Farewell, Back to School
The autumn after I finished my MFA, I took a gap year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that one year separated my life as a student and my life as a professor. I went to visit my cousins in England (miss you guys!). There I traveled and avoided having feelings about the world for a while. The following year I was back, structuring my syllabi and teaching writing, the only thing I really knew how to do.
Layover in Academia
Academia was a substantial part of my life for the last decade, but while teaching felt as natural as writing, I wasn’t sold on the idea of being a teacher forever. Not least because no one really wants to pay you to do it and the adjunct model is really, really screwed up these days (really, really, really screwed up).
Teaching became what I did to distract myself from thinking about a viable career, whatever that means. Every day, I am less convinced by the argument that a full-time job working in one place, in one office is the gold standard of success. It can be success for some, but increasingly it feels like a marker of a different era for a different generation.
Teaching itself became a distraction. In graduate school, our professors pulled in past MFAers from our program who taught in a variety of venues around the area. The idea was to dispel any romantic notions about life (and teaching) post-MFA. The panel ended up being more polarizing than anyone realized. One contingent believed that "if you want to write, don't teach." While their opponents appreciated the teaching career.
No one wants to pay you a whole lot to teach, but they want to pay you even less to write. So if you want to teach, great! If you want to write...
No Turning Back
So, I find myself five years later on the first week of school, knowing this time it isn’t a gap year. My experience has taught me that formal teaching was a temporary part of my life and that I’m not going back, at least not any time soon.
Recently, I went out with some friends who I know from my teaching days. We talked about freshman orientation and all the usual suspects and topics. It was bittersweet. There are things to miss: intellectual conversations in an environment where critical thought is championed, mentoring students who are opening themselves to the possibilities of learning, and finding avenues for research and collaboration.
Without teaching, I am free of long afternoons of grading and dealing with those students who spend more effort trying to get out of work than actually doing it, and unchained from the inherently arcane hierarchies of the higher education system. Those burdens I shed without remorse.
Once, in one of my creative writing classes at a local college, a student wrote on the end-of-class evaluation that she'd always wanted to be a writer, but not after taking my class. Total teacher fail, right? I'm supposed to encourage them and foster their dreams, not send those dreams crashing to the ground in splintered ash and smoke.
My student clarified on her evaluation that my class taught her that she didn’t love writing, at least, not the way I did. My love of writing taught her that she should take some time to figure out what she did love as much. I may not have steered her down the writing path, but I did help her see the truth about herself in the world and set her on the way to that truth. Hers is still one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received.
After I left a full-time job, I am still figuring out what the next few years hold in terms of a "viable career." I'm not alone, and I'm also writing professionally and working on creative projects. The best part? I've seen the truth about myself in the world and I'm on the way to that truth.