(At least one of) The reason(s) I decided to go into composition and rhetoric: the creative writing edition

I read two pieces about the logistics of supporting one’s self as a writer yesterday and this morning– or maybe a better way of putting it is how it’s almost impossible to support one’s self as a poet or fiction writer. (Note that one can make a good living as a writer if you include in that definition the things we train our students to do: technical writing, editing, documentation, content management, social media work, web site development, writing teacher, etc, etc.  But that’s not the kind of “writer” either of these pieces is really talking about. I suppose I could parse out the problem of limiting the definition of writer to “someone who makes art,” but that’s another post for another time).

The first is an essay  “‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from” by Ann Bauer and in Salon It’s an essay about how Bauer’s life as a writer is possible because her husband’s job pays the bills, and it’s also Bauer’s critique of the many writers who come from a similar space of privilege and do not either realize and/or acknowledge how that privilege allowed them to become a successful writer.

The second is a blog post at Gin and Tacos, which is really a rejoinder to Bauer’s essay, called “Dirty Little Secrets.”  Here, “Ed” (the guy behind Gin and Tacos, who is a semi-anonymous Political Science professor in the midwest) compares the unspoken financial independence of many writers to the unspoken use of steroids by body builders, especially those posing on the covers of various muscle magazines.  Among other things, Ed writes,

“The difference between the award-winning author … and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent. That might have something to do with it.”

I see both of their points, but I don’t think the fact that almost all but the most popular of pop writers need to pay the bills with some combination of a day job, a sponsor, and an inheritance is that big of a “secret.” And I certainly never thought the body builders in those magazines were so pumped up all as a result of clean living.

I learned concretely about the money issues (or lack thereof) for creative writers while in my MFA program back in the late 1980s. I had a few classmates who seemed to have come from the sort of privilege Bauer describes, but most of my fellow classmates (like me) lacked trust funds, and it became clear quickly that despite our hopes and dreams, we weren’t going to make money from our little stories and poems.

I remember one guy– he actually wasn’t a graduate of my program but he was around as a part-time instructor– who had published a first novel that had been considered quite successful. I believe it helped him land his part-time teaching gig. The publisher only printed a few hundred copies of his book. Another guy who was in the MFA program at the same time as me had published an “award winning” novel a few years before he even started attending classes and earned his degree. He was quite full of himself; I believe he went on after the MFA program to have a series of temp office jobs.  There’s another woman who I sorta/kinda know (she was in my program a few years after me) who seems to be a lot like Bauer: she writes and publishes novels and can afford to do so because of her husband– and it might help that she lives in Europe, too. And of course the faculty teaching us in the program also obviously needed a “day job.”

In fact, I know of only two people from my MFA days who have enjoyed what I think most people would call some popular and financial success primarily as a writer. One is still a good friend and while he made a fair amount of money from a novel years ago and he still technically makes much of his living from his novels and short stories, he also teaches part-time and he lives as frugal as anyone ever. Another is Sheri Reynolds, and while I would bet that she could “just write” if she wanted to, she’s also a professor at Old Dominion University. (By the way, both of these people are super-great folks and super-talented writers).

Almost everyone else I’m vaguely aware of from my MFA days has gone on to something else besides creative writing. Judging from Facebook, a lot of my MFA peers have gone on to private sector jobs of various flavors, work with nonprofits, teaching/working in high schools, teaching college (mostly as a non-tenure-track person, but there are a few folks I know who went on to tenure-track gigs in creative writing), or on to PhD programs and, in a few cases, tenure-track jobs in other fields (like me).

So the fact that creative writers cannot live off of their writing is not much of a secret, and knowing that explains, more or less, why I went into a comp/rhet program when I did way back when. I was (and am still) risk adverse and not fond of insecure employment, so the idea of taking a series of shit jobs so I could try to “make it” just wasn’t a reasonable plan to me. And besides all that, I wasn’t sure then (still am not sure now) I had the talent to do it.

As I have written about before, I decided to go into composition and rhetoric because I knew I wanted to stay in academia (especially after I attempted to have a real job), and I knew there were jobs out there in comp/rhet.  But I also think that comp/rhet is a field that complements, complicates, and expands what I learned about writing in my MFA program. That has and hasn’t turned out to be the case. Yes, I have been able to apply a lot of what I learned as an MFA student as a writing scholar, particularly the importance of habit and craft. But no, I haven’t been able to successfully make the mental shift to move from writing scholarship to writing art. Though one of the reasons why I’m writing so much about this right now is that’s one of the goals during the sabbatical, to return to fiction for the first time in about 20 years. Wish me luck.

Anyway, to get back to Bauer and Ed at Gin and Tacos: the next time you go to a reading given by someone who has published a “well-regarded” book but not one that has been riding the top of the New York Times best seller list for at least half a year, assume that person has some combination of other work and/or other wealth. And the next time you look at one of those muscle magazines, remember that’s the steroids and the HGH talking.

Post from sabbatical-land 219 days to go: a few interesting links and the limits of learning Swift with Udacity

A lot of stopping and starting this week, to a certain extent connected to the search going on right now in technical writing in my program. I’m not on the committee but I want to know what’s going on with this, so I went to some functions and presentations. On Thursday, I ended up being up at the office from about 9:30 until about 5:30 because of interview stuff and also because I’m still working with three grad students who are in various stages of their MA projects. It was all good, but I did have a bit of a flashback moment to contemplating the mistakes of “sabbatical lite.” It’s not just a question of not spending time with the project and/or “away;” it’s about a kind of rhythm, I suppose.

Anyway, a few links and an update on a MOOC I probably won’t be completing:

  • From Inside Higher Ed, “We All Felt Trapped.” This isn’t really about my project per se, but it’s a very weird and creepy story about an EdX MOOC about physics taught by Walter H.G. Lewin a couple years ago. The short version: Lewin, who was 78, had been (he had been an emeritus professor, though he was strip) a real star of a professor at MIT with all kinds of teaching awards and such. But apparently, he got himself involved in some kind of weird sexual harassment of students in the course. The whole story is there. Like I said, this isn’t really something I think my project will be dealing with, but it seems to me like it’s another example of the unexpected fallout of MOOCs.
  • This came up in my Google alert about MOOCs: “Top 5 reasons why your university needs a MOOC,” which is from a British e-learning consulting group of some sort.  Of these five reasons, three of them boil down to “make money,” which seems a little foolish to me. This might pop up in my CCCCs presentation.
  • Also from my Google alert, “First residential MOOC for U-M students focuses on health care.” As far as I can tell, what’s going on here is it’s free and open to everyone at the University of Michigan– presumably students, faculty, staff, etc.– which is to say that it is more of an internal personal/professional development opportunity. Pretty interesting.
  • And as far as one of my own MOOC experiences: I think I might not be finishing Udacity’s “Intro to iOS App Development with Swift,” basically for two reasons.  First, Swift (which is a programming language for iOS and I guess the main Apple OS too) is probably a little over my head. But second– and this is the big one– Udacity’s course seems to be just a little out of date, probably because of the Yosemite update. I tried to follow through the tutorial in the introduction and everything was going fine, but then the screen images that they were showing didn’t match up with the version of Xcode I dutifully installed, and the links that they had to some specific Apple support documents were 404s.  Maybe it’s not that big of a deal and maybe I’ll be able to figure it out if I press on through the lessons beyond this introductory one. But I have to say it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about how well this will go, and if I were paying Udacity for all this, I’d be pretty angry. Of course, if I were paying Udacity, I might also be able to ask for some help….

Post from sabbatical-land: 224 days to go

There are many fuzzy borders and details in sabbatical-land. I said the beginning of my sabbatical was December 15 because that’s when I turned in my grades and was more or less done with my official EMU duties for the year. But that was/is fuzzy because I’m still doing some EMU things– answering an occasional email, working with some graduate students, and attending some job talks for a search we have going on right now.  I’ll be at the office on Thursday pretty much all day.

And I am calling the end of my sabbatical as September 1, because that’s when the current faculty contract expires. But that date is fuzzy too because the term doesn’t officially start until September 8 (assuming we aren’t on strike, of course) and I’ll almost certainly have to start preparing for the fall term a lot earlier than Labor Day. In any event, about 35 days down, about 224 days to go.

I have been working some, but in starts and fits. A lot of it is because of the holidays– and I purposefully said I wasn’t going to do any “work” during the Xmas/New Year’s break– and part of it is the distractions of the beginning of the school term for both Will and Annette. Part of it is also what I can only describe as “nesting,” which has involved a lot of cleaning and arranging– probably necessary– and elaborate cooking projects like making sausage and trying to “grow” my own natural bread starter– probably not necessary. I have been doing well at going to the gym and/or exercising, and at the end of the day, that actually is my first priority for this sabbatical. I am beginning to understand why retired people– I’m thinking in particular of my parents and in-laws— always describe themselves as “busy.”  I feel busy too for no actual reason.

I am happy to report that I have done some research, if by “research” you mean “look stuff up in the library a bit.” The fist part of this project (at least in my head) is about a few of the innovations that created the context for MOOCs, and that includes/starts with correspondence schools.  So far, this has meant going to the U of M storage facility and checking out the 1933 book University Teaching By Mail. That and the more contemporary The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990 by Joseph Kett (1994) will be my late afternoon coffee shop reading today. Earlier this morning, in writing about my own correspondence school experiences as an undergraduate, I drilled down the rabbit hole of past catalogs at the University of Iowa. So that kind of thing.

I’ve also signed up for/am beginning a few more MOOCs. Starting today (more or less), there’s e-Learning Ecologies, which is being taught by Bill Cope (who gave a great keynote talk at Computers and Writing when it was at UC-Davis) and Mary Kalantzis. Two quick things I’m already noticing on revisiting Coursera: lots of plugging of the revenue generating Signature Track, and the “MASSIVE” part seems only now to be “massive:” that is, this class has 4,000 students rather than 40,000.

I’m going to be poking around at MOOC MOOC, which isn’t so much a regular MOOC as it is a meta-MOOC discussing MOOCs on Twitter and such. I’m curious how useful (or not) it will be. I’m signed up for a course that doesn’t begin until February 10, “Algebra X: Introduction to Algebra” on edX.  I have always been a bit of a math idiot, and so I’m sort of curious if it’s possible for me to teach myself/”learn”/stay motivated in a MOOC where I really can’t fake it through the content, which hasn’t frankly been the case in the previous MOOCs I’ve taken. Along these lines, I’m signed up for a self-paced Udacity MOOC called Intro to iOS App Development with Swift and I’m thinking about taking the self-paced version of the edX Introduction to Computer Science (aka CS50). I started CS50 last year and I thought it was pretty well-done, so it might be something worth sticking to a bit longer in sabbatical-land.

Oh, and I keep threatening Annette to try to teach myself the ukulele, maybe with this or maybe with this. Sure, it’s kind of a goof, but it also is something I can see fitting into the dissertation project. One of my biggest problems with what I’ve read about MOOCs so far is there is this assumption by too many that if you give people content and a little bit of guidance, those people will just learn. But autodidacticism is hard, limited, and uncommon. I’ve taught myself how to do a few things– I learned to do some simple juggling from a book, and most of my cooking knowledge is based on books and the food network– but that’s about it. So I thought it might make an interesting side story to write about/think about teaching myself a musical instrument. And Ukuleles are cute.

Talking Back to the EMU-AAUP About Yik-Yak

Let me begin with three preambles/preemptions. First, I want to apologize to the colleagues I have who are offended by my disagreement with them and the  EMU-AAUP about their call for censoring Yik-Yak. I am sure folks will disagree with me, especially the three women faculty who felt they were sexually harassed and defamed in an honors class this past fall. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to convince you to change your minds about all this, but maybe I can persuade at least a bit.

Second, in answer to the question many readers might have, “why do you care?” Well, my teaching and scholarship has centered on internet technologies like this for over 20 years, and there have been times where I’ve caught a fair amount of shit about it. Just a couple of examples: back when I was a graduate teaching assistant and back in the days when it was weird for students to have email, a fellow grad student and I went through a lot of hoops to set up a mailing list discussion between our sections of first year writing. My “boss” at the time called me and my fellow GA into her office to more or less yell at us for doing something so crazy. I’ve had to fight with IT people to let my students make web pages. I’ve had to explain the relevance and usefulness to various folks about having students create blogs, post to Twitter, etc. It is very easy to see how I could use Yik-Yak in some of the classes I’ll be teaching next year.

So my “talking back” to the the union isn’t just a rant. This is me defending my teaching and my scholarship. This is important to me. And since I’m a tenured full professor, I feel I have an obligation to speak out about this.

Third, I’m going to post this on both EMUTalk.org and stevendkrause.com, for what it’s worth.

Okay, my talking back after the break: Continue reading “Talking Back to the EMU-AAUP About Yik-Yak”

Content and Delivery aren’t the same thing as Teaching and Education (or a few misc. thoughts on recent MOOC readings)

No point in pretending that I was super-duper productive during the first official week of the sabbatical, but I did do some stuff/some reading, which I’m writing about/noting here in this post. I have noticed one thing though: I kind of feel like I’m starting to read the same thing over and over again, which (as I often tell my students) is for me a sign that I am caught up enough on what I’m reading to keep coming across stuff where my reaction is “I already know that,” then it’s time for me to start writing my own contributions.

Anyway, a lot (most?) of this post are some notes on things I’ve been doing lately on this project. I don’t know if readers other than me will find this interesting. Continue reading “Content and Delivery aren’t the same thing as Teaching and Education (or a few misc. thoughts on recent MOOC readings)”

“Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts

If you were a fan of the recent podcast Serial, you really need to read the three part series “Jay Speaks,” a three part interview with the Jay in the Serial show, Jay Wilds, conducted by Natasha Vargas-Cooper in The Intercept. The link I have there is actually to part 3 of the interview, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can get links to parts on and two.

If you haven’t heard Serial, this is likely to not make a lot of sense. But of course, I did listen to Serial and I thought was incredibly compelling, probably the first of its kind of long form journalism in the form of a podcast and as a story that evolved as it was reported, largely as a result of particularly active listeners, for better and worse. And this piece is mostly the “for worse” angle of things: basically, Jay feels like he was demonized by Sarah Koenig, which is the main reason why he’s talking to Vargas-Cooper.

A few thoughts:

Continue reading ““Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts”