Why I Don’t Teach

I started drafting this blog post in 2018, but didn’t have the heart to share it. I’ve revisited, revised, and updated it to tell my story a little more clearly for those of you who have been following my career. 

IMG_8211
A little deflated as I plastered posters of my Fall 2017 career-readiness courses around Eureka in hopes I could keep enrollment high enough to keep myself employed.

A teacher is all I ever wanted to be. My childhood bedroom was decked out like a classroom, complete with a vintage desk, chalkboard, and carefully arranged grading area. I wrote tests for my family over concepts I learned in school and on PBS (what fun for them) and taught lessons to a very engaged audience of stuffed animals. As I grew older I considered other careers, but teaching seemed like the surest bet. I knew I would be good at it and that there was a need for passionate educators. I knew that I had the patience and creativity necessary to reach students. And perhaps most importantly, I didn’t care about being rich.

I did everything right. Well, I did everything I was told was right by my uneducated family. I went to college and studied what interested me most: English Literary Criticism with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” my mother told me.*

I went to grad school in English Literature (slightly more practical than criticism or women’s studies, I thought). I considered a PhD, but heard horror stories of a market overrun with English doctoral candidates, fighting for positions in far-flung locales where they would then spend their days in a harried fever writing and researching during every moment not in the classroom. I didn’t want that. I’m not that competitive. I just wanted to teach. So I went to grad school again in an even more practical field: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). With a terminal M.A., I thought, I’ll definitely be able to continue doing what I love. And I did. My time at CMU was incredible. I taught and researched (as much or little as I wanted), presenting at conferences and learning more each day about my craft. I traveled to China and taught students in a university. I was happy.

Then I moved. I moved to California, throwing away my relatively steady lectureship in Michigan to follow my partner to Eureka. When I settled into this tiny corner of the coast, I found something I had heard endless rumors about before: the routine exploitation of adjunct labor. In Michigan I had been lucky. My office was full of full-timers with benefits. We had one-year or two-year contracts. We got yearly raises. Our conference travel was paid. My experience in California could not have been more different.

I began at a community college where adjuncts were given a cap on the number of hours they taught (to ensure that no benefits could ever be provided). Pay was based on literal hours in the classroom. If a class was cancelled for a holiday, that was a $0 day. Christmas break? Better save up! If students stopped showing up to your free classes (something common and completely outside the teacher’s control), the classes got cancelled — mid-semester with little to no notice. After a suite of my classes got cancelled all at once (the ones I marketed so cheerfully in the above photo), I started with the local CSU English Language Institute, which thankfully operated on a quarter system and could hire me on the following month. Somehow this unit functioned completely outside of union representation or requirements, and treated its teachers in a similar way. Pay was again hourly (and about half the rate of the community college, but with a few hours of prep paid each week). This was a great job, but the pay was worse than the community college and our enrollment dwindled, leaving the future of the unit up in the air.

Even after teaching multiple intensive English courses, tutoring at night, picking up a part-time job at the local yarn shop, and doing remote work for a number of companies (see my previous blog post), I was still far below the poverty level, making the equivalent of $12.50/hr (assuming I put in 40 hours/week of work, which is a low estimate). I did not have the support system to make this workable. I had to stop teaching for my survival.

Sidenote: These issues are systemic and not isolated to these institutions. I sincerely felt that both schools were doing the best they could with their resources, and I felt supported by my direct leadership. I didn’t take either job loss personally (but they did inspire me politically).

Next, I found a state job at the technician level that didn’t suit my skills or account for my education, but gave me pay, stability, and benefits that I had never had as an educator utilizing my three degrees. Shortly after I left the institute where I had been teaching, they lost their funding and closed down, leaving both teachers and students without a home. Although my new job was not a good fit, it was stable and I was grateful. My agency wanted to invest in my career development. They cared about what I wanted to do next. As a teacher, I would keep crossing my fingers for increased enrollment and in the case of my TESOL gigs, geopolitical favor. With state work, I could finally breathe easy. I knew I would have a paycheck next month. Despite all of my hard work and constant hustling, two master’s degrees, and aptitude in my field, this was a completely novel feeling.

When I first left the classroom, my friends and colleagues in academia asked in horror how I could possibly stop teaching. They were shocked that someone so driven and hardworking would quit something they were good at and had invested so much in. “Just try another semester,” they would say. “It’s all cyclical. Things will turn around,” they would reassure. But have things turned around? Across the country institutions are eagerly cutting humanities courses and English language institutes because they aren’t marketable or outwardly valuable. Of course, you could get lucky and work somewhere where you are valued. You could. Or you could lose it all, like I did, and start over. Either way, I’m here to say, you’ll be okay.

Ultimately, leaving the academy taught me that I’m worth more than a question mark at the end of each semester.

This isn’t the end of my story, and thankfully, I landed not only on my feet, but upright and upwardly mobile. I now have a career in California state government that I adore, where I use my skills, work with incredible people, and sleep easy knowing I’ll have a job tomorrow.

I will detail my transition out of academia and into civil service in my next blog post, where I will also discuss the endless transferrable skills current and former educators have that they may not realize they can unlock and apply outside the classroom. You’re worth money. You’re worth work-life balance. You deserve more, teacher friends.**

*K-12 education wasn’t immediately appealing to me, so I didn’t go the credential route as an undergraduate. This would haunt me for the rest of my career, as attaining a K-12 credential after finishing school requires that even an experienced teacher return to the classroom and do an entire unpaid year of student teaching, which I could never afford to do.

**If you’re in a wonderfully stable university teaching position with no fear of a budget cut or hateful dean, WONDERFUL! I am legitimately happy for you and wish you a joyful life. You deserve that in whatever form it takes. 😄

Lessons Learned in a Tortuous Job Search

I began searching for jobs in late February, as soon as I was certain of my next zip code. I applied to a handful of positions in my future town that perfectly fit the degree I was working toward. Adjunct Composition jobs are so stigmatized by some in the academy that we are led to believe that they are, in fact, easy to acquire. I assumed that I could just breeze into one of these jobs. It’s just an adjunct job, right? How wrong I was. Jobs are not plentiful right now and everyone is clamoring for them as desperately as you are. You have to stand out among an applicant pool with nearly identical qualifications.

I have learned volumes about applying for jobs during the course of my search and have volumes more to learn before I land that ideal job. Since I started my search, my cover letters have become more fine-tuned, my CV has become more transparent and informative, and my applications are not being thrown out immediately after I submit them. I am waiting to hear from nine employers at the moment and the delay can be excruciating. In the meantime, I’ve compiled a list of things that I think have helped and hurt me in my job search. Feel free to use this as a guide to help you start out a stronger applicant than I did.

Things that have worked against me in my job search (and how to combat them):

  • My youth
    • I am completely qualified on paper for many jobs that I will never get simply because I am too young. One glance at my CV and some quick math will tell potential employers that I’m only 24 and to them that translates to careless, green, and flighty. I am none of those things, but not everyone will take the time to find that out.
    • This isn’t something I can adjust in my CV, but I can respond to this concern in my cover letters by emphasizing my youthful passion and excitement for my work. I can highlight the positive side of youth and the energy that a candidate like me would bring to a workplace.
  • My recent graduation date
    • Nothing spells “inexperienced” quite like a 2013 graduation date. Yes, I have ample and impressive experience for my age and my position, but few employers want to take a chance by giving someone their first job out of college. Nevermind the teaching I did in and out of my M.A. program, this will still technically be my first “real” job out of my graduate program.
    • There’s no real way to work around this. I just have to hope for an employer who is willing to take a risk on me. I do, however, make sure to mention in my cover letters how recently coming from a graduate program makes me fresher and more up-to-date on pedagogical theories and practices.
  • My address
    • Some employers will not take the time to read applications from out-of-state applicants. They often assume that you are wildly applying to jobs across the nation hoping something will stick. Why hire someone who might not move to the job?
    • If you are in my situation and are applying to  jobs in a very small geographical area, be sure to mention that in your cover letter. I always begin with a casual “I recently acquired my Master’s of Arts in English Literature from Washington State University and will be moving to Mount Pleasant, MI this summer.” If you can, use your future address in your application materials.
  • Shooting too high
    • This is a sad point to make, but an important one. Don’t limit yourself only to jobs that spell out the highest degree you have. Having the required qualifications does not make you a good candidate for a job. Consider the market. Often hundreds of people in the area are as qualified or more qualified for the position than you. I recently applied for a  job in the small town I’m moving to in which 108 other applicants were notified of the position closing. 108! I knew that I was at the low-end of the requirements for this job, so I began branching out.
    • Look for jobs for which you might be not just a suitable candidate, but a stellar candidate. I was probably among the least qualified applicants for that job with 108 applicants, but I may be the most qualified applicant for a job that only requires a Bachelor’s or a high school diploma. Try to be someone’s star applicant.

Things that (I believe) have worked to my advantage in my job search:

  • Reliable transportation
    • For graduation, I got a 2009 Ford Focus from my grandma. This car gets great mileage, handles well, and gets me where I need to go safely. So long as she survives the drive from WA to MI, this car opens up my application possibilities considerably. I know that not everyone has a grandmother willing to buy them a reliable car, and for that I am very privileged.
    • If you have a car or can get one affordably, use this to your advantage. If I didn’t have a car, I would only be eligible to apply for 7/16 jobs I have currently applied for. This investment will pay off.
  • Diverse experience
    • The summer between my first and second years of my M.A. program I applied for an ESL teaching  job I found on a listserv. I was not traditionally qualified for this job, but the fact that they posted it on the WSU graduate student listserv only three weeks from the start date told me they might be willing to take a chance on me. I wrote a heartfelt cover letter that said something to the effect of “what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm.” It’s a corny sentiment, but it made the difference between me and more qualified applicants who approached the job without the excitement I had. At the interview I demonstrated my passion and that was reflected in the administrators. They seemed as excited to give me the opportunity as I was to take it. I got the job, loved it, and was able to add five lines to my CV about the five distinct courses I taught in this program. My experience in that program got me the job I have now teaching ESL Composition at WSU. Now, I’m able to apply for ESL composition jobs, Intensive English jobs, and have a great foundation should I ever go back for a M.A. in TESOL.
    • Take every opportunity to volunteer, intern, or work in adjacent fields. The more diverse your experience, the more jobs you can justifiably apply for.

Of course, I am still unemployed so my advice is far from perfect. I just wanted to share some insights from someone currently in the throes of the application process for those of you who might soon be coming upon this momentous time yourselves. Best of luck to you, unless you happen to be applying in the Mount Pleasant, MI area. In that case, I do not wish to help you.

The Home Stretch

Compulsory Space Needle image.

Today I signed up for my last semester of classes as a master’s student. I am taking a course entitled Regionalism, Race, and Nationalism in Late 19th and Early 20th c. American Fiction taught by Dr. Donna Campbell. I am looking forward to this class as well as an opportunity to shadow Dr. Leeann Hunter‘s Women Writers course. What an exciting spring!

Earlier this fall I presented at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association‘s conference in Seattle. I had a fantastic time exploring the city and presenting my paper. My presentation employed Judith Halberstam’s theory of Queer Temporality on the Victorian prostitute and explored the ways in which women of the time could have used prostitution as a means to agency. My paper was very well-received. I was lucky enough to present on one of three Women and Work panels, led by Dr. Susanne Weil. I love presenting my work and this was perhaps the most supportive and fun conference I’ve attended. The keynote was Sandra Cisneros who put on a spectacular reading of some of her poems and her most recent work Have You Seen Marie? Her spirit and energy had the whole crowd in tears and was personally moving and inspirational.

Image
In our hotel before my presentation at PAMLA.

The primary theme of this semester has been self-motivation. I have started waking up around 6AM every morning in order to take full advantage of each and every day. Through this I have been able to integrate a daily writing regime, better time management skills, and a more self-reliant and affordable daily routine (making my own breakfast, lunch, coffee, and tea.) This leaves me with more time in the evenings to do the things I love like knitting, baking, and mindlessly watching television with my partner.

The primary motivation for this new schedule is my thesis. I am two chapters in at this point and I feel confident that I will finish by my self-imposed February 1st deadline. My committee is made up of three wonderful WSU faculty members and I am excited to hear more feedback as my writing progresses. My thesis is about Virginia Woolf’s use of  écriture fĂ©minine mecanique, my thoroughly modernist reinvention of Cixous and Kristeva’s paramount theory of bodily women’s writing. I am tentatively using To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Orlando as my textual foundations. I’ll keep the blog up to date with further developments!

Conferences, Composition, and Conversation, oh my!

What a whirlwind of a semester!

Daniela, Me, Aree, Sarah, and Owen after our presentation at LSU’s Mardi Gras Conference.

Since my last update I presented at LSU’s Mardi Gras Conference with several of my colleagues. We formed a panel entitled BAM! POW! CRASH!: The Under-Appreciated Power of Comics as Social Texts. My paper was on David B.’s Epileptic and discussed his work as applied to disability studies. My paper title was “Seizures, Samurai, and Saving the Family: Epileptic’s Reappropriation of Disability Stereotypes” and I feel like the panel was well-received. I enjoyed attending this graduate level conference, but look forward to pursuing larger and more prominent conferences in the upcoming semesters.

My ENGL 101 course is going well. I have been struggling to keep up with my grading, but that pain is self-inflicted. Seven writing assignments in a semester? Never again! The students seem to have enjoyed the format of the course otherwise, so I will be integrating some of my original ideas into my next syllabus with much more sensible applications. I have loved teaching Composition this semester and cannot wait to be able to focus my energies exclusively on teaching.

I received word today that I was accepted to a position at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, ID this summer working for their Institute of Intensive English where I will be tutoring and monitoring the language lab as well as teaching a Conversation course. This will be a fantastic opportunity to work with international students and experience an ELL classroom. Wonderful professional development and well worth the hour commute.

Additionally, I will be participating in the grading positions the university offers to 101 instructors. In this position I will be reading entrance exams and placing the students into an introductory composition course. This job will be sporadic and I will only be able to attend about a session a week due to conflicts with my IIE job, but it seems like a great way to experience the testing side of college composition.

I have submitted proposals to a few semi-local conferences for next semester including but not limited to PAMLA and Sirens.

I’ll try to keep the blog updated more frequently in the future.

Book Review: Comp Tales: An Introduction to College Composition through Its Stories

My edition of Comp Tales

Update: This post has been published in Truman State University’s Master’s level publication, The Wide Net!

Let me preface this review by saying that I am not anti-transparency. I do not think that the academy should keep secrets, that there should be inside information that the public cannot attain. My primary issue with this text is a small one: the misleading subtitle. Let me know if you think I am reading too much into this, or if  you disagree and think that Comp Tales is a good way to introduce an “outsider” to the world of composition.

In an effort to collect some of the predominant lore of the composition academy, Richard H. Haswell and Min-Zhan Lu sent out a call for tales. They asked for diverse stories dealing with any element of the field, told to anyone involved (or not) about any and all things comp-related. In their call which was sent out to instructors and institutions in the field, they asked for “the whole range of professional tales. But they must be tales that you actually tell and pass on” (227). What was received and published was a wide-range of tales both praising and admonishing the academy, some standing up for composition and some putting it down. These tales feel authentic and heartfelt, offering some insight into the range of experiences in composition instruction. What was not included, however, was the voice of the student, the administrator, professors outside of the field, or the public. This collection is told from a singular perspective and intended for the same audience that created it: composition instructors.

This simple fact is not meant to demean the collection or its merit. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting resource for members of the field. Perhaps what I find most problematic is its misleading title, or more specifically its subtitle. No one can argue with Comp Tales, because the book contains just that. I do object, however, to the implication that this book can provide a sufficient or productive introduction to the field. If I had picked this book up in an effort to familiarize myself with the study of composition, I would be horrified. I would want nothing to do with the field as a student, administrator, or instructor. It reveals the overwhelming biases, conflicts, and injustices that dominate the field. It showcases some of the worst cases of instructor laziness and negligence (see tales 14, and 42 for prime examples) and highlights the petty disagreements and institutional misgivings that go on behind the scenes (tales 81, 91, 93, and most of the Professionalism chapter contain evidence of this.) This is information that members of the field are privy to. Few composition instructors will be surprised to hear that a department formed a boys’ club (tale 93). Fewer will read tale 92 in which a GTA treats his students with condescension and cruelty and not relate it to their own similar experience. This is what makes Comp Tales enjoyable and validating for us. But it is not the face of composition that we want to show the public.

As a newcomer to the field I have been flooded with tales of all kinds. The horror stories are always more engaging and build the teller’s ethos as a tough and capable member of the department. One must successfully deal with plagiarism, ignorance, and outright insolence before being awarded with the worthy instructor badge, and most graduate students are eager to tell you about how they’ve conquered all three. This compilation of tales includes plenty of stories along these lines, but also some disturbingly self-important tales which reveal the privileged position of the academy.

The section entitled “The Public” was particularly disturbing at times, when considering that an actual member of this “public” might pick up Comp Tales. In tale 85, for example, the conference bus driver, an often criticized member of the public who comes into contact with members of the academy is the star of this comical tale because he asks the storyteller if he uses “The Palmer Method” (a common method for teaching proper handwriting) in his classroom. Readers will guffaw at this silly man for not understanding how very important composition is and how irrelevant handwriting is to today’s classroom. This tale redeems itself in its explanation, the author stating “I sometimes tell this story to colleagues to illustrate how we need to do a better job of explaining our work to the general public” (104). Tale 83 features the patented position of superiority some teachers of composition take in order to combat the ignorance the public has about their careers. The teller of the tale responds to those outsiders who assume that composition instructors have an excess of free time and a simple, easy life by asking “How easy do you think it is to teach someone else how to think, and express their thoughts in a cohesive manner on a page?” (103). This sort of response, implying that we teach our students how to think, will not sit well with the public, especially those members of our public who see academia as a liberal propaganda machine. Tales like these reinforce the negative ideas that others hold about our profession.

What all of this really comes down to is an awareness of perceived and actual audience. Even a haphazard reading of Comp Tales will lead the reader to think that this book was intended exclusively for the academic elite*. It is a private discourse, one that might better be shared as a set of pamphlets, on a blog, or in its original form, as oral stories. Of course, this book is not a top-seller. It is not prominently sold at bookstores, nor is it something that might catch the eye of a passerby. It does, however, feature a misleading title that might intrigue someone with curiosities about the field. This discrepancy should have been at the forefront of these editors minds who clearly have quite a stake in valuing and upholding the legitimacy of their oft-chastised field of composition.

*If you can call composition the elite of the academy. Many in its ranks would argue it is far from it.