What I'd Like My Students to Know About Academic Jobs: Part IV

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

For the past few semesters I’ve asked my creative writing students to read a short essay called “Workshop Is Not For You” by Jeremiah Chamberlin from the Glimmer Train bulletin. We always read it before we start to workshop. The premise of this essay is that students gain a great deal by taking the time to carefully read and comment on their peers’ work in a writing workshop. Chamberlin says that students shouldn’t get upset if their classmates don’t seem to be putting as much time and effort into responding to work as they are. They will gain more from responding to their classmates’ work than they will from having their own work up for discussion.

I agree completely with Chamberlin’s idea here, but I’m not sure I would have agreed when I was an undergraduate or a graduate student. During my years as a student, I was often frustrated with the feedback I received from my classmates. I would always type comments and I’d give my classmates at least a page of single-spaced typed feedback on each of their stories. From some classmates I’d get a few scribbled comments back on my manuscript when my work was up for workshop. Some classmates didn’t return my manuscripts at all, and I often wondered if they’d even bothered to read my work. I was really angry about this for a long time, but ultimately I realized that all that time I’d spent as a student writing responses for my peers helped me out tremendously when I became a teacher. I felt completely comfortable responding to student writing because I’d had so much experience responding to my peers.

And something else happened when I went from being a student to a full-time teacher with so many student stories and exercises that I spent hours and hours a day grading: I learned a ton about writing from reading this work, from figuring out what was working and what wasn’t, and articulating my ideas about how the work could be revised. I think it would have taken me much longer to figure out a lot of things if I wasn’t grading so much and only looking at my own work for those two years that I taught at Missouri State. For example, when I was in graduate school, one of my professors kept telling me that all of my stories started too early. Often, I could cut away several pages of unnecessary material at the beginning of a story. When my professor pointed this out to me, I could see what he was talking about, yet in each new story I wrote, I began with too much exposition and backstory. Left to my own devices, I would start each story with a lot of information that would be better integrated into the story later on or simply left out altogether. Even though my professor kept pointing this out to me, I just couldn’t get it into my brain as I was writing that my stories could start later. But once I started seeing dozens of stories a week that started a page or two too early, I immediately understood what my professor had seen in my stories and I was able to stop doing this in my own work.

You must read and grade all of this!

You must read and grade all of this!

And not only does a job with a heavy teaching load force a teacher to look at a huge amount of writing, it also forces you to read carefully and take apart published stories in a way that many writers who are not teaching might not do. I know that I study a story more closely before I teach it than I would if I were just reading for pleasure. When I prep a story to teach, I go through it at least twice (usually three or four times) and try to figure out why the author made the craft decisions he or she made. I study the story and pick it apart in a way that I never would if I were not planning on getting in front of a classroom and leading discussion. From this close examination of stories, I’ve learned a great deal about the strategies writers employ. During some semesters when I was at Missouri State, I was teaching four sections of the same class, and leading discussion after discussion of the same story helped me to understand these particular stories well and to have a better idea of how stories can work in general. Sometimes students would make comments during these discussions that were so smart and would further illuminate the stories for me.

It wasn’t until I started teaching that I became a good editor for my own work. Before I started teaching, I was dependent on feedback from professors and classmates on my stories. I didn’t know whether a story worked well or didn’t work until workshop when I got feedback. But as I kept teaching and reading so many drafts of stories, I was able to sharpen my editorial skills. I don’t think this would have happened as quickly (or perhaps at all) if I hadn’t had to look at so much student work.

Did I make mistakes during my first two years of teaching? Hell, yeah. In each class, I gave each student at least ten graded creative exercises to write a semester plus three full-length stories plus typed peer reviews of each peer’s stories that they’d have to turn in to me (so in a class of twenty-two students where the students were workshopping three stories, each student would write sixty-three peer reviews). I gave the students so much work, which also meant that I was constantly grading piles of papers. I typed pages of comments for each draft of each student’s story. I wanted to teach each student in every class I taught everything I knew about fiction writing in one semester, and that’s just an impossible task. Now I know that I likely overwhelmed students with feedback. I was often frustrated back then because I saw that in their revisions students didn’t use all my suggestions on their first drafts that I’d spent hours typing for them. Now I think that it’s more helpful to choose two or three bigger issues for students to focus on, especially in an introductory class. Students can fix three issues in a revision. Students can’t fix forty issues in one revision. I think the students who wanted to continue writing got a lot out of my classes, but I also think some of the students who were just taking the class to fulfill a requirement probably shook their heads when they realized I’d spent more time writing comments on their work than they’d spent writing it. I spent so much time copyediting every single page of work I got, and I finally realized that this copyediting didn’t result in the next stories or papers being stronger on the sentence level.

I was working very, very hard, but I don’t think I was working terribly smart. It took a few semesters of that super hard work—long nights grading until 3a.m., spending weekends grading, falling over exhausted and sleeping for days at the ends of semesters—to realize that there had to be ways of teaching that were still valuable for students without completely draining me. Those two years were really a teaching boot camp, and they helped me figure out how to assign a reasonable amount of work for the students and for me to grade. In a way, I was lucky that in the instructor position I wasn’t responsible for committee or service work or advising. All I had to do was teach my classes and attend department meetings once a month. This compartmentalization of teaching was great for me because I only had to worry about teaching for two years. At my next job, I had many more duties outside of the classroom, and I was really glad that I’d had the time during my first job to figure out how to design and teach my classes.

Yes, this is another photo of papers, but, honestly, for those two years, my life consisted of staring at piles of papers for almost all of my waking hours. 

Yes, this is another photo of papers, but, honestly, for those two years, my life consisted of staring at piles of papers for almost all of my waking hours. 

For me, this job was ultimately worth it because I learned a lot about being a teacher and all that grading helped me to strengthen my own writing and editorial skills. That job wasn’t sustainable, either in terms of salary or workload, but it was a tough first job that I don’t ever regret taking. Putting in those hours and paying my dues led to better jobs with fewer students and better compensation. But I think that now, more than ever with a tight job market, it’s important for students who are thinking of going to graduate school and who want to teach at the college level to know that oftentimes there are a lot of dues-paying years. This is not to say that after the first few years of teaching everything becomes easy, but since I left that job I’ve never had a semester in which I taught ninety students. Now I have other responsibilities at my school outside of teaching, and I think I can do a good job of balancing my teaching, service, and writing, and I owe a lot to my first job for allowing me the chance to figure out a great deal about teaching.

These four posts have been a very long explanation to “How did you get your job?” To my students, I have this to say: There’s often a long and difficult path that your professors have to follow to get where they are. And if you’re willing to travel that path—to pursue opportunity, embrace change, and compromise—you very well can end up with a job that is fulfilling and allows you to spend your days thinking and talking about reading and writing. And that, I think, is not a bad life at all.