A few random thoughts on the VCU MFA reunion

"Borrowed" from Pam Gerhardt-- pamelagerhardt.com
“Borrowed” from Pam Gerhardt– pamelagerhardt.com

This coming weekend is the 30th anniversary reunion for Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program in creative writing. Originally, I thought I was going, but delays in information about the schedule of events, conflicting life events and obligations, and this pesky day job that makes getting to and from Richmond on a weekend in the middle of the term ultimately are all preventing it.

And actually as I think about it right now, that’s been the story of my life regarding reunions. I missed my 20th high school reunion because I was in Hawaii. I’m missing this one because of the above, but oddly and for unrelated reasons, I’ll be in New Orleans. Maybe I don’t actually like reunions but I am not willing to admit it. Maybe I want to lock the past in the past. There is something to be said for that.

I started in the MFA program in 1988 in large part because Greg Donovan, the director of the program then and I think the director of it now, called me up and offered me a graduate assistantship. I recall being rather coy and full of myself, saying something about mulling over other offers– which I had, sort of. I had been admitted to a couple of other programs but without funding. Greg said something like “Well, it’s not worth it to go into a lot of debt to get a degree in creative writing” and I was signed up.

At 22, I was the youngest person in the program at the time I was there– maybe up to that point. I always thought this gave me certain advantages because if I did something good, people would say “yes, and he’s only 22!” whereas if I did something bad, people would say “well, he’s only 22.”

I don’t want to romanticize it all now– there were a lot of “bad times” of various kinds and flavors, mostly of the sort that I think to happen to any 20-something graduate student living far from home– but I mostly hold on to the good. I think it says something that I’m on much better “Facebook-like” friend relations with people from my MFA program than I am with people from my PhD program. Oh, Annette and I still have some good friends from Bowling Green days, but the PhD was rather “intense” (to put it mildly) and didn’t exactly foster social bonds that well. I don’t like this word, but there was a lot more “camaraderie” in the MFA program, maybe because we were helping each other try to be artists, maybe because a short story or essay workshop class can seem a lot like group therapy. Maybe I feel that way now just because I was so much younger and way WAY more naive.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and when I get a chance to advise students now about whether or not to go into a creative writing program, I always say that it’s a great opportunity just as long as you realize that it doesn’t inherently translate into a job after you finish. You won’t find a lot of ads on Craigslist or Monster.com that say “MFA in fiction writing required,” with the exception of jobs actually teaching creative writing, and those positions are few and far between. What I got out of it was the luxury and privilege of being with a group of other people who all cared passionately about their writing. In a lot of ways, it didn’t even matter a whole lot if that writing was any good or not.

And who knows? I’m on sabbatical next winter (the story of that is another post I’m mulling over), and it might be time for me to take up foolish things again, things like making something up.

On having “The Least Stressful” Job of 2013

Making its rounds on the intertubes yesterday was this article/blog post/something by Susan Adams at Forbes, “The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.” The winner? University professor, of course!

The article is so factually inaccurate in so many different ways that there’s really no point in explaining why. But there are two interesting aspects of the way it has been reported. First, after many flabbergasted comments from various professors, Adams published an addendum/apology where she acknowledged that being a professor is actually a lot of work and even potentially stressful. Second, as a part of that addendum, Adams says “but don’t blame me; blame CareerCast,the marketing/PR firm that came up with these lists in the first place.”

In other words, all Adams did was reproduce the quasi-made-up lists of least stressful jobs and posted it, all under the rhetorically persuasive guise of “reporting” for an established magazine. Classy. And it would appear that the rest of the lemmings in mainstream media have chased after this story too: a google search turned up similar links/stories on ABC News, some business web sites, some TV station web sites, etc.

I think the most stressful jobs list is also pretty telling.  There are jobs there that I would assume are stressful (military, firefighter, police officer, etc.), but then there’s Public Relations Executive, Senior Corporate Executive, Photojournalist, and Newspaper Reporter, jobs that are pretty close to the kinds of work people at CareerCast do. Nothing self-serving about that at all, right?

Not surprisingly, professors have complained about this low stress characterization. Two blog posts I’ll mention is “The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US,” by Audra Diers at the blog Facts & Other Fairy Tales. She goes to exhaustive lengths– and I mean exhaustive— to describe just how very stressful and time-consuming it is to be a professor.  Second, Aaron Barlow writes about all this in “‘The Job I Love’ and ‘Why I Fight.'” I think Barlow is exactly right when he explains why it’s difficult to compare/explain the profession to people who look at work and jobs as something unpleasant that is done in order to pursue real passions when the reality is that the job/work of being a professor is the passion. Interestingly enough, Barlow was interviewed and clearly misquoted by these CareerCast people.

But it is also easy in these sorts of rebuttals (and in the comments on that Forbes article or on mailing lists I’m on) to slip into workload exaggeration in an effort to tell the best “oh, you think you had it bad” story ala Four Yorkshiremen:

But just what is “stressful,” anyway? What do these people mean? It turns out that CareerCast does have a methodology of sorts, though it is a strange point system/scale/something, and there’s no explanation as to how things are scored. Being a university professor scores on this scale (according to these folks) a 6.45. By contrast, the most stressful job, Enlisted Military, scores 84.75; a PR Executive scores 48.52; and a photojournalist scores 47.12.

The application of these points is clearly pretty loosey-goosey; in fact, if I were to guess, I’d say it looks like what the CareerCast people did was sit around in a conference room or a bar one day and bullshit with each other to come up with the numbers. This probably explains why so many careers related to the careers of these CareerCast wonks rated so high. I am almost certain that they didn’t actually ask anyone in these fields to rate their own stress levels.

So as a public service and as a way to procrastinate, I thought I’d go ahead and score my own stressfulness on the job based on their scale.  Here it goes:

  • Travel, amount of 0-10: 2 I’m going to give myself a 2 for this because while I generally still need to go to one or two conferences a year as part of my work (and I have to pay a lot of those expenses myself), I don’t really have to do this much anymore since I’m tenured and all that. But when I was in graduate school and seeking tenure, going to conferences was critical, time-consuming, expensive, and thus stressful, so I’m sticking with that 2. It’s not as bad as a job where you are flying someplace every week (I have a brother-in-law who does that), but it’s not non-existent either.
  • Growth Potential, income divided by 100: ? Honestly I’m not sure what this means, but I will say this: one of the clear problems of being a professor– especially at a place like EMU, where it is comparatively easy to get tenure and promotion– is that you “max out” in terms of pay and rank.  This is one of the reasons why professors become administrators. Besides, if the number for stress is high, wouldn’t this be a good thing? I’m confused by this one. I’ll say zero even though I know that’s wrong.
  • Deadlines, 0-9: 5 I suspect that the CareerCast people sat around and said “yeah, my professors always took a couple weeks to pass back grades on papers– they didn’t give a shit about any deadlines.”  That’s because when you are a professor, you have lots and lots of other deadlines that have nothing to do with teaching that are more important than passing back those papers. There are deadlines for publishing, for posting grades, for advising, for committee meetings, for doing assessment and other university busy-work, etc., etc. Lives are not at stake and deadlines are often not met, but yes, there are lots of stressful deadlines.
  • Working in the public eye, 0-5: 1 Given the criticism of education in the MSM and the fact that I am a public employee who has to maintain a public persona as a teacher and a scholar in my field, I do feel a certain amount of “public eye” stress. I mean, it’s not like anchoring the local news, but it is also not an anonymous profession.
  • Competitiveness, 0-15: 15 People outside of academica have no fucking clue on this. Anyone– and I mean anyone— who is in a tenured position at a university, particularly in fields like English or Rhetoric and Writing, competed mightily for that position. They competed against applicants to graduate school for admission and an assistantship, they competed against their classmates in graduate seminars for recognition, they competed against their peers around the country to get accepted to conferences and to publish essays, they competed against their peers again to get hired in the first place, and they continue to compete with their faculty colleagues for damn near everything. EVERYONE who has a tenure track job has dealt with the stresses and pressures of the never-ending competition, and show me someone who is in a particularly prestigious tenure-track job and I’ll show you the most competitive S.O.B. you’ll ever face.
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.), 0-14: 0 As I am fond of saying of this work, it beats shoveling coal. Assuming we’re not talking metaphorically- that’s covered by competitiveness.
  • Environmental conditions, 0-13: 0 Though I have had some sketchy office spaces.
  • Hazards encountered, 0-5: 0 Though I can imagine folks in chemistry might feel differently.
  • Own life at risk, 0-8: .5 Obviously, being a professor is not dangerous like being a firefighter or police officer or soldier. But given the rare but unfortunate incidents of violence on college campuses, I would say there is some anxiety there that is stressful.
  • Life of another at risk, 0-10: .5 See above.
  • Meeting the public, 0-8: 6 This is another one of those categories where I suspect the CareerCast people, the ones who were once students in classes like mine, thought “yeah, those professors are so lucky, they never have to deal with the public, just students and stuff.” Well, I’ve got news: students are “the public.” Now, most of my work with students– especially the good ones– is very pleasant and rewarding, no doubt about that. And working with college students is generally a lot easier than working with “the public” one encounters in secondary schools, social work settings, shopping malls, restaurants, etc.

That said, every professor/lecturer/adjunct/graduate assistant I know can tell you several hair-curling stories about dealing with students/the public who were insulting, mean, weepy, drunk, scary, crazy, potential violent, lazy, rude, and/or all of the above. Honestly, working with the public/students is often the best and the worst part of the job, and it is definitely one of the sources of stress in my life.

So for me, I’d give being a professor a 30, not counting that “growth potential” question. I’m not saying it is in the “top ten” of stressful positions (though being a PR Executive isn’t in the top ten either in my book), but it ain’t quite as easy as it is to come up with these top ten lists in the first place.

WIDE-EMU 2012: A Few Misc. Thoughts

WIDE-EMU 2012 (or is it WIDE-EMU 2?) happened Saturday at Michigan State and it all seemed to go off without a hitch, more or less.  There might be more later, but I thought I’d  write a down a few thoughts before I forget now.

  • This is the second version of the conference we ran successfully last year at EMU, and for me, I guess there are two related reasons why I think what we’re doing is important and valuable. First, there are not enough small, local, and low-stakes kind of conferences happening in the field, at least not in Michigan. I had a couple of folks from smaller colleges come up to me today and thank me (well, me and Derek and Bill too, of course) for doing this. Second, the WIDE-EMU is a “proof of concept” of the idea that if a conference remains small, if you can get a free space (in this case, classroom space at MSU), if most of the amenities (e.g., food, printed programs, other swag) are cut out, and if everyone embraces a little DIY spirit, and if you use tools like Google Sites and a few “borrowed” photocopies in the department– if you can do all that, then it’s really not that hard to run this kind of conference for free. And increasingly, I’m interested in conferences like this one: small and inexpensive.
  • My conference day started out helping people get started, registered, name-tagged, etc. I actually forgot a name tag, which is kind of bad since I’m one of the people who has preached the “bring your own name tag” message loudest. Anyway, after things got going, I wandered around and stuck my head in a couple of different sessions and I ended up staying for Becky Morrison’s and James Davis’ make/talk, which had become a sort of “let’s chat about our topic” since there were only four of us. I thought it was a great conversation.
  • Next, I went to Karl Stolley’s workshop on github– here’s a link to the materials.The good thing about it was I kind of feel like I want to learn something more about github (which is basically a place to share versions of open source code in a way that controls versions of that code) for all kinds of reasons and Karl knows plenty about it. The bad thing is/was I spent like 45 minutes trying install the necessary software and tools only to find that my stupid EMU computer is set up in such a way that I don’t have control to the root directory. (Note to self: erase EMU computer and start over on my own as soon as I have time).
  • Bill HD and Karl had had a little Twitter argument earlier in the week over the role coding should have amongst rhetoric/writing people; Karl obviously thinks “yes” and Bill had a blog post here more or less arguing “no,” or perhaps more accurately, “not so much.” I think both of them are right and wrong in that I don’t have the time/expertise/inclination to spend as much time with coding things as Karl would; on the other hand, I also don’t have programmers handy the way Bill does, so I have to do a little DIY if I’m going to get anything done. Besides, I think learning a little code– or even learning about code– goes a long way.
  • Anyway, after that was Bump Halbritter’s plenary talk “Teaching/Learning/Knowing Writing as Symbolic Action,” which was pretty good. I recorded it with my EMU’s new video camera and I’m trying to get it ready for YouTube on my other computer as I type this, so it should be available soon. Hopefully it turned out decent. His talk was largely about his forthcoming book, Mics, Cameras, Symbolic Action: Audio-Visual Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, which I’m looking forward to reading for my own multimedia writing classes.
  • Lunch was kind of a bust: the original plan was to get everyone to go to this food court area that was supposed to have a variety of options, but the only thing open was a very busy Subway. So there was more dispersal to different parts than I would personally have preferred. Bill and Derek and I ended up going back to the conference building and ordering Jimmy Johns, keeping Derek’s streak alive.
  • I went to an afternoon session on “Robots” lead by Bill and Mike McLeod. It mainly focused on a neat little tool called If This Then That and other stuff involving APIs. Again, I go back to coding versus not coding: on the one hand, some of this stuff is too difficult for me to wrap my head around, as I wrote about here in foolishly trying to teach HTML5 coding last winter. I feel like a lot of the programming/coding required to do cool Web 2.0+ things are beyond my level of expertise. On the other hand, I am constantly reminded that a little coding and experimentation goes a long way, and it is better to know something about these kinds of things than it is to know nothing.
  • I shared my session with Geoff Carter, who introduced an interesting assignment in interrogating/considering videos in writing courses and Michael Salvo, who kinda summed up the conference and Geoff’s and my presentation.

Here’s a video recording of my talk:

I think it turned out okay; it occurs to me now that this is the first quasi-scholarly presentation/thing about MOOCs I’ve done that I can legitimately put on my CV since I jumped on that MOOC wagon earlier in the summer. I am certain there will be more of that soon.

  • Then it was on to the #beerrhetorics, which was a chance to relax, eat, drink, and talk to good friends/colleagues from around the midwest who came into town for this year’s festivities. Good times, and I was the proud program coordinator/mentor as a number of folks spoke highly of the EMU grad students who presented this year. Well done!

Assuming I can get the movie of Bump’s talk to work (and I just got an error trying to import it– oh-oh), I’ll be posting that soon too.

So that’s about it. About this time last week, I remember thinking (and maybe even saying to Derek) I don’t see any reason to do this again, it’s a lot of work, I’ve got so many other things to do, blah-blah-blah, etc. And now after just wrapping it up, I’m already thinking about what we could do the same or differently when we do this next year. So the WIDE-EMU just might be rising again in 2013.


Radiohead v. Red Hot Chili Peppers

Annette and Will and I went and saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 1 and then Annette and I saw Radiohead just this past Monday.  Besides putting me way WAY over my usual “one big arena rock show every two or so years,” I thought I would do a little comparison/contrast.

Who/what kind of music:

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Post punk funk pop music, heavily influenced and identified with Los Angeles, CA.  They’ve been around since 1983 or so, meaning they are my age or older– well, the original members are at least since there has been quite a bit of rotation with a brand new guitar player in his thirties.  They just got into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, too.

Radiohead:  British quasi-pop alternative rock, eclectic and sometimes “difficult listening music” with lots of electronic and experimental music influences.  Cerebral lyrics and complex sounds ranging from really loud to really quiet, often within the same song.  A little younger, but not much– early 40s.

Performance style:

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Shirtless and/or baggy shirts with pants that inexplicably had one  leg cut short with colorful soccer socks.  Much running about, jumping, leaning against each other, dancing around, etc.  Chatty with the crowd and jam playing between songs.

Radiohead: Jeans and shirts– could have been a bunch of GAs. Standing and playing, save for Thom Yorke’s twitchy dancing.  Not a lot of talking and it seemed like they had to completely rearrange the stage and every instrument between every song.

The crowd:

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  White, mostly middle class, and a variety of ages– Annette and I were fairly close to the middle of the age demographic, though there were plenty of college kids and even kids Will’s age.  In my view, a sprinkling of frat boy and/or hard rock kinds of folks.

Radiohead: VERY white, which I found striking from our seats looking at the “festival seating/standing only” floor.  More college-aged– Annette and I were a bit more on the older side, though not by much.  Annette said she hadn’t seen this many “geeky white boys” at a show in a long long time.


One of those not new (but new to me) web sites is setlist.fm, which is “the setlist wiki.”  So, want to know what they played?

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Lots from the new album, but also lots of “greatest hits.”  Looks like they pretty much play the same list pretty much every night.  One encore.

Radiohead: Lots from the new album, lots of older songs and a number of kind of obscure songs, too.  To the extent that they have “hits,” I guess they played them, though I personally was disappointed that they didn’t play more from In Rainbows.  They appear to mix up the song order and choices a lot and even played a brand-new song in the first encore (they always do two) that they premiered the previous night.

Lighting/Special Effects:

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Very elaborate light show with lots of moving parts and a big screen that showed a lot of narrative-like movies/images accompanying specific songs.  Loud, of course.

Radiohead:  Very elaborate light show with lots of moving parts, though a lot more abstract, which makes sense given the more varied setlist.  Loud, of course, with bass that made my fillings rumble.

The venue(s):

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Joe Louis Arena, which is both conveniently and inconveniently located in downtown Detroit.  Home of the Redwings, which is pretty obvious no matter what direction you’re looking in that building.  It’s old with dubious bathrooms and crowded walkways outside the actual arena.  I thought we were going to get crushed by the crowd surge on the way out of the show.  We were stuck in the parking deck for close to an hour.

Radiohead:  The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is both conveniently and inconveniently located far north of Detroit.  It’s about an hour away from us, and the easiest way to get there was to actually drive downtown first and then get on 75 north.  “State of the art” pro basketball facility (the Pistons) with grand walkways and elaborate restaurants and bars outside the actual arena.  Huge parking lot (and not a parking deck), which really worked out well for us:  we saw this show on a Monday before Annette was going to Boston and I had to teach, so getting back home at 1 am was not an option.  We left before the second encore, avoided the crowd, and whisked out of the parking lot and on to the interstate.  We were well on the road before the show was over.

And thus ends big expensive shows for a while.  I would have liked to have gone to Deathcab for Cutie (they are going to be in the area in July), but these concerts and the kitchen budget are probably going to prevent that.

After X-Mas in Florida

Normally, Christmas is an “every other year” thing with different sets of parents: one year we go to Iowa, the next year we go to Florida. But because of the way the holiday fell this year, because we decided to celebrate Krause Christmas the weekend before the actual day itself (a good time was had by one and all, btw), and because we don’t start school at EMU again until January 7, we decided to double-dip with family visits. So we flew down to Southwest Florida Christmas day, and we’re leaving New Year’s Eve day.

Florida is always a strange place to visit for me, and the holidaze time is not much different. It’s nice to be sitting by the pool and enjoying sunny weather in the low 80s, but it is strange nonetheless. It’s a lot more crowded than I remember this time of year, too.

Anyway, one of the highlights of the trip has been the visit to Everglades National Park and the Shark Valley Trail. Basically, it’s a paved road that goes out into the swamp 7 miles to an observation tower. You can get out there by tram, but, as the video above documents, we rented bikes (well, Bill and Irmgard brought their own and one for Will). The video doesn’t do complete justice because there were a ton of birds, quite a few big turtles, and many many more alligators. From the observation tower, we saw some giant crane kind of bird swim under water, catch a big fish, and gulp ’em down. Pretty neat stuff, though I cannot imagine how awful it would be to be out here in the summer.

Tonight Annette and I are going out to see Sweeney Todd and out for a fancy dinner. Tomorrow, we’re going to the beach. Monday, we’re going home. And in-between all this, I’m trying to get my ducks in a row for Winter term.