Monday, January 20, 2014

Writing My Way out of Here

I read a book called Letters to a Fiction Writer, which is a collection of letters and essays on writing by various authors. One of the authors, Ann Beattie, described living in a small town in Connecticut. She described what went through her head as she wrote in that small town: "I am going to write my way out of here."

That line resonates with me as I work on my dissertation. When I was an undergrad and when I was studying for my master's degree, I did well as a young scholar. But when I was in the PhD program, I started struggling just to keep up with the other grad students. It didn't help that unlike them, I didn't have a family member or student loans to support me financially; I worked two or three jobs instead. But the problem was that it left me with little time to study, and I ended up disappointing my professors and myself on more than one occasion.

It wasn't just because of my extra jobs that I struggled to do well in school. It was also because of the fact that I never really fit in with the other academics. I became an English major because I loved literature and poetry. I wanted to become a professor so that I could inspire other students to love literature and poetry as much as I did. But the problem with academia is that we often spend hours talking about everything BUT literature and poetry; the focus is typically on critical theory instead.

I'd sit there during lectures and conferences and put on my "I totally understand what you're saying" face, though most of the time I didn't understand. And I felt like an idiot compared to most of the other grad students, who did understand. They went on to publish articles, present their work at conferences, and win fellowships. I just struggled to keep up. I worked hard; I tried again and again to measure up to my professors' expectations, but I usually fell short. And the fact that my work wasn't good enough made me feel like I wasn't good enough. When you're a workaholic, you define yourself by your work; it's hard to think positively about yourself when your work isn't going well.

Maybe I should have dropped out of graduate school years ago. But I stayed because I loved teaching. Even though I didn't become a good scholar, I became a good teacher, and I have hundreds of positive evaluations from students to prove it. Many of my students signed up for more than one class with me, which always made me feel good. Several of them would come up to me at the end of each term and tell me how much they enjoyed my class or how I was their favorite teacher.

I did encounter many "difficult" students (which is an understatement), as every teacher does. But even those experiences made me stronger, because they taught me to assert myself and not back down.

I still feel a rush of excitement and happiness every time I'm in a classroom, sharing what I know with my students. I think that the classroom is one of the places where I am happiest, aside from bookstores, libraries, and Starbucks (I tried to live without coffee for a week, but I was practically climbing the walls by the end so I had to go back to my caffeinated life.). I love when students have that "aha" moment when they finally understand what I've been telling them. I love when some of them tell me that they enjoyed a particular author that we studied so much that they went out to read more books by that person. I love when they get excited over what they're learning.

But unfortunately, the search committees for many colleges are going to care a lot more about my work as a scholar than my work as a teacher. And I have a sinking feeling that I'm never going to become a tenured professor at a university. I'll be lucky if I get a job as a full-time lecturer at a small college or a community college, and the thing about lectureships is that they usually only last for a few years at a time. 

Maybe I should have become a high school teacher instead of a college teacher, because at least then I could have focused more on being a teacher instead of a scholar. But I don't like how high school teachers are treated in this country. They're underpaid, overworked, and typically blamed for all of the schools and students' problems. They're often forced to spend more time teaching students how to take tests than how to understand subjects that matter more. I've taught high school, and even though I enjoyed working with the students, it was a very different dynamic from working on a college campus.

Often I sit down to work on my dissertation and I feel so paralyzed that I don't know what to write. I feel so overwhelmed by how much work there is still left to do, and I'm afraid that my work will never be good enough to satisfy my professors (and myself).

What I've finally realized is that I need to stop focusing so much on what other people think and just get my dissertation done. Like Ann Beattie, I am going to write my way out of here. And by "here" I mean grad school, my sense of inadequacy, my fears about the future, and all the other things that have dragged me down all these years.

I just want to finish my dissertation and finally move on to the next stage in my life. I'll probably never be a tenured professor. I'm still going to try and find a good teaching job somewhere. As long as I get to teach at a good school, write, and earn enough money to satisfy my caffeine cravings, I'll be happy. I still feel scared about what's going to happen in the future, but I'm also determined to write my way towards the future that I want.

What about you? Do you ever feel anxious about the future? How do you deal with it?


  1. I love working with teens, but I can't imagine how difficult it would be to be a HS teacher. (My brother is a HS math teacher, he loves it but it's a lot of work.)
    That's great that you're feeling motivated again! Your students are lucky to have you, and hopefully you'll get into a position to help out many more. Good luck!

    1. Hi Rachel,
      Thanks! I admire high school teachers, because the work they do is very important and I think they deserve to be paid and valued more.
      A sense of motivation definitely makes it easier to keep working, because otherwise the lack thereof makes the work much more overwhelming.

  2. I've also worked with kids, and find it to be a treasure!

    1. Hi Tammy,
      One thing I like about working with kids is their optimism about the future; it reminds me of how optimistic and hopeful I felt when I was their age.

  3. You have set your sights high, and there's notating wrong with that. Just follow your heart and you'll find yourself rough where you belong :)

    1. Hi Jessie,
      Thanks for your kind encouragement! My heart belongs to teaching, writing, and books, which is why it's always been easier to devote myself to them. But I do need to devote myself more to academic writing as well, so that I can get where I want to be.