Friday, May 27, 2011

Poets and College Teaching

A few days ago, Justin Evans wrote this post that wondered if he would have more advantages as a poet if he taught at a university.  He talked about the poets and writers of all types who might come through the university.  He could take a class or workshop.  He noted the advantages of not having to publish or research, but still his post seemed full of a yearning of a type I recognize.

I, too, have wanted to be part of a community that treasures poetry.  And maybe, if I taught in an MFA program as part of the poetry staff, maybe I would feel that way.  Justin wondered if he romanticized things a bit, and I know that I have a tendency to do that.

Here are the things that I know, however, things that are worth reminding myself.

Some of those communities can be snake pits.  One of the more talented writers I know stopped writing for years after taking some MFA classes--that's how brutal the community had been.  Happily she recovered, but she had the advantage of being able to leave.  If my mortgage payments depended on me staying as part of the poetry staff, I couldn't leave.

Even if I found a great community, with great opportunities in terms of the chance to hear writers read or work with them or go see interesting speakers from other departments, well, let's be honest, life would still get in the way.  There would be many nights when I just wouldn't want to go.  There would be great opportunities that I couldn't take advantage of because of family duties or other types of duties.

Here's what I don't like about teaching:  the grading.  Would it be different if I taught in an MFA program?  Different, yes, but I imagine the grading dynamic would still take my mental energy that I need for writing.

And that's if I was lucky enough to get a teaching job in an MFA program. 

Let's face it, most of us who get MFAs and PhDs are going to end up teaching a lot of Composition classes.  When I was at the AWP, listening to the conversations that swirled around me, I noticed that people without jobs (students and such) assumed that they would be getting those plum jobs where they'd teach a poetry section or two and some graduate theses to oversee.

But that's simply not reality.  If they're lucky, they'll teach full-time in a school where they'll get a lit class or a creative writing class a term, and the rest will be Composition.  That's the bread and butter of any English department.

If they're not lucky, they'll spend lots of time driving from adjunct job to adjunct job.

We also tend to assume that college students will be involved and interested in the subject matter.  That may be the case.  But frankly, my friends who teach in high school are often the ones who get to teach the most interesting students, the ones who are full of enthusiasm.  My high school teacher friends are teaching novels that I'm sure my students wouldn't read, not even under threat of an F.  Yet they get no push back.

But my high school teacher friends also have endless grading.

So, back to Justin's question:  what should a poetry life look like?  Well, any life that allows us to write our poetry and send it out is a place to start.  It would be lovely to have a poetry life that allows us to go out and do readings and support our work, but even if we don't have that luxury, if we have a job that doesn't leave us too drained/terrified/exhausted to write, well that's no small thing.

We're lucky to live at this time, where even if we don't have a local poetry community, we can create an online poetry community.  We can find people who understand why we do what we do, even if our coworkers don't.  We can also read the blogs of people who landed those perfect poetry jobs in lovely MFA programs, and we can realize that even those jobs come with downsides. 


Justin Evans said...

Thank you for this. It certainly is a complex issue, and seeing it from other perspectives helps.

I wish it was easy as we all imagine it could be in the most perfect of circumstances---that would be a treat.

Lynn said...

I'm one of those people who teaches a whole lot of comp. While I generally really like my students and also work at an institution where the politics are comparatively minimal, I spend virtually every Saturday throughout the semester grading papers, and many of my students are not terribly invested or hard working. For example, 15 of 41 of my comp students failed the course this semester, and every one of them had failed to turn in at least one (generally more than one) major assignment. I'm very grateful for my job, but there's nothing romantic about it.

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

Yes, grading IS rather horrible, no matter what one grades; i am luckier in that i don't have to teach primarily comp classes, but the writing gets no better, and sometimes i wonder if anything can ever help.
on really bad days i go to the beach, or to my little library parking lot (when the library is closed), and read aloud (no, i mean really loudly) the poetry i am in the mood for.
somehow i feel the universe has been vindicated after this. i don't think any job can effect such a catharsis, no matter how idyllic. as far as jobs go, mine comes very, very near the ideal, and i too feel the need to shout out my poetry, then . . .

SL Heitz said...

Very interesting topic, and one that I've thought a lot about. I'm one of those poets working outside of academia. I definitely miss the creative discussions and workshops I had when I was working on my MFA and then PhD, but I appreciate my current job security, and I don't miss having my evenings and weekends swallowed by grading.