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Monday, November 10, 2008

A Cup of Ambition: The Professors (and Literary Power Couple)

Caitlin Horrocks, Assistant Professor of Writing, and Todd Kaneko, Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

How did you come to be a professor?
Caitlin: It’s the classic job, the only job, that an MFA really qualifies you for. But at the same time, all the way through an MFA program, it’s the job you’re told you’re never going to be able to get. I didn’t really allow myself to think about academic jobs too seriously when I was in graduate school, because I assumed I’d end up waiting tables or digging ditches or adjuncting, at best. After grad school I applied for a one-year teaching gig at GVSU, just to see what happened. I got the job, and it lead to my current position.

Todd: I love teaching, and it’s something that I’ve been looking toward since I made a decision to go to grad school when I was an undergraduate at Washington. After I got the MFA, I spent about a year adjuncting. When my partner Caitlin got tapped for a position at GVSU, I decided to go with her. For whatever reason, the Writing Department decided that they didn’t mind me tagging along and gave me a few classes to teach. So now I have a temporary position as a professor with two sets of crossed fingers that I can make something more permanent happen in the near future.

The Good Stuff
Caitlin: My students. My coworkers—I work in a happy, functional department. The flexibility of my schedule. Having a job in which I’m expected to get my own writing done. Having conversations all day about stories, taking them apart and putting them back together and talking about how they work. Reading wonderful stuff and having that be part of my job. Reading stuff that’s not so wonderful yet, and thinking about how it could be. Watching students’ writing, and their conception of who they can be as writers, evolve. On good days, teaching is genuinely fun, and I learn new things about what stories and essays can do.

Todd: I get to teach. The Department of Writing at Grand Valley State is really a great place to work. The people who work in the department are invested in the students and the program, and are awesome to work with. The students, for the most part, are dynamite—they are hard working and willing to invest in classes, which really makes all the difference in terms of the writing that they get done. Moreover, the teaching schedule is more conducive to creative endeavors for me than is the private sector.

The Bad Stuff
Caitlin: It’s not a job you leave behind at the office. I’m always haunted by the essays I haven’t graded, the stories I haven’t read for workshop, the lesson that I haven’t planned, or the assignment that I have planned but am now doubting. This is something anyone who’s taught a class as a TA knows—the teaching part of your life will expand to fill any and all space you give it. This doesn’t change when you have a tenure-track job; the balance just becomes even more unwieldy with new responsibilities like university service or advising.

Todd: The grading gets in the way of writing. The private sector is worse to me, in terms of the time spent on the job outside of the workplace, so I’m not complaining too much. But I love to make my art, and I’ll complain about anything that gets in the way of that. The other bad thing, I think, is the nature of my current position—it’s a one-year position renewable for up to three years. After that, I have to figure out what I am going to do, assuming I don’t find something more permanent before then. And with the economy in the toilet, I’m nervous.

And the Michigan winter sucks big time.

Surprise Me
Caitlin: It may or may not be surprising that I don’t care about grades, and wish I never had to give them. When I was a student I think I suspected teachers of deriving guilty pleasure from assigning grades, especially bad ones. But it’s infinitely more important to me just to have students write, learn from it, and care about what they produce. I know that there usually have to be carrots and sticks involved to keep a class on track. But grading creative work, especially, I struggle with: I can try to grade revision rather than talent, effort rather than idea, but if I didn’t have to do it all, I’d be thrilled.

Todd: I am a painfully slow writer, and it takes me weeks to finish a draft, and up to a year to revise—and sometimes the grading I have makes it tough for me to become as immersed in a story as I like to be when writing fiction. The result is that I have been writing a lot of poetry. No disrespect meant to my poet friends, but I can get a draft of a poem done in a couple of days (of course it takes a bit more time to revise). Because of the conciseness of the poem, I can immerse for less time and more will come of it than when I try and write a story. The result of this is that I’ve not written a story in the last year, but I’ve got just about a half a draft of a poetry manuscript. I never expected to be writing lots of poetry, but here I am. Surprise.

Spin a Yarn
Caitlin: Too many teacher stories are of the “Man, students do the darnedest things!” ilk. I mean, they do, but I don’t want to throw my students under the bus. In public. Anyway, teachers definitely do the darnedest things, too. Like this: a short lesson I give in nonfiction classes involves me sprinting out of the classroom with an object stolen from one of my students. This takes some forethought into footwear but I’ve still slid out of control, smacked into a garbage can, and hit my shoulder on a doorframe. Very dignified.

Todd: I wasted my yarn on the previous question. I’m not sure I have any yarn left, at least none that should be spun here. How about this: I run an exercise when teaching narratives that involves being able to tell a good lie—we tell two truths and one lie and then talk about the evenness of details in a piece of writing. One example I use is the night I met Hulk Hogan in the Detroit airport a couple nights before he bodyslammed Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III: he was reading a newspaper, I was reading Better Homes & Gardens, and he made me feel his bicep. I’ve been telling this story for years, and last semester, when I ran the exercise, I went for it with gusto—I elaborated on the story over a period of about two weeks until a student asked me point blank if the story was true. When I admitted that it was a lie, the whole class was disappointed, reacting as if they had just found out that the world really was flat after all.

Who makes a good teacher?
Caitlin: Don’t teach unless you actually like it and care about it. You’ll make yourself miserable and take roomfuls of students with you. Enjoy working with students, and be willing to work at it: you have to be pretty self-reflective about what you’re doing in the classroom and how effective it is. You’re also not a sell-out if you care about being entertaining. If my students have to listen to me for hours on end, I should put some thought into what combinations of activities, exercises or discussions are going to keep things interesting. You also have to be able to read hundreds of pages of student work without going cross-eyed.

Todd: Teachers cannot be robots. I am not here to entertain students, but when I am in the room, I am in the room 100%—bad traffic, the poem that has been eluding me, the argument I just had with my neighbor about their yappy dogs—when I am in the classroom, all of that stuff gets set aside so I can pay attention to the class. I think it comes down to respect: I work under the assumption that students are in the class because they want to learn and I think that a good teacher teaches the class as if the students are completely invested in the subject at hand—to do otherwise is insulting to the student. And students aren’t robots either, they have lives outside of the class. For me, teaching isn’t about force-feeding anyone knowledge—it’s about creating an environment in which students be sparked to claim and create knowledge for themselves. No robots with Powerpoint, I say.

How do I become you?
Caitlin: Teach and publish as much and as well as you can. (Easier said than done, I know.) Beyond that, be savvy about the academic job market. You can have great credentials, but if you don’t know the difference between an academic CV and a resume, or what your cover letter should include for a university teaching job, you’re not going to get far. Most MFA programs don’t give us this knowledge, so go out there and inform yourself, and know that that will set you apart from a lot of other applicants.

Todd: You don’t want to be me. I’ve got allergies and asthma, and I’m too short to see the stage at concerts. But if you really want to be me, in addition to what Caitlin says, you have to make good decisions and look for opportunities to make yourself marketable. There are basically three different kind of writing that happens at Grand Valley—there are the two majors in Creative Writing and Professional Writing, and there are the composition classes that all students have to go through. Because I’ve made the right decisions, and partly because I’ve taken advantage of a few opportunities that have fallen into my lap, I am able to teach nearly anything in any of these three areas. As a result, I can be a valuable resource for the department in a way that most professors can’t.

Thoughts on this job for writers...
Caitlin: Some people find teaching really energizing and some find it draining, and some a bit of both. Sometimes the energy it takes to read and respond to student writing, or to lead a workshop, comes from the same well as writing energy. Sometimes it soaks up the whole well, and I spend my evening sitting on the couch watching bad reality television. Or maybe I’d do that anyway, and the teaching is my excuse. There are other nights when the student stories I’ve read give me an idea for a project, or help me see a current project in a new way. If you organize your life right (and I’m still working on that part), this can be an ideal job for writers: you get to work with interesting people (both students and colleagues) in a flexible environment where your creative work is a valued and direct part of what you do.

Todd: Get any job you can. You need to pay the rent and buy groceries. Outside of that, creative writers sometimes suffer from reputation of being un-academic. We are artists and not expected to be academically savvy—we have overdeveloped right brains that are the sources that fuel our creative work. But if you want to work in the academy, you have to be academically savvy. You can’t rely on your status as a writer to excuse your weirdness. You have to be on top of things in terms of what a CV should look like, how to read a job ad, and how to make yourself into a job candidate that other faculty members want to have as a colleague, as opposed to the crazy guy that produces great work but needs a handler. You’re a professional, so act like one.

Caitlin Horrocks' short stories appear in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, Tin House, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. Her work has been recognized by the Atlantic Monthly and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and short-listed in Best American Short Stories.

W. Todd Kaneko lives and writes in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the 2007 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. His poems and stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Fugue, Passages North, Harpur Palate, The Comstock Review, Crab Creek Review, and other journals. Check out Todd's work at Writer-on-Line and Word Riot.

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