier. I’m still pursuing TT jobs as well, but my options feel broader now than they did in grad school, and I think I would have felt more empowered if I’d had less tunnel vision earlier on.

A big part of that is also work/life balance. It’s easy to be a workaholic at 22/23, but now I’m engaged, I’m thinking about family, etc., and I don’t want to be in my office or in the library 12 or 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Leah Falk: For sure. You’ve written a little bit about alt-ac and how the lip-service paid to it isn’t really enough in the face of how competitive the TT job market is, the reality of how many humanities graduates will actually go on to non-academic employment — what kinds of resources would you like to see there, and how likely do you think current students would be to take advantage of them early on?

Brian: You know it’s funny, in my latest blog post I mentioned an alternative career paths seminar that [The University of Michigan’s] Rackham Graduate School was hosting. I actually signed up for it (I lied on the online form and said I was still a grad student–ha!). It was remarkably well-attended, especially by second and third year Ph.D. students in English. That was a really useful resource, actually (and would have been more useful if I were still in grad school). Simple things like sessions on how to write a resume, how to approach people for informational interviews, etc., can go a long way, and I definitely think students will attend.

In some ways I think I’m old enough at this point that I’m not representative of the current mentality. I entered grad school prior to the 2008 financial crisis, when things were still good enough that we could afford to be a little naive. I think current grad students are at least somewhat more realistic about the market and the need to keep their options open.

Leah: Among MFA students, especially those who come right out of undergrad, I’ve sometimes encountered the attitude that “I don’t have any other skills” but this particular kind of writing. Which makes me kind of mad, because out of necessity I feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of skills and interests in the working world that I wouldn’t necessarily have had to countenance in grad school, or if I’d gone straight from grad school to an academic job, etc. Do you encounter anything similar in English Ph.D. students, or do you think they tend to have a better-rounded sense of their own range of abilities?

Brian: Oh I absolutely encounter that among Ph.D. students, and am guilty of it myself. I still find it somewhat difficult to conceive of what the day-to-day experience of a lot of nonacademic jobs are like. But the important thing to bear in mind is, with academic jobs, so much of the actual work is basic white collar tedium–answering emails, attending meetings, serving on committees, etc. The basic skills that comprise 80-90% of an academic job are virtually identical to the majority of nonacademic white collar jobs out there.

I don’t know about you, but I see it as a two-pronged problem: on the one hand, an anxiety about being able to DO a nonacademic job, and on the other hand, an anxiety about not being FULFILLED by a nonacademic job. In both cases, I think that anxiety is fueled by a poor sense of what both an academic job and a nonacademic job actually entail.

Leah: Yeah, I agree. I think the fear of 9-5 (which I was totally guilty of, and now that I DO work 40 hours a week, it hasn’t totally gone away) comes largely from not being able to imagine any kind of stimulation coming from that rigid a schedule. I think I became more comfortable with a non-academic career path when I realized I’d have just as much time (or more) to write coming home at 5 pm (and not bringing much work home with me) as I would if I were teaching 3 courses a semester.

Which brings me to the question of scholarship: do you feel like you have time to privilege research and writing? And do you feel like your former teachers, who taught you as an assumed future professor (maybe) treat you as an equal in that manner?

Brian: Yeah, I got virtually no scholarly writing done this past year. Part of that was due to the demands of my teaching schedule; part of that was due to the time demands of searching for a job, since I’m still pursuing TT positions; and part of that was due to some unexpected family health concerns that took up an unexpected amount of time (which is another factor grad school doesn’t really prepare you for). With my teaching load at Michigan, keeping up with scholarship is theoretically possible, but it’s damn difficult.

As for how professors treat me, it’s a mixed bag. Some I’ve found to be very collegial, while others essentially still regard me as a grad student. Really, the most awkward encounters have been with professors who I didn’t know as a grad student. They seem less able to interact with lecturers, since their job is so research-focused, and they assume my job is so teaching-focused. 

Leah: At the same time, there’s an incredible amount of professional energy in the department devoted to the [English Department Writing Program] at Michigan (much more, I’ve since learned, than at other institutions). When you’re together with other lecturers, do you tend to talk about your students, the job market, your own research?

Brian: It really depends on which lecturers. We do really seem to be undergoing a sea change at U-M (I’m not sure how representative that is of the field as a whole). The lectureship seems to be more and more professionalized. Some people still treat it as a temporary position and are very focused on the job market while others are invested in staying in their current position. Those people are much more teaching focused. It’s common, however, for research/writing to take a back seat to teaching and/or the job search, however. 

Leah: You’ve written that you wouldn’t say “don’t” to someone interested in pursuing the humanities, except in the case that it involved going into debt. Imagine a scenario where a prospective student does regard the time spent as a kind of debt, one that he/ she has to pay off by advancing in a non-academic career several years behind her peers, but is still dedicated to the humanities as a field and wants to contribute to it. What would be your advice to this person?

Brian: That’s a really good question. I was just discussing the prospect of teaching at independent high schools with someone, and the sad thing is, that’s a career I’d be very interested in, but it’s one that it’s often hard to break into with a Ph.D. because you’ve essentially priced yourself out of an entry-level position. It’s a really difficulty cost/benefit analysis.

I guess I would say, on the one hand, if you’re contemplating grad school, but you also have some solid ideas of nonacademic jobs that you could be fulfilled in and still carve out time to read, write, and live a life of the mind in your free time, then you should not go to grad school. If you honestly can’t imagine anything other than grad school, then go ahead and go to grad school, and enjoy the time, but devote yourself in those years to really exploring alternatives and not simply doggedly pursing a narrow path.

Leah: Basically, the ideological advice there is to stop considering grad school in the humanities as a certain professional path — or as only encompassing one professional path. 

Brian: Totally. As a friend of mine recently put it, the myth of a “calling” can be very damaging.

Leah: Yes. That totally resonates with me. Although I wonder: if humanities departments really changed their career resources and the way they talked about students’ futures, they’d be accommodating those multiple professional possibilities and seem relevant as a form of professional preparation again. If they refused to, (and some MFA programs just don’t really talk about post-grad issues, because they bill themselves as a time and support resource for students, not a pre-professional program) would they lose some professional credibility? 

Brian: That’s a real risk. I know for PhD programs there’s a strong incentive to boast high placement rates in academic positions. And we do have to admit that professional development opportunities are kind of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Looking more macroscopically, the bigger problem is the erosion of professorships. 

Leah: Right. Which has been steady. 

Brian: I think I read recently that a generation ago 3/4 of university classes were taught by professors, 1/4 by adjuncts; now those numbers have flipped. You’d have to fact check me on that though.

[Ed.: See Figure 1, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status” in the  2012-13 Economic Status report of the  American Association of University Professors for accurate figures since 1975] 

I’ve often thought that a kinder solution would be to simply accept far fewer students into grad school to begin with–only accept as many as you feel your program could place, and devote all your resources to placing them in professorships.

Leah: Interesting. And that also does away with the problem of the student who feels she’s gone into professional debt after a Ph.D. program that doesn’t result in a tenure track job. 

Brian: Yeah.  

Leah: A cold question, though: if there are fewer Ph.D. (and let’s just tack on MFA) candidates, who teaches the intro writing and lit courses? Do we increase the course-loads of full professors? Keep hiring contingent faculty, assuming that a gap between earning a degree and getting a job will persist? (Obviously this is not the main concern of the candidates, but it probably is a big one of university administrators).

Brian: I can think of two possible ways of answering that question, both of which are preferable to the current system, but both of which have the same problem (i.e., costing the university more money):

One would be multiple tenure-tracks: one that’s based primarily on research, and one based primarily on teaching, so it would be possible to attain tenure while focused on teaching freshman level courses.

Another would be to professionalize fixed term faculty, so you’d have more people appointed to what at U-M we call Lec3 and Lec4 positions, with a certain amount of job security and longer-term (but still non-TT) contracts.

None of those are actually plausible, I have to admit, but I’d advocate for them over the system of current contingent faculty and grad students teaching all the intro courses.

Leah: The first option sounds kind of like combining an R1 and a liberal arts college, and seeking a mixture of the kinds of faculty who’d do well at each. 

Brian: Yeah. 

Leah: I mean, I don’t see the second option as totally implausible – if you have fewer fully-funded grad students across the board, you have some additional funds available for long-term lecturers — although maybe not enough to cover health benefits, etc.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a sticking point. I’m also sympathetic to administrators who deal with a lot of uncertainty with regard to funding and enrollment. That makes it really difficult to know how many people you can hire from one semester to the next. 

Leah: I remember at the end of the last semester I taught at Michigan, there was apparently $17 million or something withheld from the university by the state? 

Brian: Yeah, it’s utterly ridiculous what’s happening to higher-ed budgets. That’s another thing I’d say to those considering going into academia–if you think that this “life of the mind” career is somehow outside of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, it most definitely is not, and this is not a way to avoid those stressors. 

Leah: Right! It’s not a monastery.  

Brian: I’m curious how the MFA experience differs–the general tone of these discussions among Ph.D.s is that this problem is relatively “new,” but I’ve kind of assumed that alternative “day jobs” are much more the norm among creative writers–is that accurate or a pernicious Ph.D. stereotype? 

Leah: No, I think it’s accurate, in part because the MFA is a relatively new degree, and in part because the professionalization of the degree, in the form of “you get this degree so you’re qualified to teach in MFA programs” is even newer. Before Iowa became a big thing, for example, most writers who taught got Ph.D.’s. All of my creative writing professors in undergrad had Ph.D.’s, and were of that generation. And then MFA programs started to proliferate, so there was both more opportunity to concentrate on creative writing, and more opportunity to teach creative writing. But think of the numbers: for every new MFA program that accepts 10-20 people per year, and is 2-3 years long, there are probably only 3-5 full time faculty, most of whom do other duties in the English department or elsewhere. So the odds, even when times are/ were good in academia, were never great.

Brian: Wow. Yeah, as a lecturer I’ve worked alongside people with a variety of degrees, and one thing I’ve noticed is, a lot of us feel like we’ve experienced a bait-and-switch, where we got a degree in one thing, but ended up teaching something else. In English, the jobs are in teaching composition, but creative writing MFAs got in it to teach creative writing, literature Ph.D.s got in it to teach literature, etc. But we’re all just teaching comp. Not that there’s anything wrong with comp. I actually enjoy those classes a lot. But at least starting out, I and a lot of other people were less qualified than someone with a rhetoric and composition degree would be. And it’s not really what we envisioned.

Leah: I kind of enjoyed teaching comp, also. I think there’s a whole other conversation about what comp is for, how students transfer the skills they learn there, but that’s probably for another time.

Brian: Yeah, that’s something that didn’t really get discussed in our pedagogical training. 

Leah: I know one guy who had been an engineer before starting the MFA (and is again now, there you go) and they assigned him specifically to a writing class in the school of engineering. Which in some ways seems like the way to go: letting kids know that writing matters within the discipline they’ve chosen. 

Brian: Of course, that then raises the question as to whether there’s value in exposing kids to “humanistic” writing outside of their discipline–for the purpose of cultivating a well-rounded citizen, etc.

I tend to believe there is, but then I also believe that if that’s the case, then the course shouldn’t be graded, since grades hinder the ability to cultivate a “free” space for intellectual exploration.

Leah: I think the professors of those disciplines (engineering, nursing, etc) also have to agree that humanistic exploration matters. And that actually brings us full circle, in a way: if one does end up outside of academia, what matters is that you get hired by and work with people who recognize that what you know how to do, and the ways you have of finding and creating knowledge, matter.

Brian: Absolutely. Sometimes I think that people outside of the humanities (both professors in other disciplines and people in nonacademic professions) are better at recognizing that than humanities professors are, since humanities professors too often have a kind of disciplinary tunnel vision..

Leah: I work in an office now where there are lots of academics working outside of academia, and that’s a nice environment, too — everyone has a sense of the potential for research and ideas outside of their usual classroom / peer reviewed journal box.

Brian: That’s awesome.

 Leah: Sometimes those applications are just as impractical as they would be in the academy, but whatever.

A last word? 

Brian: I guess just to reiterate the point that academia can be great in a lot of ways, but the longer you’re in it, the more important it becomes to understand it as a form of work–one that can be rewarding but that comes with its own set of problems–tedium, opportunity costs, complicity in certain structures of capitalism, etc. It’s not something to be fetishized above all alternatives.

Leah: Hear, hear!

*

Brian Matzke received his Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in 2013. He currently works as a lecturer at U-M in the English Department and the Sweetland Writing Center. His research is on the depiction of science in literature and popular culture, particularly in twentieth century America. He lives in Ann Arbor with his fiancee, Paula, and pug, Jordan Baker.

Leah Falk received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 2012, and is the founder and editor of this here blog. More about her here.

 

Change Your Search Terms: An AWP Recap for Day Job Seekers

lucky

This weekend I was at AWP, that most un-conference-like of conferences, where the book fair refreshment kiosk starts selling hard liquor and tacos at 11 am, and where you can take home a candy bar, a beer cozy, and a condom emblazoned with the logo of your favorite litmag.

I won’t bore you with my AWP philosophy – better poets have beat me to it – but having attended once before in an aimless way, this time I was glad to have a scheduled reason to be there. I spent an hour on Saturday as part of a panel called “What are You Going To do with that? Writers Side-Stepping the Adjunct Trap,” featuring off-the-academic-derech writers Erin Keane, Stacy Barton, Dan Bernitt and Daniel Bowman.

I’d spend the earlier days of the conference snooping around other post-MFA-oriented panels, most of which focused on things like how to get a job as an arts administrator. I admired (and live-tweeted) the other panels I went to, and couldn’t help noticing that on Saturday, when my colleagues and I sat down to answer our audience’s questions, the same ones came up again and again: what do you do if you want a job, but don’t want to leave your city? What if you’re told you’re overqualified for entry-level jobs in your non-academic field of choice? How do you get experience? What if you don’t feel like you’re good at anything else? Once your creative output stops being a means to a tenure-track end, how do you prioritize it? What is it for?

Some answers were full of satisfying tough love, like: sometimes you have to choose between a city you love and work you love. Or: if you want to break into a field, sometimes you have to do internships, and sometimes you’ll have to work for free. Or: working in business isn’t selling out – it’s a way to support your art-making. Some answers revealed the kind of surprising, personal, step-by-step details of the journey essential to helping others on the way: I learned to code on the job – I was doing what I loved, and my organization bit the dust – Now that I hire people, I would rather have someone with fire and gumption than someone with every skill on my checklist.

And some answers gave me the kind of frustrated feeling that made me start this blog. The frustrating answers were the ones full of holes, the kind that an person comfortable in his profession can give as lip-service to someone starting out and struggling. Freelance writing requires “hustle,” one panelist said, not detailing that “hustle” often means not just a hustle for work but hustle to figure out how to pay doctor’s bills without insurance, hustle to find work that pays in more than “exposure.”

So for those of you who couldn’t make it to Minneapolis, gathered below is something like a top five list from the conference for writers with day jobs or searching for day jobs. This is the list I wish I’d had pinned to my shirt like a preschooler’s allergy list when I wandered out of my MFA program and into the rest of the world.

Don’t let anyone shame you. One of the subjects that came up during our panel was shame: namely, the shame of not teaching. Among writers who’ve passed through academia, it can feel like there’s a pecking order determined by what you do to pay your bills. It can feel like if you’re not on the market, or driving across town to teach courses at two community colleges, you aren’t a “real writer.” But this is absurd, since writing, not teaching, is what writers do.

And I’ll just whip out some stats, here: since 1975, contingent faculty have increased by about 20% while tenure-track or tenured faculty have decreased by 20% as part of the total instructional staff at U.S. universities. Getting a job that pays you a living wage and treats you like a person, not an indentured servant, isn’t shameful or even a consolation prize – it’s acknowledging a bitter reality in higher ed.

You maybe can’t have everything. Over and over, I heard panelists and audience members tell stories of having to choose: the work they loved or the city they loved, their relationships or their work, hours every day to write or a job without a boss who called them “honey.” Sometimes, like if you have a family, a variable gets taken out of the game. Other times, you might have all the flaming bowling pins in the air at once: city, job, how you write, your relationships, your aging parents, your health. But start by catching one.

Change your search terms. Just as you might have to shuffle your priorities in terms of where you live, who you live with, what you do and how much time you spend doing it, don’t let the word “writing” limit what you do to support yourself. Not only are you probably good at more than just writing, but being good at writing already means you can do more than just write.

If you want to write for a living as well as for art, first, learn the names of the shapes writing takes in the business world: communications, social media, copywriting, technical writing, content creating, instructional design. Search for those jobs on Idealist or wherever else you’ve been looking, and take a look at what they actually entail. Better yet, talk to someone who does one.

If you think it might be better for your brain to preserve the writing lobe for your novel, first think about what you enjoy learning: math, or languages, or how to use new tools and materials. Ask people who work in fields you might want to work in –ideally, people who understand their own work holistically – about who uses those skills in their workplace. If you’ve had a job before, you’ll know something about what functions and skills a particular job uses, and it will be easier for you to imagine what “using math” in a library or “people skills” in a museum means. If you’re coming out of an MFA into the workforce for the first time, this paragraph is a longer process (and for another post).

Everyone wants a story. Writers tend to think that what they are adept at – using language – is nothing special, especially when it comes to the workforce. Why wouldn’t we think this way? Every other news story about humanities graduates talks about how there are no jobs for us, which suggests the notion that we’ve been prepared for a specific set of duties that no one wants us to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth: adeptness with language is flexible and, at a moment when every aspect of a company is part of its “story” and “voice,” particularly prized. Just look at the “Our Story” section of the websites of Walmart, Trader Joe’s, the media company Mindshare, Primerica, and that’s just the first page of Google results. Not the “about us” or “history” slugs of yore, this shift promises that people who understand how language works, how narrative and voice work, will be the people making sure companies are heard.

Life has seasons. After our panel, one woman in the audience said that she’d recently taken a job as a proposal writer after giving herself a year after the MFA to land an academic position. She had four kids, and worried about how her writing life would look during the transition into the new job. Stacy Barton, one of our panel’s playwrights, told her: there are many seasons in life. This might be your back-of-the-envelope season. Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

Jewish tradition has a kind of aphoristic recommendation that each person carry with them two slips of paper in two separate pockets. On one should be written: “you are created in the image of the Lord.” On the other: “you are but dust and ashes.” I find this useful: a kind of as-needed upper/ downer prescription, each phrase countering one side of a person’s natural seesawing view of herself. Doing any job, making any thing requires both phrases: we need the elevation of the first to be bold enough to create in the first place, and the bounded quality of the second to look back at our work, to see if it’s what we wanted — and if not, to see if we have the time to change it.

Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

My Life Has Been the Blog Post: Brian Short on How He Got Here

MFA pic

My life has been the blog post I would have writ
But I could not both live and Snapchizzle™ it.

1.

On a dreary day during the fall of my freshman year at university, there was a shooting behind my dorm. Japanese finished at 9 a.m. and by 9:10 I was back in my room, wearing my roommate’s headphones without his permission and blasting Ill Communication straight into my eardrums. The next thing I knew the phone was ringing. It was my roommate’s dad, saying there had been a shooting right outside our door.

The shooter was a mentally ill ROTC student. She killed somebody. The guy who lived across the hall from me got shot in the backpack, the bullet drilling through a stack of textbooks and lodging in the one closest to his skin.

For a long time I felt a kinship with that guy. Books saved my life, too, was how I thought about it. But I don’t think that way anymore.

2.

I used to make rules for myself. You have to read 50 pages a day. You have to finish a book a week. You have to read every Believer and New Yorker cover to cover. This was during my 20s. Everybody I knew was worrying about their career or their kids and I was worrying about whether I’d finish D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow by Sunday. It sounds silly but it gave me something to grab onto, a foam ring in choppy seas.

Once after a breakup I called in sick to work and rode the bus out to Lands End and read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline cover to cover in one go, sitting on a bald spot among the scrub grass, letting my mind float. When my eyes needed a break I looked up and there was the whole Pacific Ocean right in front of me.

Back then, CivilWarLand wasn’t a marker of taste or style. It wasn’t me saying yes to Donald Barthelme and no to Ben Marcus (or whatever). It was an object, a rock in the river. It was A Thing I Needed.

3.

Graduate school was crazy and after, I thought, I did it. I got my degree, now give me a job. But that was just the beginning of all that.

I tutored test prep and English literature, answered text messages for ChaCha. wrote greeting cards and book reviews, anything that paid. I managed social media channels and blogged and wrote grant proposals. Some of the writers I knew were jealous that I was getting these jobs. I made well below the poverty line.

I kept writing, but my reading life suffered. Choosing books had always been a whole process, matching what I thought a book contained against my current metaphysical state and seeing how well they fit together. But choosing turned into a chore. No matter what I did, I always felt like I was reading the same book over and over, the same story, the same voice. And they weren’t. That’s not a fair thing to think or feel. But that’s how I felt.

Around this time, one of the grant proposals I was working on involved innovations in education (I know, you hear those words together like that, you’re already asleep). I found Khan Academy and then I found a poorly trafficked blog with a post dissing Khan Academy, the only dissenting voice on the whole Internet, it seemed. I read more posts on this one blog and stumbled onto something called the Summer of Oblivion, an online storytelling project that was also a course that was also a game. The lead instructor had shaved his head to look like Dr. Brian O’Blivion from Videodrome. I hadn’t seen anything like it, so I kept digging.

Summer of Oblivion was part of something called DS106, which was a course in Digital Storytelling, and it was open to anyone. I signed up and did the homework and ended up doing all kinds of stuff. I photoshopped myself into old Twilight Zone episodes. I made Troll Quotes and animated gif playing cards of silent movies. I completed assignments called “Wiggle Stereoscopy” and “Pick a Bad Photo, Apply a Vintage Effect, and Write Something in Helvetica.” It was a blast.

I was adjuncting then, teaching at multiple institutions, you know what that’s like. I pitched a digital storytelling class to the Residential College at the University of Michigan (I got my M.F.A. at U-M) and Laura Thomas, the creative writing program head there, she gave it the go-ahead.

I had never taught a class like it. We made an eleven-part Youtube movie about copyright infringement (including screencasts and live video; I played the bad guy). We read Robert Hass and watched documentaries about Diane Arbus and made supercuts of Phineas and Ferb. We addressed issues as dangerous as drug abuse and as innocuous as Bad Lip Reading. I screwed up a lot, sometimes with larger, ethical issues (like privacy) and sometimes with smaller, practical issues (like how to teach twenty people how to use the clone tool in Photoshop). But I was learning. We were all learning.

The class made me think differently about how I taught creative writing, also. It made me wonder. Does literature respond too much to itself, and not to the world? Are current students’ tendencies to write in first person present related somehow to, say, Youtube videos in general, or viral videos in particular, or even more specifically wingsuit videos? (I just wanted to mention wingsuit videos.) What would Ahab’s Instagram feed look like, or Queequeg’s? What would Madame Bovary tweet the first time she saw Numa Numa? Even the silly questions felt useful.

By the end of the class, I knew I wanted to teach it again, but I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance.

I also knew it was time to slow this whole train down just a little and spend a minute figuring out what the hell it was that I was doing.

(Here’s where the essay slows down, too.)

6.

As I explored, I found that digital storytelling courses and programs tend to take on the flavor of the departments that house them. In Communication Studies, DS classes skew towards media theory and social media strategy. The University of Mary Washington’s DS106 class is housed in the computer science department, and it focuses a good deal of students’ time and energy on developing personal web spaces and individualized cyberinfrastructures.

What’s missing so far in this (still pretty quiet) national conversation is any kind of focus on the “story” part of digital storytelling. Creative writers programs and faculty have very important tools to offer this field—including a lifetime’s worth of training with voice, character, perspective, and plot—that can help students succeed in new storytelling spaces. We do the field a disservice by not insisting on our values—for example, that blogs be well written, that stories be compelling. There should be more of us on the web, on Instagram, on Storehouse, on Prezi. If that’s where storytelling is going, then as storytellers we have an obligation to follow.

And you can tell me I’m wrong. You can say that there are troubling assumptions in this argument, and that “creative writing” is different than “storytelling” and that conflating the two is dangerous. No doubt there will and absolutely should be programs and people who insist that this be the case, who defend the boundaries of the country from invaders. But there also needs to be programs that talk more about where our need for story comes from—in terms of biology and evolution—and who can illuminate the ways in which the values of good storytelling largely define what is a good bar story, and what is good literature, and what is a good Blabberize video, and what is a good annotated Google map. (These programs and professors are therefore the Coyotes, Snakeheads, and visa agents in this extended metaphor.)

Like Mediterranean studies, part of the attraction of digital storytelling is its interdisciplinary nature. The values of creative writing deserve to be represented here, and the first standout creative writing programs to do that—to make digital storytelling a load-bearing element of their curriculum, to give support to professors and lecturers who teach and work in this specialty—are going to have a very big say in which values from creative writing will be represented in the field of digital storytelling and also in how those values will be represented.

But there is a warning here, also. Tacking the word “digital” onto the beginning of a traditionally book-oriented discipline doesn’t make it new or relevant. Recent tumult over the meaning and absence of meaning in the term “digital humanities” has highlighted important critiques that can be reiterated for the dozens of half-baked stylus-and-silicon hybrid programs popping up around the country (and there will be more, way way more, to come).

And while the mislabeling error can be avoided with courage and thoughtfulness, bringing more computers into a creative writing classroom does change the basic dynamics of it in a way that I feel more ambivalent about. It could theoretically change what we mean when we call someone a “writer.” My resume, which now includes short films and audio interviews as well as print publications, doesn’t look like many creative writing instructors’. And while a life in the arts will always seem nonlinear (especially on paper), it will take a special kind of creative writing program to embrace the kind of professional and artistic switchbacking that digital storytelling requires.

But maybe these are good changes; I know they’ve been good for me. It’s true that I don’t read as much as I used to. But I watch more movies. I spend more time online. I take more photos, more videos, sharing them with friends and family, which is different than my writing, which I share mostly with strangers. I don’t think of myself as someone saved by books anymore, and I’m suspicious of people who talk too much about the things in books as opposed to things in the world.

I don’t identify with the guy across the hall with the bullet in his backpack anymore, although I do think about him. I wonder where he is, what he does for work, how much he likes it. Does he worry about the future. How much does he try to help other people and does he worry that he’s doing it the wrong way.

*

Brian Short’s fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Midwestern Gothic, and Yemassee. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Don’t Fall Into a Pit of Angst: Writers at the Academic Job Market Crossroads

You got that right. Britney Spears won’t take $2,987 per course anymore.

Last week I had a phone call from an old friend, someone I’ve known for more than ten years. We’d talked for over an hour, and after the obligatory inquiries about each other’s jobs, partners, and families, we got down to it: she’d been on the academic job market for the second time this past winter, and nothing much had come of it. By most writers’ standards, she’s lucky: she has two coveted adjunct positions in her city, a rich network of contacts from her publications and fellowships, and both the emotional and financial support of her partner. But after years of feeling like she was on a firm path, it seemed to have been grabbed out from under her – or at the very least, she wasn’t sure how to keep moving forward.

This is the story of countless arts graduates: even if we excel in the closed laboratory of our degree programs, even if we put our work into the world and are rewarded with publication and other recognition, even if we’re offered sponsorship for some amount of time, we’re likely to encounter a crossroads – which I’m tentatively calling the MFA Day Job Crossroads, so pertinent is it to the stories of writers on this site – where we’re faced with the perfect storm that is the recovering American economy, the administration-heavy state of university spending, the adjunct crisis, and the ever-growing glut of eligible young candidates for tenure-track positions. Often, the message that heavy weather has for us is that the job we’ve been preparing to do for years just isn’t available to us right now.

Different writers (and other artists, and humanities professionals – the ways in which professionals in other fields experience this crossroads is material for another post) experience this message differently. For someone like my other friend J., who attended a top-tier university for undergrad, who has her own alumni network and maybe that of her professional parents to lean on, and who worked for a little while in a white-collar field before starting her MFA, the message hits hard, but after a few phone calls and some soul searching, she has the beginnings of a plan B. She might, like so many writers featured on this site, create her own systems for continuing to write and publish while working outside of academia, or she might stop for a while.

For a writer like O., an immigrant and first-generation college student, the news might hit harder. Since his involvement with his local spoken-word scene, and, later, a creative writing class in college, he’s seen his talent with words as a potential way to achieve a middle-class existence and to help his parents have a better life. Getting into an MFA program only made that dream feel more like a reality. The news that academe isn’t a sure thing means he has to create his own alternative, perhaps from scratch – while still, if he wants to, privileging his writing. (Note: I’m making up these “friends,” though their circumstances are drawn from a composite of real ones.)

A quick scan of the Facebook statuses of recently graduated writers I know reflects a range of existential feelings: from dread and despair to hopefulness. Almost everyone has applied to the same fellowships and jobs, with mixed results; a few lucky folks have broken the tenure-track code, but most have not. Almost all continue to write, and report their publications and other triumphs; their fellow writers celebrate these joys more or less equally. But studies show that we tend to paint a more optimistic portrait of ourselves on social media than we really feel to be true – in private conversations, we admit to feeling doubtful about our future, dreading that our best and most creative years are behind us, hoping that our parents don’t ask us about our plans, hoping no one asks us for money.

Some critics might go back to condemning the MFA as a vanity degree, or criticize the programs themselves for not providing more guidance. But I think that there’s something else going on: as a nation of artists, we may be approaching the end of a sixty-some-year period during which the university was the surest source of steady employment for makers of art with variable or very little ready market value. As a consequence, the youngest of us (or newest to the field, whatever our ages) are at a crossroads between existential angst about the worth of our work and the will to redefine the terms of our success as professional artists. Which will we choose? Will we let a network of systems fail us, or will we find a way through them?

This isn’t an easy question, and it’s even disingenuous to pose it as an either-or question. Systems fail us every day despite our determination not to let them. But we can approach the messy composite answer to this question bit by bit. When I started my first job after getting an MFA, I thought of my new life as divided sharply into 9-5 “making a living” work and post-5 pm “life-making” work, i.e. writing. But a year and a half later, the boundaries have blurred in more ways than one: I write on the subway and on my lunch break, and even jot down ideas during slow moments when I’m on the clock, because I know I’ll have a better day and face my “making a living” responsibilities more cheerfully that way. And I’ve also realized that just because I have a day job doesn’t mean I have to take everything that’s thrown in my lap at face value: I’ve found little ways to learn tools that I think will serve me well professionally in the future, started projects that use skills I developed while working with other writers and students, and found ways to use language creatively as often as possible. I can’t say I’ve landed exactly where I want to be yet, but I’ve stopped thinking of my job as merely the hours when I’m not writing.

“The will to redefine the terms of our success” isn’t meant to be a woo-woo euphemism for patting ourselves on the back just for writing every day. No – it’s a call to all disappointed, academe-oriented writers to look the university square in the face. Make a list. Make a real, honest list of what you love about being in an academic environment: is it working with undergraduates? Is it one-on-one conversations with students, or presenting to a room full of people? Is it the challenge of providing detailed feedback on student work that allows the next steps in learning? Is it the relative flexibility of your working hours? Is it collaborating and exchanging ideas with colleagues? Is it the way reading texts closely with students influences your own writing? The side projects and committees you participate in with faculty from other departments?

If you’re like the many writers who entered an MFA program taking for granted that a life in academia would be compatible with and supportive of your writing life, or that teaching was something you would learn to love, use this list to take a good, hard look. Then take that list and put it in order: what’s your favorite part of what you do? What do you wish wasn’t such a big part of your week? (Grading papers, anyone?) Now, do the most difficult thing: take that ordered list and make some phone calls. Send some emails. Read in-touch, honest career websites like Ask a Manager and Evil HR Lady and The Billfold and other stuff you never thought you would have to read. Do all this to figure out one thing: where can you find the things you love most about being at a university in another job – one that might even pay more, and leave you more hours to write, than your adjunct gigs?

Even though it feels like things suck, this is an exciting moment for artists, particularly visual artists and writers – those of us whose work isn’t necessarily time-based or capital-intensive, who don’t require millions of dollars up front or months of rehearsal time to create something. As artists, we have always figured out our own standards for a good piece of work, for success in terms of the work itself. Now it’s time for us to make choices about the other parts of our careers: we can hedge our bets and enter an adjunct market for what should be the 5-10 most interesting, fertile years of our art-making lives, the years where we learn and grow the most and change direction if we want to. Or we can look at the odds, make our lists, and walk away.

Among writers, there’s a cultural trope of love-hate for the starving artist/ adjunct existence – we talk about creative writing pedagogy and the naïve but lovable things our students say, and in our way we love the fringes of the great universities on which we develop as teachers and draw our paychecks. But just because we’ve made the choice to be artists doesn’t mean that we have to take whatever the world gives us. In a world where nothing is what we, or our teachers, could have expected, we must be unsentimental. “Kill your darlings,” goes the old saw. This must apply to the careers that keep us afloat as well as to our writing.

Whether we like it or not, today’s academic job market will create a huge cohort of professional-quality writers and artists who cannot enter that market. In fifty years, this generation of artists could be remembered as the artists who created the 21st century “blended career” – not the New York Times bestsellers or the art market’s 1%, nor merely hobbyists, but rather people who found fulfilling ways to feed themselves while reminding the world that art is not a joke.

Now, whether you’ve been disappointed by the academic job market once or four times: delete that last rejection letter. Make your lists of what you love. And turn your life into something that you, not a department budget or a semester-long contract, control.

Set Realistic Goals and Daydream: An Interview with Laura Bogart

Dany bangs

Your recent piece for Dame Magazine, “The Price I Pay to Write” responds to another piece at Salon by Ann Bauer, “Sponsored by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem That Writers Don’t Talk About Where Their Money Comes From.” Bauer’s point is that many writers have a “sponsor,” whether it’s parents or a spouse, and it’s unfair for writers not to be transparent about it. You suggest that the larger issue is our failure to discuss what writers have to do to get by when (as in the majority of cases) there is no benefactor. But admitting to a benefactor or a day job means, effectively, that we’re not making enough money writing to claim it as our sole occupation. Which do you think is actually more shrouded in secrecy, and why?

I think that having a benefactor and working a day job are both equally shrouded in secrecy in their own particular ways. And there are various strains of benefactors: parents, partners, or grants. Obviously, winning some big award or getting sponsorship from some external organization (here’s lookin’ at you, Guggenheim) is a matter of prestige—but one that still isn’t really discussed, I think, because there are issues of jealousy (even though we want to support our friends and colleagues who win these prizes, we really do, but man, it’s just so hard not to wish we were the ones who’d opened that letter or got that call) and humility (we’re excited enough to sing from the rooftops, but we don’t want to be that lucky bastard who rubs our fortune in other people’s faces) at play.

Obviously, receiving assistance from one’s parents (especially after one has blown out the candles on a twenty-fifth birthday cake) carries the stigma of being labeled a Hannah Horvath—although, given how rough the economy is right now, with a paucity of jobs and affordable housing, I think there is more general empathy for people who need a little help from the folks. In truth, when I was working my first publishing job out of grad school, which paid me a grand $28,000 (just enough to put me above the poverty line, but not out of actual poverty), I moved back in with my parents—not to help with my writing, but to not be homeless and starving. Did I personally feel a great deal of embarrassment? Yes, yes, I did (and given that I have a rather complex relationship with my parents, that sense of shame was compounded), but none of my friends, or even casual acquaintances, that knew my deal, ever made me feel bad about it. We all know someone (hell, even married couples) who has had to move in with family or friends because we live in such a brutal economy.

Which leads me to the spouse or partner as benefactor, and that I do think carries a particular tarnish that is made darker and stickier by the harshness of the times. Most couples I know have to be double-income families (especially if they have kids) just to keep afloat, and there is a lot of class resentment against people who can afford to have one partner stay at home (especially if that partner isn’t doing the typical stay-at-home spouse work of raising children). Part of the reason I admired Ann Bauer’s piece is that she does acknowledge that hers is a position of considerable privilege (and she recognizes this so clearly because she has lived on all levels of the spectrum), and that it’s natural to have some resentment of people who seem to “have it all”: the great spouse, the comfortable life, and the time and energy to pursue their passion.

Continue reading

Writing in Safety, We Don’t Have to Hide: An Interview with Charif Shanahan

charif shanahan

At what point in your life did you begin writing? At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? 

I began writing as a boy, perhaps at nine or ten, and I recall that my earliest writing efforts were stories, not poems, which I did not begin writing until high school. In college, I encountered an inspirational mentor in the poet Linda Gregg, who is the reason I’m still writing poems today, and although MFAs were on my radar from that time on, I did not seriously consider pursuing one until I was already moving into my late twenties. I felt, strongly, that before beginning to write in earnest, I needed to spend time exploring the planet and, thus, myself.

Continue reading

Poem off the Page: An Interview with Elastic City Founder Todd Shalom

todd_shalom_headshot

You’re the founder and director of Elastic City, an organization whose m.o. has been the participatory walk for nearly six years, and you’ve been leading such walks for over a decade. In what way do you see your work as an artist who facilitates experiences for and with other people as being connected to your background in poetry?

For me, the walks are a poem—just taken off of the page. I wrote a lot of poetry about 12-15 years ago. My poems were functioning more like songs, perhaps better heard than read. With other poets and audiences, I wasn’t getting the dialogue I wanted. My work was both personal and coded. It’s what I needed to do for me. (I was in my 20’s). After getting over myself a bit, the desire to connect with people became more urgent, and the walk form gave me the opportunity to both learn from and share with the audience, as they became active participants in the work.

Continue reading

Academia’s Freedom is Also Its Dysfunction: Farren Stanley on Why She’s Leaving

farren stanley

You made a decision to leave adjuncting behind after this past semester. What motivated this decision?

In order to be able to live, I was teaching three classes (with three preps) and working a 25-35 hour-a-week job as a supplement. The result was something like 70-hour work weeks, and no weekends. I had 5 (FIVE) professional email accounts. It was grinding me down. Eventually, the money at my part-time job got very attractive, and then I began to notice things. For example: I have agency at the firm I work at now. If I see a problem, I can take it to my boss and it will be corrected. If I need something for the office, it’s provided. I get regular raises, bonuses, promotions. Every day the skills I need to employ are new and necessary.
In my experience, adjuncting occurs in a vacuum. There is little infrastructure for the students (where do I send my student who is ill/mentally disturbed/in need of tutoring?) or for the instructors (I have never once seen my evals, or been given professional development opportunities). There are no awards, no promotions, no raises. Nothing to strive for. There is no upward or even lateral movement available.The offer on the table for adjuncts is: keep teaching the same 3 combinations of classes for the same amount of money, for the rest of your life. Fast food workers have a better potential quality of life than do adjuncts/instructors. There are better offers out there.

Continue reading