Bad Advice Wednesday: Goodbye to the University, Goodbye

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Just Visiting


Today’s advice (apropos Dave’s post yesterday), is for writers who teach in the university, and it is very simple: You don’t necessarily have to.  I’ve quit several times, and have lived to tell the tale.  Simple, I said.  But not easy.  While I was teaching–two decades worth–I often had to remind myself that I’d set out to be a writer, not a professor.  I really loved the classroom and often the students, and didn’t really mind committee work, even got into it, wrote wicked minutes.  The common enterprise of learning and making and knowing and investigating (also administrating), that’s the best.  It’s great work if you can get it, and I did get it and did appreciate it—summers off, semesters or quarters of research leave, adjustable hours, health insurance, a paycheck, mostly agreeable colleagues, the constant plumbing of the self, and so on.  But was that writing?

At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, I left full-time teaching.  That is, I left the academy–this time, I’m pretty sure, for good.  I’d saved up some money, and dreamed up some ways to make more on my own, and nearly finished a new book.  I’d worked to pay off my very modest house, and lived in an inexpensive part of the world, grew a lot of food, already owned most everything I needed.  It could be done!

At first I strongly felt the pull of the school year, like a call to arms, but no war to fight.  My writing productivity dropped off heading into September that first year, no job, and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, though there was plenty to do. I wasn’t retired, but I wasn’t working either, not in a way that felt like work, just the usual few hours a day on the book-in-progress, and then what?  Reading, was what.  I hadn’t had deep reading time in years.  And parenting—the great thing about teaching (that freedom of schedule that can give you more time with your child), was an even greater thing about not teaching.  So much so that Elysia asked me if I planned to be around ALL the time.  Juliet, too: she’d enjoyed my weekly absences during my commute to my last job!

After a year, maybe two, I found that I’d adapted, and in fact, three years later, ‘m busier than ever.  When writing’s your work it becomes your job, ineluctably.  And that’s a good thing.  I have no idea how I ever found time for a faculty position!

My first teaching was as a graduate instructor at Columbia University, where I got my MFA, beginning January, 1987.  September that year I began teaching classes called Logic and Rhetoric, which was required of all first-year undergrads, no placing out, and was the writing and thinking course that’s elsewhere often called composition, but elevated by the theory and practice of Edward Tayler, who’d designed the syllabus we all based ours on, per requirement.  My first semester teaching I was put in the office of a professor on leave, this mahogany library of an office with massive desk and grand window looking out upon the famous quad, a laird’s lair, academic gowns hanging on the back of the door.  Only weeks before I’d been one of the dozen rockers living in a meat-district loft drinking large amounts of beer and finding work where I could playing music or more likely remodeling people’s bathrooms and kitchens, or just fixing toilets or tiling shower stalls.  I’d meant by applying to grad school to move to Arizona or Montana or maybe even Iowa, get away from the city after a decade of decadence, but Columbia, I don’t know: it had been a lark of an application, my dream program, and here they’d offered me money.  And then I won a teaching assistantship, not automatic at Columbia University in the City of New York.

I’d walk up Broadway in a jacket and tie to 116th Street and there duck through the grand gates and onto campus, where the buildings opened onto the green of the quads and famous stairs and the enormous libraries and sunshine, this oasis from the rumbling city, and I’d take a breath and think, I teach here!

To a man and to a woman, the kids were brilliant.  They’d all been valedictorians, salutatorians, BMOCs, teacher’s pets, brains, class presidents, not like me.  One kid asked if I’d read his translations of Rumi—he was, as it turned out, already an acclaimed translator of Persian poetry… into French, in which language he’d been widely published.  A young woman still in braces was working on DNA processes with an international lab in her spare time.  And they were from all over the world: Egypt, France, Iceland, Ethiopia, Korea, Bora Bora, Ecuador.  They challenged me on points large and small.  But that didn’t mean they could write.  They were achievers and wanted their A, had never gotten a grade with a round shape in it before.  B?  C?  D?  Never before!  In my hushed office I had to explain every nuance of my grading system.  And they explained their own predicaments: Did I want to prevent them from getting into Harvard Medical School?  They loved quizzes, quizzes they could ace.  But writing!  Who was I to say their floral, florid, 18th century diction wasn’t wonderful?  We battled it out in class and in private and we all got better—they at words, I at teaching.  Their lives were difficult, often—demanding parents, first bouts with heartbreak, serious depressions, massive hangovers.  And their other classes were huge–auditorium lectures, famous dons.  Whereas ours was small, personal, warm—only 12 kids. I found myself doing my first advising, counseling, harrowing stuff.

My life was consumed, even not including my life as a student in the MFA program, which involved reading and writing all my waking hours, even writing while asleep. My little paycheck was just enough to get along, given my father’s housing support (he bought an apartment, I renovated it; when my degree was won, we’d sell and split the profits, ha-ha-ha).  More important was the tuition waiver, phew.  The whole point of attaining the MFA had originally been to qualify for a professorship one day, but the focus on writing and the great students writing all around me and the famous profs (also the thrill of being criticized, examined, evaluated, appreciated), shifted the point: I needed to do a lot more work than I’d thought to be the writer I’d always meant to be but hadn’t ever thought I’d need help becoming.  I was in school, I discovered, to become a writer.  Not a teacher.

But teaching was a part of that: you had to articulate everything you’d ever thought about writing, and then about life, and then you had to read what came back at you from very smart kids more closely than you’d ever read anything in your life.

And then, as if we weren’t busy enough, my classmate Vince Passaro and I started the Riverside Writers Group.  Our object was to make some money forming community creative writing workshops and running them.  It worked, more or less. And in fact, we had very good students, some of whose books are on my shelves today.  We also threw a party now and again, fun.  Our motto was “Get Some Writing Done!”  And Vince and I went on flyer-posting missions (these generally involved Irish Bars)—but more on all that some later post.  Vince and I were also fiction editors of the literary magazine Columbia, in case we needed more to do.   I bought my first answering machine—newfangled thing.  I typed till late on my Hermes portable typer, then bought my first computer, a Zenith with two ports for those 5 1/4 inch disks. You practically had to write code to use the thing, but wasn’t it great to cut and paste sentences till all hours without scissors, no glue?  Mornings I did the demolition on my apartment, lived in a construction site.

I took my time finishing up at Columbia, as much as they’d give me, but after four years I had to move on.  I got married and got a book contract (for “Summers with Juliet,” which a friend nicknamed “Summers Avec”) and Juliet and I spent a year in Montana while I wrote the thing.   And blindly, I went on the job market, applying for anything and everything—why shouldn’t I be the Mitchell B. Brooks Distinguished Visiting Professor of Letters at Johns Hopkins?  I had a book with Houghton Mifflin!  Also more appropriate openings.  I won interviews at a number of remarkably similar places—state schools and community colleges—for a number of remarkably similar jobs—7- or 8-course load (one 10-course load, at a community college, no thanks), no leave time till tenure, advising duties, committee duties, administrative duties, so on.  And I got offers.  The best was from the University of Maine at Farmington, a former normal school successfully re-inventing itself as the liberal arts college of the Maine system.  I got the job on the basis of a good interview, a new haircut, and the book on the way, but also because the woman they had offered it to above me took a different job, hooray.

At UMF I taught creative writing, occasional lit classes, and a composition class each semester, as did all English faculty.  I taught my comp sections more or less as creative-writing classes, since there was no common syllabus and I could free myself from Edward Tayler’s inductive-essay system (to some extent, anyway—it’s a great system).  I mean, I used lots of narrative, stories from their lives, which you then try to get them to see as evidence, with the question being: what exactly is evident?  At which point they’re moving into argument, hardly aware.  You add some research, next, and keep trying to distill ideas, all the while working painstakingly on their sentences.   Also while having them read one another extensively and read aloud in class—if they won’t perform for teacher, you bet they’ll perform for one another.

The creative writing classes, fiction and nonfiction, weren’t yet as much fun—I was used to the highly motivated independent students we attracted at the Riverside Writers Group, not people for whom making stories was going to be a way to get three college credits and move on.  I got sullen responses to my most impassioned editing.  So.  UMF is where I stopped grading any assignment ever.  Grades good or bad come between teacher and student, and between student and student, simple as that, and there’s no need for that kind of “evaluation” in a writing class (or in any class, but that’s another argument, and I will make it some other time).  What’s needed is clear explanation of what the student needs to do next to get a little better at the work at hand.  Grades only come at the end of the semester, based on engagement with the material and methods of the class, based on working hard.  Yes, A for effort.  No one gets to coast on talent, not in my class.  You came to my class at your own level 1 and your job was to leave at your own level 2, or even 3, sometimes way up around 5 or 6.  (And isn’t it possible for a comparatively weak writer to be a great reader and editor for others?)(The most frustrating students were the very talented who wouldn’t work.  They came in at their personal level 1 and left at level 1, surprised at their first poor grades—they’d always been level 100 in relative terms—but facility will only take you so far.)

Anyway, I had some fun, but mostly worked my butt off—that 8-course load (which has since been lightened at UMF), also Faculty Senate, Curriculum Committee, Creative Writing Committee, etc., etc., etc., and all for $27,500 a year plus benefits.

When Ohio State University came calling (I was recruited by a friend on the faculty there), I was fairly easy pickings, though I was very fond of Maine, and didn’t expect to be fond of Ohio.  (Juliet had been accepted at The Art Institute of Chicago, meanwhile, further incentive.)  The OSU offer nearly doubled my salary, halved my load, put me on the faculty of a serious grad program, all while offering research time in several varieties: in fact I never taught my whole 2-2-1 load (quarter system) in six years there, and had a couple of years nearly entirely off.  UMF made a counter offer, but too little, too late.  Juliet and I kept our house here in Farmington, and in fact never bought a house in Columbus, came back for summers and all leave quarters, probably close to half my time in that great job.

After three years, with credit for my time at UMF, I was tenured.  And immediately became depressed.  I loved the job, but I didn’t love Ohio much.  And more than that—I realized my sideline, meant to support me as I wrote—had become the front line.  Tenure had been held out in front of me and I’d chased it like a greyhound chases the bunny—round and round the track, barely realizing that that bunny wasn’t real, and that the track was an oval going nowhere.

(Tenure, of course, starts as the medieval notion of land relationships: the King owns all; one lives on, builds on, works on, the King’s land at His Majesty’s sufferance; one does not own one’s holdings in any way absolute but is deigned one’s tenure by the greater power.  It’s a feudal thing.  It’s formalized insecurity.  It keeps the serfs in their places, even the most prosperous and productive of them, keeps them in the king’s place, and it is for the king.)

Shortly thereafter, Elysia was born.  In Maine.  During a research quarter.  I held the baby in my arms, I stared at her as she lay beside me in our bed, I drove her around town when she wouldn’t fall asleep: I didn’t want her to be from Ohio.  So I called my chair and asked if I could go on permanent part-time status, say, 51% so as to retain some benefits.  Or failing that, take a two-year leave.  He refused—hardball (people tend not to come back from leaves).  And so I quit my tenured job.

I lucked out after that—movie money, book contracts (Big Bend, Smallest Color, Into Woods, Art of Truth all came out within a two-year period just after I left OSU), an NEA grant.  Three years of full-time writing, wow.  There was the fall-off of productivity—also the curious semi-depression that accompanies formally unstructured time and solitary work.  There was also the new baby, a lot of work.

And there was the money stick, as I thought of it—this pole you held out in front of you to fend off expenses, sometimes plenty long, sometimes uncomfortably short, always growing and shrinking with circumstances.  Also, the unbelievably awful, almost criminally useless “catastrophic coverage” offered by Anthem Blue Cross in our great state of Maine.  Our deductible?  $30,000 a year, at the cost of $2500 in premiums a year.  The other option was to pay $2500 a month—that same $30,000 a year—for average coverage.  I dreamed a president would come along to do battle with the insurance industry, stand up for the self-employed or otherwise non-employer-insured worker, laughable optimism at the time, a vastly underappreciated but slow-moving almost-reality now.  (Big improvements–my deductible is now $15,000)(But the premiums are over $3,000 a year).

And I travelled to conferences and colleges and retreats and gave talks and readings and classes, chips of money to add onto the end of the stick.

After three years the stick was getting a little bitten off at the end.  I’d gotten a nice advance for the book that would soon be “Temple Stream,” though, and thought things were going pretty well.  But a friend called from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, suggesting I apply for an endowed chair—a five-year position, no chance of an extension, so a time-limit from the start, good money, better than the likes of me had ever made, certainly (though no more than your average plumber makes…), no committee duties, unless I wanted to take part, 1-2 load, plus a faculty seminar.  I did pretty well at the interview against really great counter-candidates, a two-day process, and to my amazement was offered the job, the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters.

I loved Holy Cross.  The students are achievers.  They work very hard, most of them.   They call you Professor in the most friendly way, no last name, like saying “Father.”  I asked them often to just call me Bill, but to no avail.  The furniture matched.  The carpets were clean.  My office had a view.  I was a full professor.  The students couldn’t bear not getting grades.  There’d be the office visit, halfway through a given semester: “I know you don’t give grades or anything, but I really need to know how I’m doing.  I’m pre-med, you know.”  And endless variations.   I’d say, “How do you think you’re doing?”  And they’d say, “Oh, pretty well, about an A?”  And I’d say, “Any way you think you could be doing better in this class?”  And they’d say, “Well, I could work harder on x and y.”

And so they would.  Wonderful.  Same kid, give her an A early on, and she coasts.  Keep ’em guessing to keep ’em learning!  Was my motto.  I had several classes (the advanced class) that came up all A’s at semester’s end, perfect performances all around, one entire class without an absence, like a perfect game!  I also flunked more than one student, other classes—never a complaint—they’d known how they were doing and knew all I’d done to try and save them.

The faculty seminar was a revelation.  I ran it as a writing workshop.  And it only took a few sessions each year for the profs to turn into students.  Loved having a botanist (or what have you) asking “How’m I doing?”  The transference is funny in that case—a very senior colleague turning into student, needing attention, turning up at office hours like a puppy.  Only difference is the profs didn’t always do their homework, and seldom turned up on time.  Also, they talk a lot and hard to turn them off.

And then the five years were up.  Perfect amount of time.  A college career plus a little.  Time to have made friends, but not enough time (without committee assignments) to have made any enemies, that long commute having just grown wearying.

A year of adjustment, another year, and then another, and to the present: Still not back to school.  I just write, and write, and write some more, which is what I set out to do in the first place.  When my COBRA health insurance ran out (which I’ve posted about), just after a major operation on my fucking spine, I had to double-dip write some more, that’s all: self employment means outrageous healthcare costs.

My daughter has been nine, and ten and now eleven, and it’s a really great time to be home, home all day every day (unless traveling, but I always traveled), my studio only 100 steps away, if that.

Of course I miss teaching.  And of course I haven’t stopped altogether.  I travel to conferences and colleges and retreats as always.  I take on private-study students, also consult with authors and editors and agents on books that aren’t quite blooming.  There’s some money in it, of course (and I’m watching that stick in front of me closely), but there’s teaching in it, too.  I even offer a young writers workshop for free, eleven or twelve kids at the local library, my daughter among them.  It’s pure teaching, Socrates under a tree, no remuneration, just love.

But I never set out to be a teacher.  I set out to be a writer.  And for better or worse, this morning that’s what I am.

[adapted from an earlier post]

  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    What a great essay on one writer’s life, thereby on the writing life. Bill, you had it made at Ohio State, of course, but what an interesting life and career you’ve had instead. And as a once and future southern boy, as a former happy Hoosier, I cannot fault you for leaving this strange, mean state where I find myself, Ohio.

    Love your candor, the pensive touches. You did it your way, like Sinatra. Except unfortunately I seem to be one of the few who despises him, a sullen bully and a sentimental brute, two fatal flaws in my book—strange, isn’t it, how they go together? Like Bobby Knight, come to think of it, the only bad thing about Indiana. But then he added needed spice . . . those undefeated seasons, and later everyone wondering when they’d carry him out in chains. But, anyway, the point I’m trying to make I guess is there’s a ton of soul in staying put somewhere.

    Rock on, Bill, you prince of Maine.

  2. Heather (McCarthy) Radcliffe writes:

    Holy Cross was a better place because of you! I’m so glad we crossed paths and that you stuck around while I was there…
    A great memory…our first class together…you took everyone outside to walk around in the “woods” and said…”tell me what you see.”
    Hope Maine’s good!