One of the things I’d forgotten over the past year was how important is was–it is–for me to look outside of my department, my university, for support.
This isn’t to say that the faculty in my department aren’t supportive of my work; for the most part, the ones whose opinions I value are. But you know what? They’re also really fucking busy.
There’s a lot of bullshit involved in the day-to-day life of a graduate program; the persistent minutia of academic life, like who’s teaching what course, who’ll serve on which committee, who’s not talking to whom. In addition because our program’s so small, most faculty members are on multiple dissertation or thesis committees, and they all have, you know, family lives.
So no one is here to hold your hand, as a PhD student, and most of the time, for me, that’s been ok. More than. Generally, I don’t like to be fussed over.
But it also means that there’s a lot of stuff I’m not saying, that I’m not sharing with anyone in the program. About my project, my work process, I mean. Because at some level, when people on your committee ask “How’s the dissertation coming?”, what they want you to say is “fine.” For many good and right reasons, most people don’t want to hear the messy truth, one I’d struggle to communicate, anyway:
It’s hard. I’m a little lost. Having to plan a project before I did it is kind of biting me in the ass. Today was ok. I read some good theory. I found a great source. Look what was posted today at this site that I’m studying. I think I’ve got something good. Writing is hard.
Truth be told, though, I don’t want to share the complexities of the project with my committee, because I don’t want them to interfere. Yes, I want help, or at least a sympathetic ear, but I’ve learned over time that those asks often come with a cost.
Academia is the only field I know where applying for jobs is something of a spectator sport.
Not only do we–and by “we” I mean “the humanities”–talk endlessly and openly and sometimes even accurately about the State of Labor in our fields, we also spend this time every year staring INTENTLY at our soon-to-be graduated PhDs as they buzz about trying their best to become gainfully, oh please Tenure Track-level employed.
Seriously. It’s a little creepy.
Part of this, I think, is that some of the hiring in fields like rhetoric, composition, and literature has been heavily institutionalized around particular spaces; there’s a ritual to it, if you like, one that’s centered on the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference held around this time each year. Even in the wee tiny graduate program of which I’m a part, one is made to understand that what one should strive for is to have at least one face-to-face interview at MLA. Phone interviews, Skpye interviews? Cool. But MLA, one is made to understand, is still considered by many to be the gold standard, it seems.
There are just two folks in our program on track for graduation this spring, but last year, we had 7 or 8 go on the market all at once. For a good six months or more, the efforts of these folks to land interviews, get called up for on-campus visits, and then finally, to land a job, fed the departmental gossip mill to the full point of gorging: who’s going where, and who wasn’t chosen, and why did so-and-so turn that one down. Mind you, the average number of applications that one’s expected to submit in Rhet/Comp? Is 60.
Don’t get me wrong: in the abstract, this whole process was fascinating to watch, like NASCAR with resumes and writing samples. But now, as I edge closer (knock on wood) to the job search, nigh on a year from now, the voyeuristic aspect is kind of giving me the creeps.
Yeah, and the vapors, too.
Getting a job, no matter what field or area of expertise, is never fun. Strike that: it usually sucks. So I can’t say that the prospect of looking for work, of some sort of professional legitimation, in full view of an avid audience hoping for blood or at least a good sideswipe makes me feel warm and fluffy.
Perhaps I’m just being overdramatic. Probably. Yeah, I am. Still, it’s one of my resolutions for this year: to run my own race, as much as I can, and to stay away from the Peeping Tom-aspect of departmental life. If I can.
Good news: I had papers accepted at two more conferences for this fall. Which means four conferences in the next four months. Woo!
Bad news: Two of the conferences are within 10 days of each other in September. And the other two are within 10 days of each other in November.
And did I mention that the ones in September are OVERSEAS?
My dad: …are you sure this is a good idea? My lovely spouse: …are you sure this is a good idea? Me: NO but for now I’m going with YES.
I mean, let’s be honest: on the one hand, this is seriously fantastic. People want to talk about Supernatural and fan practice! About women and the negociation of desire! About teh Wincest! Yay!
On the other: WTF was I thinking? Hell, what the hell AM I thinking?
In truth, I’m trying not to. I almost had a panic attack yesterday, when the last acceptance letter came through. I had 10 seconds of happy, of “I am freaking amazing” and then bam! Right to “I gotta breathe in a paper bag and/or vomit.”
Or just roll into a ball and write some nice fluffy Destiel.
And I know this comes off as bragging, or something, but truly, it comes from a place of angst. As one of my colleagues pointed out last week, being an academic means embracing a life of paranoia, fear, and imagined inadequacy. We send out proposals and essays and articles and just cringe under our desks as we wait for a response, which, inevitably, even when it’s a yes instead of a no, feels like a big old Molotov cocktail right in the gut because then we actually have to DO the thing we’ve said we could do and holy fuck does that suck, sometimes.
But most of me right now is like: WTF is wrong with these conference types? Don’t they know that I’m just wanking about SPN? That, at some level, this can’t be “scholarship” because it’s so fucking much fun? That my business card (if I had one) should really just say “professional fangirl”?
I mean, I get to read slash fic AS HOMEWORK. Come on. Seriously?! How did I get so lucky? (Or the world so delusional?) I mean, yeah, then I have to write about the hot sex, rather than just write it, but still. It is fucking awesome.
So I’m grateful. And, when I let myself? Very happy. And utterly and completely freaked out.
I’m working on a paper for school in which I’m tangling with two scholars’ notions of “good” writing, or what elements or actions or characteristics of writing should be valued, and why.
Tripping through their definitions, their contradictions, their idealism has gotten me wondering, again, about how writing–good or otherwise–can be taught.
Indeed, the more experience that I have in teaching writing, the more I am convinced that writing can’t be taught. Not in a single course, or semester, or even a school year. Rather, I think writing is an accumulation, a collection of ideas or imprints or gestures that build up in the mind over time like shells on the shore that get honed by the waves and bleached by the sun and experience, uncovered and buried and swept away as needed. Refashioned, again and again, piece by piece, instructor by instructor, book by book, blog post by blog post.
Writing defies testing, defies concretization. Deconstruction teaches us that meaning is not fixed; that the world is text; that the writer cannot hope to master language and its infinities of meanings, only to tangle, to temporarily tame, the words with which we are surrounded. So why do we pretend that writing is an act, a series of performative moves, even, that can be “taught” as if they were a universal constant? As if there were agreement over the unstickiness of language and meaning? As if we can even agree over what we mean by “writing.”
People ask me: how did you learn how to write? And I say: I read. Which some writers think is a total fucking copout, a justification for NOT writing. An excuse for why you haven’t written. Okay, I can see that. Maybe it is, sometimes.
I can speak only for myself, then: reading taught me how to write. But it was up to me to actually, you know, write. To do something with that knowledge. Intellectually understanding how words can fit together, what they can do in certain combinations, is all well and good, was all well and good, for me. Even got me to a point where I could “teach” other people how to write. Like painting a wall, or something; where to put the masking tape, how to position the ladder, what kind of brush to use and when.
But it wasn’t until I started writing regularly, for myself and not simply in response to [or in order to resist] an academic assignment or prompt that I started to do writing rather than just talk about it, teach it, dissect it.
So maybe it’s not fair to say that it’s the experience of teaching writing that’s made me question if and how “writing” can be taught. Maybe it’s being a writer. And I don’t ascribe to the romantic Platonic notion of writing being some super-secret gift from the Almighty or something.
But writing isn’t math. It can’t be boiled down to formulas or prescriptions or balanced equations, no matter how often I tell my students that one can figure out what makes a piece work or what undermines its effectiveness. There’s no magic bullet for writing, period. Probably for a lot of other shit, too, but writing’s the only thing I know anything about.
So I don’t acribe any mystical powers to myself, ok? But still, I’m a “good” writer. A distinct one. One with a distinctive voice, anyway, in a couple of different genres. But how did that happen? Where did it come from? And not all of my readers dig the way that I write, the way that my characters–including my academic self–sound; but, by now, I’ve had positive responses from a wide enough variety of readers to buy into my own hype, a little. Temporarily, at least.
My composition theory professor once asked us–aspiring composition teachers all–if we thought that one had to be a “good” writer in order to effectively teach writing. Though she did not say it then–let us argue it out amongst ourselves instead–her answer? Is yes. It was part of the reason that she encouraged me to teach composition: because she thought I was a “good” writer.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand, yet, how that is supposed to translate into the classroom. For the most part, I don’t introduce my students to my writing; this piece, this term, being the rare exception. The only writing of mine to which they are regularly exposed are my comments on their own work. And especially given what I do write, both as a scholar and as a fan, I’m reluctant to even talk about my own writing too much to my kids. If they ask, I’ll tell; otherwise, I’m still squidgy about talking about slash fic with freshmen who are an awesome combination of world-weary and wide-eyed innocents, sometimes.
And yet, as a new-old friend said to me recently: I read your writing because otherwise, how will I know you? Which, exactly. I would agree. So since my students don’t read my writing–nor am I arguing that they should, I don’t think–how does me as a writer get translated into me as an instructor?
Whatever sustained joy I find in writing is newly grown; barely nine months old, yet. And I know, as I ask my students to write multiple drafts, to revise, to talk with others about their writing, that, for many of them–like me–these are motions to be gone through, rhetorical moves to be performed, but, for the moment, they find no value in them, other than they must be done. I’ve been in school–even just graduate school–for a loooong time. I’ve written a lot of shit. Some of it good, some meh, some of it I even liked. But I didn’t have a “writing process”–revise: I didn’t have a stack of writing processes from which to choose–until I started writing for myself. Until I started writing fan fic.
Some would argue, I think, that I am able to craft said processes because I’ve been “trained” in the Writing As A Process model. That the instruction I offer my kids might not be useful to them now, but it will be “in the future.” At some point. Maybe.
But I would say: that’s not good enough. I want to teach them something they can take pleasure in now, that they can have fun with now, that they can re-make for their own purposes now, not in some distant pretend future which may or may not come to pass. Why can’t writing be good to them, for them, in the moment? Because if Godot ain’t coming today, who’s to say that he’ll come on any other tomorrow?
Writing, now, brings me so much joy that I get a little stupid about it, sometimes. As evidenced by this post, perhaps, if given the chance, I will go on and on about my processes, the different ways in which my stories came to be, how I fought them, how they seduced me back to the keyboard, etc. Because, to me, it’s a freaking miracle. It’s like the baby Jesus springing to life on the screen sometimes; that is, when I look up after an hour and there’s a little fic there, done, completed by me, apparently, it’s like, wow. Where in the hell did that come from?
I used to be really weird about reading my own writing. As in, I wouldn’t, once it was turned in. I’d read any comments that I received, but I’d never look back over the piece as a whole. But now? I read all my stuff multiple times, once it’s “done.” The fic especially, but even my academic pieces. Ok, my papers, I still don’t really read carefully until after I’ve gotten them back from the prof, but my presentations? My research? Hell yeah, I read that stuff. Because I’m good with it, I’m ok with what’s on the page. I take some pleasure in seeing how it works, what didn’t, and why. I genuinely like writing, damn it.
So I want to find a way to bring that into my classroom, that love of practice. But I practice writing, for the most part, on my own terms. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it. My kids, however, aren’t in the same boat, so it’s not as simple, I don’t think, as bringing my practices themselves into the classroom.
Still, I have to acknowledge that, as Della Pollock suggests in her essay “Performing Writing,” “performance, as practice…is never fully in control of its effects” (80). And what is teaching, ultimately, if not a performance? So no matter how much energy I devote to puzzling my way out of this rhetorical paper bag, I cannot claim full control over the effects of my teaching, of my time in the classroom. And that’s ok. I’ve accepted that.
But still. I want my kids–if not all, at least some–to one day [stupid future!] find the love and joy and pleasure in writing that I have, finally, after all these years. I don’t want to create clones of myself–I’m a goddamn mess!–but I do want to open as many door as I can for them, give them as many chances to monkey around in my classroom while they can. And as wishing cannot make it so, I’ve no choice but to keep playing around, to keep testing, rearranging, revising, rewriting in my classes as I do on the page, on the screen.
So for all that angst about “how can we teach writing?,” I end up writing myself back into this job, this calling, into those awesome five hours a week I get to spend in the classroom with my students. There are some traps, I suppose, from which we do not wish to escape.
Oh, sure, they could tell you the basics [or what they see as the basics, anyway]: grad student, PhD, large state university.
If you pressed, they might manage to add: goes to “conferences” [whatever those are]. Teaches freshmen how to write. Writes papers about stuff.
But they have no clue as to what I study, what I’m fascinated by, what I, you know, do. They’re not really that interested, haven’t been for a long time. What matters are the letters behind my name: right now, it’s MA squared. But they’re really looking ahead, waiting with baited breath for: PhD.
At some level, I understand this. “PhD” has a connotation out there in the real world of, I don’t know, intelligence? Or some special kind of worth? A betterness, maybe?
But we in academia know better, of course. We’re different. Not better, or smarter. Just wired funny: all critical and analytical and boy does that make us fucking confused a lot of the time, in our interactions with the “real” world. But we think we’re awesome. We think what we do is the most interesting thing on the damn planet.
So, at some level, there’s part of me that’s like, hey disengaged parents: how come you’re not interested in what I study? It’s awesome!
Still, how do you have that conversation?
Mom, Dad: I study gay incest porn.
Mom, Dad: I write gay incest porn. Really well. Oh, and I study it, too, or something.
Of course, I like to tell myself that their approval doesn’t matter. And it really doesn’t, most of the time.
Like, all kinds of cool stuff about me has changed, metamorphasised or whatever, in the past six or nine months. And the most important part of all of that is that I’m a writer, damn it. I’m a writer.
Granted, what I write is slash fiction. But come on, that is so fucking cool! It makes me so happy to say that, to share that with people, even if it usually leads to the “what is slash?” conversation.
One thing I do love about conferences is that the first question one is asked is usually: So what do you study? Or, tell me about your research. As I said, we academics think that what we do [which = who we are] is frickin’ fascinating.
That said, I had a colleague ask me at a conference this past week if people make certain assumptions about me when they find out what I research. He told us about a female professor he knows who’s in porn studies. She gets propositioned constantly at conferences and other “professional” settings. The assumption being, he assumed, that studying porn = doing porn.
I assured him that this was highly, highly unlikely to happen to me. For a whole host of reasons. First and foremost, many people are squicked out by slash, but toss incest in to the mix and oh hell yes, you can really scare people off. I had a middle-aged woman at my presentation last week tune out immediately once I dropped the phrase “gay incest porn” in my opening paragraph, which, yeah. Was totally a strategy on my part. Heh. Dude, it’s fun to freak out academics. But their approval is very very nice, too.
So let’s be clear: my parents’ approval is in no way in hell forthcoming. Nor do I want it, not really, though that’s hardwired into my attitudes towards academics, even now. But I’d take curiosity, I think.