This week, spurred partially by the effect that Dave Eggers’ book What is the What is having on me and partially by a feeling of boredom as I think about most of my days, I began thinking about new career paths. Teaching just isn’t really getting me excited or invested as much as it used to. I think I”m burnt out.
This post is really hard for me to write because I know some of my students stop in at my blog from time to time and because I know that some teachers – especially those in the public schools – fight burn out every day because they believe so strongly in what they are doing. But I tell my writing students all the time that a crucial element of writing is honesty, so here I am, trying to be honest without being hurtful.
The truth is that teaching is a very lonely profession. I spend most of my days in a classroom where, in order to elicit good work and to give grades without becoming an emotional heap of jelly on the floor of my kitchen, I have to maintain a distance and power hierarchy between me and my students. This is not my ideal, but I have yet to learn how to get around it without having a class devolve entirely or without me being unable to grade with some level of objectivity. Therefore, each day I walk into a classroom I feel isolated and without community. Of course, I have colleagues, and those people are great and fun and helpful, but the truth is that except on the rare occasions when I am observed, the only way I can get objective feedback is by describing what happened to someone (thus tainting the experience with my own perspective) and then trying to put their advice into practice. It’s pretty lonely in a classroom, despite all the people in there.
The other part of this process is that, honestly, I’m not sure what I do really matters. The reality is that most students would learn most of what I teach – especially in composition classes – just by reading more and writing more. That’s not to say that teaching composition isn’t valuable; I think it is, at least in the sense that it helps students meld into college more fully and gives them new ways to think. (Otherwise, though, I do wonder why we continue to teach essay writing in quite the way we do – without content and/or relation to what students will eventually write in their careers.) But I don’t really ever see the rewards of teaching these courses. Maybe it really is the way “they” say it is and twenty years down the road someone will realize I have had a positive effect in her life, but I doubt it. The lessons of freshmen composition just aren’t that profound. Occasionally, we have conversations – usually not about how to construct a paragraph or a really good complex sentence – that seem to stick. They seem to glimmer in a way that most of our time in class together doesn’t, but these times are so rare as to almost be fogged over by the other “information” in class.
More often, I feel this shimmery-ness in creative writing class, maybe students choose to be there, maybe because I’m just more passionate about the way that this kind of writing makes life in the world. In fact, this morning a former student of mine wrote to tell me she got a prestigious fellowship, her first publication, and was being groomed for the MFA program at her school. To quote her, she said, “That workshop environment had a big affect on me and definitely acted as the first major step in my “career” as a writer.” Talk about a timely Facebook message.
So I’m at this place where I feel like I really want to pull away from teaching composition and really focus on my creative life – in teaching and writing. Moreover, (see, there, I used a transitional expression – these are the things I spend a lot of time explaining – sigh!) I want to use these skills to make a “real difference,” whatever that phrase means, by writing about issues and circumstances that are often overlooked. Right now, I”m working up something on refugees for a magazine – I am finally excited about writing again. So away with composition teaching, as much as possible since I still have to pay bills – and into the creative life. I can’t tell you how excited I am just to write that down. Wow! Amazing!
Book Giveaway Update
Last week’s winner of Irish Folk Stories and Fairy Tales was Christine of Book Tumbilng. Congratulations.
This week’s book giveaway is a favorite of mine – Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. If you have never read this braided narrative about three women – Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Vaughan, and Laura Brown. The book is beautiful woven with elements of Woolf’s characters – particularly Mrs. Dalloway – twisted into the fabric of the story seamlessly. When I read this novel after it first came out, it absolutely changed my view of words and written language. It’s on my top ten list of books, certainly.
And I have an extra copy, and a hardcover to boot. There are a few underlining marks – I can’t resist marking great passages – but the book is in great condition with the original (not the movie) jacket.
So if you’d like to win this book, comment on this blog for one entry. Then share it around on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc (just let me know that you do)! Next Friday I will choose a new winner by my time-tested method of singing a song with my fingers on the names that are submitted – when the song ends, there’s my winner. Next week, I’m thinking the song will be something by Simon and Garfunkel.