The Lifting Dress (National Poetry Series)

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Got an MFA? Teach High School.

1. In early 2012, Joshua Boldt launched The Adjunct Project, a website containing a collaboratively updated spreadsheet of adjunct salary and work conditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the site had nearly 800 user entries in the first month. While comparative salary data is useful, the most disheartening element of the site is the short narratives. Adjuncts accept poor pay with silence, “terrified of being even more broke than we are.” Other grievances include no health benefits, rushed contracts, and -- despite the fact that adjuncts comprise nearly three-quarters of university faculty -- paltry voice and representation in university matters. I am unable to offer an absolute solution to this institutionalized, national problem. But I have, and will continue to, make a suggestion to the graduates of MFA programs who often enter these adjunct positions as perceived full-time employment. Before you join a dismal system where you might teach an overloaded schedule on multiple campuses and still earn less than $30,000 a year, pause for a moment. You have other options. Continue to fight your good fight, and bring this academic sharecropping, as some have called it, to public attention. But consider another career. Teach high school. It works for me. 2. The Adjunct Project’s hard data and brief narratives are best complimented with the nuance of explanation. I have been an adjunct since 2009, and have had a great experience, yet I know my situation is unique. I have also taught high school full-time since 2004, so my adjunct work is for supplementary, rather than essential, income. For many adjuncts, employment is a constant struggle with little or uneven returns. MFA graduates who are able to teach creative writing courses appear more satisfied than those leading composition courses. Andrew McFayden Ketchum, who adjuncts at four different Colorado universities, makes an important distinction between those types of instruction. Ketchum explains that composition instructors are “expected to teach critical thinking, writing, and even research skills” to students in a core course. Besides the “undoable” workload and “atrocious” pay, Ketchum notes a fascinating bit of misinformation: “students think adjuncts are ‘professors’... [and those] students who aren’t already well-prepared or extremely dedicated to learning either fall through the cracks or are ‘saved’ by the SuperAdjunct.” Such an educational structure “is not what schools advertise, and it’s not the sort of education students paying extraordinarily high tuitions should receive.” One writer, who wished to remain anonymous, had been a Visiting Assistant Professor for five years before “that line was terminated” and replaced with an adjunct position. The resulting “commute times, low pay, and lack of support and office space for adjunct faculty” made her “less able to write or concentrate on publication than I was when teaching full-time.” Such a lament is echoed by other adjuncts. Book and significant magazine publication are often necessary to become competitive for tenure-track positions, yet the adjuncts longing for those positions are unable to devote sufficient time to writing and scholarship, thus creating a nearly inescapable cycle. She notes that others, some holding a PhD, must seek government aid. Another recent report from The Chronicle revealed that 360,000 Americans “with master’s degrees or higher in 2010” received “some kind of public assistance.” While that number pales next to the 44 million total Americans receiving public assistance, these are highly educated professionals struggling to survive. Jay Varner’s first book, Nothing Left to Burn, was sold soon after his graduation from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington MFA program. Although the book was well-received, and Varner interviewed for several tenure-track positions, his search was ultimately unsuccessful. The tenure-track market is oversaturated with “highly accomplished” writers with “recent teaching experience” who are “vying for few jobs,” the same coveted by adjuncts. Varner recently began adjuncting at James Madison University, and quips that “some of my adjunct friends look at me a bit strangely when I say” such work is fun. He recognizes the tenuous financial reality of adjuncts, but also the need to gain further college teaching experience. Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, was an adjunct at several universities in St. Louis between 2006 and 2009 and taught undergraduate creative writing courses, composition, and a graduate-level course. Nye did not enter his MFA program planning to teach. His first adjunct position at Washington University in St. Louis was as a last-minute replacement for a sick faculty member. Nye was not “considered part of the faculty or team” nor was he a member of committees or departmental discussions, but he didn’t expect such participation as a recent MFA graduate. Although Nye also bartended and worked as the managing editor of River Styx, he had sufficient time to write. Nye no longer adjuncts. His work at The Missouri Review is considered full-time, and is a success story among the typical career trajectory of adjuncts, who have their eyes on future Associate Professor positions. Such “midcareer” positions follow years on the tenure track where professors are, according to The Chronicle, “protected from work outside their research and writing.” The Chronicle quotes David Harvey of New College of Florida that once administrative and other responsibilities accumulate, Associate Professors “go from being one of the rising young stars of the department to being one of the workhorses.” The long slog of adjunct work does not end in immediate bliss upon tenure. Since many MFA graduates perceive adjunct employment as their only possible track toward tenured positions, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the MFA itself. Few graduate degrees are as misunderstood, or lambasted, as the MFA in Creative Writing. The MFA is a convenient generalization, an acronym without individual personality. The image of short-sighted, novice writing students lounging at a rectangular table, nitpicking a draft into a sanitized work of chaff has become a straw-man target for any perceived misstep in contemporary published writing. Misconceptions have even found their way into the programs themselves. Graduates of MFA programs might think becoming a college adjunct is their only academic career choice until the possibility of a tenure-track position, but such a view is unfounded, and not the fault of MFA programs. I have not yet encountered an MFA program that guarantees book publication or professorship. I have seen MFA programs that sell themselves to applicants as places where students can study literature and creative writing within a supportive community, but not as training schools for tenured professorships. The same sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness that creates a successful MFA experience might also delude students into thinking such support will exist after the degree in temporary teaching positions. And yet MFA graduates continue to settle for adjunct positions and then subsequently criticize the degree. Such unhappiness should cause self-reflection, but often that reflection is rejected. Seth Abramson’s approach to ranking MFA programs for Poets & Writers has resulted in equal parts blowback and praise, and those reactions can often be delineated between programs who think they should be ranked higher and those who have earned the top spots. Yet Abramson’s research has moved the MFA conversation in directions of greater transparency and awareness of practical considerations. He is correct to stress that applicants should research program funding, talk to current and former students, and consider cost of living expenses as they weigh their decision about an expensive art degree. In 2012, those responsible recommendations should extend to decisions about graduate education in any discipline. Abramson has recently debunked the myth that more than 800 MFA program are “now in operation,” replacing that figure with roughly 200. Even with this decreased amount of programs, the resulting number of MFA graduates far outstrips the supply of available tenure-track positions in creative writing. The announcement of a non-composition teaching job with a writing-heavy schedule creates a windfall of applicants, pining for the promise of tenure, even in a world where universities like Wayne State are radically redefining, or ending, the practice. As mysteriously as they appear, advertised positions disappear due to lost funding, or are filled in silence, leaving anxious applicants to refresh the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki page. New graduates are competing against seasoned writers and teachers; whereas a decade ago significant magazine publication might enable a writer to be competitive for a tenure-track position, now multiple, well-received books appear to be a necessity. The simple result is that the MFA system creates far too many well-trained graduates than can be placed in tenure-track positions. Yet the assumption that MFA graduates enter academia on the tenure track is grounded in a false economic model, one that presupposes the degree exists to create such academics. It does not, and it never has; as Abramson notes, the MFA is a “patronage system for artists” that “provide[s] a nurturing space for their talents.” It is not a place to groom future professors. So is there another option for the MFA grad looking to teach but frozen out of the higher education system? I believe there is. 3. Graduates of MFA programs should consider teaching high school. I recognize that such advice might be rejected outright. Even adjuncts are “professors,” while secondary educators are “teachers,” and the difference in connotation might bother some. Additionally, MFA graduates will need to be certified to teach at public schools, although many states offer expedited, alternative routes toward certification. The shift from higher to secondary education will require planning. And any criticism that English teachers are not in demand as much as other teachers in other disciplines seems petty compared with the equivalent competition for adjunct positions with less pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median salary for a high school English teacher in 2010 was $53,230. Granted, the pay is less than that of an Associate Professor, but certainly more than even the most oversubscribed adjuncts. While the shape of tenure is even changing at the secondary level, the job security is far firmer than as a traveling adjunct, and secondary educators have better health and retirement benefits. An adjunct could go from teaching composition to 35 19 year-olds for a meager salary to teaching literature or creative writing to a classroom of 25 students between 15 and 18, with far better pay, more stability, and the ancillary benefit of helping young people at a crucial time in their development. Aren’t the arts supposed to cultivate our most selfless tendencies, anyway? 4. When I was hired at a public high school in 2004, I was halfway finished with an MA in English Literature, and had no pedagogical or instructional experience. I taught AP Language and Composition and Introductory Creative Writing. In my first year, students compared the poetic philosophies of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Frost, contrasted 1984 with some of Orwell’s lesser-known non-fiction to see the narrative and stylistic breadth possible for a single writer, and wrote raps in the voice of Macbeth characters. Not every moment of teaching is a success. But I hope that I’ve gotten better. I now teach AP Literature and started a course, Advanced Creative Writing, in which students write, revise, and workshop short fiction, research literary magazines, and study contemporary writers. The class ranges from 14 to 22 students, and most enter for the right reasons: they want to become better writers. Many have succeeded, and their achievements include the Davidson Scholarship, winning The Florida Review fiction contest, and publication in Flyway, elimae, The Louisville Review, Willows Wept Review, and other magazines. Two students appeared in the lauded W.W. Norton Hint Fiction anthology alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Ha Jin; one student appeared twice. Those stories were written in class. These are 16 to 18 year-olds. Kids. At least part of the time while teaching them, I was pursuing an MFA in Fiction. Granted, I began my high school teaching before I entered an MFA program, and continued it afterward. That might give me an advantage over others, particularly people who have never taught at any level. But I don’t think that negates my advice. I like to think that if someone pursues an MFA in Creative Writing, they love both reading and writing, and have also gained quantifiable skills in literary analysis, writing, and critical thinking. I believe one can learn how to transfer those skills -- to teach them -- to young students. Consider this: a good MFA program stresses breadth and depth of reading, close attention toward personal crafting of writing and subsequent revision, and the ability to articulate one’s self in a workshop setting. One must offer criticism that is at times pointed and also constructive; one must be aware of tone. But we can refine these skills further. Again, a good MFA program -- and I know not all are created equal -- contextualizes that aforementioned reading both historically and stylistically; a class might read Raymond Carver’s fiction in comparison with Bobbie Ann Mason and Elizabeth Tallent, wondering why all three were classified together by Bill Buford in Granta, opening conversations regarding British perspectives of what makes American fiction “American” (or even look at Gordon Lish’s editing of Carver’s writing from both craft and conceptual senses). And the workshop is not merely a convenient way for professors to structure a class meeting; it is an organic discussion of ideas and aesthetic approaches, where students offer skepticisms of the traditional model, perhaps channeling the approach of Michael Martone in recent articles published in TriQuarterly. A thorough MFA curriculum provides comprehensive literary training. That training might assist a writer in her own work, but as an ancillary benefit, it prepares her to view those skills on both practical and theoretical levels, and such duality is essential in becoming a reflective, successful secondary teacher. Wouldn’t an MFA graduate with such training be an incredibly useful addition to a high school English department, and wouldn’t students reap the benefits? I suspect the MFA graduates would, also. I certainly don’t mean to derail the potential careers of those convinced they ultimately want to teach at the college level, but I don’t see how a stint teaching high school will not make them better teachers and writers. Teaching high school reminds you that instruction requires empathy. Awareness of audience is essential. So is a sense of humor: the bullshit detectors of teenagers, confronted with a pretentious “emerging” writer, will drown the room. I have had some particular benefits in my teaching experience: open-minded and intelligent students, a very supportive supervisor, and a community focused on education. I have also had roadblocks: a Board of Education that has stalled and stonewalled contract negotiations, and an increasing perception of non-university educators as test-prepping, unintellectual drones. Writers I publish with give a look of pain when I tell them I teach high school, wondering how I have any remaining interest or energy to write. I argue that I not only have sufficient time -- the summers certainly help -- but the emotional freedom that sometimes is only provided through job security. In the past two years, while teaching high school full-time and working as an adjunct part time, and having a minimum two-hour round trip to work, I’ve had two books of poetry published, am finishing a book of criticism to be published next year, have published more than 30 reviews, and other essays, fiction, and related work. That’s with no sabbaticals and no artist residencies. God bless those who can manage them, but I can’t. I agree with Faulkner: only “demon driven” writers will be successful. You’ve got to make it happen. Some might think it a waste to earn a terminal degree in creative writing and then work the same job that one could get with a bachelor’s degree. I recognize that the MFA is not designed to prepare students to teach at the high school level. But we should be honest here: the MFA is not designed to train novelists, either, yet most fiction graduates of such programs think that was the intention. Adjuncts already do good, necessary work. They often teach students needing remediation, students from low-income families, students who need personal mentorships. The adjuncts I know are idealistic, skilled, intelligent people, who are working for less than they are worth. They can be equally idealistic as high school teachers, while also making a more reasonable income, becoming a more stable yearly employee in their community, and most importantly, helping young people. As someone active in publishing, I have sometimes felt like a lone wolf in secondary education. Then I discovered that Lauren Berry, whose debut collection The Lifting Dress was selected for the National Poetry Series, teaches high school. Ryan Call, winner of a 2011 Whiting Award for fiction and an editor at HTMLGIANT, teaches at a private high school in Houston. Call began teaching freshman and sophomores in the fall of 2011, three years after graduating from the George Mason MFA program. During that time he collected the stories that comprise The Weather Stations, which won the Whiting Award. Call finds high school teaching very different from his previous university work. In the college environment, Call “didn’t really know anything about my students” beyond the experiences borne of the classroom. In high school, Call sees his students in class, on campus, at lunch, and as a cross country coach, expanding the dynamic to where he can now see “how these people navigate their young frantic lives.” He praises the collegiality of faculty. He also admits that, as a beginning teacher, his writing output paused. Teaching “took a lot out of me . . . physically, mentally, and emotionally,” but realized he could “afford to pause in my writing given what I’d achieved,” and that the break “was good for me.” He’s greatly rebounded as a writer during the summer, producing much work, and now feels more confident that he can both write and teach during the upcoming year. Call’s example shows how idiosyncratic this, and really any employment decision, must be: his experiences as a first year teacher sound like the experiences of a longtime adjunct, and yet the differences are essential. The support of his colleagues, the inclusive dynamic of his school, and the rewards of working with younger students creates a sense of optimism that pushes him forward. I do not see the same hope articulated by adjuncts, who feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is a flashing mirage. I hope MFA graduates can pause their skepticism. Now, more than ever, we need intelligent and passionate teachers to lift the profession. The organic training and experiences of an MFA student might just be the perfect recipe for a successful high school teacher. Try it. You might find that those three letters on your degree feel like they carry much more weight.   Image via Phil Roeder/Flickr
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