The Three Ways I Got Schooled: As a Student, a Teacher, and a Person Trying to Pay Rent

by Dane Wisher

There’s a text I used to teach in my writing classes: Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever by Jean Twenge, currently a professor at San Diego State. I taught a chapter out of it, called “You Can Be Anything You Want to Be, ” which, using statistics, anecdotal evidence, and cultural studies interpretations of film and TV, details how, much to their disservice, American youth have been taught to follow their dreams, no matter what. You’re taught that if you want something bad enough, if you’re willing to work toward it with single-minded purpose and take the hits, you’ll make it in the end. I taught the chapter both for its accessible and mostly well-argued rhetorical analysis of American pop culture and for its lessons on material circumstance and context. Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially hopes and dreams. There are a finite amount of district attorneys and film directors and network news anchors. The chapter preaches realistic expectations of life.

The irony, of course, is that at the time I was teaching this text, I was a grad student in creative writing. The thing is, it’s easy to look at other people and shake your head at the decisions they’ve made or are going to make. It’s easy to say, “Well, why didn’t you study computer science or something more practical?” Sure, why didn’t I? Why didn’t any of us?

One simple answer is that while it’s obvious that the pipedream jobs — film director, news anchor, etc. — are inaccessible to most people, no one, at least when I was in school, really expected that getting an admin assistant or copyediting job was going to be such a hardship. A solid command of English and better-than-average rhetorical fluency has to count for something, right? Maybe it does, but certainly not as much as you’re taught in school — and certainly not in a down economy.

I majored in English at the University of Virginia where the standard line was that English is a dynamic major. You can do a lot with it. You can go to law school or get into advertising or grant writing or really anything that requires people who can read and write and interpret and think critically and creatively. Any employer would be lucky to have an English major from a highly ranked school with a solid command of the language on staff.

I’m not sure if professors say this because they are so out-of-touch that they believe it or that if they say it enough they can make it true.

To be fair, my degree helped me, certainly. After college I got several interviews at law firms and eventually landed a decent job, but then again getting all those interviews was tough going. Really fucking tough. It took a while, and to get by before landing that job, I was living at home in suburban New Jersey, getting fat and working at a liquor store. This was not the sort of thing any school would praise in the alumni magazine. I went through a similar experience after grad school and there’s the chance I will go through it again some day.

All of which is to state the somewhat obvious: English, and the arts and humanities in general, don’t prepare their grads for a life outside the academy. Much of the faculty themselves probably don’t have much an idea of what that life is like, given their positions.

But this leads to other questions: are colleges supposed to produce well-rounded, critically engaged adults or are they supposed to prepare students for a profession? Can universities and colleges be institutions of enlightenment while also being trade schools and offer a bit of both to all students? Do they owe that to people who may be going into serious, never-pay-it-back debt?

Florida has proposed higher tuition for humanities majors than students in math, science, and engineering — the latter offering a “greater return” for the state. Even if this never happens, it’s a symbolic enough gesture to make me worried about the future of the liberal arts as a discipline that becomes solely the domain of the wealthy.

Argumentative fluency, critical reasoning, and a basic understanding of language shouldn’t be a privilege. These things are essential to creating a more democratic and equitable society and ought to be available to anyone who wants to learn them. But that’s not going to happen if these degrees ensure their recipients penury and underemployment. Trade education, on the other hand, doesn’t seriously teach those Enlightenment values, but it at least helps with the whole paying-rent thing.

When I taught my first English course, I was a grad student at the University of Houston. Enrolling at UH was culture shock for me. My undergrad experience was more or less an idyllic affair — granted, an idyll with Natural Light cans and boxes of Parliaments strewn about. After all, UVA is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a top public university and everyone there was, at worst, a solid student in high school. We were taught the Jeffersonian ideals of liberal humanism and the necessity of discourse in a free society. English and economics — not business and management — were the largest majors on campus and in general people majored in the liberal arts and hard sciences, with some business and engineering thrown in too, sure. We learned about the debate over the proper inflection of the Anglo-Saxon “hwæt”, the first word in Beowulf, not because it was useful, but because Education was a word you capitalized; it was a noble and necessary sort of thing that helped to make an engaged, aware person out of you.

UVA was also where I started to take writing seriously. There was a fantastic creative writing faculty and I thought of creative writing as a natural outgrowth of my education, a way in which I could best contribute to understanding and society: as a writer and then a teacher of writing.

What I was never taught was how to do anything practical with my writing, that my goals would not come to fruition or at least not in the way I thought they would. While I could dissect representations of sexuality in Restoration poetry and discuss the implications of Jacobean monarchical theory, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about writing a grant or a technical manual. I didn’t know anything about putting together a court docket or what writing copy even meant. I came to learn about these things afterward — often when applying for jobs doing them.

Whether or not there may have been a technical writing course buried somewhere in the course catalogue is beside the point; that the practical aspects of making a living with an English degree were not — and I assume are still not — emphasized as a central part of the educational program seems to me a disservice to the students majoring in English. The pursuit of knowledge through Literature and Language is noble, but giving students a fighting chance on the job market is noble too.

After I graduated, I moved to the city. (I’ve traveled around a lot and there’s still only one, in my mind.) I worked in with bankruptcy and litigation at a firm specializing in toxic torts. I made a living and I could write and, as an added bonus, the work was fairly interesting and I learned quite a bit. I did that for a couple years, and then I went to grad school in creative writing at the University of Houston. It was there that I learned how to teach.

The first course I taught was ENGL1303: Composition I. I remember printing out my first class roster on PeopleSoft, that counterintuitive, slow, continuously malfunctioning academic administrative software that so many schools insist on using. There were 28 names, and next to those names were their years — mostly freshmen and sophomores — , and next to that, their majors. I searched for any English students. There were none. I looked for any history or politics majors. There were none. I looked for anyone in the humanities. None. There were one or two psych majors, but the majority of students were majoring in engineering and pharmacy and hospitality and management and entrepreneurship and nursing and similarly practical studies. Even the number of students majoring in the hard sciences — biology, chemistry, physics, etc. — was low, only a handful. This trend held for the three years I taught Comp I, Comp II, and Intro to Lit. Excluding the lone exception of Intro to Creative Writing, I taught only a couple English majors and not many more liberal arts majors in total.

Here are the facts about UH. Recently designated a Research I university, it’s a large, third-tier undergraduate institution. It is a city university that serves mostly the residents of the greater Houston area. This means that you get a wide range of learning abilities in the classroom and the reasons the students are enrolled there are as varied as their racial and socioeconomic makeup. It is a functional place with an egalitarian goal: educate the people, whether they want to become doctors or cops. (The degree to which it does this successfully on a wide scale is dubious, given its six-year graduation rate of 42%.)

It’s also a good place to look at how your average undergrad gets educated in America — it’s where I realized that my experience as an undergrad wasn’t the norm. For many, college is a utilitarian experience; there is neither the time nor the inclination for the lofty ideals I learned to revere as an admittedly privileged undergrad. Most of my students were there for one reason: get a degree, get employed, get paid. (Some, truth be told, were lost and had no idea why they were there, and I probably understood that state of mind a lot better than I understood the trade school mentality.)

Students generally arrive in composition on the first day of class with the mindset that this is just something they have to get through. I initially had a difficult time addressing that mentality in the classroom, that learning to think about an issue or a text for its own sake wasn’t enough of a reason to do it. Not unlike my students, I had to learn a lot about understanding an audience.

The difficulties I had relating the importance of writing to my students were the same difficulties I had convincing the world it was important to hire me at 23. That truth was difficult to swallow as a writing instructor: my students were going to be just fine in life whether or not they appreciated the nuances of writing and the finer points of critical interpretation. It just isn’t that important to their goals, not in the way I wanted or hoped it to be. Not in the way I was taught it was. I’d learned that lesson during my own job search; I learned it again teaching future cops and hotel managers.

Everyone writes. They text, they email, they Facebook, they draft reports, they write on bathroom stalls. It’s all writing, if not writingwrite. After all, we already have a glut of lawyers; we’re graduating more than there are positions. There are more bloggers and poets and journalists than there can be published for pay. And let’s not even get into academia. So back to my original question, back to the English majors at UVA: Why do so many students still go down the writing path when there isn’t a place for all of them?

For one thing, undergrads are young. It’s easy to look at a future life of economic uncertainty and romanticize it as a necessary part of some Grand Struggle. Plus, you never really see yourself not making it. That’s for the other poor schmucks. It’s a different story when you’re 30 and shit starts to get real and you think about maybe taking some classes in coding.

Another reason, and the more important one, I think, is that becoming a good writer isn’t a conscious decision that people make. It isn’t like learning Photoshop or Excel. Some of it is natural inclination and some of it is a part-innate, part-inculcated love of language — and no one has ever gotten to choose fully who or what they love in life. Some people love computers and some people love cooking and some people love money and some people love the way you can fit an appositive phrase bracketed off by em-dashes at the end of a dependent clause and follow up the second em-dash directly with a comma.

The problem is that, as in relationships, love isn’t always enough.

Sometimes what’s necessary is a no-bullshit appraisal of your own skillset and whether or not you can reasonably make it in this economy on your ability to maneuver a sentence and gauge the rhythm of your syntax and be clever with your words. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible, and this is what the cynics on the comment boards who deride all the young people trying to get a pen in the door at blogs and papers and presses and ad agencies and studios don’t get.

I’m going to posit something. Good writing necessarily comes from intelligence. (If writing is thinking, then it has to be.) This means that most good writers were pretty smart kids and so they mostly grew up thinking of themselves as exceptional in some way. And then they went to schools where the liberal arts are still sold as unquestionably valuable. These kids grew up into smart adults who can write a damn fine sentence.

The problem is, intelligence and ability don’t equal self-awareness. No one — not the students and not the institutions and faculty that put literary studies on a pedestal — really want to face what’s out there. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of exceptional, talented scriveners out there, and there are only so many people who are going to make a living off of it.

But try telling that to anyone in their twenties.

Try telling that to me as I approach 30. Take my word for it: in a lot of ways I’m still the same idiot I was at 22.

Rarely in a student essay, or any essay for that matter, does the argumentative point land where the writer thinks it will when he or she begins. You have to go back and figure out just what it is you’re actually saying. Writing forces us to look at an issue much more deeply than we are capable of doing in our heads. Everything seems so clear at the start, but writing inevitably takes on a life of its own; you see mistakes and make connections you weren’t previously making and a point becomes more complicated or complex than you thought. In fiction, a character develops in a way you hadn’t previously considered. This thing on the page becomes an individuated, cognizant being with a mind of its own. This is normal.

Because good writing is like life. And just as in life, you are seldom going to be where you thought you were going to be. But if you’re going to stick with it, you revise.

For instance. One thing that seems to tie together a lot of the narratives about struggling to make it as a writer or an artist is that they usually take place in New York or San Francisco or a city with similar cultural cachet. Unfortunately, you can’t always have that. If you want to stay close to writing in your job, you might not get to live in the city of your dreams, especially now. You might have to go to grad school in Kansas and take a job in Omaha or Ras Al-Khaimah. If you want to stay close to writing, you may have to stray far from where you thought you were going to be. But if you really have something to say, you revise, you make it work.

Which isn’t to say revision is easy, in life or in writing. I now teach English and writing in the Middle East, and I do not know a single expat who expected to be here. Not one. The city where I live was in no one’s life plan. But some of us wanted to teach or curate or be a journalist or work in advertising and here were are. We all have plans for life after here too, but it’s not likely we’re going to land where we think we will next time either.

I’m not saying that you need to move to the Middle East or give up on your LA dream. But I’m not saying don’t either, at least for a little while. Be open. Pay attention to where your writing is taking you on the page and off it. There’s a job opening in South Korea? Mongolia? Fuck it. Go. Barring brain trauma or crippling injuries to the upper extremities, experience has never once hurt anyone’s prose or verse.

And just be prepared to revise.

If you learn anything from your English education, it should be that it almost never hurts to revise.

Dane Wisher lives in Qatar.

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