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.