Guest Post: Literary Community at The Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House

By David McLoghlin

The first time I used the term MFA was not in a Master of Fine Arts context. My close friend Sorcha Hyland and I used to salute each other in our letters and emails with an affectionate, “how are you doing, MFA?!”—our acronym for motherfucker. Continue reading

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Guest Post: From Adjunct to Amateur Astrologist

Guest posts are intended as first-person windows onto contributors’ journeys to make a life in writing. 

Psychic Barista by Ariel Fintushel

by Ariel Fintushel

Part I. From Double Shifts to Graduate School

As I write this, there is a partial Full moon eclipse in Aquarius which means something is being excavated. A hand – is it mine? – reaches in and extracts: what will you let go of and what will you become?

In between double shifts as a barista and as a waitress in a Middle Eastern restaurant serving soggy aram rolls, I read Rob Breszny’s horoscope column in the Bohemian newspaper. These are ridiculous, I think to myself, I’d do a better job. It reminds me of what Bukowski said, “When I begin to doubt my ability to work the word, I simply read another writer and know I have nothing to worry about.”

It was the year after I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Global Literature. I thought I might travel to Thailand to live in a monastery or trek in wild landscapes, but instead I moved back home, got a small apartment with my boyfriend, and worked. I found a copy of Wang Ping’s The Magic Whip and Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me in the local library and would read at night, dreaming of a way to escape customer service: “When asked where I’m from,/ I say ‘Weihai,’ even though/ nobody knows where it is,/ even though I’ve never been to that place” (Wang Ping from “Mixed Blood”). I started wearing someone else’s name tag: “Mariah, it means wind,” a customer told me.

When I learned I was accepted to SF State’s MFA program as a poet, I had surging feelings of self-worth and even arrogance. It made dealing with snotty customers and overflowing toilets that much better. “I’m going to get my MFA and become a professor of poetry,” I told them. “Not that scone,” they replied, “the one with more blueberries on it.”

Part II. My First Class with Stacy Doris

The year I moved to San Francisco was 2009, and Jupiter in my ninth house meant my ideals were not matching up to reality. I found a house on 34th and Judah where the ocean made a steam room of the streets and rode my bike to Stacy Doris’s class for the first time. “Any poetry that doesn’t somehow begin in a realm of wild fantasy is not worth the writing,” she said. I liked her already.

The MFA is supposed to take 3 years, but because I took every class Stacy taught regardless of whether I needed the credit, it took me four. Her classes were workshops for collaboration where we listened with a meditator’s focus investigating the nature of sound and its implications for our writing. They were experiential classes, and we traversed the campus banging garbage cans and cataloguing the noises it could make. Once Stacy led us through Union Square and Chinatown where we recorded a parade, an opera in the alley, wind chimes, and the Blue Angels in order to make sound compilations exploring the phenomenon of interruption.

Stacy was my advisor, but she was also a friend. When my boyfriend broke up with me over Christmas, she said, “You’ll meet someone fun.” We got soup at Judahlicious, and she showed me her poem, “A Month of Valentines”: “To my Love Supreme// from her little/ lotus flower: Bud/ stamen and leaf/ my heart only beats/ with hope of your/ touch./ Kevin.” or “Red Rose:// All leather, rare/ flowers/ your cavelier lips/ my ponytail puff/ to dinosaur shape./Let’s fuck.// Ph.D.”

Part III. The Graduate Thesis

When Stacy passed away from a rare cancer affecting her smooth, involuntary muscles, Camille Dungy became my advisor. While Stacy told me, “I see a book in here,” Camille asked important and difficult questions: “what’s at stake” and “where are you in all this?”  Many of Stacy’s students felt suddenly lost and abandoned. Like one of her beloved disciples said, “Now the world is just a little bit shittier.”

Instead of “When where am I is I,” I took Camille’s class, Literary Mapping. I tried to write things that were more personal but sometimes felt like I was trying to dredge up traumas that did not exist. “Sometimes what is neutral is most powerful,” she suggested.

I focused on learning to teach. With two sessions of my own 25 person Introduction to Creative Writing class, I was overcome with excitement that also manifest as anxiety. If one student looked bored, my whole world ended.

In the meantime, my graduate thesis was a slurry of writing including illustrated comics inserted on a whim to make things feel more coherent. I was not disappointed with my thesis because I knew there was a lot to digest between Stacy’s and Camille’s different approaches to poetry. Like Basho said, “‘To learn about the pine tree… go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study bamboo” (qtd. in The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield). Both Dungy and Doris taught me this principle, sending me out into the field to investigate my questions.

Part IV. Teaching in New York City

After my MFA, I took a chance and moved into a Queens apartment with a new love. I got a job teaching English and Literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). There I met poet Andrew Levy who gave me a copy of his book, Nothing is in Here and gave me advice over coffee.

BMCC’s small adjunct offices were packed with books and shoved you right up against your co workers encouraging conversation. I met a Syrian man with a PhD. in theater who said he had been there on September 11th, wandering aimlessly, unable to get a cab home. I met another who told me how to teach MLA citation and also buy an umbrella that would last. One adjunct told me how he supported himself by writing curriculum for tests and leading a trivia night in a metal bar.

The students at BMCC had a lot of energy. They were from all over – Haiti, Puerto Rico, Africa, the Bronx – “You have to live in the Bronx,” they told me. They wrote about dancing the Bachata and their New York identities whether immigrant or native. I made wacky essay assignments like compare Bob Marley to Salman Rushdie and defend a new set of laws for America. It was exhilarating but also exhausting. I took two trains lugging my heavy book bags through security and up six escalators to my classroom then all that in reverse on the way home.

Part V. Teaching in Los Angeles

After a year, I moved to Los Angeles and got married. I got a job teaching at the Acting, Music and Dance Academy (AMDA) and Oxnard College. I found it more difficult to meet coworkers at Oxnard and often felt lonely.

One day, during a heat wave, lugging my bags to a cafe to grade between classes, I had a thought: I’m a manual laborer. I did the math – I was making about $5.00 an hour tops if I counted lesson planning, grading, emailing and even less if I counted the commute. My back was always sore and I had to put my legs up the wall at home like when I was a barista. Also, I was always sick and had recently been to the emergency room for bouts of asthmatic coughing attacks which disrupted my lessons.

Diane di Prima said, “I wanted everything—very earnestly and totally—I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.” When I got pregnant, I had all-day morning sickness and used that as impetus to quit teaching in the middle of the semester. I broke out of the cycle, and that gave me a new perspective. I felt like Saturn gone retrograde had liberated my idealistic, Neptunian instincts. I lounged around for a month imagining other possible career paths.

Part VI. Life Beyond Academia

For fun, I picked up a freelance horoscope gig writing weekly and monthly sun-sign horoscopes. The pay was better than what I made as a professor. Plus, it was fun to spend time thinking about the Cosmos–I felt like the guy who burns down his house to buy a telescope with the insurance money from Robert Frost’s poem, “Star-splitter.”

Since I still had time on my hands, I volunteered with a non-profit called Women’s Voices Now writing curriculum. All of a sudden they said, hey, why not make a films and poetry workshop. Before I knew it, I was writing a grant proposal then driving alongside the ocean on Hwy. 1 to teach my first class. Stacy wrote, “Only the nerves are a sea plant we can’t gather. They spread like fire on a curtain of trees.”

Every moment I spent planning and facilitating the workshop was in honor of the residents who took my class. It felt important to publish their work, so I made them a small anthology and also a video poem where their words and voices were raised up in honor of their creations. They wrote about homelessness with the poignancy of Rumi yearning for the Beloved: “We have the Right 2 Rest/ We have no home/ Where can we go?/ Sleep at the Mayor’s house, or the Governor’s mansion?/ Will they roll out the red carpet 4 us?” (Sunshine). Where the government failed them, I hoped to offer something: a spot they could return to be themselves, to be heard respectfully and speak with dignity.

On November 18th this year there is a new Moon in Scorpio representing an intimate blossoming and reverence for mystery. Overlapped with this cosmic event, my friend and I are hosting a 3-day inaugural retreat. Participating artists and writers will encounter a series of experiential workshops to commune, engage and dialogue with the desert culminating in an anthology.

In “Song of Enlightenment” Yoka Daishi sings of the desert, “You cannot take hold of it, and you cannot get rid of it; it goes on its own way. You speak and it is silent; you remain silent, and it speaks.” Sometimes I want to pin my purpose down, or pin down a poem, but of course that ruins it. “Poetry buckles under the weight of seriousness of purpose,” Doris wrote. Even the stars and planets are constantly in transit, pummeling us with a mishmosh of intentions and forces that result in the rough and wild terrain that becomes both art and life.


Ariel Fintushel is a Los Angeles poet working as the Curriculum Developer for the non-profit Women’s Voices Now. She runs a creative writing workshop called Films & Poetry at Turning Point Shelter in Santa Monica, and has previously taught at SF State, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Oxnard College, The American Academy of Music and Dance, and is a creative writing instructor for California Poets in the Schools. She has an MFA from SF State. Her writing has been published by Huffington Post, Zaum, Baltimore University’s Welter, The A3 Review, and elsewhere. She enjoys making audio and also illustrated poems and is interested in the desert as a place of deprivation and miracles, latent energy, adventure, malice, and mysticism.

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. 

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.

 

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.

Time Carved and Stolen: Curtis Smith on Writing and Work

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For the past thirty-one years, I’ve worked with special learning students in a public high school in Pennsylvania. My day job precedes my first short story by six years and my MFA by over a dozen. My job has its rewards—and its frustrations and heartbreaks. Still, I don’t mind getting up every day and going to work, and in the end, I understand I can’t ask for much more. Writing has been the complement to my work, a place all my own, time carved and stolen from each day’s beginning and end, bookends of quiet and reflection in an otherwise hectic ride. Writing has given me the gift of engagement and creation—and sometimes, of sanity.

My late twenties found me in a good place. I’d landed my teaching job a month before my graduation, and after six years, I felt established, no longer the new guy. I was in love and recently married. Yet part of me was restless. Many of my friends were artists and musicians, and I yearned to be creative. I’d made a few 8mm films, and I’d refinished some old furniture procured from basements and auctions. I’d enjoyed these ventures, their hands-on processes, their tangible results. Yet I wanted something more. Or something different.

So I started writing. I had no English background; in fact, I’d always been more of a science-and-math person. In college, I’d struggled with my comp and lit classes. Why, I wondered, did Madame Bovary’s bouquet have to be anything more than a bunch of flowers? Part of my attraction to writing was due to stubbornness, one of my less admirable traits. Not being good—or at least passable—at something bothers me. Vain, I know, but I accept it as part of my makeup—and sometimes, the results of this shortcoming have left me a better person. Finishing in the stragglers’ pack of a seventh-grade race has led me to be a life-long runner. Madame Bovary’s wilted flowers goaded me to a second career of trying to explain my heart with pen and paper.

So I wrote. Every day, every evening. I read voraciously. I began submitting, and within a few years, I started to publish, not much but enough to earn my entry into Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program. I was fortunate—in Pennsylvania, school teachers needed at least 24 graduate credits to attain their permanent certification, and many districts, including mine, offered tuition reimbursements. Vermont was my first choice—I was already familiar with the work of a few of their teachers. I couldn’t attend the winter residencies, so it took me twice as long as most to graduate, but this turned into a blessing that allowed me to stretch my legs, to digest what I’d learned and use it to develop new material.

In the past few years, I’ve been invited to talk to students at different MFA programs. I tell them that my MFA studies were a valuable part of my maturation as an artist. I learned and read things I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I developed friendships and connections I still cherish almost twenty years later. Most importantly, I came to understand that the people I met, all smart and motivated and creative, were also my competitors—and if I my work was going to find a place in the tight market of lit journals and small presses, then I needed to hold my writing to a higher standard. This scrutiny has become the most integral part of my writing routine, the continual asking if this story, this paragraph, this sentence is the best I can do.

Next year I’ll retire. I’ve had a good run with my crew, 33 years, and I’ve no doubt learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m already testing the waters of my next phase—I’ve been fortunate to have landed a number of visiting writer gigs at local colleges, and I’ve started some adjunct work, my MFA finally of use in an official manner to justify my employment. I don’t know what awaits—but I’m curious. And curious, I believe, is good.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside). His next book will be a novel, Lovepain, from Aqueous Books