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.

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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

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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.

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.

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Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Ann Arbor, August. I am packing my “relo-cube” with the contents of my one-bedroom apartment. Proust had madeleines, I have a scratched dining table my father owned in his grad school days; boxes of poetry books signed by their authors; end-tables my mother painted and decoupaged with pressed flowers; a red Schwinn road bike gifted to me by a friend; photos of my mother and father and grandmother, each at twenty; a print of Klee’s “Angelus Novus” my brother bought for me in Jerusalem; and, toward the end, lone shampoo bottles and boxes with labels like “printer/ pizza peel/ scraps of fabric.”

Despite a year-old agreement with my partner that we’d move together “wherever I got a job,” I am done with my M.F.A. and jobless and moving to live with him in Brooklyn, where I never wished to move. “Leah Falk lives in Brooklyn” is a sentence I did not want ever to have to put in a contributor’s bio – it felt like a cliché, a naïvely conceived dreamscape for hundreds of artists who didn’t realize that New York had become too recognizable, too expensive for them to live out their dreams. But as a fiction writer friend reminded me before she made the same Michigan-Brooklyn move a year earlier (in the words of The Goon Show’s Spike Milligan): “Everybody’s got to be somewhere!”

SchenleyPark_Bridge_Pittsburgh

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood? Autumn in Schenley Park, Pittsburgh.

And so I am stuffing toiletries into bags that once contained sheet sets. I am renting Zipcars to take paper bags of dishes to Goodwill. I am eating tuna sandwiches from the deli down the block standing up at my kitchen counter. I am taking walk after walk to say goodbye to Ann Arbor’s bulk food stores, its running trails along the Huron River, its chicken coops, its starry night sky. Days before the cube is due to be picked up, I receive an email from the English department at my university. They offer me the opportunity to teach three courses in the coming semester—a semester that begins in two weeks.

As in many humanities departments across the country, in ours graduate students teach an average of a course per semester while they complete their degrees. When we finish, many of us apply to work as adjunct instructors, or lecturers. Michigan treats its non-tenure-track faculty better than many places I can think of: despite anti-union sentiment in Lansing, the state’s capital, both graduate student instructors and lecturers are unionized; they receive excellent health benefits, help with childcare, and most enjoy a strong sense of community within their departments. Historically, many finishing M.F.A. students there have applied for, and gotten, work as lecturers after their degrees for at least a semester.

This past year, due to a quagmire of right-to-work legislation and games of chicken between the state government and its flagship university, a hiring freeze was in effect when most brand-new hires might have expected an offer letter in their mailboxes, back in May or June. Most of us did what any job candidate is advised to do when his prospects look less than hopeful with an employer: we moved on. In August, I didn’t know what I was moving on to, but I had, weeks earlier, decided not to wait around for the email that popped into my inbox just as I slid the lock closed on my moving cube.

Nevertheless, it took me two days to write an email declining the offer. Why? I had already begun this blog, and had had countless conversations with other writers whose view I shared that adjunct work was not the means to the life we wanted: creative, professional, economic, or otherwise. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, as I pressed “send,” that I was leaving something important behind, making, in the words of G.O.B. Bluth, “a huge mistake.” Lately, I’ve been considering where exactly that feeling comes from.

In two important stages of my life, childhood and college, my models of working people were all professors. All of them. My father was a professor, and his best friends were, too. They taught subjects ranging from chemistry to law to history to engineering, but dinner party conversations clustered around higher education, student performance, and administrative issues. These were men and women whose daily habit was knowledge for its own sake – even those whose academic research often had direct bearing on the private sector.

Besides being my parents’ friends, these people were in effect my second extended family: we were at their Passover and Thanksgiving tables, they babysat us, we attended each other’s families’ weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. On Saturdays, my father and his friends, sometimes accompanied by my brother and me, followed a run in the city parks with coffee and bagels, as they had for almost thirty years.

I didn’t follow any of these people into their fields, but in a sense I did follow them into higher education: I wanted to reproduce a working atmosphere where being surrounded by challenging ideas was normal, where creating new knowledge was the source of workplace collaboration and celebration. And I followed my teachers, too – the next adults with whom I had thought-provoking conversations about learning and writing and art were my college professors.

But many of these adults worked in fields where, if they hadn’t worked in academia, they could have turned to industry. Others, like my English professors in college, entered the academy at a time when adjuncts didn’t make up nearly two-thirds of the workforce. If they taught in creative writing programs, they had often earned Ph.D.’s in English, before the M.F.A. became first the standard terminal degree in the field and then, like a wartime currency, slowly dwindled in value.

So when I declined my university’s offer, as I had to, because there was a cube full of my stuff and a person I loved and a city I hadn’t ever meant to live in awaiting me, I wasn’t just declining a one-semester position (although it was possible that was all it would be) and the opportunity to teach a course I had designed. I was acknowledging that in order to find the things I cared about – people who valued ideas, people who wanted to continue learning their whole lives, work that used my skills in the service of values I held dear – I might have to look elsewhere. That universities – institutions that surrounded me as a child, that helped build my conversations, my education, and my family – might, for my generation, might not be the only place, or even the best place, to look for those things.

(I stole the title of this post from Grace Paley.)

Just How Bad Can a Life of Adjuncting Be? Pretty Bad.

My hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covers this very sad story of an adjunct French professor who died without health insurance or retirement benefits, and who, despite her “professor” title, lived out her last years close to the poverty line and suffering from cancer.

Worst is the information that her employer, the Catholic-affiliated Duquesne University, declined to recognize its adjuncts’ vote to join the United Steelworkers Union, begging religious exemption — while Georgetown, another Catholic university, recognized its adjuncts’ unionization, citing Catholic values of social justice. This is particularly sad in Pittsburgh, an historically strong union city (and a very Catholic one).

If this woman had held an M.F.A. rather than a Ph.D. or M.A., would we read this story differently? Does a fine arts degree somehow make us feel more licensed to look for work outside the academy than scholars? It’s worth pointing out that if someone performs well for 25 years in the private sector, they’re likely to  move up in the ranks, earn more money, and see their quality of life improve. Young professors starting out in 1969, when 78% of faculty had a chance of getting tenure, could expect the same. Margaret Mary’s quality of life, in contrast, stagnated and then took a turn for the worse, and when she was already in her eighties, a time when most people might like to be sitting on their porches enjoying their grandchildren.

As we search for and work at jobs outside the academy, let’s not forget to advocate on behalf of the nearly 50% (or, by some counts, two thirds) of university teachers who work with no chance at tenure and benefits. (Not to mention, increasingly, in climates hostile to unionization).