Attention Adjuncts: Get Paid to Research Your Novel! (or: How Teaching Comp Saved My Fiction)
Tyler McMahon | June 2011
Even if you’re not adjunct faculty yourself, you probably know some talented writers stuck teaching long hours of freshman composition for bird seed and no benefits, too often at the expense of their own writing. If you’re a teaching assistant or full-time lecturer, your workload may be only marginally more manageable. The shameful labor practices associated with the “Instructor Mill” phenomenon afflict all university departments, but their effects on writing programs are perhaps the most grave.
Among us writers, there are those stoics who don’t suffer excuses gladly. You know the type. They insist there’s always time to write, even if it’s an hour a day, early in the morning or late at night. After all, isn’t the best art produced under impossible circumstances, despite great odds and after much suffering? Teaching—even a heavy load—beats digging ditches, right?
And they have a point. However, what’s true of art is not necessarily true of research. Even the most steadfast and disciplined writers must admit that research is an inherently indulgent activity, one which demands copious amounts of time and a peculiar brand of freedom from daily pressures. Simply put, it is a practice based on leisure. The architects of the University system understood this; that’s why they invented tenure and sabbaticals—wonderful and necessary institutions now being stripped from academia and always undervalued in creative writing circles. To research takes more than an hour or two stolen here or there. It requires days on end, days may or may not produce useful results.
Like many aspiring fiction writers at the start of graduate school, I found myself in the unlikely position of teaching freshman composition. In other words, I had to explain to large groups of disinterested eighteen-year-olds how to write personal, argumentative, and researched essays—without any working knowledge of how to write such essays myself. I know that for me and many of my peers, the teaching assistantship was considered a rite of passage, perhaps a means to an end, but mostly a distraction from our real work. Our own professors advised—with good reason—that we devote minimal time to it.
Minimizing damages is indeed a sound approach to a stack of sixty-plus English 101 essays. Speaking for my class of MFA students, it’s a job which we were not qualified for, never trained for, and had no interest in ever doing again. (Years later, the joke was of course on us when we discovered that teaching comp was the only marketable skill we graduated with.)
Halfway through my masters program, I was doubly at a loss once assigned the second part of the freshman composition cycle, a class focused on writing researched essays. I’d become semi-proficient in stumbling through the personal narratives—a form that seemed remotely related to my own writing—and now I was about to lose even that crutch.
In the nick of time, an amazing writer and fellow instructor named Alan Heathcock told me about an approach called “themed” classes. Rather than selecting from a potpourri of essays in an anthology or textbook appendix—jumping from steroids to nuclear power to vegetarianism—Al picked one topic for all of the reading and writing to be done over the semester. So, instead of long classroom hours trying to get a group of indifferent freshman to say one word about Afghanistan, or longer office hours answering that perpetual nonquestion: “I don’t know what to write about,” the instructor and the class spend their time gaining broad knowledge about a given subject.
Without hesitation, I put together a class on the history of rock and roll. I chose this topic not because of any particular expertise on my part, but because I believed that plenty of relevant readings and resources would be available, and that it would bleed over into various issues ripe for research. It went over exceedingly well with the students. Finally, they spoke in class and didn’t ask me what they should write about. Most importantly, I learned from them and read their work with interest.
Over the course of a couple semesters, I developed better lectures, stronger readings, and relevant multimedia resources. I read forty-plus essays on rock history every month—written by scholars, critics, and musicians, as well as by my students. Almost by accident, I became well versed in the subject. In my final semester of graduate school, I found myself writing the first chapter of a novel set during a pivotal moment in rock history, with characters inspired by some of the fascinating personalities I’d read about and seen footage of. St. Martin’s Press will publish that novel, How the Mistakes Were Made, in fall 2011.
To back up for one moment: as a young fiction writer, I always thought that I did research. I looked up medicines for the diseases that my characters had. I learned the lingo associated with their menial jobs. But years after the fact, I’ve come to realize that I was researching around the edges. History may have seasoned my writing, but it was never the meat or the potatoes. I’m no authority on the art of fiction, but I can say this for sure: learning to draw from research and history—something which I came to accidentally and serendipitously—was the most eye-opening and exhilarating step in my literary path since I began writing stories as a teenager. I suddenly had more ideas than I had resources to pursue them, and I was certain that I’d write novels for the rest of my life, no matter their reception.
If you’re unfamiliar with the themed approach, let me assure you: this is not cheating. University education has always traded heavily on the overlap between scholarship and teaching. In fact, I might argue that creative writing is a discipline in which those two spheres have become woefully separated. Language teachers recently developed an exciting approach called “content-based instruction,” which uses similar methods for language acquisition. Check with the director of your freshman writing program: I bet you’ll find that you have a tremendous amount of freedom in the reading that you assign, and that your supervisors encourage new ideas. Student evaluations have been overwhelmingly supportive of the method, and administrators take notice.
If you’re interested in teaching your composition sections this way, I must warn you: you will work harder and spend exponentially more time on preparation, especially in the short term. The fact that your readings must not only follow a given topic but also—at least in some cases—demonstrate a particular style of essay means that you may read through thousands of pages to find ten that you can use. Textbooks will be less helpful than ever. You’ll have to make sample topics, discussion questions, and in-class writing exercises from scratch. During all this, keep in mind that you’re killing another bird with that heavy stone: you’re researching your novel (or story collection, or memoir, or poetry collection). And—perhaps for the first time ever—you’ll have deadlines to cattle-prod your research along.
Choice of theme is critical. I won’t presume to tell you what to write your book about. However, potential themes should meet some of the same criteria as a fictional subject: it must be specific yet have universal relevance; it must interest you as well as your audience; it must raise more questions than answers. When Al Heathcock first introduced me to the approach, he offered some outstanding advice: don’t teach something that’s going to take a whole semester to define. Your theme should be immediately understandable to the students. It shouldn’t be overly abstract like “Home” or “Justice.” Nor should it be overly obscure.
Through the grapevine, I heard the horror story of one Literature PhD candidate who based her comp course around the homoerotic relationship between Batman and Robin. The class mostly viewed footage of the old television show, while her freshman students insisted that the two superheroes were just good friends. If that instructor were to ask me for advice, I would suggest she focus her class on something with more breathing room—comic books, perhaps, or the history of superheroes. And don’t go in with an agenda. Allow the students to teach you.
As with all preparation-intensive classes, the economy of scale dictates that your theme stay teachable for several semesters. It’s nice to have a theme that’s relevant to current events. If a file-sharing trial or a concert tragedy was in the news, it provided outstanding context for a spontaneous and relevant discussion in my rock class. However, it’s possible to pick a theme that’s too current. A colleague of mine here in Hawaii developed a course on the controversial interisland Super-Ferry—a timely local topic. However, in the first weeks of the semester Hawaii’s State Supreme Court shut the ferry down for good. Within days, the issue disappeared from the headlines. I’d recommend choosing a theme that will stay useful for about four- to six-semesters. Your skills and enthusiasm are likely to peak in such a period, and after two or three years, it’ll be time to start work on your next book.
The availability of resources is a major factor in choosing a theme. Readings aside, tracking down and securing audio-visual materials can be daunting. Keep in mind that the students, as well as the instructor, will be hunting for texts. It’s bad form to reserve all the books on a given topic, and leave the students to flounder when it’s time to write their papers. It’s nice if your theme bleeds into other areas. In my rock and roll class, some students did close readings of lyrics and images, while others looked at race relations, censorship laws, and digital technologies.
Increasingly, publishers offer single-subject readers. There’s been an explosion of annual “best of” anthologies in many genres of writing. If you can find a single textbook appropriate to both your class and your research project, it would be a masterstroke that could save hundreds of hours browsing/reading/copying/scanning/copyrighting/uploading/printing. I’ve had the misfortune of never settling on a reader that met all my needs. It’s something of a side effect to enthusiasm for a subject: there tend to be disparate pieces that I feel my class simply must read. It’s important—and difficult, for me at least—to keep in mind that your favorite readings may not be the ones that best reach a freshman audience.
Another challenge is the managing of student expectations. The idea of strong-arming any writer—freshman or otherwise—towards a subject is something which still gives me pause, particularly when it’s a subject the writer-student may have been oblivious to when registering. While I design my courses in such a way that they don’t require foreknowledge of the theme, I also go to great lengths to ensure that disinterested students can choose another class. Theoretically, the so-called “shopping period” at the beginning of the semester should prevent any student from getting stuck with a theme, but the truth is that comp sections seldom have spare space. I’ve had no luck getting the catalog description amended according to theme. For the first semester at least, it’s quite possible that students will know the class only as “Freshman Composition.” Web-enhancement helps a great deal, as students often see the syllabus and basic details long before the first meeting. Ratemyprofessors.com and other rating websites allow students and instructors to share information, and might become a useful tool for spreading section-specific course information.
But in my experience, the publicity issue is more of a theoretical problem. I’ve rarely had any student try to drop the class based on the theme. Much more often, I’ve had to turn away students who wanted to add the course after the fact. And beyond the first couple semesters, it’s a moot point. Word of mouth seems to be the preferred channel for such information. In fact, it’s difficult to change or abandon a theme if it’s been taught successfully for a while. I still have students show up on the first day of the semester expecting the rock and roll class.
When speaking casually about themed courses to colleagues, I encounter one major misconception: instructors believe they must be experts on their potential theme. This is not the case. In both writing and teaching, this sort of perfectionism-of-subject holds us back. As Elise Blackwell—a novelist who excels at incorporating history and research into her work—says: the great thing about novel writing is that it rewards dilettantism. You must have interest, but not mastery. The goal of research is (or should be) to learn something new, not to shore up your knowledge of a given subject. Jumping feet first into a new field of study is an amazing educational experience. Ideally, your passion for the material should infect the students.
At the moment, I’m working on a novel about undocumented immigration, and teaching my sections of freshman composition on the topic. I won’t lie; this theme is a harder sell than rock and roll. But that’s another reason this approach is terrific for novelists and other writers: you’re forced to not only gauge the interest people have in the topic, but to stimulate that interest. If you can sell the general subject of your book to a group of twenty freshmen and convince them that it matters enough to put down their phones and listen to you for forty-five minutes, you’ll have no trouble selling the idea to agents and editors.
Tyler McMahon’s novel, How the Mistakes Were Made, will be published by St. Martin’s in October 2011. His is a professor at Hawai‘i Pacific University. His short work has appeared in the Antioch Review, Three Penny Review,Barrelhouse, and the Nervous Breakdown. More information is available at www.tylermcmahon.net