Confessions of a Gadfly

Confessions of a Gadfly

You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?

In 2014, Hanover College selected The Circus in Winter as its Common Reading, and I came to campus to talk to students. I loved the campus, the view, the students. On that first visit, sociology professor and writer Dr. Robyn Ryle told me that, like a lot of small, liberal arts colleges, Hanover had experienced an enrollment dip.

I found this news surprising and very worrisome. Hanover isn’t my alma mater, but I did go to a very similar kind of college—and The Circus in Winter had been the direct result of the quality liberal arts education I received at DePauw University.

So, when Hanover invited me back in 2015, I widened the scope of my “professionalization” concerns–which over time had morphed from a concern about creative writing students, to a concern about English majors, and now to a concern about liberal arts majors.

I gave the first-year students at Hanover a pep talk about why they were at the right school and screw all the haters who were saying, “What are you going to do with that?”

I called the talk “Stars to Steer By.” I haven’t published it yet, because I wrote it as a power point, but I will–just as soon as I can finish a draft of this novel of mine.

Anyway, after that talk, I got to talking to some of the faculty and staff at Hanover about how to change the perception that the liberal arts are impractical. We ran out of time to discuss this (because how would there ever be enough time?), and I said, “Hey, I’m on sabbatical next semester. Why don’t you have me come back as a writer-in-residence or something. You don’t even have to pay me. Just give me a place to stay, and we can keep talking about this.”

I know this was very forward of me, but I really did want to keep talking about it. I love talking about this stuff. And thank goodness, about three or four people here figured out a way to make it happen (mostly David Harden, the director of experiential learning). I’ve spent the last month living on a hill that overlooks the Ohio River and teaching a small seminar on “How to Tell the Story of Your Liberal Arts Education.”

Identity Shift

Hanover asked me for a bio to read at my first seminar, and I realized that my typical bio (Cathy the Writer) wasn’t really appropriate. I’ve never spoken as any kind of “expert” in the field of “professionalization.”

So I wrote an entirely new bio for Cathy the…what? Professionalization Gadfly?

Cathy Day was born in Peru, Indiana and attended college at DePauw University. She is a first-generation college student. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and has taught creative writing for 20 years, first at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and then at The College of New Jersey, and then at the University of Pittsburgh, and now at Ball State University. She loves to mentor students, to preach the gospel that it’s actually quite practical to major in the liberal arts, and to share her professionalization secrets. Her former students are literary agents and editors, freelance writers, Human Resource managers, authors, reporters, web developers, librarians, and farmers, just to name a few. 

Even with this bio, I felt like a bit of an imposter. What right did I have to stand up there and talk to anthropology majors and German majors? What are my credentials? My degree is in creative writing, not…what sort of degree does give you these credentials? I have no idea. I’ve never worked in a Career Center, like this woman (whose book I’m using).

My husband said, “There are people who make a ton of money speaking professionally about stuff they don’t really understand, and you’ve spent years writing and thinking about these issues.”

And I thought about something my colleague Jill Christman said to me last year. “You’re good at making difficult subjects easier to understand.”

Which is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

When did I become a gadfly?

In 2011, I published this essay about teaching novel-writing in creative writing programs and this conversation on where creative writing was going next.

And then a few years later, I started teaching literary citizenship.

I’ve spent the morning going back through all this thinking, trying to make sense of it all. Honestly, I haven’t ever tried to make sense of all this before.

I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to highlight quotes from myself. Yikes.

On teaching not just the craft of creative writing, but also the business of creative writing (2012)

Why do so many apprentice writers give up writing? I think it’s because they don’t know what to do next. They don’t know what to do with the books we encourage them to write. They think publishing is a secret society, and they aren’t the right sort, they won’t get in. I say bullshit. I say read this. I say let’s give them some agency, and I don’t mean a literary agent.

On teaching students how to look for “the next thing” (2013)

But here’s the deal: just because it’s hard to answer the question “What can I do with this degree?” doesn’t mean it’s not a fair question. We should try to answer it. And every school, every program DOES try to answer that question–even if it’s to point students in the direction of the career center or internship office. What we don’t have in the discipline of creative writing, especially at the undergraduate level, is a tradition of offering courses engaged in the direct professionalization of students.

In 2014, I decided to blog less and try to publish in more traditional ways.

John Warner at Inside Higher Education wrote this, which you might find interesting:

The title of Prof. Day’s post announcing her hiatus is “This Blog Is a Waste of My Time.” Reading the post reveals that she thinks it’s anything but, except as a tenured associate professor subject to productivity measurements that “count” – refereed publications or books – the 200 blog posts gathering more than 160,000 pageviews have no place.

But I just couldn’t help myself from writing this about literary citizenship (2014)

If you think that “being” a writer means publish publish publish, then I want you stop being so focused on flooding the world with your words and start making the world a better place for all words. If you think that majoring in creative writing means that the only thing you can “be” is a writer or a college professor, then I want you to stop thinking that because it’s not true. There are many ways to live a literary life even if you never step foot into another institution of higher learning, even if you never write another word of your own imaginative writing. There’s still so much good you can do.

Also, in 2014, I became the Assistant Chair of my department, and suddenly, my job wasn’t just to work with CW students anymore, but English majors more generally.

So I widened my focus a bit.

The Magic Building Where English Majors Work (2014)

This essay started as a blog post, but I sent it to The Millions instead.

Poor Tracy. Oh Christ, all the Tracys in this country looking for that magic building. Who believed all that marketing jazz from colleges all over this country. Your future starts here! Knowledge to go places! Tracy just wants her degree to mean something, and the key is finding the magic building where all the English majors work.

30 Easy Pieces of Advice to English Majors, Graduate Students (2015)

I love to make implicit knowledge more explicit. I like to share things English majors should know, but that often go unsaid. So: I said them.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 12.06.52A Job Pep Talk for English majors (2015)

Here’s another time that I tweeted out advice in my role as the Assistant Chair.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 12.09.31

[What I’m learning is that my teaching interests have shifted. I want to help students develop not just writing skills but also a writing identity.]

Helping students form a writerly identity (2016)

Here’s an excerpt of the paper I delivered at AWP Minneapolis, with a link to a podcast of the panel.

I can tell you exactly the moments in my life in which I felt like a real writer. Most of them happened at the desk, from the inside out, but one happened when I got my first full-time teaching position at Minnesota State University Mankato. My mentor Rick Robbins was helping me with my taxes, and he said, “You should file a Schedule C. Profit or Loss from a Business.”

“What business?” I said.

“Your writing,” he said. “You’re like a small business owner, really.”

That’s the day I realized that, in addition to being a college professor, I was the owner of a small business called Being the Writer Cathy Day.

Confessions of a Gadfly

All this time, as I’ve been creating a conversation around the idea of “professionalizing” creative writing students and English majors, I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t want to turn my discipline into something overtly pre-professional.

But I don’t want to leave things as they are either.

Why does this topic interest me? So much so that it’s become a recurring plot thread in the novel of my life. I’ve got to either do something with it or delete it from the manuscript.

The full why? is another blog post/essay, but suffice it to say: I have many regrets. Only with age do you understand why you chose certain paths. I see my own now. I see the paths taken by my former students and friends. I can’t change anything that’s already happened, of course, but I can affect what hasn’t happened yet.

Thank you for reading this long, but personally clarifying post.

CW Programs Higher Ed Literary Citizenship Teaching

One comment

  1. Well, I love this, Cathy. Our current political mess is Exhibit A in support of your liberal-arts-rock thesis. Have you read Dorothea Brande’s Wake Up and Live! It goes to the macro level, too, with creativity in all realms the prize. Explains or really embodies the crossover between writing and whatever.

    I admire your ideas and passion, not so common, really. Besides, I can’t write a short blog post either. Or, apparently, leave s short comment. I agree with Jill Christman—love the shout-out. Not because she’s smart and talented and nice. But because I always teach her essays “The Sloth” and “The Avocado” and “Family Smile.”

    And because last time I taught “Avocado,” last Fall at Virginia Tech, she actually answered my continuing studies students’ questions about her essay. Which made them think I know all the writers we were reading, like my buddy Virginia Woolf. Anyway, there’s literary citizenship for you, if we might label such kindness, such generosity.

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