My (Unsolicited) Thoughts on the Writing Task Force



This summer, the university where I teach has seen fit to form a Task Force (caps both necessary and utterly not) on the teaching of writing.  Some professors “up the chain” in other departments feel dissatisfied with the quality of writing they get from students who have completed at least one semester of the required first-year writing courses.  I couldn’t agree more with their dissatisfaction, yet I couldn’t agree less with their methods of trying to remedy it.  The way this has come to pass feels more like shit rolling downhill than any authentic attempt at improvement, an Internal Affairs inquiry when what we need is actual professional collaboration.

The formation of the Task Force represents how much the university cares about writing across the curriculum and in all fields, ostensibly.  So let’s take a look at the evidence of that care and reflection, shall we?

The university cares so much about teaching writing that it pays adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty pennies on the tuition dollar to do just that.

The university cares so much about teaching writing that our Writing Center is staffed by 2 faculty members tutoring 24 hours per week in a space the size of a supply closet.  Full disclosure–I am one of them.

The university cares so much about teaching writing that the attempt to add “W” or writing tags to courses within the current general ed curriculum failed miserably, even after diluting the amount and type of writing professors in other departments had to read and grade in order to get that tag, to the extent that it became essentially meaningless.

The university cares so much about teaching writing that it will take to task those lazy writing professors with their 4/4 loads and their utter lack of professional status and make sure that they do what is necessary to ensure that no writing instruction will have to occur “up the chain.”  Good luck with that!

The university cares so much about teaching writing that it will never even offer a pretense of a professional career path to the people who do it.

This Task Force means to evaluate what is going on in first-year writing classrooms–fine by me, as I do teach my students to write, with as much rigor and thoroughness as I can muster in the space of about 15 weeks.  Also fine by me if they should decide to think about how they treat the faculty who teach these courses, many of them adjuncts teaching 4/4 or even 5/5 loads with no benefits, and a smaller but significant number on full-time year-to-year contracts.

And I will agree with one of their observations:  the students do not write well.  They arrive underprepared, overwhelmed, and primed for plagiarism.  They have not assimilated writing knowledge in the same ways that we, the middle-aged and above, remember doing as students ourselves.  However, I find that they want to learn.  They want to write better, sound smarter, and present themselves well.  They want to understand formal English grammar, but they feel like it’s a trap to keep them from scoring well, rather than a means to clear communication. I am terribly sorry about the bad essays and reports that other people have to read.  I empathize. Good, professional teachers can meet them where they are and move them forward, but the work absolutely cannot stop there.  So, “up your chain,” is what I’m saying.

The Task Force has, at least, five writing faculty representatives on the roster.  This brings me some hope.  But hope in academia, as we all know, is a dangerous thing to harbor.

Hey Precariat, We’re Burned

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy, until…”We’ve got a burn notice on you. You’re blacklisted.” When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in. You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who’s still talking to you: a Trigger Happy ex-girlfriend; an Old Friend who used to inform on you to the FBI; family too — if you’re desperate. Bottom line: As long as you’re burned, you’re not going anywhere.

My new favorite binge-watch-while-reading-essays TV show is Burn Notice.  If you are unfamiliar, Burn Notice is the story of a “burned” CIA operative named Michael Westen who is stuck in his hometown of Miami trying desperately to get his government job back and to figure out why he lost it in the first place.  In the meantime, he freelances, using his particular set of skills (yes, I did write that in Liam Neeson voice, thanks for noticing)  to help people in difficult situations.  So what we have here, folks, is a highly (and expensively, as he points out) trained operative, flying solo without his accustomed institutional support, spotty and uncertain income, and an unaccountable desire to get back into the very organization that burned him.  Sound familiar to anyone?
Truly, I have been watching the show for pure entertainment for two and a half seasons (if you have watched all seven, back off for now, okay?).  And boy is it entertaining!  The writing is clever; the episodic plots have that detailed, con-artist sensibility that makes the audience feel smart; the cast is composed of alarmingly good-looking badasses.  All of the things that make for a good spy story are in play–Burn Notice is my kind of fantasy.  Then last night, I watched the episode entitled “The Hunter,” which has an appealing “The Most Dangerous Game” subplot, and more importantly, in which a broker of mercenaries tries to convince Michael that he needs such a broker because “a man with [Michael]’s skills is extremely valuable, and [the broker] wants to make sure that does not go to waste,” as “he is operating in Miami with no resources, no operational support. That’s no way to live.  It’s not safe.” Indeed.

And with that, I dropped the essay I was grading and had a long think about this. Watching the show, I share his girlfriend’s frustration with his obsession.  Why would he want back in to an agency that has treated him so poorly? Left him at the mercy of his enemies and guys like Strickler (above)? Especially when he has found a way to make a living and use what he knows?

Oh dear.  I think I know why. Because to Michael, the skills he has, the rescues he engineers, and anything he accomplishes means nothing without the imprimatur of legitimacy that his old job provided.  Without that, he does not know his own value. He insists that he needs that protection and cover to make his work really worthwhile. Of course, the subplots of each episode demonstrate the flimsiness of that theory. He is far more valuable to the people he helps, his friends, and his family than he ever could be to the Agency. And yet…

And yet.  I sit here reading 51 essays, after my children are in bed, after my husband is in bed, with only the dog and Michael Westen for company.  I blog and I stew and I try to write when I can. The University, like the Company, does not really care how or when I get the job done, just that I do it.  They have no particular investment in me or my skills.  Like Michael, I’m ultimately expendable in service of bigger institutional goals, and I know it!  But I’m still here.

I left to get a PhD, then came back to the same job, just knowing that this time they would appreciate me, cultivate me as an asset. This is not going to happen.  No matter how many articles I write, classes I teach, committees I serve on, or programs I direct, I will never really be a Company Woman.  But did I ever really want to be?

The second season finale finds Michael Weston in a helicopter with a group of dark-suited representatives of a shadowy, unnamed government agency that has recruited him against his will do do their dirty work.  The leader of this group argues that without their protection, information network, and money that Michael will be at the mercy of every enemy he has ever made, and so will his family.  He insists that no amount of individual spycraft can keep him safe the way they can.  Should Michael refuse the offer, he says, “There’s the door.”  A straight, long drop from the helicopter into the ocean five miles from Miami Beach.  Michael chooses the plunge over the servitude.

Me?  I’m still sitting in the helicopter, waiting for a push.

Love is a Battlefield

Today, I look around the lovely campus where I work and wonder how I got here. Of course, in the most literal sense, I got on the highway, drove 12 miles north of my house, parked in the distant faculty lot and made the quick walk to my office before classes.  That part of the journey is easy, especially compared to the multi-campus, multi-freeway commutes many people in my position have to make every day.  In the early hours of  mornings like this one, walking past the manicured quads, watching the students stroll to class or to the coffee shop, I feel intense gratitude for this destination.  I can forget my second-class status, the dark cloud of failure over my head, the lack of time I spend on my own writing, the essays to grade.

But how did I really get here? Clearly, I have always felt inclined (or compelled?) to write and to teach, not necessarily in that order.  I made good grades in English classes all through school, and spent hours with my nose in a book.  Writing essays and fiction came naturally to me from a young age.  I loved, and still love, libraries and bookstores.  So why not pursue a career that engages what I love?  That’s the myth we cherish most, isn’t it?  Do what you love.  Of course, for those of us who love talking to students about literature and teaching them how to write and think about what they read, the options are increasingly narrow and unappealing, as chronicled by better scholars than I.

So, what do we do when what we love fails to be an option?  How do we make the job we have something we can love?  How do we reconcile love and bill-paying and supporting our families?

Maybe we can’t.

To some degree, I am just doing what I have always done, since the day I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree 21 years ago (OMG teh oldness.  Authentically old).  I taught SAT prep courses (Pure Evil, the testing) while I earned my teaching certificate.  I taught public high school and middle school English for four years, then applied to a Masters program in English at a local university.  The intent was to return to public school after finishing the degree, but a lectureship opened up at the same university, and they hired me.  So I stayed on as a full-time lecturer in English.  I loved teaching at the university level.  My classes were smaller than my high school classes had been; teaching two or three days a week felt so liberating and flexible after the rigid public school bell schedule, and my contact with students’ parents was limited or non-existent.  Even though I was teaching the same course each semester, I could choose my own texts and themes and had a lot of creative freedom.  Despite the pay cut I took changing venues, for the first two years, I thought I had found Teacher Heaven.  True love.

Of course, the Honeymoon Period ended, as they tend to do, and I began to think more critically about the job.  I took on an administrative position in addition to my teaching duties (no extra pay, of course).  Administration is not my forte, and the work it took to do that job at an acceptable level, in defiance of any authentic talent or desire, really drained me of creative energy and motivation.  So I started, as I had done 5 years earlier from my public school classroom, to look at graduate school as a path to something different and better. (Here is where you may snicker jadedly at my silliness).  I left my university job for a short time to complete my PhD.  And complete it I did, two kids and a variety of identity crises later.  I then returned to work at the same job, finding that my status had in fact changed for the worse with my shiny new diploma, and that the path to something different was a yellow brick road to my own backyard.  That’s right.  We’ve gone from Benatar to Garland in one post.  Now what?

O Teacher, Where Art Thou?

My parents think I’m a college professor.  They are so proud.  But I know that I am not a real college professor and probably never will be.

I used to love teaching.  On a good day, one of those when my students have done the reading and they are on fire with witty comments, laughing at my dumb jokes, asking smart questions, I still do.  As I was preparing my (5-page, not that bad, thanks) syllabus for yet another first-year writing course this year, however, I felt something within had shifted.  From my very first year teaching high school in the fall of 1995 until about a year ago, I looked forward to the first day like any good perpetual-student-person.  The fresh notebooks! The sharp pencils! The new calendar! Not this year.  I prepped as I always do, for a brand-spanking-new course, no less, but the thrill just was not there.  I found myself binge-reading quit-lit, and envying people who have found themselves not writing syllabi for the first time in many years.

This could certainly be a case of mid-life burnout, right?  I’m 42 (choke, sputter, gasp), and have been teaching for about 17 years.  As a result, I have started to notice that, I’m aging and the students are always the same.  Sometimes that inescapable fact inspires me. The fresh faces! The sharp wits! They keep me young.  But.  That same set of faces, year after year, can also give one a feeling of futility.  Why am I spending time rolling the boulder of composition uphill behind a passel of future engineers and business majors who deeply and fervently hope that boulder just crushes me and rolls away, leaving them to pursue easier and more “relevant” things?  Despite that very common writerly frustration though, I know in my heart that it’s not them.  It’s me.  

*But not in a creepy way!
*But not in a creepy way!

In many ways, my job is a better one than most people of my age and educational history get to have in this time of adjunctification and Corporate U.  It’s a full-time university gig with a 4/4 load and health benefits. The salary is not good–I made more teaching public school.  But the hours are flexible, and I can get a little course relief by working in the Writing Center and/or taking on administrative work.  I’ve done both.  In fact, I find more and more that I am looking for ways to teach less, and this surprises me.  I can’t decide whether to give up the administrative work and teach more–really throw myself into it like the old days–or to think about giving it up entirely.  

As long as I’m here, teaching in either of my specialty fields is not allowed, and as my (year-to-year) contract stipulates, “Research is neither expected nor rewarded.” That PhD I earned on the side while working here benefits me not at all.  And in fact, I have learned, passing through the doctoral meat-grinder, that all the teaching I’ve done is not valuable–that it marks me as inferior in some way.  I came to the PhD as an older student with a teaching career behind me, foolishly thinking that this experience mattered.  No one in my family works in academia, and despite spending a fair number of years there myself, I just did not know I was supposed to be ashamed of my teaching career.  I’ve always been proud of it.  Perhaps that pride is what I really need to regain.  And maybe, after another year’s distance from my dissertation defense, I will find a way to be proud again.  In many ways, teaching suits me.  Shame, not so much.  So maybe its not the teaching that’s the problem, it’s the externally-dictated shame in loving it.

So I have to be creative in the way I create my perpetual first-year writing course to keep the thing enjoyable for myself so that I can engage my students’ curiosity, challenge them, maybe even get them to like writing.  I am also trying to engage my own love of writing once more, in part by writing here.  If anyone out there has found a way to fall in love with the job again, I would love to hear about that experience.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am grateful for the job I have–I want to do it right and better, whether I am in the “real” English department or not.  

My parents think I’m a college professor.  I would like to believe that about myself.