academia

The Sunnier Side

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As is always the case with this space I’ve created, it’s been too long since I posted. It’s always in the back of my mind to come back here and vent, but then life gets in the way and I’m banging out pages for short story, an essay, or my memoir and this lovely place gets put on the back burner.

While it’s the middle of October–how the hell did that happen by the way–a lot has happened since my last post which was over a year ago.

In the fall of 2016, I hit the academic market hard. I was still restricted by geography and working full time at the high school, trying to get stuff published, being a mother, trying to be a decent spouse all took its toll. I had one interview, and it did not end with me getting the job.

Another major event happened, I left my high school teaching job at the behest of my wonderful husband. I was reminded with an ever-clear action that I was not respected or valued despite my students having increased their test scores–the only thing that matters in education right now–being nominated for teacher of the year, having high marks on my evaluations, and staying 3 hours past my contractual obligation to write engaging lesson plans that were proving to be effective to students in both affluent and not-so-affluent home. Yes, I’m tooting my horn because I was a damn-good high school English teacher. Damn good.

So after some shit hit the fan, I went home in tears. My husband gulped me up in his arms and said these magic words: Why don’t you leave?

I had been at this job for five years and had some hard times, which is the case at any job in any industry in any place, there were also fleeting moments of joy, and I really loved the folks I shared a hallway with. They made the daily shitstorm bearable. We talk and talked and when it came time to give the school my 30 days, I decided it was what was best and my husband agreed.

For the first time in my life, I am not in the classroom at 11 a.m. during a weekday. At some point for the past three decades, I have either been a student or teacher in a classroom. This August came and went and my time was spent (gulp) writing.

While I miss some elements of the classroom, I don’t miss any of them enough (yet) to warrant a return. And with things being up in the air with my husband’s career, for the first time since I graduated with M.F.A., geography may not be an issue.

So, for the past month, I’ve begun to hit the academic market even harder. I’m no longer limited to a commuting distance. Now, I’m looking at places all over the country. I can actually see it happening now. The dream. It feels so much more real. More tangible than ever.

In the past, I’ve been known to get my hopes too high. I will apply for the job and suddenly my mind has decorated my office, my work wardrobe for the next year is planned, I can see my name on the door. I’m doing a lecture at this college and walking my jolly-tenured ass to class. I’ve planned which audiobooks I’ll listen to in the car on my drive to work. This makes those rejection emails so much more painful. How can they not hire me? Don’t they know my nameplate is already on the door in the English department building?

While I still let my hopes run wild because if anything I’m an idealist, I’m trying to temper the decorating and audiobook planning. I have looked on Realtor.com and Zillow.com to see what the housing markets look like in the neighborhoods of the colleges I’m applying for, but I’m totally justifying this by thinking it be smart to have an idea of where my kiddo might start kindergarten.

In addition to hitting the academic market hard, I’m also looking for non-teaching jobs in my area because–money. We need money. Those student loans won’t be paying themselves off neither will our mortgage. That too has been frustrating because I’m over-qualified with no experience outside of teaching. I have faith something will happen and if doesn’t maybe the book I’m writing will be the silver bullet to our “good debts.” I told you I was an idealist.

I started somewhere with this post and now I don’t know how I ended up where I’m about to but whatever.

I will close by saying I know how f***ing lucky I am to have a spouse that can support our family financially while I spend my days writing and job hunting. I’m lucky my husband isn’t an asshole who holds this over my head. I know I’m blessed that he understands my happiness is just as valid as his and his support means I’m able to pursue my art.

When I decided to leave the classroom for the world of the starving artist who isn’t starving because she’s married, I told him I felt guilty because had we not been married and in the situation we are in, I would have to just suck it up and keep teaching high school. If I were single, I’d still be in the classroom not having time to work on my book and look for jobs in academia. Was my depending on him for money, anti-feminist? Was I hurting my gender with this decision? Should I try to keep doing what I was doing? Shouldn’t I be able to hold down a full-time teaching job while looking for one, be a decent mother and spouse, and still find time to write because it was important to me? Don’t people do that?

This is when I realized my problem. I have been comparing my journey to wherever the hell I’m going with others. I don’t know how those professors listed on those English department pages got to the point where they were the one selected by the committee. Their struggle was different mine, and I really needed to stop worrying about everyone else. Everyone gets to where they are going in their own way. The stops are going to be different, the type of snack they stop for is going to be different. The road bumps that will affect their ride will be different. Maybe there are some folks who are able to do it all, but I’m not one of them.

Last May I was in a dark place. I had reached the same weight I was when I was 6 months pregnant except I was sans baby. I was struggling to enjoy time with my husband. Most evenings were spent with us on separate ends of the couch joylessly watching TV then crawling into bed. I was pulling into the parking lot at work and sitting in my car trying to hold back tears of sorrow and pain because I was giving all of myself and not feeling valued. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t exercising. I don’t know if this is what depression looks like because I’ve never been diagnosed with it, but I definitely felt like shit.

Flashforward to today, things are way better with my husband, I’ve been writing every day. I have finished a few books–nothing to write home about but reading is reading–and I’ve lost some weight. I feel great, and I’m scared.

Every morning for the past couple of months, I’ve been waking up early and working in my office on my memoir, job documents (one of these days I’ll post about the ridiculousness of those documents), and job applications. I’ve been exercising and have even taken to mid-day walks which do not count as my workout but do amount to one of my favorite times of the day.

I can’t lie and say life is great. It’s better. I’m still scared as hell because I don’t know if this risk of losing my full-time job with summers off and benefits is going to pay off with my getting my memoir published and my achieving my end goal of being a writer with a tenure-track job, but it’s sunnier over here, so for now, I’ll take it.

 

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The G-ddam Academic Market

shield-1020318_1280When I graduated with my MFA in 2010, I thought I had gone on “the market.” Oh how I lied to myself. I finished my MFA and eagerly, nay, foolishly took two positions at two different schools an hour away from each other as an adjunct. I spent most of my time that fall and again that spring driving back and forth from campus to campus to make about $10,000 for the year. Yes, I know my tale is one the media has begun to tell. NPR did a story or two about it. The Chronicle has done great coverage of the issue of the adjunct. Also Dr. Karen L. L. Kelsky has done excellent work helping graduate students find the elusive tenure track positions on her blog, The Professor is In. If you haven’t read her book of the same title, for goodness sake, buy yourself a copy and do yourself the favor. Anyway, back to my sad story of my adjuncting experience.

When I graduated, I was so eager to get to work. I thought being an adjunct might give me some necessary experience to be a professor, despite my grad school professors warning me against it. I also had taught high school before being a TA and had gotten the taste of teaching college students and didn’t want to go back to parent emails and the bureaucratic bullshit of teaching high school. I didn’t want to join a profession that was on the downslide. A profession constantly being vilified in the media? No thank you!

Once I got engaged, shit changed. I wanted to get a little more settled. I wanted a job where I didn’t have to drive back and forth across my state to be living under the poverty line.  I wanted health insurance, not necessarily because I am unhealthy–I’m not–I knew I wanted children and those little things are expensive and impossible to care for without health insurance. As a side note, Mini-OneMean recently ran into a bookcase at daycare (also expensive) and had to go to the Emergency Room. There were no stitches needed just tape and glue to close the cut. This set my little family back $700. Yes, you read that correctly, $700 dollars. When my appendix ruptured–there’s a fun story I’ll eventually type out for you all, readers–it cost about $4000 bucks with the insurance. Needless to say, my move to teaching high school and making a salary and having insurance was a the fiscally responsible one.

The issue, of course, then became I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t doing the one thing I was an expert on. Instead I was spending an exceedingly large amount of my time after school working on crap that was not nourishing and not moving me in the direction of that elusive tenure track job. Though I have been teaching high school, I have made it a point to stay abreast and relevant in my field as an academic. I’ve been presenting at conferences and have continued to attend the AWP conference, despite not being a professor at a college or university. It was (is) important to me to continue to be present as an “academic.” I even wrote sporadically. I wrote enough to keep getting published, though not nearly enough, and I don’t have a book or chapbook or anything big enough to get me an interview. At least this is my theory and one that the Husband has said is very likely the reason I have not received a phone call for an interview.

My friends in academia, one in particular who is a department chair, has said my job documents are great. My friend has gone above and beyond to help me refine my job documents, even looking at ads, sending me ads, and telling me when a job is a long shot or to apply for certain jobs because I’m definitely qualified. Still, my phone doesn’t ring, I’ve gotten no interviews, and I’ve been applying for jobs since October. People, it is JULY.

Since summer began, I have had this hope that any day now, I’ll be emailing my high school to tell them I won’t be returning in August. I have growing anxiety about telling my school, a workplace that has been pretty good to me, that I won’t be back. Sorry (not sorry) the school year is starting and you need find my replacement because no parent wants a substitute teacher in their kid’s English class. I have wonderful coworkers and even though I bitch about them, pretty wonderful students. Because of my seniority, I teach all the classes I want to teach. It’s not a bad gig given the circumstances. While I wouldn’t hesitate to take a college job, even if that meant leaving the first day of school for my high school students, I would feel so terrible about it. I don’t know why I’m worrying about this hypothetical scenario given the lack of evidence that it will happen (i.e. no interviews), but I am. I would hate to burn a bridge that has kept me out of some dangerous waters.

Here’s the thing though, since summer began, Mini-One Mean has been going to daycare. I drop the little kid off, drive home, and WRITE. It’s been glorious. I’m writing and submitting and applying for college jobs. Yesterday, however, as I wound down my work and realized I had spend nearly 6 hours working on job applications and not on writing, I became extremely discouraged. After nearly 40 job applications–17 just this month–I have heard silence. Yesterday, I even said the rosary for the first time since my mother died–3 years. I wept in my car as I said my prayers, basically begging God to get me through this job search.

I know I’m not alone in this struggle. I was told that some people apply to 200 jobs only to get nothing. I’m blessed to be employed and to be employed at a place that isn’t hell. It just feels a lot like a purgatory right now. I’m waiting and waiting and waiting. My confidence is totally shot, but on the upside, I’ve done more writing this summer than I have since grade school, and I’m exercising, and I’m happy(ish). I am worried that come this October I’ll be back on the market again, and I wonder how many more years I will put myself through this process before resigning and accepting that I will teach high school until I retire.

This thought, this “Plan B: High School Teacher” is not okay with me. The Husband is always saying you can’t have a Plan B, only a Plan A because then you give up on Plan A. I definitely and beginning to feel the pressure of this. It’s like be a professor or bust! I would hate to end up settling into this profession and have my kiddo (or maybe kiddos) see that I settled for work that wasn’t enriching. It was for the benefits and stability. While there is nothing wrong with wanting those things, it’s just not enough.

If you’re on the market right now, or thinking about getting on the market, know I’m standing with you in solidarity. It’s a shit process, and it’s degrading. It’s difficult and trying, and if you are lucky enough to have a spouse, lean on them. Know, however, if your spouse, like mine, isn’t in academia but in the corporate world, he or she will be clueless. My husband is a smart man. He is a really smart man. I married him for his mind (and his looks ;-D), but he doesn’t get it. I love him to to death, but he doesn’t get it. He does get the publishing element, his theory is, get the book published, and you’ll get a job. This go around, as I’ve applied for Lecturer and Instructor positions–those positions more focused on teaching versus research and have heard nothing–I’m not so sure the book would be enough. I’m applying for Assistant Professor jobs. These are ENTRY LEVEL positions. A book is not a requirement in the ad. Maybe like the Husband, I don’t get it either.

Regardless, I’ll continue to plug away at job ads. I’m not sure when I’ll decide to hang up the towel. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. I do know that I’m relieved to be caught up with job applications today because my novel is waiting to be revised so it can be sent out to possible agents. That’s real and tangible and also a great place for rejection.

 

Getting My Embouchure Back

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It’s been ages. I know. I don’t know where I’ve been, probably buried under paper grading, dealing with teenagers and even worse adults that act like teenagers, trying to figure out the balance between discipline and patience (in regards to the toddler that now shares a roof with me and Mr. One Mean), doing hot yoga a couple times a week, attempting to do something with my lawn, and the like. That rut I was telling you about ages ago still plagues me. I can’t quite seem to find myself. I have been writing and publishing and working towards that elusive academic job, but, of course, to absolutely no avail. This past year was my best writing year in a long time, probably since grad school, but as Mr. One Mean likes to remind me, who is calling to grant you that interview? Dude is tough, but he keeps it real. I appreciate that. I need that.

I keep trying to visualize myself on a college campus, making a living wage, in my office with students who want to discuss craft. It’s a real dream. In terms of the craft of teaching, I’m definitely improving. In my classrooms (high school and college), I’m doing good work. I can feel it. My students seem to be receptive, hell, some of them might even be learning. In regards to the rest of my life, that is not the case. So much of it is messy and chaotic and I definitely am in the midst of an existential crisis, though what writer isn’t?

So, as summer approaches, I’m eagerly beginning to form my writing plan. Look, I know a lot of you are already on summer vacation (lucky academics!),  but where I live we still have 2 more instructional days and 4 days of exams. It’s really quite horrible. As much as I enjoy teaching (and strangely enough I’m kind of passionate about it), I’m ready to not see the stinky faces of the teenagers I’ve attempted to impart some knowledge on. Everything is moving in slow motion, and I just want summer to be here because summer (even the oppressive heat that comes with it) is the greatest time of year. You pumpkin and fall lovers need to can it. The leaves are pretty, but raking, while an excellent workout, is not my idea of pleasure. I mean come on, multicolored leaves versus lush green and hazy, hot days? There is nothing better. Okay, the crisp air is nice in October. Hush. I’m coming around to the other seasons.

Summer has often meant laziness for me. It’s been a time to decompress the daily interactions with young people that I so love but often find myself getting irritated by. It’s writing that helps me quell the crazy. This summer I’m definitely going to need to get some of that crazy out. I need the nourishment.

Recently, I started writing a short story. I hadn’t written fiction in years and while I teach the craft of fiction and am specialized in fiction, I find the personal essay a more natural form, so when this character popped into my head, I thought, “One Mean, you need to get this chick out of your head and onto a Google Doc.” So I did. And it’s been fun, but I’ve totally hit a wall, and frankly, I don’t think it’s the character or what I presume will be the plot of the story that is stalling me. I fucking rusty, folks. My fiction chops need warming up.

Years ago–like high school years ago–like when volcanic rock was beginning to form land masses in the ocean–I played the trumpet. I was (am) a terrible trumpet player. I was good enough to get through the music and not good enough to warrant pursuing a career as a jazz artist. I was self taught and was transiting to the trumpet in order for the marching band to have balance. The band didn’t need another flute player. I was a good flute player and decent enough musician that I taught myself the notes on the trumpet (mostly by banging the keys of the piano at home and matching the pitches on my trumpet) and called it a day. Honestly, I have to think my poor parents regretted the day they brought home that piano and then later the flute and that trumpet. Anyway, I digress. The hardest part of learning the trumpet was getting my embouchure right. The flute was vastly different from the trumpet, both required the same muscles but not in the same way, sort of like nonfiction and fiction. My mouth was sore for months. My lips would feel numb, though I have been told–not that I would know because I’m such a prude–brass players make the best kissers. In high school a dated two boys, one in band (a baritone) and one not, and I can attest to the fact the baritone was hands down the better kisser so maybe there is some truth to this. My band director was a trumpet player, so he took great care making sure the brass sections were warmed up. We would buzz on our mouthpieces, take great care with our breath, buzz without mouth pieces to enhance the strength in our mouths, and we’d finally put our mouthpieces in our horns and play. When concert season would start, I’d happily put my trumpet away and resume (Confession: I never stopped practicing the flute, which is why I was first chair) my flute practice. My flute embouchure was always working (just like my nonfiction chops are stronger), but in the spring when we’d reveal our fall season opener, I’d have to dust off my trumpet and once again the soreness to my lips would return.

When lips are sore from playing a brass instrument, the whole mouth is involved. The sides of your mouth–the muscles you forget are there unless you play an instrument–ache. Your lips feel mushy (I know I’m so articulate) and numb. It feels as if your lips are full of push pins or maybe what tenderized meat would feel like if it had feelings if it was, you know, alive. When you cool down your lips (like the way you cool down after a jog), your lips don’t fully regain feeling until you’ve had a cold drink. In fact, drinking cold water during a performance is frowned upon–nay, forbidden–because all that warming up gets washed away with the ice.

It is in this way that I feel about my fiction writing. I’ve been practicing my trumpet for a few hours, and my chops are busted. My brain mushy and numb. I’m dusting off my instrument after several seasons of it being enclosed in a case and stored on the top shelf of my closet. The case nearly falls onto your head as you stand on your tip-toes to reach it. It’s heavy and cumbersome, but when you open the case, you’re glad you did because you know good times are about about to roll.

Learning Not to Starve/How I Learned to Feed Myself

Last fall, around October, I had a mental breakdown.  I was bitching to FH about teaching, my students, my weight–everything really. Because he is a wonderful and supportive man, he helped me through it and made me realize that putting in the effort level that I was putting into my teaching needed to be rerouted. I needed to focus on my writing and my career, not my students who didn’t give a f&%!.   Whenever I write, I feel so good. I feel great. Nourished. He reminded me that I needed to write and be nourished because my students weren’t putting the effort in. It was difficult for me to do this at first, but by the time the spring semester rolled around I did just that.

I have now started my memoir, and started work on a short story. Two things I’ve been meaning to do for months, and I finally got around to doing it this semester. I could not have done this if I had been too focused on my students. Still, while I’m proud of myself for reading and writing more, I do think I was terrible teacher this semester. I’m confident that my evaluations will reflect this.

Things I did very badly semester:

1. Took forever to grade student papers.

2. Didn’t respond to emails as quickly as I should have (if at all).

3. Didn’t encourage office hours.

4. Had an attitude of “I don’t give a hoot” all sememster.

5. Was lazy in my lesson planning.

I could go on, but I think these five crimes are enough to show you that I was a bad teacher.

While, yes, I was a bad teacher this semester, I do feel I became this way because when I did give my all, I didn’t get it back from students. While this is not an excuse, even teachers breakdown and need to be rewarded. Even if it is with students turning in their work.

I went digital this semester and only collected work through Blackboard. Having the students submit their work electronically had problems (possible post issue) and while I repeatedly went over the correct formatting and procedure, students continued to struggle with it. In part, I feel they may have been playing dumb in order for me to go the traditional hardcopy format of collecting papers. I also think they don’t listen.

When I look back on this semester, all I think about is how much my students complained to me (and my boss –at the one school) repeatedly. I think about how it was impossible to satisfy my students (and both bosses), how my assignments and methods were questioned continually by both my students and boss (at the one school). Most semesters I feel some moments of reward, incentive to come back next year. I can honestly say, if I I don’t get a teaching job for the fall I wouldn’t be upset in the slightest. I would be totally fine with it (barring I had something lined up that was salaried). In fact (I’ve probably mentioned this already), I’ve been applying for jobs outside of education.

This semester has made me realize that there is life outside of academia. There is a big world out there, and people with my skills can be used in any field. I don’t have to be a teacher.

My mom, my boss (at the school I like), and others have told me that I’m a great teacher. That it comes naturally. I have a gift apparently. Having been told this throughout my career, I never ventured outside of the school walls. When you have a gift, aren’t you supposed to use it? Aren’t you supposed to take that gift and help others with it? (God, I’m so Catholic sometimes) I love school, as both student and teacher, why leave a place that I feel so comfortable? The thing this is this year I haven’t felt comfortable. My hair has fallen out in clumps, since last May I’ve gained about 15 pounds, and I dreaded driving to work. Oh! and my panic attacks and migraines returned. My body gave me physical signs that I needed a change.

The last day of finals I woke up with my chest feeling heavy; I still needed to grade some papers and finalize my grades. As I drove away from campus, done for the semester, I felt lighter and happier. All I need now is a good cry to get out the negative energy still remaining in my system.

The fact that I haven’t been happy, and excited to work on teaching stuff is a culmination of many things. First off, I don’t love teaching the modes, I prefer teaching argument, literature, and of course creative writing. I have had the opportunity to teach argument, but the curriculum and textbook required were not suited to my teaching style at all. I teach a lot of lazy students at the community college level which is actually an extension of high school. Many of my students weren’t at the level necessary to really dig deep. They struggled with basic computer skills, and no concept of how to do research. Also, the lack of care that went into their work was unbelievable. They didn’t proofread, or acknowledge that there are rules of formatting at all. It’s like they just discovered different fonts and decided to experiment using Calbri and Garmound in my class. I think the real kicker as to why I haven’t been happy teaching this semester (okay, all year) was because I was repeatedly told by my bosses (both schools) that I’m too hard on  my students, that I don’t have compassion and am insensitive to the non-traditional student. They are right, I don’t give a f&*$. Get your work done. There is not an employer in the world who would tolerate excuses like: my kids were sick, or I didn’t understand the assignment so I just didn’t do it, or you didn’t respond to my email so I didn’t know how to move forward. Really? Give me an effing break.

So when I think about how I’ve changed because of this semester I realize that not only have I been writing more, but I’m reading more. I’m also really excited about the possibility of a career change (separate post on topic to follow). While I would take pretty much any salaried job that was in my field, that prospects in education don’t look so good, but maybe that’s a good thing. Don’t misunderstand me, I wouldn’t turn down a teaching job, but if I had the choice between a job outside of education (like copy editing or something like that) and a job in education, I think the job outside might win. Just the thought of leaving my work at work….oh sweet lord. If anything, I’m not going to settle. I’m going to turn something that could easily be a negative into an opportunity to refocus and change.

Teaching-wise, not my best year. Work-wise, not my best year. But, something great did come out of this year: more writing and really understanding that I need to be nourished by work. If I’m not going to be nourished and fed in education, then see you students later. Trust me, it’s your loss. I’ve never been one to starve myself.

I will keep you posted on the job hunt.