Those Who Can, Teach

It’s a question every newly minted, card-carrying poet/fiction writer faces after graduating from an MFA program: should I go and teach creative writing to pay the bills and make connections while I finish my Great American Poetry Collection/Novel? Or should I get as far away from academia as possible?

I was lucky to get and keep a job at a company I really enjoy working for throughout the Great Recession, so I’m not inclined to head off into the wild blue yonder of postsecondary education anytime soon. The question does nag at me, though: do I eventually want to teach? Or do I want to follow in that grand tradition of poets like T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, each choosing to make writing his life, but not his livelihood?

For recent MFA graduates, it’s hard out there to find a decent job. With the economy’s recovery just underway and the available teaching jobs largely consisting of adjunct gigs at colleges in parts of the country you’ve never really thought about visiting, much less calling home, the basics—job security, health insurance, teaching something, anything, besides composition and rhetoric—are difficult to find. New grads aren’t getting tenure-track assistant professor positions, and they’re certainly not getting the mega sweet deal that folks like David Levy imagine.

I taught at New York University in the fall, and I really enjoyed it. My students were talented, engaged, and fun to work with, the department was supportive, and I learned a tremendous amount about creative writing by having to sit in front of a room of fifteen undergraduates and teach it twice a week.

I was adjunct faculty, however, and the world of adjuncting is very different from the world of full-time academic employment (not to mention the real world in general). I was paid very well by adjunct teaching standards, but the standards are so perilously low that I could not have relied on my salary to live: I would have needed to quadruple my teaching load in order to live remotely comfortably in the New York City metropolitan area. Instructional hours, office hours, planning lessons, and grading took up about fifteen to twenty hours per week, and working sixty to eighty hours a week to earn a modest salary doesn’t appeal to me, especially if I’m trying to take care of my own writing and publishing in the meantime.

These days, even someone with stellar publications, great teaching evaluations, and a full-length book (or two) out from a well-known national press would have difficulty landing a tenure-track assistant professorship. The overwhelming majority of MFA graduates don’t yet have these qualifications, and it could take years after graduation to build a resume to the point where a good college with a robust creative writing program will hire you full-time.

I don’t mean to dissuade recent graduates who were awakened to their love of teaching by the MFA—if what you want to do is teach, you should do everything you can to make your dream a reality. But if you’re like me, a guy who writes poems who doesn’t quite believe that, insofar as “poet” is a vocation, it requires you to wear a tweed jacket with elbow patches and lecture undergraduates on postmodernist poetics or run workshops to train up the Future Ashberys of America, I think it’s worth seriously asking whether teaching is the best career option. It certainly isn’t the only one.

About Eric Weinstein

Eric Weinstein's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Best New Poets 2009 anthology, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and others. He was recently named a finalist for both the Poetry Foundation's 2011 Ruth Lilly Fellowship and the 2011 National Poetry Series. He lives in New York City.
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4 Responses to Those Who Can, Teach

  1. Lisa says:

    Excellent points. I’ve noticed that geographic location seems to have something to do with whether a recent MFA grad can land a FT college teaching job. Many MFA grads who live far from major cities, often in less-populous states, have had a far easier time getting hired than their peers who live in/near NYC and/or in other major urban areas – and this seems to be true regardless of publishing record, previous teaching experience, or where the degree is from. For those who are able to relocate, it may pay to focus job search in less competitive regions. Otherwise, adjunct positions seem to be the norm.

  2. Shelley says:

    As you imply, teaching is only for those willing to put in maximum time with the grading.

    Students need it.

  3. Lisa says:

    Thanks for this. Writing and teaching are two different passions. I don’t regret one moment of my MFA, but it certainly was not a career stepping stone

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