.journal 2007.11.30

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.org.7: When you gonna make up your mind?

Now listening to: Jill Tracy, Diabolical Streak
Now reading: Leonard Chang, The Fruit ‘n Food
Now playing: Sega Genesis Collection (Playstation 2)

This past winter when I did the first redesign of the .org in several years, one of the things I made sure I did along with the redesign was an update of the “About Me” page. I really hadn’t done much with that page since I’d launched the .org back in November of 2000, and back then I was still very nebulous about my past experiences, ranging from my time at Antioch to the experiences I’d had writing about professional wrestling on the Internet. (Long-time readers doubtlessly remember me referring to the latter only as “The Situation.”) As I wanted to retune the .org as more of a marketing tool for myself, though, I knew that I needed to have something more substantial on that page, so I rewrote the whole thing from scratch, and described my previous life experiences in the clearest language I could muster.

One of the things I made sure to mention in my revised About page was an old phrase I’ve always heard about how some of the most interesting people in life never decide what they want to be when they grow up. Ignoring my general reluctance to “grow up,” I felt that this was a fairly accurate description of my life. Even after you take away all the jobs I wanted from my childhood that didn’t follow through to my adult life, I’ve had, and still have, a large number of possible career paths open to me. This was right after I’d finished my MA at the University of Toledo, and although I was pursuing teaching jobs at that point, I knew that I still had other options available for me, including all kinds of writing jobs, Website design, marketing, and even going back to school to get another degree. I was very lucky to be in a position where I had all of these options available to me.

That was before my student loans came due, though.

In the months that followed the redesign of the .org, I started taking on the odd writing job here and there, and then this past summer I started teaching part-time at Monroe County Community College. I’m paying my bills, and I have enough money left over from that to buy some books here and there, but I’m not even coming close to having enough money to start living on my own. (When I have been buying books lately, I’ve been trying to get stuff that will help me with writing stuff so that I can make some more money here.) I wasn’t exactly expecting the world to fall at my feet after I got my MA, but at the same time I thought things would go at least a bit better than they have been here, both in terms of my money-making ability and my ability to find clarity on just what I want to be doing here.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m unhappy with things at Monroe County. I love having the opportunity to teach, teaching there has provided me with new challenges that I didn’t face when I taught at UT, and I’ve had only pleasant experiences with the school and the people there. It’d be nice if I had a shorter commute, especially while gas prices are so high, but I always enjoy driving through Michigan because it’s so beautiful up there. I could very easily see myself accepting a full-time position there if I were offered one.

The problem with this is that I worry that I may cut off avenues for future development. In spite of being so busy with schoolwork and playing more DDR than I think I ever have, I’ve been doing much more writing than I have in several years. Between graduate school and how I got burned out writing for my professors at UT (instead of writing for myself), my writing output kind of slowed to a trickle for a long time there. Recently, though, things started to click for me again. I’ve got lots of stuff I’m working on, and lots of stuff to send out as I look to get more of my work published. As much I like self-publishing and will continue to do so here at the .org, publications not only bring me more prestige and money, but they also increase my chances at professional development.

One of the things I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately is the possibility of going for my MFA in Creative Writing again. Although my first attempt to get accepted at MFA schools didn’t pan out too well, I don’t think I ever gave up hope of trying again. Antioch University Los Angeles accepted me in my first go-around, and because they’re a low-residency programme I’d only need to fly out there for two weeks at a time twice a year, enabling me to keep working and living here in the Toledo area. (Plus I also have an emotional tie to them just because they’re another Antioch college.) Although I’m not sure that I’m good enough to be accepted at Bowling Green State University and was turned down the first time I tried there, perhaps I’ll have better luck with a different portfolio and one graduate degree in English under my belt.

Another possibility, although one that’s less likely, is that I may go ahead and apply to some Ph.D. programmes in composition and rhetoric. BGSU has a top-notch rhetoric programme, as do a couple of universities in lower Michigan, and being accepted to any of them would basically guarantee me living expenses for at least five years while I work on my doctorate. This isn’t quite the logical extension of my teaching work that it appears to be at first glance, though; people who get doctorates in rhetoric and composition are usually expected to run university writing centres and teach other graduate students about teaching composition, not actually teach comp themselves, and, well, I love teaching comp.

That’s one of the problems I’m running into as I look forward to my future, is the fact that, well, teaching composition isn’t considered that prestigious. From my own experiences with English departments — which I’ll admit have been limited and may not be representative of the field as a whole — teaching those first-year composition courses is basically seen as the bottom of the totem pole. This is largely because comp courses are usually in a university’s core requirements, so most of the students taking such classes aren’t English majors and may detest the fact that they’ve had twelve years of English classes before coming to college and now they’re being forced to take even more English. The thing is, teaching those comp classes is how I believe I can do the most good in academia. It’s a challenge, yes, but it’s a challenge I’m always up for, and I get an indescribable feeling of joy when I get this late in the term with one of my classes and I can sit down and see just how much my students have improved their writing and critical thinking skills.

I mentioned last year that I really don’t agree with the tenure system for professors in most universities and colleges because it isn’t student-centric. For most English positions, the only thing that gets you tenure is how many papers you can get accepted to conferences or published. You can’t get tenure if you’re a bad teacher, but the difference in chances of getting tenure between an okay teacher and a great teacher is pretty much nonexistent. This creates an untenable position for professors in their tenure-track years, because in order to get tenure they’re basically forced to spend all their free hours doing research, and they’re pretty much encouraged to not give their current students their full attention so that they don’t wind up losing their tenure-track position and wind up shuffled back into the adjunct pool. I disagree strongly with that kind of thinking, because those students that you’re teaching are the ones who are paying your salary, and any system that tells professors that their ability to land a solid, well-paying job depends less on how they take care of their students than how long they can make their curriculum vita strikes me as being against the spirit of higher education.

Perhaps this is why getting my MFA in Creative Writing seems so appealing to me now, not only because the MFA is considered a terminal degree by most four-year institutions (there are few Ph.D. programmes in Creative Writing out there), but because their publication requirements are the stories and poems you write and send out for publication, and that’s something I’m already doing even now. The tenure requirements are different at most community colleges, as well, as those tend to be focused more on special work you do at the college itself, and that, combined with the fact that I don’t need a Ph.D. to get tenure at a community college, makes me see the value in continuing at Monroe County.

There’s also the matter of how the MBA set have infiltrated higher education and really cut the legs out of most English programmes. In addition to not having the same clear-cut paths to white-collar jobs that science and engineering departments get, the materially-obsessed suits making the budget decisions at most universities these days are far more likely to pay for the university to get some whiz-bang microscope or lab — something tangible, something that looks neat and shiny in their alumni magazines — than to pay for an English professor to take a small trip somewhere to do original research on some subject, even if that research could lead to a better understanding of the human condition that would make life more rewarding for all. I heard at UT that these days, for every three or four tenured English professors who retire, universities are only hiring one new tenure-track professor, and hiring adjuncts (who aren’t unionized, get paid much less money, and don’t qualify for benefits) to take care of the rest of the work.

This may be the biggest reason I’m so hesitant to try to go back to school. There’s every chance that I could go and get my MFA or my Ph.D., only to turn around and find that I’d just be thrown back into the adjunct pool, doing the same work I would have done before but with a lot more debt to pay off. I may even lose the “in” I already have at Monroe County, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my previous years in the work world, it’s to nourish the ins that you get and to never risk losing a good thing unless you’re absolutely certain that something even better is out there. I just don’t have that certainty right now.

At the same time, though, I don’t want to think about looking back in five or ten years, regardless of whether I’m unemployed or I’ve got a tenured position at Monroe County, and regret that I didn’t at least take a chance and see if the MFA or Ph.D. paths would pan out for me. I already feel like I lost a lot when I took all those years off of school in the 90s; I hate to think about losing even more time. Yes, I’m always learning whether or not I’m a student in a classroom (I think I learn a lot of incredibly important things from my students, and that teachers who think they don’t have anything to learn from their students have no business teaching), but more than just the degrees and the possibilities for higher-paying academic jobs, being immersed in a community of learners, especially when you get to the graduate level and everyone is so committed to their academic work, is an experience that simply can’t be duplicated in any other way.

Uncertainty has always been one of my biggest problems; I’ve been known to spend the better part of an evening just trying to decide what I want for dinner. (At least on days when I’m off of my diet and not eating in such a regimented way as I am now.) Given all that is at stake here, though, not just in terms of money and making a comfortable living but also my own happiness, I don’t think I can be blamed for taking my time and coming to the most informed decision I can. At the same time, I won’t deny that I feel like my windows of opportunity are closing on me, and that if I don’t come to a decision about which of these paths to pursue, they won’t be open to me when I finally come to a decision.

Whatever time I haven’t been spending teaching, writing, reading, DDRing, or taking care of life’s necessities has mostly been spent trying to work this problem out. I still don’t feel like I’m close to a decision, but as we go into December here and the application dates for so many schools come ever closer, I fear that my inability to sort things out in a timely fashion will cost me the chances I may have out there to better myself and make my life more secure. I can’t make up my mind at all, and I’ve already got too much regret in my life to deal with as it is. I can’t afford to keep waiting, but I also can’t afford to screw things up again.

I know it’s a reach to ask for you out there to put yourself in my shoes and tell me what you would do in this situation, but I don’t know what else to do at this point. Leave a reply at the blog entry for this post or get in touch with me another way if you have my e-mail or phone or AIM, but please, help me figure out what to do.

Everyone take care and be well. I’ll see you around.

— Sean

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