Total B.S.: The Resurrection

whyprof, joining the multitudes with an unnatural fixation on professor-bashing, has declared “University Professor” to be the least stressful career because of “high growth opportunities, low health risks and substantial pay.” High-level corporate executive jobs – yes, the ones that gobble up bonuses and sail away in golden parachutes, even when they lure both their companies and taxpayers into economic netherworlds  – were for some reason declared among the most stressful.

As with David C. Levy’s editorial claiming that faculty at my college are underworked and overpaid based on spurious information, the Careercast article is notable both for for its disconnection from reality and the Schadenfreude with which it is forwarded by people with much cushier careers. I love my job, and I’m not going to argue that it belongs on the Top 10 most-stressful-jobs list, but déjà vu moments are becoming more common than apocalypse predictions. Once again, the good writers have based their claims on faulty assumptions:

  1. Professors have high pay.  For support, Careercast cited the (yes, dizzying) compensation of faculty from Harvard, University of Chicago, and UCLA, ignoring the fact that most full time faculty at middle-tier institutions earn about half this amount and full time faculty at two year colleges earn about a third of this amount, even using the mysteriously inflated data in the study. My own institution, Montgomery College, only includes salaries of full time faculty and doesn’t list adjunct salaries, which are measly.
  2. Faculty jobs are multiplying. Careercast misleadingly declares, “To maintain the quality of education while meeting the increased demand, universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professorial positions by 2020.” The article briefly mentions that competition is fierce for full time faculty positions (at MC, we usually receive at least 100-150 applicants for every opening) and cites the “new emphasis” on adjunct positions. However, most of the growth in faculty hiring has been in low-paid adjunct positions, with a good proportion of full time hiring to replace retiring faculty who were hired during community colleges’ hiring heydays in the 1970s.
  3. The job has few physical risks. I don’t have any official statistics, but with the massive teaching loads at institutions below the top tier of colleges and universities, overuse injuries and stress-related illnesses (like migraines) are rampant among faculty teaching more than 100 students a term. I’m not talking whining about headaches, but instead injuries that have interfered with work and have needed ongoing medical attention. We’re not saving lives here, but my neck, wrist, and shoulders are never going to be normal again, and huge numbers of my colleagues say the same thing. (Also, if the wacky proposals to require guns in classrooms are successful, the lethality of the job could increase quickly.)

Careercast considered these other factors in calculating stress levels, although they didn’t provide scores for each category:

  • Travel. Most of my long-distance travel is nominally optional, but necessary to stay current in my field. My short-distance travel is almost always reasonable – but if you’d asked me when I was an adjunct driving 500+ miles a week to different campuses, you would get a much different answer.
  • Deadlines. As far as I can tell, our faculty lives are one big calendar of deadlines – for conference proposals, articles, reviews, committee work, collaborations, class preparation. Most notably, courseload directly determines the amount of deadline pressure to respond to student work. A professor who assigns 25 pages of writing during a semester to 125 students is going to grade more than 3000 pages of writing in a semester, not counting homework.
  • Working in the public eye. Even when the public eye is mostly closed – as for this latest article – our work is scrutinized. Public speaking is the #1 most common phobia, and when faculty step in front of a classroom, scrutinized by dozens of skeptical students and sometimes by their helicopter parents, it feels very, very public…witness the persistence of teaching nightmares.
  • Environmental conditions. Environmental risks vary by discipline, ranging from picking up illnesses students pick up from their children to dealing with toxic chemicals and toxic people.
  • Hazards encountered. We’re not exactly on the front lines, but considering that most of the mass shootings have involved students and colleges in some way and that we’re “first responders” for a variety of situations, I wouldn’t say our jobs are hazard free.
  • Own life at risk. Thankfully, our lives are usually not at risk, but occasionally domestic violence, gang violence, or mental instability can create some dangerous situations. These are handled confidentially so I don’t have statistics, but at my own college several threatening situations arise at campuses each semester.
  • Life of another at risk. When I worked in advertising, I can say with absolute confidence that nobody ever came to me afraid that she would be killed by a spouse or ex-spouse, that he or she was about to attempt suicide, that he had nothing to eat, that her parents had kicked her out, or that an addiction made him a danger to himself. Now that I am a professor, these situations come up several times a semester, and once in a while I’ve even probably had a small role in saving a handful of lives. That doesn’t even count the kinds of lifesaving that happens when the support of a faculty member helps a student escape a soul-killing future, which is what I consider to be a good-sized chunk of my job.
  • Meeting the public. What is it that Careercast thinks we do at the start of every semester?

As I said, I am certainly not arguing that my job is the most stressful, and in fact, because my work is so satisfying, the stress doesn’t seem to matter as much as it would in a job that was empty of social value. On the other hand, knowing that I am doing something important in a population whose last best hope is often education carries its own sort of stress, because every day I must weigh my own needs against the needs of others and balance all sorts of competing projects that represent competing values.

It is interesting to me that level of responsibility, amount of prioritizing necessary to get the job done, and public bias (few have knowledge of what we do, but everyone has an opinion about it) weren’t considered in the criteria, since they’re known stress factors, but I’m not a pollster, so whatever. As I tell my students, I am privileged to have the best job in the world. It’s just not the best job in the world for the reasons some people think.


The Art of Not Knowing

Every time I teach my online fiction writing course, several students introduce themselves by saying, in one form or another, that by the end of the class they hope to find out whether they have talent.

I, too, would like to know whether I have talent. Every time I sit down to write, I have the urge to gaze at at my own work like Narcissus gawking at his own image in a pool, and I wonder whether what I create is beautiful, horrifically bad, or simply in need of substantial revision. I am not alone. For instance, Lynda Barry, in her autobiographical comic, “Two Questions,” recounts how the dichotomy “Is this good?”/“Does this suck?” nearly destroyed her ability to do art because she began to see each piece she created as a judgment on her worth as an artist and a human being.

Having spent about a decade of my precious days on earth asking myself similar questions, I wish I could help my students avoid this particular creative death spiral. I tell them that practicing any sort of art is a long process and that they are at the beginning of the process. I tell them that the course will occupy only a few weeks of their lives, and I warn them against using these weeks as an oracle that will tell them whether they should keep writing or not. I tell them, too, that I make a point of not answering questions about my opinion of their potential.

The more I write and slog through the uncertainty of writing, the more I realize that Barry’s two questions are the very last ones I should be asking because they’re just not relevant to the work itself. I have been told all sorts of things about my writing – everything from “You’re not James Joyce” to “I don’t see why you would care so much about things that aren’t even real” to the coveted “This is very strong work” – and nothing anyone has said has made much difference to my confidence level. (In one of my first college writing workshops, on the other hand, the professor recounted an incident from her own college years, in which an embittered professor told a student, “If I wrote like you, I’d slit my throat,” which almost certainly would have had an impact – but I desperately hope that story is an urban legend.) In response to various negative reactions and rejections, I’ve spent long periods of Not Writing, but I have always gone back to it eventually; and when I have received praise and encouragement, I’ve glowed for a few days and then spent weeks and months convinced that I would never write anything good ever again.

Like I said: creative death spiral.

Every time I begin to write, I start at zero. I feel that I am not just inventing a story, but myself as a writer. It as though I have to relearn everything I have ever known, every single time. I have to accept – again – that what I have to say, should I even succeed in saying it, may not be worth saying. I may be a better writer than when I started out, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write something terrible, and I am fairly sure I will fall far short of what I wish I could write. If I want to keep going, I have to embrace zero and everything it doesn’t mean. I have had to stop believing that my feelings have any relationship whatsoever to the quality of what I produce. I have to focus on the work itself, not ponder whether it is any good.

Lynda Barry’s comic dramatizes her search for “what is missing” in her art. In the last frames of the strip, she is taunted by ghosts whose frenzy increases the more she resists, until she inadvertently cries out the answer: “I don’t know!” and liberates her work from questions of meaning and worth.

Inevitably, my students will ask themselves the two questions no matter what I say to them, just as I did in my first writing class and for many years afterwards; and some students will read every comment they receive as though it’s a prophesy of what is possible. Some will become angry when what they think of as the oracle suggests that years of practice may stand between them and instant brilliance. I can’t stop my students from wanting answers to the question, “Do you think I’m any good at this?” any more than I could stop myself from asking the same thing when I was in my first workshop. But just because I’ve had – and continue to have – my own struggles with Barry’s lesson doesn’t mean I can’t try to bequeath it to my students.

At my college, the creative writing faculty have been charged with coming up with a way to measure what students learn in art and performance classes they take for general education credit. We had a spirited discussion about what was attainable in one beginning writing course, but we all agreed that it was not reasonable to expect a piece of high artistic quality the first time through the process. None of us, I suspect, are as good as we would like to be, which gives us common ground with our students. The difference is that those of us with more experience have by now swapped our fantasies of genius for a long, lonely march along an unmarked path through unmapped terrain, in search of a hypothetical treasure that may or may not have value. This expanse of untrodden mystery, however, is what freedom actually looks like.

Take it from someone who doesn’t know.

The Dreams of Others, or Why Pepper Spray Is the New Hot

After Black Friday 2008, Peter S. Goodman wrote his New York Times editorial, “A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment,” in which he speculates that the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee is a logical consequence of inequality in the economy. He writes, “It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled with desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.” That same year, one of my students, an employee at Kohl’s, was punched so hard by a Black Friday customer that he fractured his eye socket in several places and was unable to complete the semester. I am not going to forget what his eye looked like any time soon – and he didn’t even make the news because nobody died. I wonder how many other employees were subject to violence, rudeness and worse in the name of holiday shopping.

Three years later, desperation having become a way of life, a woman in Porter Ranch, California now-famously pepper-sprayed her fellow Wal-Mart customers in a bid to get her hands on an X-box without waiting in line. My four year-old niece, hearing my mother and sister-in-law talk about the pepper spraying, began to ask questions. My sister-in-law explained that the woman was very, very bad because she’d hurt people’s bodies just so that she could get what she wanted. “What if she comes here?” my niece asked. Her mother’s answer: Police would catch the woman and put her in jail until she learned her lesson. My niece, however, was still not satisfied: “What if she escapes? What if she gets out of jail but she hasn’t learned her lesson?”

To soothe my niece, we stumbled for reasons that it was not possible for bad people to be let out of jail – a claim that, to my mind, was more or less a necessary lie. The world is full of bad people who aren’t in jail: Lt. John Pike, of unprovoked U.C. Davis pepper-spraying fame; Wall Street types who knowingly defrauded consumers and pocketed the government bailout money; Republicans in Congress, who plan to extend the Bush tax cuts on the country’s wealthiest 1% by eliminating tax cuts for the poor and middle class.

Meanwhile, Alex Epstein, writing for the Fox News website, argued in “Let’s Give Thanks for the One Percent” that we should be grateful to these looters of the national treasury on the grounds that some of them create jobs. Naturally, he praised Steve Jobs as a national economic savior – but, as my father pointed out this Thanksgiving, the jobs Apple has created are mostly at overseas factories. Epstein concedes, “The grain of truth here is that some Americans are rich because of government favoritism, such as bailouts, handouts, and other cushy deals.” The solution, he argues, is to attack favoritism, not income inequality.

I am having trouble distinguishing the two, however. If the type of income inequality that results in CEOs of failing companies making 343 times workers’ median income isn’t favoritism, I don’t know what is – unless Epstein and others of his stripe want to claim that the CEOs are worth 343 times more than the rest of us. When these CEOs lay off workers, raise bank fees, or close companies and happily pocket ever-higher raises, I will even go so far as to call it looting, whether said looting has Congressional support or not. (And notice that I’m strategically not even mentioning this week’s story that showed that Fox News viewers were less informed than those who watched no news at all.)

Meanwhile, Occupy protesters across the continent are facing evictions and arrests. Apparently, protests against income inequality are unpopular with high-earning looters and their institutions. Also, many Occupiers’ camping clothes have started to look scruffy – and we all know how “scruffy” fares on television. Beyond their appearance and their bad habit of eschewing hierarchy, the Occupiers have been criticized for not adequately representing people of color, using heaters in subfreezing weather, and mixing with homeless people. Honestly, some people talk about class warfare like it’s a bad thing.

Personally, I am in full support of any class warfare that promises fairness rather than blind trust that our most elite earners won’t take advantage of favoritism. When a pepper-spraying woman loots a Wal-Mart, we feel outrage; when the robber barons loot the 99%, we’re supposed to feel grateful for their ingenuity. I am pretty sure that given the choice between being pepper-sprayed and being laid off, priced out of an education, or sentenced to an economic landscape tilted against their interests, most everyone would choose the pepper spray.

In each case, the dreams of the powerful outweigh those of the many – or, to paraphrase my sister-in-law’s words to my niece, a few people are very, very bad because they hurt others just so that they can get everything they want. Their desires, though, seem insatiable, even held against the backdrop of job loss (especially of those jobs that appear to have moved overseas for good), escalating hunger, and declining support for those in need, including students, on whose education our hopes to emerge from the downturn depend.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to visit the high school in Reseda, California where my mother is the college counselor. It was a few days before the application deadline for University of California colleges, and the office was crowded with stressed-out seniors and their admissions essays, several of whom asked me for feedback. I read about a student who sought (and found) his heroes in fantasy novels when he couldn’t find them in life, another who sold handbags on street corners to help his family, another who came home one day to find her mother and sister had narrowly missed being shot in front of their home and promised herself she would work towards a different sort of life for herself, another whose years of frequent moves gave him the strength to come out to his friends and family.

All of these students are far more courageous than I am or ever was. Their vibrant, hopeful voices reminded me of what it was like to be young, eager to learn, and full of determination – and yet it’s not clear that they will all get to attend college, or, once they do, that they will be able to find jobs that use their skills. Why? Because the looters’ dreams are worth 343 times the fragile hopes of the students in Reseda. Call it class warfare if you like, but every 17 year-old willing to wait in line deserves a fair shot at achieving his or her goals. To argue otherwise is to become the hand that wields the pepper spray and uses it to steal people’s futures.

To My Students, To Make Much of Time: An Open Letter

You would probably be surprised to know that, in an existential sense, I don’t think my syllabus policies on attendance and behavior are all that important. I, too, am guilty of being late to meetings (although almost never class), whipping out the Blackberry at inopportune times, and missing deadlines; and my personal preference would be to let my students be responsible for their own choices. You are adults, after all, and if you aren’t feeling burning love for English at the half-naked hour of 8 a.m., it’s not my business to give a rip.

Right? Well, not exactly.

In the seats of my classrooms are traditional students living at home, teen parents, full-time night shift workers, returning students, first-generation college students, second-language learners, veterans, ex-gang members, elite athletes, high school dropouts, honors students, and retirees. Some of you are dealing with personal and health challenges; some, even the youngest of you, are heroically supporting yourselves and your families; some of you are strong students who couldn’t afford four-year colleges; some of you are all of the above.

You are making huge sacrifices to be in my class, giving up sleep, hours you could be working, friends you could hang out with if you didn’t have homework, cash for tuition and book expenses, time with your children and families most of all. You’re dragging into my 8 a.m. class in spite of everything, all for the promise that if you keep up with college you’ll have a better life.

When it gets to be mid-semester, like now, the weather is crummy, the workload is increasing, the holidays are looming, and the grades are anxiety-provoking and sometimes disappointing. This time of year, when college becomes less like a photo montage of future successes and more like a slog through the dark and cold to a class that you’re not sure you’re going to need, you sometimes forget why you’re here.

It is my job not to forget. It is also my job to remind you why I’m here. I’m here because English, and particularly writing, is life’s great equalizer. If you can write and communicate, you will be able to achieve your goals; if you can’t, you will have a much harder time. When you become a good writer, it doesn’t matter how you did in high school, what your family is like, what you wear, what kind of car you drive, what color you are, what sins you’ve committed, how much money you have, what lowly position you occupy in the company hierarchy, how cute you look on Saturday night, what you pay for shoes, or where you got your education. If you can write well, you will always sound smarter than you are, and you will always get respect and be heard. And if you can’t write well, you will never get the credit for your intelligence that you deserve.

It is also my job to let you know what it takes to write well: First, practice; second, practice; third, revision; fourth, revision. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explores the careers of extraordinarily successful people, and concludes that it takes 10,000 hours of active, diligent practice to acquire expertise in any skill (the exact number of hours has been debated, but there is near-universal agreement that there is a direct relationship between level of expertise and hours of practice). At this point in your college careers, how many hours have you spent reading and writing? For most of you, the answer is, “Not many.” Given your lack of practice, it’s far too early in your careers to draw any conclusions about what kind of writer you might become: You just need more hours of practice.

If you are the fashionably late type and are doing something during the first five minutes of class that will make as much difference in your life (or someone else’s) as writing, by all means, continue. Otherwise, missing those five minutes at the beginning of every class will make it harder and harder to reach your goals. You’re paying for those five minutes with far more than money, and you could be using them to change your life. The hours you miss will not come back, and people who see you walk in late won’t understand that you deserve a break because you have more than your fair share of demands on your time. They’ll just think of you as the one who’s always late.

Even if you’re always on time, in a typical English course, if you actively, diligently practice, you will spend only around 45 hours on English. If you also do your homework and readings and take the time to apply what you’re learning in English class to your daily life, you’ll make even more progress towards your 10,000 hours. The amazing thing is that you will see so much progress in so little time – if you spend it. Writing is no different from any other skill you practice and learn. Really. These are papers, and we’re not saving lives here…except when we are. If you learn how to write and you commit to revising your writing until you say exactly what you want to say, you will have powers nobody else can give you and that nobody else can take away: the power to give yourself chills, and the power to be heard no matter who you are.