Is This What You’re Looking For?

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There’s one question I hear from students more than any other. Before a big essay is due, or a poetry portfolio or short story, students tend to wander into my office, rough draft in hand, a nervous shiftiness in their eyes as they slide the pages across the desk to me. “What is it, exactly, you want my help with?” I’ll ask. And the answer is almost always, “I just want to know if this is what you’re looking for.” And I never know quite how to answer this question. Yes, we spend several class sessions discussing what goes into a well-written short story (a well developed character with believable dialogue, attention to detail in setting, a clear catalyst, a plot that consists of distinct scenes that build in tension to a clear climax scene where the protagonist finally acts–rather than reacts–and makes a decision from which he/she can’t turn back). And we read chapters in a textbook that also talk about these elements of good fiction (or poetry, or essays). And these textbooks aren’t written by me (the text I use for Introduction to Creative Writing was written by Stephen Minot, for example, and I’ve never had a student come into my office and ask “Is this what Minot is looking for in a short story?”). But there seems to be this idea that what makes up good writing is unique to each individual instructor, and if the student can just manage to puzzle together what that “something” is that each instructor believes to be good writing than the student can ace the essay (or short story, or poem).

I think this is also why, in the hallways between classes in Preston Hall, I’ll often overhear a distraught student complain to a friend, “Professor ____________ just doesn’t like my writing!” There’s something so personal about that comment. It seems to imply that some students believe that writing professors grade in an arbitrary, subjective way (and I imagine the professor in her office, red pen in hand, complaining about how well structured the essay is, and how clear the thesis statement is, but *dang it* the writer uses too many adverbs for the professor’s liking and, so, the essay must fail!).

Granted, those of us who grade writing can not simply go down a page and look to see if the equations add up properly. We can’t run a form through a scan tron machine to tabulate a grade. But I would argue that most instructors of writing are probably going to be able to pick out the weaknesses in any essay, and will (in turn) be in the same ballpark with the final grade for the essay. There is an objectivity to how we grade, even if some of the students prefer to shift the blame of a poor grade on an essay off of themselves and onto the professor. In other words, some students believe that the grade they received was not the one that they earned, but rather the one that was given to them. And another professor–if they could just find the right one!–would give them the “A” they so justly deserve.

When I was in graduate school, those of us about to teach composition for the first time were required to attend a series of “teaching prep” classes, many of which concerned grading procedures. A tenured professor had us read a small pile of student essays and we had to grade these essays (privately, on our own) and then come back to the class and announce the grade we had given each essay and why. We spent hours going over each essay (taking off a certain number of points for a poor thesis, more points for unclear topic sentences, etc.) and by the end of the training–amazingly–the thirty or so of us in the room had come within a half-letter grade of each other. It’s not that we didn’t all understand going into the training what to look for in the writing, we just weren’t sure how many points to take off for each lacking element. And maybe this is that loophole that leads some students to believe that if they could only find the professor that *likes* their writing then they’d be set.

I’m usually suspect of a student that comes to me after receiving a “C” on an essay and complains that they’ve always received “A’s” on their essays before. I find it hard to believe that any two writing professors, when confronted with the same piece of writing, wouldn’t at least come up with roughly the same letter grade. I find it very hard to believe that student can be an “A” writer for one instructor and a “C” writer for another (and I’m not talking about those anomalies where a traditionally “good” writer turns in an uncharacteristically poor essay. Life happens, kids get sick, or midterm pressures pile on, and so they whip something out the night before the essay is due and they don’t look the professor in the eye when they hand the thing in. And I’ve found that these students are aware of the poor writing they’ve done and take responsibility for the poor grade).

But this business of grading isn’t easy. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask if I find grading creative writing assignments more difficult than grading academic essays. And the truth is that I really don’t find a difference. There are still quantifiable, objective elements that I’m looking for. What’s difficult for me is knowing that, on “paper handback” days, a lot of students will leave class disappointed with their grades, and rather than accepting responsibility for the grade that they’ve earned, they’ll find a friend in the hallway after class and will wail, “Professor Kopchick just doesn’t like my writing!”

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick, Uncategorized |on March 13th, 2010 |No Comments »

Myth-Busting Redux (Graduate Edition)

To follow my colleagues Laura, Desiree, and Jackie, who have lately been exploring myths about English departments, students, and faculty, I thought I would explore three myths about graduate study that I encounter as Graduate Advisor.

Myth #1: You Must Get Your Degrees from Different Places. Not that it’s a bad idea to get degrees from different places. If you get your BA, MA, and PhD from three different schools, or at least from two different schools, then you meet more people, you’re exposed to different ideas, you find different library collections to explore, you enjoy life more and become more cosmopolitan, and dozens of other advantages.

But the myth I’m talking about here is more like “nobody will hire me if my CV shows three degrees from the same place, because that’s an automatic resumé-killer.”

And really, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re applying for a teaching-heavy job, the first thing they look for is how much, how varied, and how strong your teaching experience is. (Unless it’s the 25th of August and the semester starts on the 26th, in which case they look for whether your breath will fog a mirror and you aren’t currently incarcerated.)

If you’re applying for a research-oriented job, they look to see how interesting your dissertation is, and what you’ve published to establish its high quality.

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Somewhere down the line, the trivial matter of where you earned all your different degrees (always assuming none of them is from Dr Nick’s All-Nite Research University) might come up over drinks, but really, nobody uses that fact as a quick CV weeder.

Myth #2: I’ll Never Get a Teaching Job Because I’m Too Old / White / Anglo / Male. Because you’re right, there are hardly any old white Anglo males in this business. Hell, there’s only one in my office.

Age: first of all, the ideal job candidate nowadays is probably someone who’s 62 years old and will retire as soon as s/he earns tenure, saving their employer decades of seniority raises. Second, no, you will not go far in the profession if your idea of cutting-edge scholarship is Cleanth Brooks and your dissertation idea is “The Influence of Existentialism on the Beat Generation.” But aside from that, ageism in the academy, from all I can tell, is at a historical low.

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The same applies to worries over your various un-PC attributes: your whiteness, your native English, your maleness. The counterpart myth, “All the Jobs go to Young Black Disabled Lesbians,” is equally trite. They strike me as excuses. Yes, if you are an intellectual reactionary, if you come across as tacitly racist or with a chip on your shoulder about how beleaguered you are as a member of a majority group, you might not get much sympathy in a humanities department. If you, by contrast, keep an open mind and seek out new ideas, why wouldn’t you get a fair chance at any jobs that are going?

Myth #3: College Teaching in the Humanities is an Upper-Middle-Class Profession.

It’s not.

College English teachers can expect to make poverty-level salaries as adjuncts, working-class salaries as full-time untenured faculty, and skilled-trades salaries as tenured senior faculty.

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Bob Seger had a song back when I was in high school:

I wanna be a lawyer
Doctor or professor
Member of the U.M.C.
I wanna drive a Lincoln,
Spend my evenings drinkin,
Have stock in GM and GE.

Lawyers and doctors, if they survive to senior levels in their professions, yes, they can aspire to such giddy circumstances. English professors? we drive ancient Hondas, spend our evenings grading papers, and the only coupons we clip are the ones that offer 40% off at Half Price Books.

William Pannapacker has recently made waves with a series of increasingly embittered attacks on the hypocrisy of graduate education in the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage.

“Graduate school in the humanities,” Pannapacker concludes, “is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon ‘the life of the mind.’” Despite his histrionics, I tend to agree with Pannapacker. Not about the “trap” aspect, mind you, but about the myth that lots of advanced degrees will bring you luxury cars, single-malts, and bulging portfolios.

In fact, I very much doubt that teaching English ever entailed such things unless said English teachers had them already. Teaching English is a working-class occupation. We do not control the means of production; we do not possess independent capital. We are ill-paid. Thanks to an economic principle called the Baumol effect, we can’t become more productive over time, so the only way for a school to afford English teaching and its irreducible labor-intensiveness is to keep eroding our salaries in real terms. Basically, society doesn’t value what we do, and we’re paid accordingly.

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Pannapacker bemoans the lack of “real jobs” in the humanities, but lots and lots of us have real jobs. We keep them as real as possible by working for what prison guards or truck drivers make. And folks, that’s not as tragic as Pannapacker insists. Lots of prison guards and truck drivers, after all, own their own homes, have hobbies, and get out to see the occasional movie or NASCAR race. If it would mortify you to be seen at the Motor Speedway, well, the Fort Worth Opera has $20 tickets. Culture, precisely because it’s consumed by the underpaid, is often an excellent bargain. Reading is still pretty much free.

The most important thing for people to know about college teaching as they go into it is that it’s a working-class occupation. Some initial myth-busting on that score can save a world of grief later on.

— Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 26th, 2010 |16 Comments »

Further further adventures in myth-busting

Following Laura and Desiree’s discussion of myths associated with creative writers and English majors, it falls to me to discuss fables about that mythical beast, the English professor. I suppose that it is fitting for me to tackle this topic, since one of these myths involves the spurious authority that simply being English gives you as an English professor. Although there are lots of people in England who aren’t remotely professorial (like soccer hooligans and gameshow hosts), the feeling persists in some circles that the ideal English professor is an English English professor. As a colleague reported to me, an American student in her class complained that it was “unfair” for a visiting British student to be able to take History of British Literature, when she was so clearly at an advantage in the subject because she was British and would thus have an innate understanding of the intricacies of medieval drama and seventeenth-century poetry (the same apparently did not apply to the American students in History of American literature).

It is true that when I think about English professors in the abstract, my first point of reference is Michael Caine in the film Educating Rita. Caine plays Dr Frank Bryant, an English professor who is definitely phoning it in. Having taken on an Open University student to finance his serious drink problem, Bryant is profoundly changed by his encounter with Susan, a hairdresser turned ardent English major (actually, this film is also a touchstone for me when it comes to encounters with hairdressers). Who could forget Susan’s inspired early answer to a set question about the staging difficulties associated with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt?–“Do it on the radio.” Bryant, after training Susan to react and to write as an ideal student of English literature, bemoans the loss of the vibrant, untutored ingénue that she used to be, despising himself and his profession for its particular brand of conventionality. It’s a lovely, Pygmalionesque film about class, gender, and the effect of institutionalization on the study of literature, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the stereotype of the male, alcoholic, tweed-coat-with-leather-elbows-wearing, profoundly unhappy English professor.

The thinking behind such representations of the English professor seems to be that a lifetime spent largely on your own reading does not fit you for success in interpersonal communication. Years of contemplating love, death, the meaning of life, etc., will only buy you an addictive and self-destructive habit. Chain-smoking, or at least pipe-smoking, used to be a standard facet of the character set for an English-professor, but now not only is smoking banned in offices, but you can’t smoke within twenty feet of a building, and soon you will not be able to smoke on campus at all. In earlier times this would have decimated the intellectual ranks, but now it will barely make a dent in the sushi-eating, yoga-performing professorial phalanx. If the smoking hasn’t already done it, campus-wide smoking bans will finish off the stereotypical chain-smoking professor.

Another attribute of the mythical English professor is excessive facial hair. Within my particular discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies, a beard is so de rigeur that you still feel a little dressed down at conferences without one. Famous beards of the field include Frederick Furnivall’s. Furnivall was the, by all accounts not very good, second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and founder of the venerable and still pivotal, Early English Text Society. In his spare time he coached a women’s sculling team, and I think you can tell a lot about Furnivall from this photograph of him among the ladies.Furnivall “Boo-ya!” says his beard, “don’t question my knowledge of multiple dead languages.”

So much for the myth of the hard-drinking, smoking, tweedy, bearded male English professor. Perhaps you could share with us some of your favorite representations of professors, and whether, and in what ways, you find them to be true to life.

– Jackie Stodnik

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on February 14th, 2010 |4 Comments »

English Majors vs. Park Benches, or Further Adventures in Myth Busting

In continuing the discussion initiated by Laura Kopchick on “myths” surrounding literary studies and writing, I turn my attention to myths about English majors.

English majors are, of course, the butt of many jokes in contemporary culture.

Q: What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench?

A: A park bench can support a family of four.

Storyteller Garrison Keillor has made jokes about English majors a staple in his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, including a running bit about the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM). (You can get a taste of the humor here, sign up for the Facebook group here, and buy some paraphernalia here.)

Jim Harrison’s 2008 novel, The English Major, recounts the story of a 60-year-old former English major, then English teacher, then farmer, who embarks upon a cross-country trip in search of the meaning of life.

The Washington Post review of the book states: “In one of the more ludicrous scenes, Cliff meets a 21-year-old waitress who agrees to take off her clothes for $300, if he’ll keep a distance of at least 10 feet. ‘You might be a farmer,’ she says, ‘but I bet big money you were an English major in college.’” Apparently even in works of literature, English majors get played for laughs.*

The two most common myths – and fodder for humor – about English majors are, I believe:

English majors are only trained how to lay around and read novels, and therefore have no marketable skills and will never get good (read: high paying) jobs.

English majors are shy, socially inept individuals with few actual life experiences or any measure of street savvy, who tend to live only in their minds or the books they read, essentially disconnected from reality.

The first myth is easy enough to discount. There have been many studies about the fact that the critical thinking and careful reading skills that are cultivated in English classes (and, liberal arts courses more generally) are precisely the ones that employers look for. English majors reportedly do remarkably well in both law school and medical school because they know how to pay attention to details and put information in context. As digital media continues to expand as a viable career option, the composition, technical, and technological abilities that English majors have will also continue to be valued and sought out. And, while the stereotype is that English majors “only” have the skills to become teachers, being a teacher and particularly an English teacher is still a personally rewarding and socially important job to hold (says this English teacher).

It is true that, for the most part and against pressure from college administrations, English departments tend to treat the study of literature, composition, rhetoric, creative writing, and digital media as subjects in and of themselves – rather than skill sets designed to guarantee that students get jobs. But, that doesn’t mean the skills aren’t gained and then implemented in post-graduate employment. (Anyone interested in learning more about what UTA English majors do upon graduation should attend an event hosted by the English Department in Spring 2010, featuring some of our alums discussing their employment experiences.)

As for the myth that English majors are people whose inner lives are shaped by their reading and writing, who stand at a bit of a distance from the real world, and perhaps are more likely to relate to the characters in books than the people around them … well, I have to admit that I think it is a myth with some basis in reality. However, I’m not sure it is a problem. Instead, I believe that being capable of entering into a fictional world, or appreciating the complex imagery of a poem, or authoring your own original work of fiction or poetry, or identifying social themes in film, television, or theater … or any of the other abilities that English majors develop over the course of their undergraduate careers, bring their own rewards, not necessarily ones recognized by our contemporary society, but ones that the writers that we love have been celebrating and cultivating for centuries.

* The review is quoted on the Amazon page for the novel.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on February 7th, 2010 |2 Comments »

As Soon As I Get Some Free Time, No Revision Necessary, and Other Myths About Creative Writing (and Writers)

It was my final semester in the MFA in Fiction program at the University of Michigan and I was meeting with my thesis advisor, Charles Baxter, in his near-empty office on campus (he wrote at home, in a lovely book-lined office above the garage in his Ann Arbor house). As he red-penned my stories, pausing every few minutes to complain about my obsession with first person narration and my lack of redemptive male characters, I imagined that he would rather have been at home, polishing up the final draft of Feast of Love. It was no secret that he taught because he had to (he often told us that all American writers taught because they had to–who could make enough money just selling books besides Stephen King?). After he finished with my manuscript, red pen finally exhausted, he sighed and looked out the window at the snow covered expanse of ground outside. Then he told me about going to the doctor that morning for a check-up. I imagined this great writer, a man I admired (and whose writing floored me) sitting on one of those doctor’s tables, blood pressure cup around his arm, making small talk with a doctor who probably didn’t have a clue about Baxter’s literary accomplishments.

“He asked me what I do for a living,” Charlie said, “and when I told him that I’m a writer he told me he has a book he’s going to write as soon as he retires and gets the time.” Then he launched into a fairly long complaint about how he should have shot back something about practicing medicine as soon as he got Feast of Love out of the way, because how difficult could surgery be, after all? We all watch television. We see doctors perform surgeries all the time these days. “As if just having time is all that’s required of a writer,” he said. “Can you imagine?”

This conversation has always stuck with me (along with some of his more memorable quotes on teaching students to write literary short fiction, such as “I can only help you to write stories about characters who live on planet Earth–you’re on your own with aliens”) because since becoming a teacher of creative writing I, too, have had people tell me pretty much the same thing–that they’d be able to write the next great American novel, too, if they only had the time. And who knows? Maybe they would be able to write a fantastic novel with no formal coursework in writing. In fact, the winner of this year’s Katherine Anne Porter Award in short fiction works with computers at Harvard–he’s not an MFA graduate (or, as far as I know, a formal student of writing at all). But this writer, like all writers I know, worked and reworked those stories, making sure that the narrative point of view was consistent and clear, the plots of the stories had clear catalysts, climax scenes, and resolutions, and the exposition balanced nicely with the dialogue and action. In short, he had read (and learned to work and revise) enough to create finely polished, wonderful stories with resonance. That doesn’t come merely with enough writing time, but with work and effort.

So, the first myth of creative writing would be that anyone can produce well-crafted fiction, if given enough time. And another myth would certainly be that writing is divinely inspired, and any revision ruins the original inspiration. I always think of Coleridge and his poem “Kubla Khan” when I think of this myth. My Modern Poetry Professor in grad school told us that Coleridge claimed the poem to be inspired by either God or opium, depending on the myth, and that he wrote the poem in one draft without revisions. As far as I know, he’s the only writer to claim to eschew revision. After his death, however, multiple drafts of this poem were found. Even divine inspiration, it seems, benefits from sober revisional practices.

I always try to end my creative writing classes with a quote a former professor told me. He told us “Be a producer rather than a consumer, and surround yourself with beauty that you create yourself.” I think that everyone should produce something that they’re proud of–and writing is certainly one way to create beauty in the world. But also students and aspiring writers should remember that writing is difficult, and has a tradition, and a set of expectations that readers demand (whether the writing is divinely inspired or not). Ben Marcus, another former professor of mine, once told me that “Writing should practically kill you.” I think he was joking, but I’ve found these words to ring true, especially when I find myself debating the means of perception in a story, or whether or not to let go of my obsession with first person and to go ahead and try a third person point of view. It’s certainly not easy, this business of writing, and even when you’ve finished with a draft of something you’re proud of there’s always an editor, or an agent, waiting to tell you all of the mistakes you’ve made. Even so, there’s nothing better than seeing a creation come to life, and knowing all of the terribly difficult effort that went into that creation.

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on February 5th, 2010 |No Comments »