Those Who Can, Teach

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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.