On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part Two

On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part Two

Cont’d from Part One.

Looking back on the job hiring process for tenure-track creative writing assistant professor jobs, I think it was silly to interview/campus visit someone like me (recent graduate) at all if there are people who are already assistant professors in the running. I am never going to get that job. I cannot compete against someone who not only has gone through this stupid/necessary hiring process successfully, but they have been vetted as tenurable by another institution, as well as have five years of experience doing the exact job for which we’re all interviewing.

You might say, “Well, maybe you just fucked up the interview?”

The one school who actually called me to let me know I had been rejected said I couldn’t have given a better interview. That I had done everything exactly right. That they wished they could have hired us both. It was just the other person “had more out there.”

See, I mistakenly wanted to stand out in the fiction assistant professor application marketplace by specializing in new media creative writing, so, as a grad student, I focused on new media or collaborative projects both in my writing and teaching. I was also, ideally, hoping for a joint appointment in women’s studies, because feminism and gender studies are central to my work–I also publish critical essays on gender, technology, and monstrosity.

This dual focus on my part–fiction and gender studies–is reflected under my publications on my CV and has inhibited my job opportunities and was, unfortunately, a colossal squid sized mistake. I have a lot of publications–enough to be competitive on the job market. But because of my split focus, I am not fiction-y enough for most fiction jobs, and I’m not critical enough for any of the straight up women’s studies or English literature jobs. (I applied to those critical jobs whenever it seemed appropriate and didn’t get a single “request for additional materials” from those ads.)

Also, to add insult to injury, all those jobs I interviewed for did not hire new media people–at least not according to the information that’s available about them online. The schools hired traditional fiction people, even though they advertised for new media fiction people.

And, if what I was told on the phone was honest (and I actually do believe it was) and the only difference was the other person “had more out there,” I’ll tell you why that was: because, already being an assistant professor, they were further in their career than me. I was 32 at the time I was interviewing, and I was the YOUNGEST person in the room at every place I interviewed–the youngest doctor, I should say, because sometimes there were graduate students around.

And at most places, I was younger by a decade.

So of course someone in their 40s is going to have “more out there.”

Plus, I suspect those people who are already assistant professors hadn’t split their focus the way I had between creative and critical work.

With the current academic job market being what it is today at the time of this writing (2014) early career creative writers have less opportunities to be offered a job when they’re going up against tenure-review year professors. Unfortunately, I think creative writing, as a discipline, is mimicking the sciences in the following disturbing way:

In the sciences, a 2 year postdoc is a universally given. It’s become so standardized that no one going into a research or an academic based field is competitive for a tenure-track science job without having done one, or even two, postdocs.

It appears that securing a visiting professorship (or a postdoc–which is harder because they’re usually only for critical people) is the only way to be competitive against those tenure-review professors.

For someone like me, who has a toddler and a husband I cherish more today than the day I married him 13 years ago, having to live apart from them was an enormous issue for me. I justified the possibility of breaking up our family by saying it’d only be for a year. That, when my husband graduated with his PhD, he’d just follow me. That the year apart would suck, but was survivable.

(It’s important to note that I was being selfish and not considering what he’d do career-wise; plus, we had already lived apart for a year and survived when I was a grad student–I won a predoctoral fellowship 2600 miles away–we just didn’t have a baby back then.)

The job market being what it is, for someone like me, whose husband is going into a research-driven scientific field and hopes to work for NASA–which doesn’t have a “partner hire” option–the probability of us being able to live together started to shrink.

When I didn’t get a job offer, I admit I was relieved. I didn’t have to make a decision between my family and what I thought I wanted my career to be. It was made for me, which felt weirdly like a relief.

It also made me really angry when I found out that not a single recent graduate got any of the jobs.

In August, I decided that I wasn’t going to let academia determine my value as a teacher or writer, so I decided to see if I could pull a Dr. Karen and start my own speculative fiction online writing workshop, The Brainery. I budgeted/scheduled for 9 available slots for students and they all filled. And since I was teaching, I could teach exactly what I wanted to teach, unlike at college campuses where I would have been forced to teach a generalized creative writing course, or intro to fiction (full disclosure: it’s difficult for me to get excited about literary fiction most of the time).

I am going to talk about the process of starting The Brainery in Part Three.