Monday, December 15, 2008

Whiny, shamelessly self-absorbed rant. The finale?

To pick up where we left off.... I've been down this road with enough institutions over the past year to know that I'm not imagining this phenomenon or making a generalized problem out of my personal unemployability. Take a look, for example, at this leading site that advertises hot-off-the-press faculty openings. Or here's another. Notice that almost all postings specify "PhD required" and/or "ABD considered." (ABD = "all but dissertation." It means you've finished all coursework for your doctorate but haven't yet gotten signed off on your thesis paper.) Some schools advertising for visiting professorships or junior-level faculty will say "Master's considered, PhD preferred." But generally speaking, a PhD is the admission ticket.

Schools justify these policies on several grounds.
They'll remind you that you need a Master's in order to teach in most grade-school settingsand certainly to teach high schoolso why would college standards be more lax? They'll cite state funding mandates, which, they claim, tie the availability of municipal funds to the hiring of professors who meet certain criteria for scholarly achievement. Administrators will also talk about competitive status: that in today's cutthroat collegiate market, "percentage of PhDs on faculty" is a major barometer by which prospective students compose their A-list of colleges to attend.* Finally, they'll tell you that especially in the advanced classes people like myself often prefer to teach, a prof may well end up with grad students on their way to a Master's or even a PhD. "Does it make sense," they'll ask rhetorically, "to have Master's-level students being taught by a professor with nothing more than a B.A.?"

Sorry; to me that's a lot of b.s., where writing is concerned.
First of all, I mentored a half-dozen Master's students at different times while I was at IU, and I still hear from most of them. To a man or woman, they tell me that the nuggets of practical guidance they got from menot just in a vocational sense, but also in terms of how they approach the craft of writing itselfwere at least as valuable as any instruction they received during the entirety of their time in college. They'll often email me to tell me about something that happened that reminded them of a piece of advice I once gave them, or a moment from one of our classes, etc.

More than that, as noted at great length in the article reprinted from The Writer, writing is a professional discipline. It is a trade. And knowledge of the tricks of that trade
may have more to do with avoiding regular bankruptcy filings than a solid grasp of rhetorical theory. Let me give you one very minor but pointed example about interviewing, a core-level skill that every writer should master (which, of course, explains why I've never known a college that offered an interviewing class as part of its overall curriculum in writing/English). When approaching a tough interview, you use the ammo you've got. If you're a woman interviewing Bill Clinton, you put on a short skirt and maybe practice in front of a mirror to know just how much thigh to show when crossing your legs. When you're a guy interviewing the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, who has a reputation for being standoffish and brusquebut who you know takes pride in his Italian heritageyou find subtle ways of introducing your own Italian upbringing into the mix.** Those are aspects of "writing" that you will never, ever see in a formal lesson plan drawn up by an academically trained professor. In fact, they'd be considered anathema in the typical college classroom and might well get a professor censured—even though they can have far more to do with whether you enjoy a rewarding career than years of studying James' use of symbolism in Turn of the Screw.

I'm not saying that the latter isn't necessary. Of course it is! But the strategic/theoretical/free-form stuff in which all those PhDs specialize should be balanced and enriched by the tactical/practical component that only people like myself can offer. I come back to what I've often said about plumbing: You'd think that a plumber who, for two decades, has kept toilets happily flushing in some of Manhattan's foremost hotels has proved his qualifications to teach others how to plumb. You'd think this, even if his technical qualifications were a bit on the thin side back when he approached his first commode.

Real-world experience is the great equalizer. It's what a college should be almost desperate to offer its students—if the college is really more interested in helping students than in hiding the keys to its insular kingdom. For this much I can tell you: Innumerable aspects of real-world writing, editing, and publishing are not as-advertised in the cloistered halls of academia. You'd think that academics would recognize this, and would be gracious in their interactions with a person who's been out in the trenches, actually doing what they teach. Instead, they often seem resentful and patronizing, as if someone like me represents a perversion of their teachings rather than a true-life success story with valuable insights to offer.

One department chair I called for information—a woman who made a point of correcting me after I addressed her as Professor So-and-So instead of Doctor So-and-So—heard me out for about 20 seconds, then cut me off at the knees. "I'm afraid you have no chance here without your doctorate," she said crisply. Before hanging up, she added, "Good luck with your search," in a voice that conveyed all the warmth of Michael Corleone telling Fredo he's no longer welcome at the house in that classic scene from
The Godfather Part 2.

Reflecting charitably on that incident and many similar interactions, one might say the woman—excuse me, the doctor—was trying to save me from wasting further time on a pointless exercise. But even if true, that's a shortsighted answer, a non-answer answer. Why should I have "no chance"? I can understand such a policy in disciplines like history
, where academicians have no way of gauging your bona fides unless you've demonstrated increasing levels of proficiency in a formal, structured setting. I cannot understand this approach with writing, where the proof's in the pudding. And I don't mind admitting, it's aggravating to be made to feel by people who've never written a single commercially salable transition that they're better qualified than I am to show aspiring writers how to put together a sustained flow of ideas that might be worthy of a magazine like Playboy*** (which will pay upwards of $7500 for those ideas) or the editorial page of a major newspaper (like the Journal, which pays 10 times what the average op-ed page pays).

Publish or perish is the famous admonition to those seeking academic safe harbor. One infers from this ancient bromide that publication is necessary to certify a professor's standing among his peers; that it's tangible evidence of your mastery of the material you teach; that it manifests your ability to move in respected circles beyond academia. (After all, what is the ultimate purpose of furthering your education? To allow you to remain in the world of education and perpetuate the incestuous cycle for another go-round? Or to enable you to move smoothly in, and contribute meaningfully to, the outside world?) You'd assume that if publication outside the college environment is the benchmark of achievement in a given scholarly discipline, then that should be no less true for those of us already on the outside; you'd think that if we can document a lengthy track record of publishing in the best of the best...that should mean something. This should be especially true in writing, where publishing is the very raison d'etre! (Isn't it?)

Alas, it hasn't quite worked that way here.
For me it's been more a case of publish and perish. And I just don't get it.

* The Asian students, anyway, or maybe the parents of the prospective students. The kids themselves mostly want to know how far it is to the nearest pub and whether the area's typical 911 response time allows them sufficient time to scatter when angry neighbors call in about the noise and the used condoms strewn across area streets.
** Though I did not wear a short skirt for my two encounters with Bill Clinton, in 1995 and 1996, I did use the goomba gambit with former NYSE chairman Dick Grasso, and I came away with a wonderful interview for Worth magazine.
*** Another time I got called on the carpet was when a high-ranking professor walked into my class and caught me teaching a lesson out of Playboy, for which I'd recently done a major investigative work that examined issues surrounding brain death, organ transplantation, when does life actually end?, etc. "We don't want our students aiming at Playboy," she told me pointedly later. And though I didn't say much in my defense, I thought, Yeah, that's true, I understand totally, why would you want these kids making $3-a-word when they can write for academic journals and get paid in copies?


Call me "doctor" said...

I am in fact a tenured professor, though I'm just kidding about the "doctor" part. I've been reading the blog for a while now and this is the first time I've been moved to comment.

Insofar as your views on college and its service to its students, I agree with you in some respects and I disagree with you in others. We could go 'round and 'round. Insofar as your personal situation, I believe that the answer to your quandary may be right there in your blog, so for the sake of clarity I'm going to use your own phrasing: Steve, you will never, ever get a long-term job in academia if you go around trampling sacred cows having to do with gender, ethnicity, diversity and the like. If you do magically get a job, you will last precisely as long as it takes for word of what you're saying in class to filter back to the powers that be. I laughed out-loud when I came to your example of the Clinton interview and the miniskirt. Do you actually think a collegiate administration would countenance a (male) member of faculty giving the young women instructions in wearing skimpy clothes and getting in touch with their inner coquettes? "Practicing how much thigh to show when crossing your legs"! You'd have the Women's Studies department picketing your classroom en masse the very next day.

You won't like hearing this but it is the Ph.D process itself, with its constant close mentoring and long-term immersion in the academic system and its values, that is designed to ensure the continuation of those values into the next generation of faculty. Apart from the factors (state funding etc.) you cite--which are legitimate--this helps explain the skepticism and wariness with which academics view "real world" practitioners like yourself. You may have all of the professional expertise anyone could ever hope for, and your resume is indeed eye-popping. But your attitude towards the macro purpose of college, if you will, is highly inappropriate and unwelcome. I'm afraid you're going to have to find a way of sharing your nuggets of practical guidance from the outside.

Anonymous said...


The first rule of any club is to exclude non-members. And academicians with Ph.Ds are the most thin-skinned, clannish group you will find. They won't let you join their club - maybe they've read some of your work and they don't appreciate being tweaked.

My unsolicited advice is to go back to the scene of professional victories - writing annual reports. As an investor, I read dozens of sappy, crappy annual reports that come across more as bodice-rippers than as compelling cases to own a piece of that company. I look for unique, special companies that have the talent and insight to formulate and execute a plan which will make shareholders wealthy. The annual reports should get that type of message across; but the rarely do.

Let the writing departments continue to crank out MRS. degrees and future Wal-Mart greeters while you go and make a comfortable living for yourself cranking out cogent annual reports.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the Prof on this one Steve. A lot of times you remind me of my banker friend who got fired for having a blog. He wanted to have it all and it did not work out that way. Wanting it all seems to be a big problem with our society.

There is a lot I disagree with within the Ivory Tower, but I made it a point to get into the Tower to work from within it. I did not want to keep throwing stones at it from the outside. I learned a lot in the process and hey that's what I loved about school in the first place!

Why not just get a masters/ph.d? Why not just beat them at their own game? It's not that hard to do, except for the money part.

Lana said...


As I said, there must be progressive colleges that will welcome you with open arms. The world is changing too fast for educational systems to continue business as usual.

melissa said...

"I can understand such a policy in disciplines like history, where academicians have no way of gauging your bona fides unless you've demonstrated increasing levels of proficiency in a formal, structured setting. I cannot understand this approach with writing, where the proof's in the pudding."

This is key point, I think, Steve. I'm about to get my doctorate in theoretical linguistics and am applying for professorships. In this field it makes perfect sense that a Ph.D. is required - how else would you learn enough about theoretical linguistics to be qualified to teach it to both undergraduate and graduate students? But your field is completely different.

The problem as I see it is that everyone wants to draw lines that are as context-free as possible so that they don't have to think about anything. If a university can take a policy that's good for some fields and apply it across the board, it's easier for them, and it's easier for the people who try to analyze the quality of the university. They can just count Ph.D.s instead of having to deal with other factors.

I see this behavior all over the place in society, especially with regard to our judicial system. This is what mandatory minimums in criminal sentencing are about. This what the blanket term 'sex offender' is about (google the names Julie Amero and Wendy Whitaker for two people stuck with the label for ridiculous reasons). This is what creates the 'nanny state' situation where more and more of our personal decisions are regulated by law.

I feel for your position, Steve, and I can only feel more for the students who will never benefit from your expertise. I also have to express some bewilderment at some of the early comments to this post:

"But your attitude towards the macro purpose of college, if you will, is highly inappropriate and unwelcome."
As far as I'm concerned the 'macro purpose of college' is to give the next generation the skills it will need to make a living in the future, not to ensure diversity and a p.c. attitude among its employees.

"Why not just get a masters/ph.d? Why not just beat them at their own game? It's not that hard to do, except for the money part."
Right, 'cause it doesn't take much time, does it? Only five years of your life (if you're highly motivated)... And I guarantee it'd be the most frustrating five years of your life if you're forced to 'learn' skills you've already mastered (or, even more frustrating, skills you've already rejected).

Anonymous said...

Isn't it ironic that the same university crowd that had been preaching/demanding/celebrating diversity for the past quarter century won't allow any non-liberal Ph.Ds to join their inner circle?

Ironic - yes; funny - no.

Anonymous said...

Hofstra University
Assistant Professor - Broadcast Journalism

How come you didn't like Hofstra University Steve? They just wanted a Masters, but even that was not even a requirement. Looks like journalism is easier to teach than English.

Steve Salerno said...

Melissa: Thank you for weighing in. I don't think we've heard from you previously, unless it was as an "Anon." Glad you stopped by.

Anon 1:27: I can't teach broadcast, which is a very different animal from print. And in fact, you've hit on a distinction here that I should've made earlier, and I'm glad it came up. The situation that I hope for--where real-world practitioners can come in and share the fruits of their work-related expertise--is much closer to being reality in broadcast than in print. It's a whole different attitude that, in fact, is sometimes administered as part of a whole different department (e.g. "Communications Studies" instead of journalism per se). There seems to be a recognition even among the college crowd that in the field of broadcast, there's something to be said for having actually worked in the field. But you know what? This is one reason why--in my experience--the folks who specialize in broadcast tend to be viewed with some suspicion/derision by "the real academics," who sometimes act as if they associate all of broadcast journalism with "the weather-girl." (And no, I don't mean Bernadine Dohrn. They love her!)

Anonymous said...

"Right, 'cause it doesn't take much time, does it? Only five years of your life (if you're highly motivated)... And I guarantee it'd be the most frustrating five years of your life if you're forced to 'learn' skills you've already mastered (or, even more frustrating, skills you've already rejected)."

I'm getting my Ph.D from Stanford and it is not going to take five years. It really depends on what and with who you study with. There are many programs at progressive universities and colleges that combine Masters and Ph.Ds. U.C. Berkeley has such a program, but I declined it to go to a college better suited for me. I am sure there are colleges in the United States that have programs that would work with Steve. There are many routes to the Ivory Tower.

Heck, Steve could do his doctorate on this subject alone!

a/good/lysstener said...

If I may say so this is one of the things I found most frustrating in my own academic career as an English major and then a Master's writing student. I saw first-hand the scorn you describe, Steve, for mainstream or "commercial" writing. Students who actually considered the idea of writing for Cosmo or Glamour an exciting prospect had nowhere to turn, because it was very clear from the way professors acted in class that they considered those magazines objects of ridicule. One of my profs would use Cosmo as a specific example every time she had something unflattering to say about consumer magazines. It was the same thing with books. You could read all the Toni Morrison you wanted, but God help you if you suggested writing a paper on Patricia Cornwell or Belva Plain, who are two of my favorite writers. It just "wasn't done".

Personally I thought "Beloved" was a pretty awful book. I just couldn't get into it. But you can't say that.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - I've always been amused by the smug defensiveness so rampant within the hallowed halls of academia. Furthermore, I've worked on enough Masters dissertations and PhD theses to realize just how much emphasis is placed upon perpetuating an illusion of relevance, rather than the development of practicable ideas.

I would have to agree that you're probably wasting your time trying to break into that system, since its primary objective is, to a great degree, the maintenance of its own autonomy, apart from the more mundane world of commerce. I believe that the responses you've gotten in your search - as well as those offered by academians on this blog - bear witness to the futility of your efforts.

I still posit that your most effective plan of action would be to offer your own courses/workshops/reference materials to educate budding writers in the nuances of producing written works that are actually intended to be read, rather than analyzed by the adherents of a closed system. It has been said that "the best revenge is living well." Perhaps your best revenge would be to assist others in their efforts to earn a good living writing well, for a market more interested in the application of ideas than in the analysis of those ideas. Just a thought...

Steve Salerno said...

Yeah, Ron, but that doesn't change the principle of the thing. I belong in that classroom. I know it. My former students know it. Many of my erstwhile colleagues at IU knew it/know it. I perform a valuable service that is not that easily obtained elsewhere in academia. I could be a wonderful asset to some forward-thinking university--almost like a bridge from their formal curriculum to a more vocational lens on things, translating the theoretical stuff into an action plan that was individualized to each student (at least in small-class settings).

But yeah, I also know: taking a stand on principle seldom feeds the bulldog.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the detail that you are a living example of the fact that their expensive education isn't required to be successful as a writer has nothing to do with their lack of interest in your services. No, nothing at all, I'm sure...

Anonymous said...

"Personally I thought Beloved was a pretty awful book. I just couldn't get into it. But you can't say that."

Beloved is one of my favorite books and I teach it often. It is such a powerful and moving novel. I love Toni Morrisson and am reading A Mercy now.

I do believe Alyssa brings up something important about how professors teach. Too often professors teach from their own agendas. During the election so many of my fellow professors were wearing Obama gear and I thought that was out of line. I never discussed the election in my English classes. I was not teaching poli sci and if a student wanted to discuss politics, he or she could write me a paper.

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, Anon 2:31, what a can of wriggly worms you open there! Let's not even get into the political component of all this, which would occupy this blog for the next however-many-years-I-have-left. (The two arguments are not entirely separate, however. The same process that tends to weed out people like me also has a tendency to weed out political undesirables--like anyone who ever voted Republican. Yes, I'm exaggerating, but not that much.)

Steve Salerno said...

Can I say here that this thread is one of those--more than most--where I really wish we all had user names instead of simply posting as Anon, Anon, Anon... It would be nice to know if we're hearing from the same people again later in the thread. It creates a conversational continuity, and also gives an overall shape to thoughts that otherwise seem disparate and random.

Anonymous said...

"Taking a stand on principle" may feel and sound good, but you seem to refuse to acknowledge reality, Steve. Wishful thinking may lead to whiny and self-absorbed rants, but it does not change what is--you should know this, I think.

Academia wants intellectuals-academics, not practitioners. This is its purpose, to advance scholarly work. That's why they look for people who can do this and make the cut--that's why the process may seem so off-putting. Granted, many of those who do make the cut have questionable merits, but this is beside the point as long as they comply with the academic requirements.

You can start jumping through the academic hoops--go back to school and get your degree, or write a Pulitzer-worthy book, if you want to be an academic. Otherwise, look into other venues--workshops, etc. I'm not discounting your experience, but ranting and thinking that you "stand on principle" won't get you anywhere.

To those who think that they are not being taught anything valuable in their English/writing classes: drop out and do something else. If you want to be an investigative journalist, go out there and do investigative journalism, don't sit in the classroom. And if you do choose the classroom after all, don't complain.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 2:42: I get your point, OK? I got it a long time before I started writing this series of posts. But I'm intrigued by your remark, "Academia wants intellectuals-academics, not practitioners. This is its purpose, to advance scholarly work." First of all, I don't think it's fair to assume a dichotomy between "intellectuals" and "practitioners." Second, are you saying that you agree that academia's purpose is "to advance scholarly work"? That that's what it should be? Or are you merely saying, that's what it is now?

Because if you're saying the former, then I would respond, So what about all these bright-eyed young people who populate all these English and writing classes, with dreams of becoming the next Updike or Morrison, or maybe just the next Crichton (or Bill Zehme or David Sheff* or even, dare I say, Steve Salerno)? We just write 'em off? We just say, "Hey, sorry your $125,000 worth of schooling didn't really prepare you to do what you'd ideally like to do. Maybe next lifetime...."?

I guess what I'm asking in a nutshell is, whose goals are colleges supposed to serve, first and foremost? The teachers'? Or the students'?

* They're both top magazine writers, always in demand and deservedly so.

Steve Salerno said...

I have an idea: Let's poll the moms and dads, OK, and see if they think the goal of college is "to advance scholarly purpose." And if colleges are willing to take a stand of their own--on that principle--let's see how many moms and dads are still willing to ante up the outrageous tuition.

Anonymous said...

$$$ worth of schooling may not prepare you for what you ideally want to do. You got that right. That's exactly the case with these strange higher education animals like writing programs. Because you either can write or you can't--and if that's the case, no writing program will teach you that. Talent is not teachable. Certain skills are, true, but those do not require advanced degrees which, in the case of journalism, but not only, are superfluous.

literary lioness said...

“So what about all these bright-eyed young people who populate all these English and writing classes, with dreams of becoming the next Updike or Morrison, or maybe just the next Crichton (or Bill Zehme or David Sheff* or even, dare I say, Steve Salerno)? We just write 'em off? We just say, ‘Hey, sorry your $125,000 worth of schooling didn't really prepare you to do what you'd ideally like to do. Maybe next lifetime....’?”

In a nutshell, you tell them to write! If they really are the next Morrison, or Updike, writing will be a necessity for them and no one will be able to stop them. No college, no bad teacher, no ego-driven professor, or angry spouse will stop an artist from creating. If one is really a writer, he or she will write no matter what.

I teach English for undergraduates and creative writing. They are two different beasts all the way! In my basic English classes, I want my students to be able to communicate clearly via the written word. This will serve them well in all their humanity classes and in the real world. They will have the tools to express themselves in an articulate manner. If I am really lucky, maybe I can even get them to read for enjoyment!

In my creative writing classes, I do clean up for my students inept previous literature professors who do not teach them foreshadowing, or the difference between a metaphor and a symbol. A lot of these students have great stories, but do not have the tools to tell them. In order to write, one must read. That would seem simple, but it is not for most. What do Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner have in common? Neither graduated from high school, but both were ferocious readers and are literary marvels.

Lana said...

I bet a decision-maker at a school is going to see this conversation and offer you a position. I can't wait for you to get the call, Steve. :-)

In response to Anon 2:58: Yes, some writers have raw talent. And some had no idea they possessed it until they took writing classes.

Elizabeth said...

What if I told you that all over this country, major institutions created and sustained with a mission to pursue the betterment of mankind, colleges and universities that sit on billion dollar endowments are using the current economic crisis to further enrich themselves at the expense of the meager livelihood of long-time faculty? That at the same time as they claim to be the guardians of knowledge and the champions of the arts, they treat their faculty to the legal and financial equivalent of what migrant day laborers earn by standing outside Home Depot?

Freeway Flyers: aka "adjunct professors", aka "teaching professionals." They're the dirty little secret of universities and colleges all around the United States. They're the PhDs with decades of teaching experience, award-winning artists, published authors whose names and reputations draw students to the universities, whose work justifies the $50,000/year tuition, raises the million-dollar donations, earns the sought after rankings in USA Today's annual poll.

In exchange for all that, they are hired only on a part-time basis, made to sign a pledge that they will not work more than twenty hours a week and will not--not now, not ever--have a claim to health or retirement or any other kind of benefits, not even a parking pass. That they are "at will" employees who can be let go at any time, for any reason. Their salaries are so meager, they have to teach two, three, sometimes five classes a semester, at five different universities, just to pay their rent. That's why they're called Freeway Flyers.One writer I knew taught for twenty years at a Southern California college with more money than the GNP of a small country. He was paid so little, he had to supplement his income by working the graveyard shift at airport gift shops. He was the author of one of the biggest literary novels of the 20th century; when he died, his family couldn't afford to bury him. Another guy--a teacher of mine from the days when I was a student of writing--drove four hours each way to teach the same class for twenty-seven years. He made something near $3,000 a semester. He was recently let go because the school could take advantage of the rising unemployment rates to hire a younger person for less than $3,000.

Full text:

A question for you, Steve: is that what you want for yourself?

Steve Salerno said...

What do Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner have in common? Neither graduated from high school, but both were ferocious readers and are literary marvels.

Hmmm. Does this mean it's possible to write effectively without advanced knowledge of communications theory at the PhD level?

Chad Hogg said...

Re: Steve 2:56

This may be the crux of the issue: is the responsibility of the college academic or vocational? We tend to try to do both, and I am not sure that is wise.

My field is a good example. If you want to be a computer programmer, you should probably attend a tech school. If you want to be a computer *scientist*, then you should attend a university. And if you do, it should be with the knowledge that you will need to learn practical skills on your own. I learned more of my "craft" in a semester-long internship than I did the entire four years of classroom education, and that was good. My courses focused on mathematical background, critical thinking, and understanding the theory behind the most important advances in the field.

About 10 years ago the tech boom caused a huge influx of computer science students who were just looking for a meal ticket, and the discipline is still recovering.

literary lioness said...

"Hmmm. Does this mean it's possible to write effectively without advanced knowledge of communications theory at the PhD level?"

Yes, but they did not want to be professors and you do.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: As I explained way back in post 1 on this topic, when I was at IU, I was paid damned-good wages--full faculty wages. I was paid enough of a sum of money so that the (considerable) income I generated through freelancing was mostly gravy.

In fact, the semester I left for Rodale, my dean was on the verge of offering me an "inducement package"--to stick around--that would've actually paid me more than some full faculty members. (As I recall, he asked me not to spread that around--though it was a state school and all salary records would've been public anyway.) So no, the horror story described in the text you provide is not what I wanted or expected. I wanted--want--to be paid full value for the expertise I bring to the table (and if we're talking in terms of value to students, I think I bring more to the table than most professors). And I want that with benefits and vacation pay and the whole enchilada. Just as a college would pay any highly valued educator.

literary lioness said...

"A question for you, Steve: is that what you want for yourself?"

Thank you Elizabeth for pointing this out. I am married to a tenured professor so I am lucky, but I am a "freeway" professor who works part-time. I am not alone in this.

Steve Salerno said...

You miss my point, Ms. Lioness. I'm not talking about me in that statement. I'm talking about the aspiring writers in college classes. It's a facetious comment on the fact that they would probably fare much better professionally with a bit less of what the PhDs know, and a bit more of what I know.

sassy sasha said...

wow steve, major attitude, i like that! keep it up, you're winning me back!

(we'll have to start calling you sassy steve soon) ;)

literary lioness said...

"It's a facetious comment on the fact that they would probably fare much better professionally with a bit less of what the PhDs know, and a bit more of what I know."

That's what internships are for. Now I am not a journalist, but I did do an internship as an undergrad at a local paper. I also worked on my college paper. It was just a different style of writing.

I get what you are saying, you believe you have knowledge that is important to students, but you want to have special treatment than Ph.Ds who are competing for the same jobs as you. Is there a Ph.D in journalism?

You want special treatment. I get that fully.

Elizabeth said...

I wanted--want--to be paid full value for the expertise I bring to the table (and if we're talking in terms of value to students, I think I bring more to the table than most professors). And I want that with benefits and vacation pay and the whole enchilada.

Of course you do, why not. If you could get "the whole enchilada," that would be wonderful. But the next question is, is it a realistic expectation?

The IU gig was damn sweet and pretty unusual even by your own admission. And as if that was not enough, the economy is different today and colleges face challenges not seen during your days in IU.

I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer, just to drive across the point (brought up by others already) that sometimes our expectations do not match reality (and/or the other way around).

Steve Salerno said...

Lioness: I don't want special treatment. I want fair treatment. And I want it on behalf of the students, who are suffering because of the way things are done now. Read the article I wrote for The Writer a couple of posts ago, if you haven't already. That is not made up. A large number of students did, indeed, "come to me in panic" as they reached the end of their studies and realized they had no idea how to apply that to post-college life--unless they decided to give up on the real world, shrink back into academia and perpetuate the cycle. Who's served by that? (Do you know how many graduating writing wannabes don't even know what a "query letter" is? Or how one should be put together? That is unforgivable, LL, and I blame the schools, not the students.)

"Debbie": I realize that my expectations don't match reality. Hence this whole series of posts. I do not, however, think this situation is unsolvable. Already some accommodations have been made for "people like me." The change is just happening too slowly for my tastes. And in the meantime, students lose out.

call me doctor said...

You want special treatment, Steve. A parallel process for "people like you" that bypasses the usual criteria that have been put in place to assure continuing educational quality is, by definition, special treatment.

Elizabeth said...

Debbie D. here again: As much as I empathize with you and sympathize with your situation, Steve (and I really do, I've personally faced a similar problem not that long ago), I must agree with Lioness and Doc -- you are asking for special treatment, which, in all likelihood, won't be coming* to you, not without creating some unusual special circumstances. Like having that Pulitzer-winning book, for example, or having students petition colleges to hire you specifically (I'd imagine that, being paying customers, they may still have some say-so in the matter) or such.

*Peddling reality is part of my job description, y'know.

Anonymous said...

"And I want it on behalf of the students, who are suffering because of the way things are done now."

Now that's as genuine as those self-help gurus who claim that the only thing they strive for is the betterment of humanity. Steve, if the "suffering students" were your primary concern, you'd find a way to share your expertise with them without expecting special treatment and a perfect compensation package. But you want the pie in the sky just because you believe you deserve it. Well, we all want it at some point in our lives, but most of us grow out of such expectations.

Steve Salerno said...

Now that's as genuine as those self-help gurus who claim that the only thing they strive for is the betterment of humanity.

Anon--whichever one you are--please don't talk about what you don't know about. I don't ask much on this blog, but I do ask that. Please don't make sweeping generalizations about my life, based simply on verbiage that you deem coy. Not that you need to know, but I devote quite a bit of time each week to former students who need references, want general advice, ask me to critique things they've written (and we're not necessarily talking about short things, either), etc. In a wider sense, we all have a right to fair value for what we offer. I think a lot of academics care about students (or at least about learning), too, but they don't/won't work for free. We're talking in the end about the best allocation of scholastic dollars, and I'm telling you point-blank that students who seek a career in writing--which is to say, a paying career--are better off taking instruction from me than from some endless string of PhDs who are going to scorn everything those students write that doesn't conform to some elitist conception of what constitutes "art." That's all I'm saying here. Nothing more and nothing less.

Anonymous said...

My compliments, Steve, this is an excellent series of posts. Not even because I necessarily agree with you on all points, which I don't, but because you raise very thoughtful issues. I just graduated from college, English degree, and though I was not planning a writing career, I did take some relevant course work and I saw many of the tensions you discuss here. There is probably more confusion over what the role of education should be in the arts than anywhere else in a college setting. I knew students who were very disappointed in the level of preparation they got, and in fairness I also knew students who were heavily into aesthetics, exploration and critical thinking and couldn't care less whether they learned anything about commercial publishing. I honestly leaned more towards the latter, but I know that if I'd expected to graduate and rely on my writing skills for my livelihood, I probably would've been in the panic you describe.

Anyway, again, thanks for bringing this to the fore.

Stever Robbins said...

What I love about Babson is that it's the only college I've found that really values its practitioners as much as its academic faculty.

I suspect that we'll be seeing a change in academia before too long. Even the multi-billion-dollar endowed institutions are feeling a squeeze. The last three weeks have seen several articles in the NY Times etc. about how tuitions have increased to the point where people can't afford them any more.

In short, pretty soon colleges and universities will likely have to start demonstrating an actual market value. The full cost of attending college is now in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you include potential missed wages. At some point, people are going to ask (and rightly so), "why aren't you giving me actual skills I need to deal with life?"

Perhaps we'll end up with hybrid models, where traditional academes and PhDs are the ones who advance the "core knowledge," but then the teaching is done in tandem with practitioners, who help students apply that knowledge to make a concrete difference in their lives.

I'm referring here to the skills that are directly marketable. The basic broad context and thinking skills conveyed by an undergraduate liberal arts education are, hopefully, universally valuable later in life.

Anonymous said...

I'm the 8:24 Anon, Steve, and my comment was not "a sweeping generalization about your life." I commented on what appears to be a disingenuous statement on your part when you insist that you want all the benefits of the academic life only "for the good of the children!" I also did not suggest that you should give out your expertise for free. But the "it's for the children (students)!" cry just is not all that honest in light of everything you say about your expectations. For the record, I don't think there is anything wrong with "wanting it all," as unrealistic as it may be--and you'd be the first one to point it out, the way you have done in your posts on working mothers, but just be honest about it. Nothing more and nothing less, to use your own words.

Steve Salerno said...

Stever: I'm glad you included that last line--your comments almost always include something important that I've left out--because I hope no one has gotten the idea that I'm "down" on higher education and the overall value of liberal arts in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth--yes, even in English and writing. If I seem defensive and critical of current academic policies, it's because I'm trying to make a specific and pointed case about a modification that I think is needed and overdue. That doesn't mean I want to throw out the whole system. And I'll give you a specific example there, too: Often my students would turn in essays that they clearly thought were profound, and they'd make observations that they set up in a very dramatic way--as if it were the first time anyone had ever said it--when in reality, Melville or Thoreau or Hawthorne made the point (and far better) more than a century ago. Cultural literacy is very important in writing, therefore, if only to avoid that kind of embarrassment.

I do want to say one thing that's come up at least twice now. Some people seem to be assuming that, say, critical thinking and commercially salable writing are polar notions. I beg to differ. There is much wonderful writing in popular magazines (yes, even amid today's Britney-mania) that evinces critical thinking at the highest levels. I dare say I think I've done some of that myself, in my better work for Harper's, the Times Sunday magazine, etc. I urge visitors to pause a moment before they casually offer up that "dichotomy."

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 8:24/10:04:

You are trivializing my entire argument--to which I've devoted an awful lot of carefully chosen words--by reducing it to the satirical bumper-sticker sentiment, "it's for the good of the children!" (which you and I both know is a remark I never made). I stand by what I've said. You can stand by what you've said. I ask only, again, that you don't distort my position or my words in order to launch a criticism of me that I think you're determined to make, by this point, regardless of what I say or how I say it.

Anonymous said...

You are right about the whiny, self-absorbed bit.
Explain, if you will, the difference between the new graduate who expects to walk, with no experience, into a position writing leader articles for prestigious publications and the erstwhile freelance hack who expects to walk, without the recognised entry qualifications, into a tenured academic position?
I can see no significant difference. Both aspirants are displaying a disproportionate sense of 'entitlement' to special treatment.
That sense of entitlement might be excusable in a young student who has yet to learn the tough realities of the life--but in a 59 year old man?
Gimme, gimme, gimme. I want what I want when I want it---sounds more like a spoilt brat.

Anonymous said...

A spoiled brat, it does sound like it, doesn't it. There is some serious sense of entitlement in those posts, Steve. You want what's 'fair', except it should break all the rules in the book for you just because you are Steve Salerno. But you won't own it, instead say that you want it for 'the suffering students'. Seriously, man, can you hear yourself? Do you realize how ridiculous it sounds? So you have a bunch of bright young people who see upon graduating from college that real life differs from school. You call this suffering? Let's save big words for big occasions not self-indulgence.

Elizabeth said...

Oh wow. Can't say you have not walked into this one, Steve. We, some of your kind-hearted regulars ;) have been trying to tell you this, in much gentler terms, along the way. But in fairness, my fellow bloggers, you have been warned in the title of Steve's posts here, so you can't complain, I'd say.

You made several important points, Steve, on the relevance of college education, esp. in liberal arts. But your desire to be bestowed a tenured position based on your work (if indeed you are dead serious in it) sounds, well, unusual, to put it gently.

And that bit about suffering students... LOL. C'mon, suffering?

They got a college education, for crying out loud! So they are disappointed after college, boo hoo. Who isn't? Sorry, I have a very hard time mustering my sympathy here. If they think their life is tough, I'd invite them to visit the meat-packing plant where my mom, who is 72, works for her meager wages. I suspect that their useless college education, the source of their, er, suffering, would look much more useful and appealing after that visit.

It's a matter of perspective, Steve. Yes, again, you raise many important points, but it's hard to commiserate with your frustrated desire for a tenured college position, without proper qualifications for it, when thousands of people lose their only jobs and hard-earned life savings. You've made a good living for yourself and your family, have achieved quite a substantial level of recognition for your work, and enjoyed what you've done along the way. Now you want a position from which to comfortably retire (in addition to helping suffering students, of course). Nothing wrong with that per se, obviously, but you can see, I hope, how it may sound like "I want my cake and I want to eat it too" to many, a rather self-indulgent stance if I may say.

P.S. Post it if you want to, or not, if you don't want to deal with this subject any more. I don't want to pile up on you, but I too can see "the other side."

Steve Salerno said...

I'm not going to address the charges related to my being "spoilt" (is that like sour milk?) or what-have-you. Clearly I was sensitive to the overtones this series of posts would have to outsiders, which is why I titled it as I did. That doesn't mean I agree. It just means I could see how it would look/sound to others. I had hoped that it would spark a bit more of a philosophical discussion of the goals of education, and a bit less of a discussion of my peevishness. So be it. You rolls the dices and you takes yo' chances.

I'm less willing to "give" on the matter of the "suffering students." Call me crazy, but I hold to the notion that writing classes should prepare students to write--and not just in some self-indulgent, exploratory way. It should prepare students to launch their assault on the publishing world. To this point, I've spent 15 semesters teaching writing students at varying levels. Because I was teaching classes at multiple institutions for some of those semesters (i.e. doing the "freeway flier" bit), that encompasses perhaps 60 or 70 classes I've taught, total, which in turn encompasses perhaps 1500 individual students. I'd say that at least half of those students had aspirations of careers in writing/publishing. (At IU, you could up that figure to 75% or more.) The colleges in question took a lot of money from those kids in exchange for failing to prepare them to do precisely what they went to college for.

In a lot of realms, we'd call that fraud, wouldn't we?

getting a Ph.D said...

Funny, I remember a post you did awhile back about a student who took your magazine writing class. She did not do your assignment, but wrote poetry instead. You were quite insulted that she did this, because she acted as though your class meant nothing, if I remember correctly. Yet now that you are in a similar position, as your aspiring poetress, in getting a tenured position with a college, you do not see the similarity.

If you really cared about your "suffering students," you would get the credentials you need, or teach at your local community college without all the benefits you expect.

Masters are given out like Pez these days, many people are going back to school to get them to advance their careers. Why are you no different? Oh, I know, because you have many years of writing.

As far as query letters go, there are tons of books that teach this. If a student is not self-motivated enough to find his or her career path, no professor, whether good, or bad, can give it them the motivation. Actually, coddling them is not helping them for the real world.

Remember that article you gave about how many students go to college who shouldn't? I think this series of blogs illustrates that author's point brilliantly.

Steve Salerno said...

Dear Getting: I don't have time to compose the rebuttal your comment deserves, but again, I wish to correct the assumptions that some of you make about nuance and motivations (mine). I was not "insulted" that she wrote a poem. I was trying to impress upon her that if she wants to be a writer, and she wants to be successful, she (probably) has to be willing to write in format. There are very few openings in today's magazine publishing for the next Emily Dickenson. (It was a class in magazine writing.) For that matter, I don't think there are too many poetry professors who would've just smiled and shrugged it off if she submitted a magazine article instead of a poem for her final project, either.

Please also remember that I'm putting these thoughts forward not just because I'm miffed at being barred from the Kingdom, but because of the clear need for what I do, based on years of interactions with panicked students. I don't think they were running to my PhD-holding departmental colleagues screaming "HELP ME!"

RevRon's Rants said...

I have no need to call you petty names, Steve; perhaps I know your motivations a bit better than the occasional commenter. As you know, it's not out of some tendency to defer.

Snideness aside, I still think my original suggestion would serve you better than beating your head against the ivy-covered walls of a very deeply ingrained (inbred?) institution.
1) You have identified a clear and very real need - for students to be given the tools with which to ply their chosen trade; tools not being provided by universities.
2) You have effectively established that you possess the ability and motivation to provide those tools to the students who want them.
3) The universities will not allow you to provide those tools within the structure of their faculty unless you fulfill their academic prerequisites.

It would seem only logical for you to develop your own training program, independent of and complementary to those programs offered in universities. Given that the Universities won't support you, you could either establish the coursework on your own, or seek out the support - even outright patronage - of some of the media outlets for whom you've provided content. You'd probably have better luck getting corporate underwriters if you formed a 501-C3 or were willing to allow the media outlet to brand your courses, a la "The New York Times Creative Writing Internship," or something of that nature.

Allow the academians their condescension; you could give the students what skills they need, even as they continue to pursue the sheepskin that will be their entrance pass to corporate HR departments. And you could make a hell of a lot more money doing it than even the tenured professors. Like I said before, living well is the best revenge. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Thanks. I appreciate your above-the-fray/let's-get-it-done attitude throughout. And I think I've been neglectful in not saying that before this late date.

Rest assured, I'm giving a lot of thought to the big picture here.

Anonymous said...

Not to belabor the point, but since we are on the subject of misspelled names, it's Emily Dickinson.

Steve Salerno said...

Hence my point on my latest post about being unable to devote the time to the blog that I should. thank you for pointing that out. I seem to misspell it that way every time, too!

literary lioness said...

I was reminded of you when I had a debate last night with a math professor. We just finished grading our finals and discussing grading procedure. He was of the belief you had to do all grading on the same day. I asked him why, since I do not grade this way. His reasoning was "fairness" in grades. He said he would give a different grade on a different day! That really blew my mind! Especially considering he taught math, which has its basic answers and is not subjective. I told him that if I asked for a paper on symbolism, then I could find symbolism in the paper from any day. Actually, if the student shows the back-up in the writing and is grammatically correct, that is all I can really grade! I just received a brilliant paper from a student about the circular symbolism in Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons and it was on the money! I was rather amazed that this math professor felt he could not be "fair" to students on different days. It just proved my point about what always suspected about a lot of professors, their personal biases get in the way when grading.

Steve Salerno said...

Lionessa, that's still worlds better than professors who aren't fair to students on any day. I knew--personally--professors in poli-sci and history who simply would not give superior grades to students who didn't embrace a leftist, counter-culture view of life, politics and America's role in world affairs. A professor at Moravian College (a small but respected liberal-arts institution where I once taught) justified such practices by contending that any position to the right of center "simply isn't supported by the facts, therefore shows a poor grasp of history." Hence the bad grade. This is the same professor who told his class that the U.S. went into Iraq "for the oil, plain and simple." No other interpretation of the event was welcome in his classroom.

Whether we're conservatives or liberals or somewhere in between, I hope we can all agree that there's no place for such thinking in academia. And yet it endures, and even, in some precincts, prevails.

literary lioness said...

"I knew--personally--professors in poli-sci and history who simply would not give superior grades to students who didn't embrace a leftist, counter-culture view of life, politics and America's role in world affairs."

You are preaching to the choir on this point! This is the main reason I got into academia! I am an Independent and this bothered many of my professors. It also bothered my English professors who were not teaching literature, but discussing politics!

Steve Salerno said...

Lionessa: Exactly, yes, I saw that as well, or at least heard complaints about it. I remember quite vividly a student who came to me almost in tears because another writing professor didn't like the "message" that was conveyed by one of the protagonists in the student's story. This was a story with a very strong moral overlay having to do with the nature of family and the importance of the family unit. The professor--we think was a lesbian, though she wasn't "out"--kept telling the girl that the story "just doesn't work for me, it isn't convincing at all," when what I think the professor really meant to say was that the politics of the story didn't work for her.

That--to me--is pretty close to unforgivable in a writing-class setting.

a/good/lysstener said...

This is an interesting topic. To me, a lot of it comes down to whether we give in to the real world or try to change it to be more like what we'd want it to be. To aim a little higher, maybe. Don't get me wrong, Steve, I definitely hear what you're saying about a young writer wanting to "see your name in lights." But then I see some of the examples you use, about women going off to interviews half-naked or accomplished professionals like yourself having to resort to playing on your ethnicity, and it saddens me. That's not something I want to have to give into, even if it is how things are. So maybe the real solution isn't so much an either-or proposition, but a way of bringing the two extremes closer together? Or do I sound hopelessly naive? ;-)

My verification word is seasonally correct, by the way: antlyrz!