Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Second-Guessing Myself

A few days ago, a friend alerted me to a recent post in an interesting-looking blog called "The Passive Voice," saying that a day job isn't necessarily a bad thing for a writer.

Then the same day I received the August, 2011 issue of The Writer and flipped right to an article entitled “The Best Day Jobs for Writers." I was pretty sure that my soon-to-be-former job would be included, and yup, there it was: no. 1: Teaching, and specifically, college teaching.

Shoot. If a blog by an intelligent person calls into question the whole idea of quitting one's day job, and then this venerable publication calls mine the best day job for writers, have I made a big mistake? I handed in my notice a full year before required, figuring this was only fair to the instructor who’s being brought in to fill in for a colleague going on sabbatical leave. She looks just terrific, and she should know that there’s a chance of the job lasting more than a year. But did I shoot myself in the foot?

I read the section about teaching, and found it realistic. The author doesn’t claim that a career teaching in a college is perfect. He warns that jobs in academe are in short supply, and he references low pay and the large amount of time spent in class prep and grading.

He could have mentioned the plight of the untenured, who frequently become "gypsy scholars," lasting for one or two years at a job, teaching the classes that nobody else wants, moving on to another position for another year or two, and so on, until the would-be professor’s credibility is shot (What? Ten years since you got your Ph. D. and all you’ve published is a few articles?—Never mind that she’s grading barely readable papers written in huge remedial classes, serving on time-consuming committees, coaching students the college accepted even though their skills aren’t up to those of their peers). Let me hasten to add that Vanderbilt has, on the whole, treated me well; I’ve been happily non-tenure-track for 27 years without suffering any (well, many) of those abuses.

The article’s author could also have mentioned that although a college professor’s schedule looks great on paper, there’s no flexibility. No sick days, no personal days. If you get the flu and miss a week of class, you have to figure out a way to duplicate the classroom experience for all your students. There isn’t a pool of substitutes to call on! If you get invited to speak at a library or school or even a conference, in many cases, you probably have to make up the classes you miss, or prevail on a stressed-out colleague to take your classes.

College professors get summers off only if they aren’t seeking tenure (usually relegating themselves to the status of gypsy scholar), or if they do have tenure yet aren’t interested in a promotion or salary raise. They also need to be earning a living wage that can stretch over the summer.

Usually, benefits for non-tenure-track faculty don’t extend past the end of the school year, so they need to either pay a huge COBRA bill or find secondary employment. That was my situation for my first few years at Vanderbilt, and I got to know the university's Temporary Services quite well!

And teaching shares one major drawback with writing: You never know when you’ve finished. That lesson plan or quiz or activity could always be polished, in the same way that the paragraph or poem you just wrote could be made better. You can never truly say that it’s done. Personally, I would think an ideal job for a writer would be something that you can leave behind at the end of the day.

So what is the ideal day job for a writer? Anybody have one?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure what the perfect day job for a writer is, but I can tell you nursing is not it. When I get home my brain is usually toast. It's a struggle flipping the switch to creative mode.