Why I Am Not (Presently) Working in Academia

J.D. Smith | March 2003

If you read this article aloud, you will hear the pressing of sour grapes. I may as well concede the point and have it done with.

Mostly, though, you will hear questions raised by creative writers outside of the academy regarding the setting where they cannot work or choose not to work-questions also raised off-the-record by those inside the academy.

We in the so-called "real world" can take courage from role models such as Sir Walter Raleigh, T.S. Eliot, Constantine Cavafy, William Carlos Williams and, of course, the patron saint of salarymen-cum-writers, Wallace Stevens. On the other hand, with rare exceptions such as Wendell Berry and Thomas Lynch, the dual-career writer seems increasingly an endangered species. This may result from the hyperspecialization endemic to our culture, or the syndrome that Juliet Schor called "the overworked American." Years of intensive training, followed by 60-hour workweeks, don't leave much time for the daydreaming and reflection that leads to creativity. Under these circumstances the leisurely dream of academic life-though often a mirage-looks awfully appealing.

On yet another hand-and as writers it is our prerogative to posit a third hand-by the time we finish creative writing school or other training, we are responsible for our decisions, however disastrous (don't ask me how I know). Even our psychiatrists can-or should-tell us so. We pay our money, and we take our chances.

Over time the consequences of those decisions become harder and harder to reverse. My decision to work outside of academe, at least for a while, clearly has its downside: less access to the networks of publishing and prizes, far, far less stimulating conversation, and the lingering sense that I am not eligible to sit at the literary version of the grown-ups' table.

My present choice also has its compensations and its reasons, which I will attempt to explain.

The numbers game. Donald Hall once facetiously estimated that if present trends were to continue, everyone in the United States would be either enrolled or teaching in a creative writing program by around 2020. Of course, trends do not continue indefinitely. Still, there is an ever-swelling population trained in the academic lit biz, and only a finite number of desirable (i.e., full-time, tenure-track) appointments. Some creative writing students understand the absurdity of the academic job market early on and make alternate plans. And some writing programs are beginning to provide training and guidance in relevant nonacademic careers such as editing and technical writing. Although AWP annually provides clear analysis of how poor the academic job market remains, many creative writing programs are still implicitly based on the premise that their graduates will go on to teach in creative writing programs. They prefer not to discuss the statistics provided by AWP, the MLA, and the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, supply (what economists call me and possibly you) far exceeds demand (those coveted teaching gigs).

The certification arms race. Institutions respond to a glut of applicants by gatekeeping. Arbitrary standards are imposed to winnow the stack of vitae, and postings often call for a kind of academic Swiss Army knife. Not a few read something like the following:

MFA and PhD, ability to lead workshops in at least two genres, with expertise in Shakespeare, Milton and Romanticism, as well as Post-Colonial Theory and Cultural Studies. Ability to teach literature in a second modern language strongly desired.

If we had but world enough and time. At some point we have to stop preparing for our life's work and begin to carry it out. Not much great writing seems to get done as degree candidates prepare for comps or graduates acquire yet another specialty to remain competitive-like everyone else. Continuing formal education indefinitely also delays other parts of a life's work such as having a family, for those who are inclined, or paying off student loans-whether we are inclined or not.

I am-though by choice-outgunned worse than most. With an MA from a very fine program that did not offer the MFA until after I left, I scan the listings for those happy, happy few that require only an MFA or equivalent. It's hard to justify going back to school for the letter "F." Without it I still manage to write and share work with other published writers.

Some of the jobs with less onerous certification requirements, moreover, are in places that don't appeal to me, where I know no one. Beyond a certain age taking one of these jobs seems unfeasible, when reasonable alternatives exist, merely in order to say one is in academia.

The publications derby. A corollary form of gatekeeping involves publications requirements. Writers should publish, and most strive to do so, but formal requirements produce unintended consequences.

First, a bad streak of luck can devastate a career. Just because we're writing the best work of our lives doesn't mean that it will get accepted any time soon. This is a function of numbers and chance. One may be vindicated by literary history, but the tenure committee is likely to take a shorter view.

A spell of writer's block could also mean professional death. One shudders to think of Rilke or Larkin being considered for raises and promotions while in the middle of a silence.

Third, large amounts of unnecessary work are produced. The journals are strewn (and I've done a little of the strewing) with competent work, lacking in urgency, written and/or published mainly to lengthen a vita and secure academic advancement. As an editor of one of the major journals has noted, this is not conducive to the production of great literature.

My publication record is likely to be affected by the same factors wherever I work-bad luck, changes in literary trends, and ultimately the limitations of my ability-but none of these presently risks my employment. And I write more and better when I'm not worried about money.

The corporatization of the academy. The academic ideal of a secular cloister, or at least a 3/2 course load and summers off, has given way to a model ironically drawn from the business schools of our own campuses. The university as guardian of a society's intellectual infrastructure is being replaced by a "multiversity" of short-time horizons that delivers product in the form of largely vocational education or research funded by business and government. Academic institutions show an unprecedented degree of devotion to the bottom line, measured not in profit per se but in endowments, physical plant expansions, and the salaries of top administrators and star professors-a reflection of the larger movement toward a "winner-take-all" society.

Where this leaves those who would like to be stars, or at least tenured, is all too familiar. Cost-cutting has led to an increasing reliance on adjunct positions without security or benefits-the "prize" for those who have already worked cheap as teaching assistants. Anyone reading this knows, or is, a "road scholar" teaching five or six sections a semester, at two or three institutions. Even though the quality of the positions rather than of those who hold them is suspect, anyone who works as an adjunct for more than a few years is permanently stigmatized.

Under these conditions writing can suffer; there is not much tranquility or time in which to recollect emotion. Teaching can suffer as well, from fatigue if nothing. Summers and time between terms are filled with more teaching, or odd jobs. Students readily pick up on the implications: if the institution doesn't respect adjuncts, why should they? It may be no coincidence that the Chronicle of HigherEducation has found it necessary to devote a front-page story to the decline of civility in the classroom.

This dilemma has drawn sympathy from a growing number of administrators and faculty. More than sympathy is needed, though. Only major changes in academic administration, or massive retirements among senior faculty, are likely to bring about large-scale improvements. I'm not holding my breath.

The commodification of degrees. In the corporate academy, a student is often treated less as an end in him or herself than a conduit of funds from parents and governments. In a more benign view, students are paying customers who receive grades and degrees in exchange for cash. Institutions eager for that cash admit underprepared students, and adjuncts and TAs who have received no training in remediation (and training raises overhead) are nonetheless expected to address these deficits. A similar gap occurs in the teaching of international students who are non-native speakers of English. Whatever our frustrations or crises of conscience as instructors, our institutions' revenue streams keep flowing.

Teaching "average" students is constrained by other difficulties. Aside from perennial difficulties such as large class sizes and paperwork in addition to grading, the sheer lack of variety in available courses can be daunting. The plums of literature and creative writing courses go to upper-level faculty, which leaves the rest of us largely with freshman composition. Most of the time, grading a stack of 50 or 60 comparison-contrast essays is no more inherently poetic than, say, underwriting insurance, or my day job of editing economics texts.

The growing vocational emphasis of higher education, moreover, can extinguish the last glimmers of excitement in teaching comp, and teaching comp, and teaching comp. In some institutions, curricula and computer-assisted instruction do not seem to emphasize exploration, spontaneity, or critical thinking skills. Students are instead expected to achieve only the degree of superficial technical competence that will train them to become "content providers," which sounds an awful lot like the relationship between pigs and sausage. I may not be able to stop this trend, but I would rather not enable it.

Individual temperament. Not everyone who writes has the ability or the inclination to teach. Done well, teaching is draining. Some heroic individuals, with a genuine vocation, can teach under a wide range of conditions. Others, who lack ability or inclination, should not teach under any circumstances. (Imagine Rilke lecturing on transitions and comma splices and transitions). Most writers probably fall somewhere between these extremes. In the last year I have talked to a professor with three published books of poetry who expressed reservations about having chosen an academic career.

Voice and exit. The political scientist Albert Hirschmann asserted that individuals can express dissent through either voice (protest, mobilization, speech), or exit (voting with one's feet, a balsa raft, etc.).

Both expressions have value. The value of voice is undeniable. Labor organizers of teaching assistants and adjuncts are engaged in a brave thing, and ultimately a service to the academy, as are those involved in publications such as the Adjunct Advocate.

Exit also has a role. One of the ways to help the poor is not to be one of them. I am not taking the risks or making the sacrifices that others are, but I am not competing for scarce jobs or depressing the wage scale, and I won't be brought in as a scab. What would draw me back into the academy is an overall improvement in working conditions that would first most likely affect those who continued to labor in the vineyards of academia, and only then extend to those who have been engaged in what Theodore Solotaroff called "writing in the cold."

Yet hope springs eternal, if damned foolish. If I don't love the academy for what it often is, I still love it for it what it can be: moments when a conversation reframes your thinking or leads to a new avenue of inquiry, when working outside of a nine-to-five schedule gives you time to listen to inspiration or follow a train of thought, when you practically see the light bulb of recognition turn on above a student's head.

So I continue to look in these listings for a brass ring that may not exist: an appointment that will ignore my weaknesses, reward my interests, and meet my needs. If you find that kind of position first, by all means take it. If you're offering that kind of appointment, perhaps we can talk.


J.D. Smith has published one collection of poems and one editied anthology. A published essayist and fiction writer as well as a poet, he lives and works in Washington D.C.

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