Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Someone Off the Tenure Track Reaches Out to Yesterday's Newbie. The "Cowboy Up" Post.

The Newbie isn't just naive, he or she is just seeing the post-postgraduate world for the first time. Okay, he or she is also a little ungrateful.

Imagine my situation. I, too, went on to graduate school, not just because I was interested in writing fiction and doing it better, but because I wanted to teach others. I wanted to be part of a community of educators in an intellectually rich environment. I wanted to be a professor.

"Don't worry about publishing," my new grad school mentors told me, "publishing will come." And so it has, a little at a time. But the shit really came spewing out the back of the fan when I graduated with my MFA and obtained, immediately and against all expectations, not just a teaching job but a full-time teaching job. Adjunct, all composition, but hell--a FULL TIME FUCKING JOB, right? Teaching! I got the job over scads of my former classmates (all of whom started hating on me.) And because I'd come out of this idea that I loved teaching, that teaching writing and learning writing and doing writing were all part of the same lovey-dovey symbiotic process of communication and conversation, I didn't care that my course load was a little higher and my pay was a little (okay, considerably) lower than the "real" professors. I was teaching! I was a teacher!

Weeks, then months, went by. Classes were okay. The schedule was okay. Sure, my students shared with other cattle an instinctive unwillingness to do happily something they'd been forced to do, but we worked through it. There were good bars near campus. But when I wrote e-mails to my old professors or stopped by their offices, I found them just a little less excited to see me each time. I started noticing what Newbie noticed--that while I was excited to be allowed to work with students (undergraduates, no less), these people--my models, my heroes--wanted to *avoid* students. Some of them--the best of them, actually--treated their jobs not as a mandate from a Great State to shepherd a new generation into an intellectual or artistic tradition but rather as a subsidy for their market-unfriendly publishing careers.

I suddenly remembered that as a graduate student, my colleagues and I had been charged with teaching the entire undergraduate creative writing curriculum... everything short of the senior seminar. Then things got worse. Conversations about the lack of support for teaching turned into impromptu interrogations about my benefits package and whether or not I was "cheaper than the grad students"-- whose numbers, I learned at a meeting, help justify new tenure lines. "Yes," I said, snippily, "and I'm a better teacher, too."

My former creative writing students wanted to take independent study--not normally offered by faculty, outside the existing, limited curriculum--with me, and I offered to do it for the department for free. No dice. Apparently the system needed protection from rogue, student-centric elements.

The University System is openly hostile to the attitude that it should concern itself much with educating young people. But because you, my Newbile Friend, have at least a tenure line to protect you, you don't have to be afraid that your colleagues will choke your promising career with the tatters of your one-year contract come May if you do any or all of the following:

  1. Propose a new undergraduate course that will provide an opportunity that your anti-teaching colleagues aren't offering.

  2. Attempt to subtly shape the curriculum from inside meetings at which you, as a tenure track member of the faculty, are invited to participate and vote.

  3. Involve undergraduates in your research projects as the sort of awe-inspiring learning opportunity that catapulted people like me (and maybe you) into graduate school.

  4. Agree, or volunteer, to teach undergraduate courses that your colleagues would happily leave to fools like you, or else unfortunate dues-paying grad students, or else unmarketable, lowly, worthless slaves (i.e. adjuncts).

Research and publication might still be the only things that will count toward your eventual tenure. but I doubt that the four things I’ve suggested will piss off anyone enough to make them fabricate a case against your scholarship.

As for quitting—before you get carried away with what your family will think, think yourself about the adjuncts who might yet be toiling in your department, teaching because they can, for half your salary. What do you think my family says about my non-home-ownership-caliber job, or my stubborn insistence that I keep it? You can leave, and we won’t begrudge you for finding the anti-teaching atmosphere stifling. But we will also add a notch to the board where we keep track of tenure-track pussies.

Cowboy (or –girl) the fuck up, and make the changes you’re allowed to because your name starts with “Professor.” Are you “innocent” in this war? Maybe. But as of now, you’re one of the good men (or women) who do nothing.