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one of these things is not like the others - bolster

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One of These Things is Not Like the Others: The Writer in the University INTRODUCTION Given that as a poet I’m most at ease in the lyric mode, I’ve decided to approach the position of “the writer in the university” through the first person, connecting my own experience to the larger context. I’ll discuss the career trajectory that brought me to Concordia’s English Department as a creative writing professor, the challenges I faced on arriving in the university environment, and those I continue to face as a writer who teaches. I’ll conclude by discussing my reasons for remaining committed to this intellectually and creatively sustaining life. IMPOSTER SYNDROME That my first response on being asked to speak to you today was uncertainty and anxiety gave rise to the title of my talk: “one of these things is not like the others.” Having participated in only one academic conference – the others were gatherings of writers and teachers of writing – I must confess to never having attended a keynote talk. This is, I realize, something of an unusual admission for a university professor; that I didn’t know what would be expected of me in this role attests to the gulf between me and my 1 colleagues who teach in the literature stream, between writers and academics. I assumed that such a role required authority and assertion, yet as a poet and even as a teacher, my natural bent is to question. My anxiety recalls Alice Munro’s famous book title Who Do You ...
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One of These Things is Not Like the Others: The Writer in the University  INTRODUCTION Given that as a poet I’m most at ease in the lyric mode, I’ve decided to approach the position of “the writer in the university” through the first person, connecting my own experience to the larger context. I’ll discuss the career trajectory that brought me to Concordia’s English Department as a creative writing professor, the challenges I faced on arriving in the university environment, and those I continue to face as a writer who teaches. I’ll conclude by discussing my reasons for remaining committed to this intellectually and creatively sustaining life.  IMPOSTER SYNDROME That my first response on being asked to speak to you today was uncertainty and anxiety gave rise to the title of my talk: “one of these things is not like the others.” Having participated in only one academic conference – the others were gatherings of writers and teachers of writing – I must confess to never having attended a keynote talk. This is, I realize, something of an unusual admission for a university professor; that I didn’t know what would be expected of me in this role attests to the gulf between me and my   1
colleagues who teach in the literature stream, between writers and academics. I assumed that such a role required authority and assertion, yet as a poet and even as a teacher, my natural bent is to question. My anxiety recalls Alice Munro’s famous book title Who Do You Think You Are?, a phrase that suggests a discomfort – generally understood as typically 1Canadian – with assuming to speak for anyone, even for oneself. As a graduate student, during a class in College and University Teaching, I discovered “the imposter syndrome,” which, as its name suggests, characterizes the belief that despite success in their respective fields, those so afflicted are inwardly convinced that they are undeserving frauds. Most of us in the class who felt ourselves described in this way were writers. (One of those writers would later be offered a prestigious Stegner Fellowship to Stanford’s creative writing program and would confess to me that, upon hearing the program director’s voice on her answering machine announcing the good news, she was certain that she’d been confused with another applicant of the same name.) The personal nature of literary creation makes writers susceptible to such delusions. Unlike academics who achieve recognition because of, among                                                 1 It may be worth noting that the book was called The Beggar Maid outside of Canada.   2
other things, what they know, what they do with what they know, how they articulate what they know, and how much funding they can secure, a writer gets to where she is for blurrier reasons. Admittedly, the character of each scholar reflects her approach to her material, but the ability to cite external sources – that ability to draw upon connections, so to speak – supports credibility. So much of what writers, and in particular poets, do comes down to us: to our perspective, to our vocabulary, our imaginations, our idiosyncracies, often our experience. Although, as Mark McGurl discusses in his recent book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, “creativity” has been increasingly touted during the past fifty years, many pay lipservice to it as a value while remaining skeptical of 2“making stuff up.” Although we writers must have sufficient confidence to believe the creation of our poetry or fiction worthy of our own time and the partaking of it worthy of readers’ time, we are also plagued by the need to justify ourselves, a need on which the university, with its constant application forms and evaluations, feeds. Who do we think we are? What’s our methodology? Who supports what we’ve done? And are we good enough at what we do to presume to teach others how to do it too?                                                  2 Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2009. 19,21.   3
After a decade of teaching, I’m no longer preoccupied with these questions, but the heightened self-awareness triggered by this invitation reminded me that life is indeed full of evidence that all professors are not perceived as equal. Case in point: a few months ago, a former graduate student of mine decided, rather suddenly, to apply for a Ph.D. in English Literature at various top American universities and asked – or, rather, pleaded – if I would write a letter of recommendation under short notice. As she was a startlingly original writer, a very bright and articulate student, I agreed. I’d already begun to draft the letter, in which I discussed the combination of solid research, imagination, elegant prose style, and inventive conceptual approaches that distinguished her writing – presuming that these qualities would also be sought among doctoral students in literature programs – when I received another message from her, letting me off the hook. An advisor at one of the doctoral programs had told her to instead request a letter from one of her professors from her previous Master’s degree, in History. That an English Literature program would value a letter from a History professor over one from a creative writing professor housed in an English department was at once baffling and all too familiar.  PERSONAL CAREER TRAJECTORY   4
You may be wondering how such an imposter ever dared to apply for a position in a university in the first place. The trajectory began early, with two parents who were teachers – my father a high school Chemistry teacher, my mother a teacher of grade two and three – and an early wish to be one myself. Soon enough, my desire to write took over. It wasn’t until partway through my B.F.A. in creative writing at U.B.C. that I realized that one didn’t have to choose between the two vocations.  What made teaching writing seem such an enviable career was, in part, that it seemed easy. My education in creative writing was strictly workshop-driven; the professor’s role, it appeared to me, was pretty much identical to my own as a workshop participant: he took the students’ manuscripts home, wrote comments on them, then came to class to talk about them. He talked more than the rest of us did, but not a lot more, and the work he did in directing class discussions was largely invisible. While I acknowledged that he had much more experience and wisdom than I did, in practical fact his job seemed to consist of doing for income what I was doing for pleasure. What could be better?    5
Once it became clear to me that not only was I a better poet than I was a writer of fiction, but I was more naturally one, the allure of teaching brightened for rather obvious reasons. Although I had received $100 for winning first prize in a school board writing competition in my home suburb, I earned nothing for my first few poems published in undergraduate journals and $30 for my first “real” publication in a national magazine. It would, in fact, be thirteen years between that first $100 poem and the next occasion when I would earn as much for a single poem. Ten years after that, despite having published hundreds of poems in journals, I received promise of my third $100 payment only two days ago, and this only because I had the nerve to ask the publisher of an anthology, who wished to reprint one of my poems, whether a fee – which was not mentioned in the paperwork, and which I would no doubt have forfeited had I remained silent – would be offered.  So teaching would pay the bills. I studied what my teachers did, how they talked about a piece of writing, how they prepared their comments and organized their office hours. I took a year out after my B.F.A. to experience the “real world,” but the real world I chose was the university, where I   6
worked first as an editorial assistant to the journal Canadian Literature and then as a temp in various departments.  Midway through that year, aware of a B.F.A.’s insufficiency as a teaching credential, I applied to U.B.C.’s M.F.A. program, and after a brief period during which I was only waitlisted – a period during which I frantically developed a Plan B of library school – I was in. I knew that, to have a shot at a job, I’d also need publications and teaching experience. That pursuing poetry as a craft and pursuing it as a career weren’t entirely harmonious didn’t fully occur to me. I listened to my workshop mates and my professors, submitted widely and wildly, and relished adding each acceptance to the department’s publications log, a ragged sheet of paper taped to the department head’s door. Two years later, M.F.A. in hand, I resumed my job as secretary in the Dean of Arts office, the only difference from my previous position being that this job was designated “permanent.” Refusing to see it as such, I pitched a poetry workshop to U.B.C. Continuing Studies, having noticed that their offerings lacked one. No matter that I was painfully shy, had given only a handful of public readings, and had hardly spoken in class during my entire degree. I would talk when the class was mine to teach. And it turned out that I could, and did, and that being a good listener made me a   7
better teacher. Teaching gave me a high, proportionate to the distress I suffered before each class began.  Several months later, that eight-week course on my CV, I moved across the country to live with a playwright, now my husband, who ran a theatre company. (As the Dean of Arts said at my farewell party, “A poet and a playwright – now that’s a lucrative relationship.”) I spent the next five years in Quebec City and Ottawa, applying for – and, fortunately, getting – grants, and teaching writing courses to adults through the Ottawa Board of Education and to elementary and high school students through the Ontario Arts Council’s Artists in the Schools program. My first book manuscript was accepted, magazines continued to take my work, and I gave readings regularly. During the latter two of those five years, I worked four to six months a year on contract as Assistant Editor of the members’ magazine at the National Gallery. I didn’t realize the extent to which my work ethic and my skills at concise, descriptive writing; at paraphrasing; at completing application forms; at organizing tasks; and at making convincing arguments for projects that existed only tenuously in my mind would serve me once I made it to my goal of professor. For, although these years were satisfying and productive ones, I still felt like a temp; when I periodically made a   8
mental checklist of my life – goals met, goals still to attain – three big missing things were: a prize, a child, and a university job.  In 1998, a remarkable thing happened: my first book won the Governor General’s Award. I had never believed that my wish for this award would be granted so promptly. I knew that the decision had been contingent on the dynamics of that year’s jury, that someone else could just as easily have won, that others likely deserved the award more. But while that familiar voice monologued away, I learned how to speak to the media and how to schmooze; I wore a designer dress and, incongruously, was featured in the Style section of the Ottawa Citizen. And then, after the few days of giving press conferences and perching in the House of Commons to be introduced during Question Period, I went back to my desk at the Gallery, to proofread the exhibitions listings.  A year later, in the fall of 1999, I received by e-mail a job posting for a tenure-track position in creative writing at Concordia. Never mind that, despite the GG and the publication of a second book, I hadn’t expected a chance at a teaching job for another decade or so; that we were living in Ottawa, and my husband was planning to begin his doctorate at the   9
Sorbonne; that my mother said to me, “But what if you get it?” This was the first creative writing opening – the first that did not also require a Ph.D. and experience teaching academic courses – since I’d received my M.F.A., and I couldn’t not apply.  Luck was on my side, first bad, then good. The description of the position was deliberately vague, calling for publications and experience in poetry and/or fiction, and although I’d written a lot of the latter, read a lot of the latter, published a bit, and was beginning to write a novel, I lacked experience as a teacher of fiction. But I was called for an interview anyway. Two days before the big day, I came down with the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life; I critiqued the sample student manuscripts in bed between naps and survived the campus visit thanks to over-the-counter drugs and adrenaline. Perhaps fortunately, I retain just a few memories of the day. When asked how I would continue to write while teaching, I began by saying, “Well, in other jobs I’ve had –,” a response met by one member of the hiring committee with, “This isn’t just a job.” And that evening, I said to my husband that I doubted I’d be hired, and that if I wasn’t, I would probably never be hired anywhere, as I didn’t know if I’d have the nerve to go through such an experience again. Good luck won out. The department   01
was permitted to hire both a novelist and a poet, and at thirty years old I acccepted the job for which I’d been priming myself.  A decade later, having served on my department’s hiring committee and having seen how uniform most candidates’ profiles are, defined by a list of uninterrupted degrees and post-docs – even many of those applying for our most recent creative writing hire were already teaching at universities – I’m surprised that I was granted an interview at all. That September, at a welcome reception for new faculty, the university’s Vice Rector, making the rounds, asked, “And which university did you come to us from?” Upon hearing, “Actually, I was working in Publications at the National Gallery,” he stared out the penthouse window into the distance, shook my hand, and moved on.  So here I was. But, to paraphrase another CanLit quotation, Where was here? And what was the price of admission?  AMERICAN WRITERS’ VIEWS OF ACADEME VS. CANADIAN Most American writers wouldn’t even ask these questions. American graduate writing programs have exploded in recent decades, from under ten   11
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