Thursday, March 01, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Calling All English Professors!

A de-lurking correspondent writes:

I'm currently a junior at a four-year university, and I'm an English major. I've been thinking about earning a MA in Teaching, with which I can teach high school English in my state. But I've always wanted to teach at the college level. I'm afraid of the intense pressure to publish research throughout graduate school and in the university setting, though--my interest is in creative writing, not in research, and I don't want to go through seven years of graduate school just so I can enter an extremely clogged job market. Someone recently mentioned to me that community college professors don't have the same amount of pressure to publish as their counterparts at traditional four-year colleges, but they still have the advantage of teaching in a college setting. What do you think? Is that a complete misrepresentation of community college faculty life? If so, how would you say that they actually differ?

There's a lot here. I'll offer a few thoughts, but I'm counting on readers in English departments to flesh out the picture in the comments.

To answer the direct question: it's true that professors at community colleges generally have higher teaching loads, and lower research obligations, than professors at four-year colleges. It's also true that 'four year colleges' come in many different flavors, from the Snooty Liberal Arts College to the struggling almost-open-admissions school, and the research/teaching balance varies across the spectrum. (Generally, the higher the prestige, the lower the teaching load and the higher the research requirement. Exceptions exist, but the rule of thumb is fairly accurate.) The academic expectations, academic preparation levels of students, and demographics of students vary wildly across colleges, so the climate at one four-year college will be dramatically different from one a few miles away. “Teaching in a college setting” can mean a lot of different things.

It's also true that expectations on faculty generally have ratcheted upward almost everywhere over the last two decades or so, and I don't see that reversing anytime soon.

All of that said, if your passion is creative writing, you might want to pause and rethink this. Although many cc's teach a section or two of creative writing, it would be extraordinary for a cc professor to make a full-time load teaching only creative writing, or even creative writing plus literature. The overwhelming majority of the teaching load for every cc English department I know is divided between remediation and composition; literature, creative writing, film, poetry, and the like comprise a relatively small – and bitterly fought over – corner of the teaching schedule. Teaching remediation and composition can be very rewarding, and heaven knows the need is there, but it's not creative writing. This is especially true when you're teaching five sections per semester, year after year.

Although I'm a sucker for movies about heroic teachers (and I'm still waiting for the movie about a heroic dean!), I think they do the profession a serious disservice. If you experience your job as martyrdom, you should find a different job. The best composition teachers don't do it as a 'service' or as 'paying dues;' they take honest joy in it. It's a very different enterprise than teaching a roomful of deadly earnest Sylvia-Plaths-with-ipods at Snooty U. I've known too many people – and I'm not totally innocent of this myself – who went into higher ed envisioning a life of tossing off bons mots in oak-paneled rooms to eager young minds, only to find themselves instead ekeing out a living teaching the same few basic intro courses over and over again to students whose real interest is elsewhere, at colleges whose real interest is elsewhere. It can lead to a certain bitterness that is far too common, and deeply unhealthy.

If you can see yourself finding the joy – not the social usefulness or the tolerability – in teaching intro to composition to future marketing majors who wouldn't know Judith Butler if she bit them, then by all means, check out the cc world. If not – if what you really want is a not-too-stressful day job to pay the bills while you crank out novels – this is probably not the route for you. It may once have been, but it isn't now, and it won't be for the foreseeable future.

I can't speak in any detail to teaching high school. There, to an even greater degree, I think you'll see tremendous variation from district to district, based mostly on housing segregation. Beyond that, I'll defer to readers who have actually taught in high schools.

Faithful readers in English departments, or who recognize their younger selves in the correspondent's letter, what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I've been a community college English teacher since Moses was in short pants, and Dean Dad's comments and observations are absolutely accurate.

People interested in community college English-teaching jobs should also understand that some cc's prefer candidates with a Ph.D, and others are looking for people with a degree in composition/rhetoric. A plain vanilla MA in English doesn't offer much preparation for teaching remedial or transfer-level composition courses, and an MFA in creative writing is even lower on the pecking order.

Unless you are extremely lucky, you can look forward to years of adjuncting, but even a decade or two in the trenches is no guarantee of a full-time job.

By the way, check out the time--3:54 a.m.--of my post. I'm up grading another set of freshman comp papers and doing union work: writing a grievance concerning a Dean who has arbitrarily and unilaterally decided that class maximums for some sections in his department should be moved from 30 to 45 students.

And with all this said, I still think that community college teaching jobs are the best jobs in academia.

Plus, it's worth adding that your reader should go back and re-read what you've been saying about the over-supply of phds and how that's driving hiring at CCs.

If what you really want to do is teach you're much more likely to get a full-time job doing it at the HS level.

But, again, if what you want is to have a life where you can write at night or have free-time... Well, HS teaching isn't the right place. Especially in the first few years, HS teaching can easily become all consuming.

You're in the classroom between 20 and 30 hours a week and most of the HS teachers I know work at minimum 50 hours a week.

Compare with CC faculty who are in class 15-ish hours a week... Even when I taught over-load at my CC I never passed 19 hours.

The planning requirement is correspondingly higher at HS and the amount of grading is probably higher as well. I know I now grade a lot more papers than when I was CC.

In all of the places I've taught there have been some common refrains: everyone is teaching composition. Although, in HS you get to mix in literature as well.

Everyone wishes their students came to them with better skills. Most of us think that our students arrive scarily unprepared and blame the last set of teachers. We all think that we're spending too much time on remediation.
If your preference is college rather than high school teaching, I'd suggest applying for an MFA program that offers stipends for teaching composition courses -- rather than applying for an MA in Teaching. Or, since the MA in Teaching is of course a great degree to pursue, try to find an MFA that allows interdisciplinary study toward an MAT.

I say this because you don't want to regret in the future the many great advantages of an MFA -- including the time to write, the chance to study craft one-on-one with writers you admire, the intense instruction in composing (and marketing) your first manuscript, and the opportunity to find a community of like-minded writers. (No utopias here, of course, but these are the potential advantages of most MFA programs.) Why not put yourself in this sort of intense writing environment and at the same time learn the craft of teaching? You can't know right now what the job prospects will look like, but this would give you the chance to do both things you love: write and teach.

As DD puts it, don't go into teaching because you've seen those terrible heroic-martyr teacher movies or because you think you'll make a life for yourself teaching only creative writing and literature to carbon-copies of yourself. You might get the chance to teach a lot of creative writing and literature, depending on your graduate school preparation and the vagaries of the academic job system. But the key is, if you go into college teaching, go there because you love to teach writing: all kinds of writing at all levels. If you don't go into it for the "honest joy" of it, as DD puts the matter, then you might find yourself so unhappy with the basic and mainstream composition classes you're teaching that it's difficult to do your own writing.
As DD points out, there is a lot to untangle here. Is this correspondent's main motivation teaching or creative writing? Has he taught? There are many literacy programs out there crying out for volunteers that could help him formulate a basic answer to that. It simply may not be his thing, and it's a good idea to find that out before committing to graduate study.

Next, if teaching works for him, must it be creative writing? I found that for me teaching academic writing can be every bit as rewarding and sometimes MORE rewarding than teaching creative writing. That's something to think about at the very least, given the realities of the workplace. One of my MFA colleagues got a job teaching high school in Baltimore after the MFA, and by all accounts has really found his niche. He is teaching typical HS English, not creative writing, but loves it. Others are adjuncting (enough has been said about that), delivering sandwiches, or working in a discount store while they write.

On that note, if all he wants is a job that enables his creative writing, he can do something similar to what I did pre-grad school. I was a Realtor in a small town that had a definite busy cycle from March to May and steady business through August. That left the rest of the year to write and I got a lot done right there at my desk computer. My broker knew and was happy to have me there looking busy during the off season, and being there meant I got what few opportunities actually walked in the door. You have to sell enough through the good times to cover the bad, but the schedule is made to order for a creative writer.

Notice I didn't mention the Ph.D. That's another story with equal potential for an unhappy ending if the teaching job you see in the movies is the goal. I did it and got the tenure-track job, but I went into both the MFA and Ph.D. with goals that had nothing to do with getting a job at the end. However, I think this fellow wants a job, so he needs to think about which job and what its realities are.
I believe the current AAUP statistics show that of those individuals who complete the Ph.D., only 1 in 5 will ever see the tenure track. The rest will wallow in adjunct hell--think freelance college instructor with no benefits and a pay rate around $3000 per course. Do the math. You'll need to teach 7 to 8 classes per semester to earn enough of a living just to pay rent, gas and electric bills, and food in most major cities.

And to be perfectly honest, with an M.F.A. in creative writing, well, that puts you at the bottom of the list. They don't get hired very often, and they are fairly marginalized in the academy--Wonder Boys got that wrong.

Don't do it. You think you're that 1 in 5. You aren't. You think you're smart. You probably are. But al that that means is that you're really not going to be the 1 in 5. Smart may be sort of a necessary condition of getting hired, but it is a long, long way from sufficient. Now,a re you smart and politically savy? Well, that may help, but it still is no guarantee.
To try to directly answer your reader's questions

1)I do think that there is significantly less pressure to publish in a community college English department setting. That said, at my particular institution, many of the tenured faculty have MFAs and are fairly active in publishing creative works. This is seen as one of the benefits of working here: we (meaning full time t-t faculty) work hard during our normal semesters but the summer and winter provide some time to do complete personal research projects, creative works, etc. These contributions are celebrated and respected but are not a pre-rec for tenure.

2)There are myriad differences between cc English teaching and four year teaching. Dean Dad and others are absolutely right that the majority of the teaching work you’ll do—especially in your first years as a t-t faculty member—involve lots and lots of freshman comp and some remediation. That said, at my particular institution I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find out just how many opportunities there are to do design some more creative courses which are either interdisciplinary or labeled as “humanities” courses. This is largely due to my state (California’s) transfer requirements UC and Cal State schools. Students need humanities courses and we often get tapped to teach and design ‘em.

My general advice to you would be to do what I did before I considered going to grad school. Teach high school at a variety of summer bridge programs (check out and try to get some sub work at your local high schools. Doing this will help you to sort out what kinds of teaching that you like to do and will give you some experience with different types of student populations. You may even want to take a course or observe a course (if they’ll let you do so) at a local cc. The more you know about different types of teaching and learning the more ready you’ll be to decide if you want to devote time to an MA and/or Ph.D.

Oh…and on the subject of teaching creative writing at the post-secondary level, there’s currently a bit of a debate going on about that as indicated in recent issues of PMLA and College English. Kelly Ritter’s recent article “Ethos Interrupted: Diffusing ‘Star’ Pedagogy in Creative Writing Programs College English January 2007 might be of interest you.

Good luck!

I taught high school for three years, and I've been teaching in the "(community)college setting" for almost eight years now. That said, two bits of advice to your questioner:

1) If you think you might want to teach high school, first become a substitute teacher. You will have absolutely no power and almost no pay to boot. If you can survive the punishment I guarantee that you WILL receive and still want more, then you should probably look into secondary education certification and a good psychiatrist. You'll be needing the medication eventually.

2) While you are doing your undergraduate work, sign up to tutor at your college's writing center. Once you graduate, see if your tutoring experience plus your BA in English together are enough to get you in the door at a CC to do A) more tutoring work and B) some adjunct work as an instructor of developmental writing.

If you slog away at this for a couple of years while you do some graduate work and still find it appealing, then yes, by all means, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE come teach with us! We need truly passionate teachers who actually understand and care about students and want to teach writing more than they want to eat, breathe, or sleep. You have to want it that much because with a 5/5 load, that's all you're going to have time to do during the semester. Trust me.
This is a great post with some great responses: let me add another twist. If this aspiring teacher wants to write -- not scholarship, but more imaginitve pieces -- I would argue that while there is an oversupply of Ph.D.'s, especially in English (the AAUP estimates that 65%of them are contingent, the highest of all fields) there is a dearth of intelligent, interesting people with critical minds who write well. Just read David Brooks' column in the NY Times -- or even Maureen Dowd, who I am politically more sympathetic with, but those of us who blog and have to publish ourselves are producing better, more coherent pieces than she does.

Why not get an MFA or a journalism degree and be a writer instead?

Tenured Radical
Good advice here all around.

If you want to do creative writing, then an MFA program's a great idea. If you can teach a bit, fine, then you can decide if that's what you want to do.

But all that's been said about the difficulty of getting jobs at any level in academia is on the mark.

I'd also suggest you look at what the writers you enjoy reading most do. I'm willing to bet that relatively few are academics, and that many do other jobs and write well off the job. (That's not to say that academic creative writers aren't really good, but that the sheer numbers of people who write well outside of academics suggest lots of other possibilities.)
My take? Stay the fuck away from CWMA and MFA programs! Do not go to one unless it has a track record of former students publishing things _and_ you are awarded a fellowship. Most creative writing programs are the cash cows that help pay for the rest of the department --- where I did my MA, they let in 30 or so creative-writing MAs per year, half of whom were awarded TAships and half of whom were given nothing at all. You will either spend most of your time teaching, basically the same as adjuncting, or taking out massive loans and an unrelated job to pay your fees and rent. Most of the people who came in when I did either stuck around as a cheap and available adjunct pool afterwards or went and started over, somewhere else, doing a PhD. What I've seen corroborates what Dean Dad and other people have said here --- since CCs can ask for it, they're looking for ABDs or PhDs and not really taking MA or MFA grads anymore.

You don't need a fancy degree to get permission to write, or to do journalism, so if that's your passion, just do it. Take a per-hour job like Starbucks or something and write every second you have to spare. If teaching or reaching students is your passion, get your credential and jump in. You can test your interests in a much more low-stakes way (like people said, substituting, tutoring, volunteering at a summer or remedial program, Teach for America) than entering a 10-year, no-promise-of-a-job PhD program.

Well, I know that it will be a cold day in hell before our campus finds the need for a creative writing person. We need people with a solid background in composition/writing AND Lit. Only the senior faculty in English get lit classes -- everybody else is comp.
At my cc we take MAs. In fact, there is now a full-time opening for an English position and they're only asking for an MA in English or an MA and 18 graduate hours in English.

There is no publication requirement here. You have to do something, but that can mean teaching an online course for adjuncts or being a mentor. You don't have to publish. One thing someone at our cc is doing is having a creative writing club. They write each week and bring stuff in to share. That might be a way to get in creative writing, even if the school doesn't offer it.

The full-time teachers have four classes a semester. Most teach in the summer, but I don't think that is required.

There are no creative writing classes at my cc.

I used to teach at a four-year college. Teachers there usually had their PhDs, but not always. Now they only hire PhDs, but some of the old hires only have MAs. That school has a four class semester.

There are creative writing classes, but they are only taught by one faculty member. The previous creative writing teacher just retired and they hired a new one. So there's not much turn over.

For tenure there they do require some publications, but it doesn't have to be a lot... Three articles or a book. And you have to have eight years of full-time teaching first.
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