September 2010 Archives
Can you just imagine getting that phone call?! Whew. What a day of celebration this must be for her.
Congratulations, Yiyun! May your five years of financial peace and freedom bring good things to us all.
My point is precisely that whole biggest-loser thing and how very British they noted it was in the film and how shockingly un-American it seemed to me, even at the time. And what a great relief it seemed like it would be: to share that kind of thing with your friends and then be able to laugh about it. And then eat the brownie.
I was talking to my graduate class a bit about this the other night--no, not about Notting Hill, lest they think me Unserious and thus Unworthy to teach them. But about how career writers--career anything, I suppose--are always having to list their shiny accomplishments, and how it would be such a great relief sometime to write up your Anti-Vita and let people see it. It would be such a moment of candor, of behind-the-curtain truth. All the awards you didn't get, all the amazing journals your work wasn't good enough to be published in, all the prizes you were nominated for but--oops!--didn't actually win. Sigh. All the teaching innovations, trotted out with such high hopes, that failed miserably. And so on. How you sat at home on the sofa and muttered, "What's the point?," embarrassing yourself and boring your family members, who tiptoed quietly away.
Revealing all the failures would be such a relief, such an exhale, such an "I'm nobody, who are you?" opportunity. The topic was on my students' minds because we were doing a session on publishing, and grad students in our program send things out a lot, and it was on mine as well, because I've very recently been nominated for a thing, and part of the process of winning this particular thing is having to write a little statement that talks about me and my accomplishments, and I hate the awkwardness of those, as many people do. You think that once you've written that beastly personal essay to get into college you'll never have to compose such a dreadful piece of writing again, but it's not true. You keep having to. And they don't get any easier. You basically have to make yourself sound brilliant while simultaneously seeming tremendously humble and unaware of the fact that you're just so stupendously brilliant you change the lives of everyone around you without even meaning to. To brag without bragging. It's an existential misery.
In light of this, I was thinking about the Pushcart Prize I did not win last year with the essay "Grip," which was nominated separately by two separate people, and what a painful disappointment it was, the day that I was at a reading and somebody else's hot-out-of-the-oven Pushcart got announced, so I knew the announcements had been made, so I knew I hadn't won, and I had to stand there and smile when what I wanted was a good stiff drink, something iced and bitter.
I thought of "Grip," and I thought of the gorgeous fat grant I'd been nominated for but not won because I was "too far advanced," and it was for emerging writers, and of not getting to be a Bread Loaf Fellow despite being nominated twice by excellent former Fellows, and about the writer who got very excited about me back in 1999 when I gave a reading in a big city and how he kept calling me "the writer who came out of nowhere," but I wasn't, I went right back to nowhere and stayed there, writer-wise, for several more years, and one could definitely say that in the big scheme of things I'm still a resident of that province. I have seen entire trees grow up there.
I didn't tell my students any of that, though, because a reputation for being maudlin is hard to overcome. But it was on my mind. And of course, the fact that THE DESIRE PROJECTS has been on editors' desks for ten whole days now without a Wall Street run on it does not help.
And for everyone who's thinking, Focus on the work, Joy. It's about the work. It's about doing the writing, not Being a Writer--well, that's very good advice, and it's the advice I give my students and writer-friends when they're despondent, and it's the advice I give myself, because it's true. It has sustained me. It has taken me back to my pen and my notebook again and again, day in, day out.
And yet. Once one has thrown one's hat in the ring with that first manuscript one kisses for luck and pushes through the mail-slot, one wishes--wishes hard--for recognition. One just does. One is human, and one does. Plus, I'm a multi-tasker. I can put my butt in the chair and the pen to the page while still wishing for a glossy accolade or two.
So it came as a pleasant surprise this morning when I received a congratulatory email from a novelist-friend, the literary maven and man's man, ladies' man, man about town Timothy Schaffert (who composes beautiful sentences), very kindly congratulating me on having that very same not-good-enough essay get included in the Notables section of Best American Essays 2010. And it is. And I feel very excited to have been rejected by Christopher Hitchens for full inclusion in the actual pages of the collection, because I have always admired his erudition and obnoxiousness, I sincerely have, I wish I had that kind of intellectual confidence, and just the thought that the series editor culled "Grip" from the herd and brought it to Hitchens's attention and Hitchens waved his magisterial hand and said, "No, not quite," is enough to make me very happy. Thank you, Robert Atwan. Thank you.
Two graduate students from here, or I guess they're both former graduate students now (?--can't keep up), are also included, so congratulations to Carrie Shipers and Dave Madden, who are smart, lovely people and fantastic writers.
Also my friend Heather Sellers is in there among the distinguished also-rans with me, and so is my new acquaintance Dinty Moore, who's a wonderful writer and a very funny man. So are Sandra Cisneros and Cheryl Strayed and Floyd Skloot and lots of other lovely writers. So it's awfully nice company to be in.
I've put "Grip" on the website so you can read it if you want--it's only 2 pages--but its availability is only temporary, because my lovely and perspicacious editor Kristen Elias Rowley visited that very same graduate class last Wednesday, and one of the "Don'ts" she listed for authors was putting all your work up on your website when you're going to have a collection come out. (The whole why-buy-the-cow principle.) And I don't know if she glanced sternly at me when she said that, or if I just imagined it because I had a guilty conscience, but I'll definitely be taking "Grip" down soon, because it's included in ISLAND OF BONES, and if there's one thing you don't want, it's your editor mad at you.
Let me just say for now, as vaguely and discreetly as possible, that the editors and publishing houses he sent it to are dreamy. Since Thursday, I've been burning copal, lighting candles, asking the ancestors, slaughtering chickens, you name it.
Congratulations to Pine Manor's Solstice MFA program, where I loved teaching, on being ranked #14 out of 50 low-residency creative writing programs by Poets & Writers. And it's not even five years old yet!
In the meantime, to keep following up on the issue of tenure and why the cost of higher education is rising at weird rates, here's a new article that ascribes the skyrocketing fees to athletic teams (629 institutions have football teams; only 14 of those teams make money), thickening layers of highly paid administrators, and the paychecks of full professors, who're the ones at the top of the faculty food chain. (For the non-academic: assistant professors, usually years 1-6, are untenured, though they have their terminal degrees, teach full-time, and are expected--required--to publish regularly; associate professors, which is what I am, have tenure but have not been promoted further--this usually lasts a minimum of another 7 years; full professors have tenure, the highest rank, and the biggest salaries.) Thanks, Emily, for the link.
But even most full professors don't enjoy the kind of sinecure that some people mistakenly imagine tenure to be. My long-time mentor, former chair, and general sweetheart Warren Rosenberg, author of the excellent book Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture and beloved role model to generations of Wabash College students, posted in response to my initial blog about this topic. His rundown of his typical duties, as a full professor, is genuinely illuminating. It's so valuable. It's exactly the kind of story I hope professors will tell about tenure. I don't want Warren's story to get lost in the shuffle, so you can click directly to it here. (And if you scroll up, Cindy left a great comment about the delusional tenure=Wall Street equation.)
With poverty rates so high, as new Census figures painfully reveal, and US educational achievement rates so low, we really need to rethink. Athletics and administrators are nice to have, sure. And as a working writer who longs for more time to write, I would never decline a position that gave me more free time, so I can understand the choices of those full professors who do have sweet gigs.
But we need a major audit of higher ed that actually puts education first (not the thinly veiled agendas of culture warriors).
My hunch is that, if all the accounting were transparent, it's not the heads of tenured professors we'd see roll.
My thanks go out to my patient and perspicacious editor, Kristen Elias Rowley, her assistant Courtney Ochsner, and the two stunning writers who who agreed to serve as blind readers of the manuscript (and then permitted their names to be released): Norma Elia Cantú and Sandra Cisneros. That these lit-world-rockin' writers are endorsing this project makes me feel so freakin' lucky and grateful.
I'm happy, too, about having a long, leisurely timeline for revision: the polished manuscript isn't due to the press until April 1, 2011. The book will be out, according to the contract, within 24 months after that--so, 2012 or 2013--which feels like a long time, but UNP is known for is its fantastic book cover design (whew!) and high production values, so for me as an author (most of us do really care about that stuff--and have almost no control over it), it'll be worth the wait.
And lest you sophisticated, fancy-drink-drinkin' coastal types imagine that UNP is just a plains-and-prairie operation, I should say (yes, all right then: brag) that it's the publishing home of authors who've won the Nobel, the Prix Goncourt, and other sweet prizes in just the last couple of years, and it has a long tradition of killer literary excellence. I'm also excited that UNP provides great national distribution, like any major trade press.
So mira, here is the audience participation part. As I revise, I would really be helped by knowing what people want to know. (The essays mostly explore mothering, poverty, violence, academia, writing, Latinidad, adoption, teaching and learning, and women's friendships--about traversing lots of crazy worlds, like we all do.) I would love to make this book a work of use and value that's driven not only by me but by your curiosity and interest.
So what are you curious about? Dígame. Tell me, and I'll try to include it in an essay.
Newfield, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, breaks it down here in a recent interview, "Why Is College So Expensive? The War on Public Universities." Claiming that we allow the evisceration of affordable, high-quality higher ed at our own peril, he utters clarifying gems like these:
In most countries, a top education goes to the top 1-2 percent. The secret of us [California] and other states -- Michigan and Wisconsin, for example -- was that you could get that kind of quality for 10 percent. You had general access to something really good that would put people in strong position as adults.~
[Right-wing elites] attacked every reform in the humanities that racially integrated the curriculum, including attempts to broaden ‘great books’ courses at Stanford in the late 80s. The humanities as a source of knowledge in society was gradually discredited. In the early 90s, attacks began on affirmative action in California and elsewhere.
The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology -- anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.
So it’s ok that Yale has a good French department because students are paying full rate but the public shouldn’t be asked to pay for analysis of French canonical literary text -- in other words, don’t teach critical thinking skills that could be used against the mortgage industry.~
Public universities have brought poor, working-class, immigrant students of color into a high-quality education and not a crap college education.~
Higher tuition is not going into staff salaries and faculty salaries, though some of it pays for the football coach to make $2.8 million a year.~
The interview, which makes the intriguingly counterintuitive claim that high costs of science research are shunted toward humanities and social sciences departments--and argues that we need to pull back from thickening the already-thick layers of administration and focus instead on the "core functions" of higher education: "teaching and the best possible research"--is well worth reading in its entirety.
People don’t seem to realize the U.S. has the first generation that has attained less than its parents. This correlates with the era of privatization, which has been going on for 30 years.
California has lost the entirety of its educational advantage. The U.S. has lost the entirety of its educational advantage over the rest of the world. No one without educational advantage has economic advantage.
Enjoy. And mil gracias to Emma Perez (whose own three degrees, by the way, are from the UC system) for the heads-up on the interview.
Some of you may even have observed the growing frustration with the privilege of tenured workers "on numerous blogs and op-ed pages." Some of you may have nodded in recognition at the sketch Shea relates: according to the increasingly popular notion, we tenured elites "are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce" obscure research, or even "stop doing research altogether . . . dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year."
Gentle readers: I wish.
But how absurd. Only in a society with a strain of relentless anti-intellectualism would such a caricature take hold.
As a counterexample, here is one person's story: mine. I hope other tenured professors will make theirs known.
I am a first-generation college student, and my family neither valued college nor helped with my college expenses.
After four years of undergraduate education, for which I went into debt despite scholarships, I was the fortunate recipient of a fellowship from Texas A&M University. With a baby to raise, I lived in two rooms on the $10,000/year stipend, wrote a masters thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and earned my M.A. I had no car. I walked to school. I walked with my toddler to the laundromat. I walked to the grocery store. Et cetera. I finished my M.A. in two years.
I was then happy to be made a teaching assistant, teaching a 2-2 load (two classes in the fall, two in the spring; 28 students per class) to the tune of $12,000 a year. For five years, we lived on that. I continued to take out student loans to pay for necessities and, later, for a Montessori daycare and then an Episcopalian private school for Grey, because the public school in our neighborhood was very weak. I put education first as a value, as a priority--and not as an upward-mobility strategy; rather, I valued critical thinking, a trained mind, thoughtful living. Period. I valued it for myself and I valued it for my son, and I willingly (and gratefully) took on debt to attain it.
For a while at A&M, I tutored in the Writing Center; I routinely worked with business and finance majors who received offers, fresh from their B.A.s, of $60,000 a year and upwards.
I finished a Ph.D. with a scholarly dissertation in five years. (I believe the average is 7 years.)
When I received one tenure-track job offer while finishing my final year of graduate school, I felt lucky. Many of the rejection letters, perhaps to soften the blow, included the numbers of applicants for the job. More than 200. More than 400. In one case, more than 600. I felt lucky to have any offers at all. This was after 11 years of higher education.
My salary was $37,500 in my first year at Wabash College. By contrast, someone I knew well, who went to law school (a three-year postgraduate investment), began his first job at $85K. Year by year, merit review by merit review, I inched my salary up. I routinely worked 60- and 70-hour weeks; I taught free courses through the public library and through the Clemente Course program in order to help the community. I paid over $700 a month, every month, toward my own student-loan balance. But ten years later, chairing my department and teaching a 3-3 load, I still had not reached my friend's entry-level salary.
And three years into teaching as a tenured associate professor at an R1 (a research 1 institution, the supposed grail, where we get to work with graduate students and teach a 2-2 load), I still have not. And that's okay. I'm happy. I feel lucky. I'm not in it for the money. Most of us aren't.
Shea's piece quotes the blistering new book by Andrew Hacker, who claims that "today's senior professors can afford Marc Jacobs." Hardly.
I started my teaching career in consignment wear, graduated to Target, and this year's big back-to-school expenditure consisted of two shirts and this thrilling sale purchase from Talbots:
Item # Description Size Color Qty Price
------ ----------------------- ---------------- ---------- --- ---------
231642 Cardigan Misses L PERIWINKLE 1 @ $14.49 Each
231642 Cardigan Misses L PALM LEAF 1 @ $14.49 Each
Yep, thirty bucks plus shipping. And readers: my cardigans look pretty good.
In seven months, I will have paid off my student loans. I will be 43. I am a tenured professor, I have never had a graduate student do my grading, and I have had exactly one year "off" (at half-pay, not full-pay--the standard deal) during my thirteen years of employment as a professor. (During that year, I wrote two books, one of which was The Truth Book, and the other is a still-unpublished scholarly volume.) Here at UNL, sabbaticals are competitive, not a given.
I would not claim that there's no truth in the caricature. I would not claim that the pyramid scheme of classroom staffing (with a few tenured and tenure-track professors at the top and many underpaid TAs with 2-2 loads and adjuncts pulling 4-4 and 5-5 loads) doesn't deserve careful, thoughtful reform. I have always thought so.
And there well may be deadwood in some departments. There well may be unproductive professors who are overpaid.
But that has not been my experience, and it's not the story of the colleagues I see around me, who are hardworking, passionate teachers who care about students' progress and futures--and who have been vetted rigorously, year after difficult year. Remember, there's a severe weeding out: many graduate students don't make it to the Ph.D.; many Ph.D.s don't get a tenure-track job; many young professors on the tenure track are turned away, sometimes heartbreakingly, at their second-, fourth-, or tenure-year review.
Say what you like about the foibles and excesses of tenured professors; they have earned it. From a huge and eager field of contenders, they are the ones whose teaching and research stood multiple tests.
If anyone's handing out Marc Jacobs to professors, I'll be first in line. Until then, I have rewarding, challenging work that I love. I paid the price, and I'm not complaining.
But I'm here to argue against these uninformed caricatures of what a tenured professor is and does.
Consider the motives of those who attack higher education. By dismantling the one remaining arena where our educational system explicitly privileges critical thinking, discussion, informed debate, and original research over rote, to-the-test cramming, what do they stand to gain? By tapping into and channeling the justified anger of parents who've seen tuition payments climb--as we too saw, for our son (and we sucked it up, because education's what we value)--what long-term goals do they seek to achieve?
Rather than "all but calling for an end to the role of universities in the production of knowledge," perhaps these tenure-bashing pundits (and frustrated parents) should call for colleges and universities to invest in more tenure lines, so that the vast bulk of undergraduate teaching would be done by carefully vetted experts who publish original research in their fields, not underpaid TAs and exploited, harried adjuncts. Those adjuncts should be given a shot at job security and fair compensation for their work--but until more tenure-line positions are approved, they can't be.
It's the business model that dominates most universities, not individual professors who've struggled to navigate it, that should be taken to task.
Be wary. That's all. Find out the facts for yourselves. If you know professors, ask them for their actual stories.
If you are a professor, tell yours. Tell the public the truth about tenure.