Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Professional Crisis Numero Dos

Lately, my professional life has been on my mind. In calling it a "professional" life, I make it sound as though I do, in fact, feel like a "pro" at what I do. But even in my sixth year of teaching, I find that I am ever the student, and that I am ever searching for new ways of learning and new ways of doing my work.

Somehow, having a professional "crisis" feels exactly like the right thing to do once one is a year past thirty, a year past married, and months away from buying a new home. Everything else is rolling merrily right on along, what can one have a crisis about then (okay, besides living in a hurricane-ravaged city!): why, one's "professional life."

Here's the issue: in 2004, I got my M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I did well. Wrote a collection of short stories. Got distinction. Was praised by my peers and professors. Became a finalist for a fancy new-writers award that all in the fiction writerly-know have heard of. Attended the prestigious Breadloaf Writers' Conference. I was on my way to becoming a Real Writer, and I was okay with it.

Enter professional crisis Number One.

After I earned my MFA (and in fact while I was in the process of seeking it), I began to have this gnawing feeling that I didn't really want to be A Writer in the sense of the word. I don't do well with unstructured time. I don't like being alone for hours on end. I hate criticism. I hate self-promotion and the idea of marketing my art.

Plus, while at Breadloaf, I witnessed a professional community at "work," and I hated it: most of the "real writers" wanted nothing to do with their students. (I mean, there were cocktail parties paid for with my dollars, but I--a mere paying student--was not welcome.) Also, many of the Real Writers seemed both self-consciously insecure and unabashedly self-important: a bad combination. I was at a conference that was meant to inspire me, but it had quite the opposite effect. In spite of my having a few inspiring moments, I felt mostly like I didn't belong--and like I didn't want to. And then, on the last day of the conference (where my workshopped story was about a hurricane that misses New Orleans)--well, Katrina hit.

Since then, writing fiction has seemed ridiculous to me. It's possible I am making this declaration as some kind of avoidance technique. I'm good at that. So, I'll say instead that I don't believe that it writing fiction (post-K) is ridiculous--it's just that it no longer feels "right" to me.

Now, add to that first professional crisis the fact that I had begun to do what was, to me, previously unthinkable: I'd begun teaching.

Coming from a long line of English teachers (Mom--how many generations are we?), and being an adolescent well into my early twenties, I'd always said (to myself and out loud): "I'll never teach." I mean, the idea of it! It would be, like, becoming my mother! The horror!

But then, I stepped into the classroom for the first time in the Fall of 2001. And I. fell. in. love.

I'm talking, it was some epiphany-type sh*t. I felt "at home" as a teacher in a way I'd never felt before. I have felt the same ever since.

In fact, this professional crisis of mine (crisis Number Two) has nothing to do with my not liking what I do. I love what I do. It has to do with wanting to do what I do, better. It has to do with what I want to do not being particularly valued by my Ph.D-having colleagues (and by lit-teachers, in general). And it has to do with discovering the field of Composition and Rhetoric.

Comp-Rhet is essentially a field that supports the study of writing and communication (composition and rhetoric). I like how Andrea Lunsford defines rhetoric: "Rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of human communication." Composition, then, has to do with the creation of those texts. I'm into learning more about how we create the texts that we use to communicate--and particularly in how the political and social influence of assessment (or grading) influences students' ability to learn how to more effectively compose texts.

I know: it sounds boring. It's not.

So I have been thinking about going to get my PhD in comp-rhet. This would be a no-brainer were it not for one major hitch: I am stuck on New Orleans.

I mean, my loyalty to this city (as you, Mom, and my other three readers know well) is DOg-Ged! And from what I've learned about the hiring process, one who has earned her PhD locally does not get hired in said city. So one needs to leave in order to come back. And I ain't leavin'!

Speaking of leaving... I've just realized that I am running late for a meeting on recruitment for the UNO English Department. Will finish this post when I return... (Insert Jeopardy music or other Muzak here)...


Well that was depressing. Evidently the enrollment numbers aren't good, and that's making our Chair nervous. So we spent an hour discussing recruitment activities: site visits. Department parties with readings. An essay contest. A raffle. Perhaps this means that it's an even better time for me to go pursue a PhD?

Okay, so say I decide that it is time to get the PhD. The issue is that I should probably be pursuing research and study based on the best programs available, and not based on geographical location. Additionally, if I actually get this degree, there are probably only limited opportunities for its use here in New Orleans. And, for whatever reason, institutions really do like to hire graduates that come from far afield. (I'm not sure why that is. Clancy Ratcliff writes about this on her blog, and what she has to say makes a lot of sense to me. She also happens to be a new member of the ULL comp-rhet faculty; and she's rad).

Anyways, the tentative plan is to apply to ULL for PhD in comp-rhet. Problem: I want to be candid about owning a house and having a husband in New Orleans, which will mean I will need to be candid about needing a teaching and coursework schedule that will allow me to finish my onsite study as quickly as possible. This will likely not make me attractive to them. Problem two: going to ULL may not make me an attractive candidate for hiring committees in New Orleans once I am done.

So what is a girl who wants to change career-gears, but who is, as I've said Dog-Ged-Dly attached to her city to do? And why do academic hiring committees--and particularly those in the comparatively low-paying field of English--make geographic location into such a taboo subject? What's with the need to hire from afar? Also, will my being frank about my needs mean that ULL will not want me to study there?

I certainly hope not. Because I will tell you one place that I DO NOT want to spend even two years of coursework (even if I am commuting): Baton Rouge (at LSU). Lafayette is charming and funky. Baton Rouge is a big ol' suburb with a terrible frat boy problem. Yuck!


Mickey said...

Well, I say go for it, Sarah!

Have you considered an online program? It would probably mean some travel for the onsite portions of whatever program you choose, but it would get you a doctorate from a program that is not in LA. Of course I have no idea what is available online in your field, but I'd think it would be worth a look.

John said...

You make it way too complicated. If you just stick "comp-rhet" in Google (I'm a librarian and I use Google--what are the other 12 steps I need now?), you get UW-Madison's PhD program as the second result:
And the speaker at their colloquium next week is from the Agnes Scott Writing Center in (chime in with Twilight Zone tone with bongos "doo-dee-doo-dee-doo") DECATUR GA!!! So come on up, I'll tour you around, there's even a flood-prone area in town where we can build you a shotgun. You can fly down with us the following week for the wedding after you sign a lease. Problem solved.

--Your Helpful Uncle

Sarah said...

Uncle John,

I know, dear uncle, that there are wonderful (and highly competetive programs) in many cities where other members of our family live. But--and this is a big ol' but--they are not in New Orleans!


I've looked into online study, to no avail. I'll ask some ofthe comp-rhet folks in my department, though; maybe they'll have heard of some distance-learning options.