A Professor Writes Back: Why I Stay

“AADUNA IS GOING TO PUBLISH FLIP AND FLOP!!!! I just HAD to let you know!!!!!!!! Thank you so much for everything that you taught me in this class!! I’m so excited!”

– former Advanced Composition student, March 2014

“I just wanted to send you a quick email letting you know that the second piece I wrote for your class “Fat” was accepted by Crab Fat Literary Magazine, the one that I submitted it to for class! I never expected to get published so quickly!

Thank you so much for everything!”

– former Advanced Composition student, June 2015

“At this moment, I am very aware that your classes were the most influential in my entire college career. In case you don’t hear it enough, feel good about what you do. You have made a difference more than you know. Not only did you teach me, you indirectly are teaching my son now as I talk openly with him about stereotypes and have to re-teach history lessons his school is teaching him. “

Thank you for that.”

– former Introduction to Contemporary Indigenous Rhetorics student, September 2015

“Your help and guidance is what I credit a lot of my success to so you have definitely been a blessing and beyond thankful that you were my professor and that you took the time you did with me. You have a very approachable demeanor and create a great classroom environment so I wanted to thank you for all your help.”

– former Writing for the Workplace student, September 2015

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I am a professor.

I stay in academia because of students, time, and the opportunity to make a difference.

Ian Bogost laments in a recent Atlantic piece that “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job,” and asks for more “staypieces.” Please consider this my response to that request.

The messages (above) that I receive regularly from former students about their successes, their new view on the world, their ability to navigate difficult situations because of something I taught them or helped them do, is why I stay. I teach over 200 students a year in a variety of writing and rhetoric courses, and often do not have any immediate gratification.

Teaching is labor, learning is labor, and the process is fraught with frustration and challenges because I require my students to step outside their own comfortable wheelhouses and see the world through a new lens; a lens they didn’t even know existed. Take my former students from the comments above. In my Advanced Composition classes, I teach the genre of creative nonfiction, from what this genre is and where it came from to writing, revising, and submitting two original creative nonfiction pieces for publication outside the university.

My students spend the semester in a constant state of shifting understanding as they learn to accept that they are better writers than they realize, that they have stories worth writing, and that they can do the work to make those stories publishable.

I stay in academia because I can make miracles happen in 15 weeks.

The truth is, academia deserves criticism for being an imperfect work environment.

I don’t know anyone who stays in this industry who doesn’t have moments of doubt, wondering why am I still here, given the difficulties? My own answer starts with the students, and then moves to time.

Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own makes an astute comment about baseball to Gina Davis’ character toward the end of the film that also applies to academia: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

As many “quit lit” pieces have noted (such as Oliver Lee’s recent Vox essay), constant budget cuts lead to an atmosphere of crisis, which is stressful. Change and innovation in this professional world moves at a glacial pace, which is frustrating. Begging for money for things like travel to present research, which is also a requirement of our contract, is time-consuming, humiliating, and often unsuccessful. The atmosphere of “do more with less” is exhausting. Our adjunct colleagues are treated like second-class citizens, which creates tension, sadness, and despair for them and for those of us who are tenured and heartbroken at our own impotence to change their plight.

Yes, there are problems. Yes, there are soul-shattering disappointments. Yes, there are seemingly insurmountable odds. But we tend to forget that all careers have these characteristics, cloaked in different surface details. I spent eight years in advertising as a media buyer and planner and ten years as a freelance journalist, working with a wide range of peoples and organizations, and learned these lessons. Perhaps that is why the frustrations of academia haven’t driven me to pull the “I quit” trigger.

I also stay in academia because this career gives me the most valuable commodity of all – time. When school is in session, much of my time is spent teaching, prepping for class, grading, attending and conducting meetings, doing committee work, advising, mentoring, responding to emails, writing letters of recommendation, presenting my scholarship at conferences, conducting programmatic assessment, and handling all of the other unseen work of the university.

During the semester, no matter how busy I am, I manage to carve out snippets of time to do my own writing and research. And then winter break hits – five whole weeks to revise an academic journal article or write a new creative nonfiction piece, even while teaching an online winter course. Fifteen more weeks of high speed, high intensity, demanding work, and then summer. Three and half months of time during which I can prepare fall courses, create student events, rally support for projects, write letters of support for colleagues and former students, write blog posts and new academic and creative pieces at my leisure, on my own schedule, in between working in my garden, traveling, and spending time with friends and family. Pure heaven.

Finally, the value of what I do as a professor does not directly connect to my salary, which is more than I ever made as a self-employed journalist. Influencing how people think, impacting how others see the world, and helping individuals see their own potential and future possibilities in a new light is more valuable than money. This does not mean that I want to work for free. I am a hard-working, highly educated professional, and deserve a good salary and health benefits, as any other professional expects in any other field.

What I do and why I stay goes beyond money. As Taylor Mali declares in his excellent performance “What Teachers Make,” “I make a goddamn difference, now what about you?”

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