The Benefits of Being a Professor as a Writer
Many writers have a common goal of wanting to be a tenure track professor after obtaining their graduate degree. However, the market is becoming increasingly competitive and it is a sad reality that not everyone can have this position. In your opinion, what are good reasons for wanting to teach as a full-time career?
Teaching is its own craft, one that it takes years to learn, much like writing. It’s not for everyone, and I know many writers who have little to no interest in teaching. Anyone who pursues teaching really ought to enjoy it for its own sake.
Personally, I’ve always appreciated the flexible lifestyle for the same reasons many others do—it leaves me time for my own writing. But there are other careers that allow that sort of schedule, especially now that more people can work remotely in fields like editing and social media. A weekday afternoon in any urban cafe will show you that.
The thing that sets teaching apart is the satisfaction of seeing students succeed, and the feeling that by helping those students one has contributed a little to the writing community. Reading a student’s published story, one that I’ve seen go through a dozen drafts between workshops and one-on-one meetings, is a special feeling. Better than that, however, is seeing a student publish a story after they’ve left school. Then I feel like they really learned from the classes, and are able to sustain their writing outside a formal environment, which is essential for a writer.
It’s a tough career to get into, especially full time. Everyone I know spent years as an adjunct professor at two or even three schools before finding a full-time position, but anyone who can persevere through that really loves teaching and is probably pretty good at it.
How has teaching influenced your writing? Now that you are a program director, how has that influenced your lifestyle in terms of writing?
Teaching makes me very critical of my own writing. I suppose all writers are that critical, but being the expert critic of your students forces you to codify the criticism in a way that writers who don’t teach may not. The same one-liners and pithy pieces of advice I give to my students, I now give them to myself too.
Being a program director has actually taken away some of that flexible lifestyle. There are more meetings, more things that just take up a lot of time like marketing efforts and reading applications. I still find time to write, it’s just more difficult to block off those few hours, and I have to sacrifice a little bit from my personal life in order to do so. I am fortunate to have a very understanding and encouraging wife in this regard.
The program at Arcadia is very dynamic! It offers a study abroad option and an online environment for students which is amazing. How has this been a positive in your teaching career? What advice would you give to candidates for faculty positions about finding a good fit with their style of teaching, writing goals and programs they are applying to?
Arcadia’s program as a whole is a positive for me because, well, I designed it. The university wanted to begin a low-residency MFA program, and I was fortunate that they turned to me for the job. I had experience teaching online for a few years and love the potential online learning has for creative writing classes—after all, it’s the only discipline where the medium can also be the content. The study abroad element is not only in line with Arcadia’s mission of providing global perspectives in education, but also something which I enjoy and believe yields benefits to any student. I earned both my master’s degrees at foreign universities (The University of Edinburgh and University College London), and those experiences broadened my perspectives on the possibilities in education and literature. And there’s also the little benefit of my getting to travel to wonderful destinations for work, which is always exciting.
For those looking for a faculty position, I wish I could say to hold out for the one that’s perfect, but that ignores the reality of the situation. Most people don’t have the opportunity I did to design their own program, and so jump at the first full time position they get—and had I not had my opportunity at Arcadia I would have done the same. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of money in writing, so we all have to pay the bills with another job, and I’d advise anyone interested in teaching to take the opportunity they can get and then make it work. If you’re dedicated enough to writing—and anyone in line for a faculty position probably is—then you’ll find time to write while you teach.
I do think that once someone is already a full time professor it’s easier to slide into a position that’s better, but initially it’s important just to get in the door.
What traits do you think define a good online instructor?
You have to love being at your computer. Because you will be, a lot. I check my class’s online discussion boards more compulsively than I check Facebook, and that is a lifestyle choice. I happen to be a big fan of digital technology and am an unabashed Apple devotee, so committing to my screen for work is fine. But not everyone wants to do that. I’ve worked with people who are very good at teaching online but simply hate the lifestyle, hate their phones buzzing with constant emails because students may not see them in person through the whole term, hate feeling like the class is never out of session. I’m comfortable with all those things, but I really understand those who aren’t.
Everything about online teaching can be learned except wanting to be so attached to a device. It’s like a fastball for a pitching prospect—every other pitch can be taught by coaches in the minors, but the fastball has to be natural. That’s the key.
In your opinion, how is the market changing for creative writing faculty positions? What are skills that are in more demand than ever? How are educational programs changing? What should prospective faculty candidates be open minded about?
I think creative writing faculty need to be able to do more than run a workshop and know how to write a query letter. Those are certainly important, but they’re no longer the only skills for creative writing faculty members.
Understanding how to advise a student lit. magazine is essential these days. With the little overhead required to make a very nice online journal, knowing the process of starting and maintaining one can be integral for undergraduate or graduate faculty. The students who work on these magazines get invaluable real-world editorial experience, but as there’s turnover in the student population every year, a strong faculty presence is important.
Being able to guide the students professionally is also valuable. Students need to know the realities and difficulties of the writing world, but also the wide variety of opportunities available to MFA graduates. Some of it is a little counterintuitive, like medical writing or working with press releases, but for those not interested in academia there are lots of options to make a good living without falling into the bohemian writer stereotype. Part of the faculty’s job is making sure the students understand all their options.
And then of course being able to teach an online or hybrid style course, including a workshop, has never been a more valuable skill. Whether you like it or not, that’s where education is headed at the moment, and while there are plenty of skeptics I think that writing is one discipline where online learning really does work. Again, the medium is the content. Writers are good at expressing themselves in an online forum, making discussion boards insightful and lively. I’m not sure what hurdles other disciplines face online, but my experiences with writing students at the masters level is that they take to it quickly and do a very good job, leading to excellent workshops.
Potential creative writing teachers need to be open minded about the fact that while becoming a better writer is the primary focus of any MFA program, students rightly expect other things as well, a little preparation for life after the MFA, and faculty members should be able to provide that.
What made Arcadia a good fit for your needs? What are the unique strengths of this program that you see as a faculty member?
I came to Arcadia as an adjunct and was at the time also working at another university, a large one in Philadelphia. I found that the smaller campus at Arcadia was much more suited to me. I like knowing most of the faculty on campus by name, and all the students in my program. No one gets lost in an environment like that, and that’s a comfortable way for me to work—I know that I can take the needs of my program and its students to the right people and that it won’t fall victim to a many layered bureaucracy. And again, I can’t stress enough the incredible opportunity Arcadia presented me with founding the MFA program, for which I am very grateful.
Arcadia also happens to be a simply gorgeous campus, including a historic castle, so it’s pleasurable just walking out of Taylor Hall to get lunch.
The MFA program itself has two particular aspects that make it special: the study abroad aspect and the online learning. Very few MFA programs take their students abroad, and I think that travel experience, even for a week, is essential for students, especially writers—we thrive on world experience. And with the online learning, I feel we’re really at the cutting edge of that. We have actually gotten rid of blackboard in the MFA program as it’s not very dynamic, and instead chosen applications that are accessible on both desktop/laptop platforms and mobile devices, which is where an increasing number of people get their online content.
What’s the next big step for you as a writer and program director?
The next big thing for me as a writer is my debut novel, Conquistador of the Useless, which will be published by Cinco Puntos Press in the spring of 2013. It’s a slacker novel for the grunge generation, and deals with characters who spent their teenage years in the early to mid nineties and now find themselves somewhat reluctantly becoming adults.
As a program director, I’m looking to do two things in the next few years. The first is to continue pushing to make the program more mobile, as in more accessible on tablets and smartphones. Being online is great, but so many people access the web through their mobile devices that I really don’t want this program to be tied to anyone’s desk, I want the classroom to be anywhere the student wants it to be. And we are getting closer to that every year.
The second is more study abroad options. I love taking students to Edinburgh every year, but I’d also like to integrate other location such as Italy, London, and anywhere else we can provide a quality residency for writers.
Joshua Isard is a native of the Philadelphia area, and has been teaching creative writing, composition, and literature since 2004. Before coming to Arcadia, he held positions at Temple University and Drexel University.