Monday, July 13, 2015

E. ETHELBERT MILLER - The Aldon Nielsen Project #12

Q. Many professors complain about course loads, class size and how they don’t have enough time to write and do research. Has this been a problem for you?

This is a problem for everybody, but it’s a problem I’ve learned a few things about along the way. The story is all too familiar to friends who have heard me on this subject, but it may be of some interest to others.
When I began my full-time teaching career as an adjunct at Howard University, I taught eight courses a year, 4/4/ on the semester system, and most of those courses were writing intensive – most were, in fact, composition courses of one sort or another. Just to get a literature course on my resume, one year I added a ninth course taught at GWU, an American Literature survey. I would teach a couple classes at Howard, jump on my bicycle and ride down the hill to Foggy Bottom, teach my American Lit section, then pedal back up Georgia Avenue to finish my day’s teaching at Howard.

[The thing itself]

My situation was a bit different from most others, then as now. I was never a “T.A.” - -had not even so much as heard the term till one of my professors at GW’s grad program asked me if I was interested in becoming one. I was working my way through grad school on tuition remission, meaning that because I had a full time job working at GW (started as a campus cop, moved to the dispatcher’s booth, got myself hired in the Registrar’s Office as director of student records, finally worked as a sort of systems analyst for continuing education), I was entitled to take two courses per semester free of tuition. My professor approached the higher ups about putting me on as a teaching assistant, but came back with the bad news that I couldn’t have a TA spot because I was working full time.  A couple years later we looked into the possibility again because my work situation had temporarily changed a bit. I got the opportunity to serve in a Humanities in the Schools program funded by the D.C. Commission. This in reality meant that I was working even more. In the mornings I taught poetry in two D.C. elementary schools, Phoebe Hearst and John Eaton. (I was really only supposed to be at Eaton, but the same wonderful woman was Principal at both schools and talked me into adding two classes at Hearst.) So, mornings spent as a poet in the schools, then a quick bike ride back down the hill to my job in the Registrar’s Office at GWU, which I had temporarily reduced to half time.  I figured the GW part of my employment was the only thing visible to the GWU grad office, and my prof and I thought maybe now I could get that TA spot and get some university teaching experience. But now word came back from the Dean’s office that I couldn’t be a TA if I had any other job at all. Keep in mind that many if not most of my grad school friends who were TAs had jobs, but they didn’t have jobs on campus where they could be seen. I can’t imagine too many people could have survived on just a single GWU TA’s stipend in those days.

And that’s when I made the first of several intriguing discoveries. The TAs all had to sign up for a course on the teaching of English. Once I’d passed my comps and gotten my Master of Philosophy degree (essentially an ABD diploma) I was qualified to teach university writing and literature classes despite having had no training or experience in teaching at the college level. So I began teaching composition courses and learning on the job.

Pause to add that up. I was teaching elementary classes in the morning, working as Director of Student Records at GWU in the afternoon, and, oh, almost forgot to mention, I was also teaching a poetry workshop for the community in the evenings at the Martin Luther King Library downtown, and teaching a section or two of freshman composition.
All of that while researching and writing my dissertation – so my second discovery about all this, a good one to make early on, was that time management was the key to any accomplishment I was going to make in this endeavor. (I’d worked full time while completing my BA, so had some sense of the realities.)

Not everything I did in this respect was admirable. Using the vacation days I’d accumulated to work on the diss was fine, but I’d also accumulated a fair amount of sick leave. (This was all on the GWU job.) So for a time I could be counted on to get “sick” at least once a month, though I was generally treating my illness right there in the library. Have to admit I felt really good at the end of each “sick” day. As I was working on the dissertation, I made the move from the Registrar’s Office to Continuing Education, returning to full time on the GWU payroll, and my final administrative position put me in charge of a fair amount of computing power. As had been true in the Registrar’s, I quickly saw that I could usually finish my work in about half the time my predecessor had taken, and so I was spending much of my working day doing work that my employer had not hired me to do, researching and writing about racial discourse and poetry. (Still at it decades later.)

Those experiences had given me a tremendous preparation for juggling a huge teaching load with my desire to continue writing both as a poet and as a critic. (And the thousands of miles I put on my bicycle left me trim and toned in a way that my current students might find surprising.)  Adapting to my new environmental niche as an adjunct, I adopted a number of successful strategies. Seeing a course in Howard’s catalogue titled “Writing from Poetry” that nobody had been teaching much, I volunteered.  I’d been told over and over again during my time as a comp teacher that writing courses were not literature courses. (I’ve always been puzzled by professors who think they know what writing is not literature.) Here was a course in which the topic of all the writing was poetry. I jumped on it. There was another course in which all the student writing was in response to the news. I volunteered for that one and suddenly found myself getting paid to argue with smart students each day about what was unfolding in the Washington Post. But the real secret, it turned out, was to teach at unpopular times of day: early morning and evening. That cut the total number of students, and thus the total number of papers to read and comment upon. My office mate at Howard, poet Calvin Forbes, complained often of the too large classes he was given in creative writing, arguing, correctly in my view, that creative writing did not lend itself to such large sections. (Today we’re faced with a different problem. Enrollments in English are cutting all by themselves. Now the problem is not enough students.) The GWU American Lit survey was a big class, but it was worth adding to my schedule to get that all important lit experience on my c.v.

So, my two years as an over-worked and overwrought Howard/GWU adjunct gave me a lot of training on how to continue research and writing while carrying an intense teaching load (also doing a lot of hanging out with my friends, going to concerts, playing penny ante poker, participating in a poetry community, etc – all the while working out on that bicycle.) 

This in turn had the effect of helping me on the PhD job market. I got no response whatsoever to the first, large round of application  letters I sent out while finishing my dissertation. The next year, my first year at Howard, I stayed off the market to see how things might develop around D.C. It became evident that nothing was going to develop close to home, so I went back on the market my second year at Howard.  

A few things had changed significantly since that first, sad round of apps. By this point I had published four scholarly essays in peer-reviewed journals, along with a substantial number of book reviews. I had also published a significant number of poems in a variety of journals, and my first chapbook, but since I was not applying in creative writing, I knew those added little to my prospects. More to the point, the manuscript of my dissertation, Reading Race, had won the SAMLA Studies Prize from the South Atlantic MLA and was under contract to be published by the University of Georgia Press. Things will be different now, I told myself. “You’re hot now,” one of my friends told me.

More like tepid. Now I began learning about the class structure of academia, a subject much in discussion today thanks to recent studies of PhD placements. It had not escaped my attention that a large number of my professors at GWU had come from major R1 departments, but the implications of that had escaped me. With my substantial record of publication, a major award and a book in press, I was only able to snag four MLA interviews. I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned while standing in line at the MLA Job Center (this is how we used to do it) to find out the room locations of my interviews. I found myself next to a guy I knew from Yale. He had published not so much as a single word, and he had eleven MLA interviews lined up. (I later learned he had gleaned four job offers.)
In the end, I received one job offer, and it was at San Jose State, a place where, as R1 people then and now like to put it, “teaching is more emphasized,” which meant that, like Howard, San Jose had a 4/4 teaching load. My extensive record as a published early career scholar had done little for me, but all that teaching had helped a lot. Turns out I was really the only candidate interviewed who had shown no signs of surprise or panic when told about the teaching load. I was already doing it.
That publishing record was to give me some breathing space as I started my tenure track career at San Jose State. With several articles already out and a book about to emerge, I had more time to get whatever research and writing I was to do next underway. The trick was to find the time. I started spending an inordinate amount of time applying for grants, fellowships and course releases. This was especially important as I needed to teach in the summer to get a bit more income. Grant writing is percentage baseball. You have to apply a lot, get turned down a lot, to be successful. I was very successful. After seeing my first NEH proposal rejected, I subsequently went back to the NEH again and again. I got a summer grant. I got into two summer seminars, accompanied by stipends. I got a larger NEH grant that took me away from my campus. Within the Cal State system I got Trustees grants and course releases. Turns out that if you are productive, universities will encourage you. I got a year long fellowship at UCLA’s Afro American Studies Center. (Now I seldom apply for grants, as the amounts available are not sufficient for me to give up my paycheck. My department wants me to be applying for grants anyway, and will probably criticize me for not bringing in the $$$$.)
And that’s when I learned what I could do without a 4/4 teaching load. During the period of that fellowship, I did all the research for two books, wrote all of one of them and got a running start on writing the other. I loved teaching; loved my students. Yet, I knew, I loved writing still more.

Here’s the thing – During my years at Howard and San Jose State, I often heard my colleagues complain about the difficulty of getting work done with our crushing teaching loads. As I was laboring under the same load, I sympathized. When I got to UCLA, where the teaching was much more reasonable, I heard the same complaint.  Call me a slow learner, but something dawned on me.
Poetry never leaves me. Reading and critical thinking never stop for me. What is more difficult is putting myself in circumstances where I can do the sustained work of critical writing, and take care of the seemingly unending chores connected with publishing. Over the years, students have often asked me how you can tell if you’re really a writer. Somewhat flippantly, I have replied, “try to stop.” If you succeed at stopping, you’re not a writer, or at least you are no longer a writer. (I hasten to add that this is no guarantee as to the quality of your writing; that’s another set of questions.) If you are a writer, you are going to do whatever it takes to write, no matter your teaching load and administrative duties. You may write considerably less if you have a 4/4 load, but you will write. If you are given to your research subject, you are going to find ways to research.

There are those for whom the problem is how to find time to complete the project you need to complete for tenure and promotion. Many of these people complete wonderful projects. There are other people who would do these projects even if they were not on a faculty, and many such people are part timers, adjuncts, casual labor – people who do not get the institutional recognition they deserve for the work they are compelled to do. The same phenomena are apparent on the creative writing side of the academy. A few years ago, sitting in a hotel lobby during the AWP conference (a conference at which I am very nearly anonymous), I overheard a conversation between two MFA students who were approaching completion of their programs and who were contemplating their future in the academy. The young man said to the young woman, with an air of great confidence, that he could write fifty poems a year. I was fairly certain that I would not care to read those fifty poems.
“Art comes when it comes,” wrote Jayne Cortez. Much the same could be said about truly worthwhile research and critical writing.  There is a large class of faculty who will never write and publish more than is required for rising to the rank of Full Professor. Again, much of that work is solid stuff, but that is all they will do.

Throughout my career, I’ve taken heart from the examples of a few scholars I met along the way who, like me, did not graduate from the most highly ranked grad programs, but who, through their work itself, were eventually able to secure positions of the sort their accomplishments truly deserved. As the job market for PhDs has constricted, this has become increasingly difficult, but I knew it to remain a possibility.

I’ve never liked the terminology we use in these conversations. It is said of someone like me that “he wrote his way out,” meaning that the writing and publication record finally eventuated in a better position in the academy. (NOTE: this route also leads to lower pay. If, like me, you begin well outside the gravitational field of the research university galaxy, when you finally achieve lift off and reach at least suborbital status, your pay will likely be a good twenty percent lower than equivalent faculty who spent their entire careers at R1 institutions.) My work took me from my 4/4 load at Howard as an adjunct, and then at San Jose State as I worked my way up to full professor, to an endowed chair at Loyola Marymount with a 2/2 load. My continued writing and scholarship then brought me to my present named professorship at the Pennsylvania State University, with a 2/1 teaching load. In the course of my Penn State campus visit, one of my many interviews was with the personnel committee. The man who was chairing it at the time turned to me after nudging the copy of my c.v. on the table before him and remarked, “we don’t often see candidates with your profile.” I at first thought he was referring to my research profile, one that I thought sufficiently impressive, but it soon became clear that he meant they didn’t often give serious consideration to candidates from “comprehensive” universities, those where “teaching is more emphasized.” Another member of the committee asked me if anybody ever gave me a hard time about being a white scholar teaching African American materials. I so badly wanted to say, “just white folk like you,” but held my tongue and landed the job.

I have been doing the same work all along. I continue to create and accomplish projects at roughly the same rate. (Were I still the mathematical whiz of my youth, I would here insert a graph charting relative age against teaching load to show that my steady rate is still relatively steady despite my increasing years.) 

It should be the case that hiring and promotion decisions would be based almost entirely on the quality of the work. The judges of that long ago SAMLA Studies Prize, god bless them, had no idea who I was or where I had done my grad work. They just read the manuscript. But I think we all know our world is not so arranged. It will always be the case that those who couldn’t attend the highest ranked programs will have to outperform those who did if they are to have any hope of succeeding. So many faculty do that it is, or should be, an embarrassment to the profession that more of them don’t get those prestige jobs and the invitations that come with them. Still, they can have the satisfaction that their work is important to others in the field. Long before I had any title to append to my name, I had the experience of poets and scholars coming up to me at conferences (conferences, it must be said, where I was usually an attendee of the same order as themselves, not a keynote speaker) and telling me how much my work had meant to their own.

It is hard to find the time we so desperately need, time away from teaching, grading, committee work, to do our research and writing; harder still to stop writing.

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