Confessions of a Dirty Careerist: Making Your C.V. More Marketable While Still a Grad Student

Author: Ash Bowen

One of my most vivid memories from MFA school involves my being asked by two fellow MFA-ers whose shit list I’d found myself on in order to “get stuck” teaching World Lit I and Technical Writing during my second semester as a teaching fellow. When I explained to them that I hadn’t been stuck with those courses, that I had, in fact, requested to teach something—anything—other than Comp I and Comp II, I was told that my “art” was going to suffer and that I was a dirty careerist.1 These writers were convinced that teaching the same courses each semester relieved them of the onerous prep work required for new classes, and they were right. But while my “art” might suffer, I had two children who had become accustomed to frivolous things like food and electricity, and spending years getting an MFA and only having a manuscript to show for it wasn’t going to do me any good when I went out on the market to try to snatch a job in academia. I knew that in order to make my C.V. stand out in the every-thickening herd of applicants, more than a little preparation was going to be required.

I spent a lot of time studying the job ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In a lot of cases, the schools wanted academic jacks-of-all-trades, and if I was going to be competitive on the market when I finished my course work, I was going to become proactive—and versatile. I knew from studying The Chronicle that teaching Comp I and Comp II wasn’t going to cut it—not unless I wanted to adjunct for the rest of my life or land a job teaching four (or five) sections of first-year writing courses where I’d have to mark approximately 400 students essays per semester (4 essays X 25 students X 4 classes).

I went to the director of freshman English, and I made the case for him to allow me to teach technical writing. I’d worked for a few years as a technical writer, and I leveraged that in my proposal to him. When I met reluctance, I argued that the teaching fellowship that I’d been awarded was supposed to aid me in my development as an instructor. The director relented, and my C.V. got to state that I’d taught an upper-level course at a major university (this becomes important later).

The scheduling of courses at major universities is usually set in motion earlier than you might suspect. Around the middle of each semester, I’d visit2 the person responsible for scheduling, and let him know that I’d already taught course X, but I’d love to the opportunity to teach class so-and-so. 3

While many of the students in my program felt the goal of the teaching fellowship was the teaching of a creative writing class, mine wasn’t. Only teaching courses in creative writing—or mostly creative writing courses coupled with first-year writing courses—seemed like a gamble because the MFA in creative writing is already the bastard of academia: little-understood and/or little-respected degree on the English market. I’ve been told by administrators and current and past members of search committees that a lot of people don’t know how to read a creative writing C.V. Search committees often don’t know top-tier lit mags from a mid- or lower-level ones, so it becomes your burden to (humbly) let a search committee know you’re publishing in the country’s best magazines. How you do this, though, is anyone’s guess. But a friend told me just today that a poet at his school was hired “simply because the search committee didn’t know that his publications were mediocre publications at best.”

Without a book, landing a creative writing job is going to be tough (if not impossible). And if looking at higheredjobs.com is any indication, many creative writing jobs come tethered to service courses, and without any experience in those service courses—it seems to reason—your vita will become a trashcan liner.

I landed a tenure track job (with a creative writing option) a couple of months before I completed my MFA. The salary was more-than-adequate and came with a boatload of bennies as well. This was at a community college with a medium-sized student population. During my interview, the committee expressed their delight at seeing an applicant who’d taught not only English 101 and 102, but courses in world lit, creative writing, contemporary poetry, advanced composition, and technical writing. In fact, I got the job based on my experience in teaching tech writing. And after I completed my doctorate, my second job came to me because of my background in technical writing as well.

Maybe my art did suffer. I’ve yet to publish a book. I haven’t been invited to any AWP panels. But I’ve yet (knock wood) to work a single day in retail, and I’ve kept my kids in clothes and shoes in a way that makes me happy. I have friends who’ve won book prizes, and they’re still adjuncting or working in bars. All in all, one could do worse than being a dirty careerist.

1“Dirty careerist” seemed, at the time, to be on par with “child molester.”

2 i.e., pester, bother, badger. Squeaky wheels get greased first.

3This is a lie. I never wanted to teach those classes.