Thursday, September 17, 2009

Working, Writing, and William Carlos Williams

Today is the birthday of William Carlos Williams, a poet who worked as a doctor for his whole life.

Imagine that, a poet who didn't have an academic job. I always find these examples hopeful, especially when I read articles like this one in The Washington Post on Sunday. I've always worried that people in higher education are a bit like auto workers in the 70's, who are sowing the seeds of their demise, but they don't see it. This article argues, "Innovators have yet to tap the potential of the aggregator to change the way students earn a degree, making the education business today look like the news biz circa 1999."

The article goes on to show how the Internet will transform the way we think about college--soon, the days when college is a physical place where you go to get a degree will be over. The author notes, "Already, half of college graduates attend more than one school before graduation. Soon you'll see more Web sites that make it easy to take classes from a blend of different universities." It's not such a stretch, really: "Classes are increasingly taken credit by credit, instead of in bulk -- just as news is now read article by article."

It sounds like a great deal for students, in some ways, most notably convenience. But it's not likely to be so great a deal for educators.

I do mourn the loss of the kind of college experience I had, where I took a variety of classes and read so much that I'd never have a chance to read again. Plus, I was surrounded by people reading the same things, so we had all sorts of interesting conversations, both in the classroom and out of it. But even then, I knew that I was one of the last generations having that experience. It was just too expensive to be sustainable. Now, many of my students are working several jobs to pay for school--and they're taking on debt that they'll be repaying for decades once they're done.

I suspect humans always feel the loss of the past. Dale Favier has a great post about literary communities, past and present, and about reading audiences and the future of literature--I'm making it sound ponderously dull but it gave me great hope about writing. Here's a quote to whet your appetite: "There is simply no way that we could, or should, pare that number down to the small literary circles that used to make literary history. There will be no more Tennysons, because we are awash in Tennysons. There are half a dozen poets in my blogroll that I think are that good. Odds are they won't be in the Norton Anthology in the year 2050: those slots will be taken, as they are now, by the pets of academia -- good poets, some of them, no doubt: but to call them the good poets of the early 21st Century is simply delusionary. It doesn't work that way anymore. The floodgates are open, and we're swimming in poetry. If you want to be a literary Name, that's distressing. If you want to make a living by selling your poetry, God help you. But if you just want to read and write poetry, it's marvelous."

I feel the same way--it's marvelous time for poetry and a great time to be a poet, even if you can't earn your keep via poems. We live in a world where poets keep blogs and they'll often correspond with you if you write to them and often, you can participate in cool poetry projects, which means you might write a poem each day during the month of April or exchange poetry postcards or build intriguing constructions out of cardboard or bits or photo montages.

Maybe, eventually, I'll see all sorts of potential in the new ways of delivering higher education. Maybe by then, I'll have reinvented myself, so that I won't feel as threatened by the loss of my livelihood.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Wow, thank you, Kristin!

I too would hate to see the sort of college experience I had go away. (My college experience was odd, being at Evergreen State, but it was odd chiefly in having more shared reading and direct intellectual intercourse than most schools did, even then.)

But there's always upsides, and people make surprising islands of creativity and community out of all kinds of unlikely materials.