This is what I’ve become, part 2

This is what I’ve become, part 2

Teaching

A few weeks ago, I started thinking out loud about my new job. Here’s part two of my thoughts on the subject.

Don’t all 46 year old professionals wonder if they’ve made the right life choices?

Becoming a bureaucrat

For the last few years, I’ve been able to translate my teaching and writing into interesting blog posts for you, faithful readers.

But I don’t know if you’re that interested in what I did on Friday:

  • Inputted the schedule requests from four different academic areas in my department into a grid.
  • Approved some course equivalencies for a young woman studying abroad.
  • Met with an advisee who doesn’t know what to do with his life.
  • Met with an prospective student who knew exactly what to do with her life.
  • Proofread upcoming blog posts.
  • Tried to find people to teach unassigned classes or cancel them. Why are they unassigned? I can’t talk about it.
  • Answered 50 emails about lots of different things I can’t talk about.

Basically, I’m a bureaucrat.

My mad, bureaucratic, communication skillz:

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This is what I’ve become.

This is what I’ve become.

Teaching Writing

It’s been four months since I started my new job, and the things I most feared have happened.

  • I’ve stopped blogging here.
  • I haven’t been working on my novel as much as I’d like.
  • I care about stuff that I never cared about before–like bulletin boards and registration time tickets and how class rooms are assigned and posters and scheduling grids.

I’m not surprised. Administrating changes you. Entire realms which have been hidden from view suddenly appear, and all you can really say is, “Holy shit.”

This quote from an Inside Higher Education essay by Chuck Ryback is on the money. Read the whole thing here.

Looking back to when I was first hired on the tenure track, I really didn’t know anything about how the systems I was working in were structured. Literally, it has taken me 10 years to even achieve a competent grasp. Why? If a maze built by Daedalus is complicated, imagine a maze built by an army of Daedaluses. Campus and system governance in public universities is deeply complicated and entangled, and this is largely because it’s supposed to be difficult to understand (but that’s a whole different post).

My job as Whack-a-Mole

When people ask me what I do all day as Assistant Chair of Operations, I tell them it’s like this:

You walk in the door and the moles start popping up—in my office door and in my inbox—and I take my mallet and whack whack whack as fast as I can.

Perhaps this makes it sound bad. Like I’m mad. Like I resent the moles from popping up. Like I’m trying to hurt them.

Au contraire.

The “whacking” isn’t hurting, it’s helping, solving, progressing.

For twenty years, I’ve written words that took months if not years to be published, taught students that I (mostly) never heard from again. So there’s something deeply rewarding about walking out of the office at the end of the day knowing that I actually finished something. Even if it was answering/archiving/deleting 50 emails and signing five forms.

My job at the candy conveyer belt

I like coming home and having dinner with my husband and maybe writing a little in the evening or reading or watching a movie, like a normal fucking human being who is almost 50 years old, not a graduate student. Like my doctor. Like my lawyer. Like pretty much every professional person I know.

Except for teachers.

We don’t expect our doctors to help us and answer our questions when they aren’t in their office. Why do we expect college professors and teachers to do this? I don’t know. But it drives me crazy.

I never worked this hard when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. This is a new development. It’s Lucy Ricardo’s candy conveyer belt and the chocolate is coming faster and faster and faster. Because there are real chocolates and virtual chocolates coming in via email.

One reason why I took this new job, I think, is that I’m no longer Lucy at the conveyor belt anymore. I’m her supervisor. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but for me, it was a necessary thing.

My job as a state bureaucrat.

Last night I went to a play with my cousin, who is a freshman at Ball State. She introduced me to a friend and I said I was the Assistant Chair of the English Department, let me know if you need anything, etc.

Later, I saw a dean walk down the aisle and pointed him out. “That’s the dean of your college,” I said to my cousin. She looked at me, and I thought, Oh my God, if I was 18 years old and a freshman, I would have no freaking idea what that meant nor why it mattered in the slightest.

So I said, “Okay, so pretend Ball State is a country. President Ferguson is the President. The deans of all the different colleges are like the governors of the states.”

She nodded. “So you’re like a senator, right?

“No, a department chair is like a senator. I’m like his chief of staff.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “I’m sorry. I just think politics is kind of boring.”

“Yeah, I know. Or think of it this way. The department chair is like the mayor of a city. And the English department is a big city in the country’s largest and most populous state.”

“So you’re like the mayor of Los Angeles?”

“No, more like Sacramento. I’m like the deputy mayor of Sacramento.”

I remembered then that her friend had wanted to meet me because I’m a writer, but lately, I’ve started thinking of myself as the deputy mayor of Sacramento because I really like the job.

And that’s what scares me. Can you help run a city and write books at the same time?

That is the question, isn’t it?

Here are some more:

  • How does your identity change when you take on an administrative position?
  • How do you maintain your identity as a writer when your daily work is so specific to the institution to the place where you work?
  • Since so many of us have day jobs–lots of different kinds–how can we balance our job (paycheck) and our work (art)?
  • How do we keep our work from becoming a hobby?
  • How do we keep our job from defining us?
  • When do we say to ourselves that we’re better at the job than the work? Or can we do both?
  • How do you keep doing your job for years and years and years without becoming overwhelmed by despair?
  • Here’s a great essay that’s helped me think through these things.

(more later, i’ve been thinking about this a lot)

 

Everything I know about Letters of Recommendation

CW Programs

Note: This is about LORs for the academic job market, not for applying to MFA programs. That post is here. 

True Story

Screenshot 2014-10-20 18.48.32A few years ago, a writer I knew (I’ll call her Chris) sent me an email asking me for some information. A graduate creative writing program had asked her to speak with their MFA students about “going on the market.” How to do a CV. How to write a good letter of application. How to read job ads. How to ask for LORs. That sort of thing.

The problem was that Chris was not on the faculty of that (very prestigious) MFA program. She was visiting and had only been on the job market in a limited way. So when Chris asked me if I would share my job search materials with her to share with MFA students in this program, here’s what I said:

You know, no. And I’ll tell you why.

First, I think that it’s the responsibility of the faculty of that very fine school to mentor their students. Not mine. And really, not even yours. THEY need to make their CVs and job letters and wisdom available to people who worked really hard to get into that school. That is why one works hard to get into that school–for access to that sort of thing.

Second, my materials are for my students and for my friends. If YOU want to see my letter, my CV, really ANYTHING, I would give it to you in a heartbeat. But not to them.

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11 Days: My Caregiving Story

11 Days: My Caregiving Story

General

I don’t usually tell personal stories here, but helping my mom get her caregiving project going has inspired me to tell my own caregiving story. This a cross-post between my blog and my mom’s. Wow, now that’s something I thought I’d never say.

Day 1

On Sunday Dec. 4, 2011 my mom called me and said Grandma had had a stroke and could I go to Peru. An hour and a half from Muncie. I went.

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Come upstairs and see my route book?

Come upstairs and see my route book?

The Circus in Winter Writing

Route books are a gold mine of circus history. They’re a yearly archive of a show’s acts and travels, meticulously recorded for posterity, then printed and given to circus personnel as a keepsake.

I have one that belonged to my great great uncle Henry Hoffman, superintendent of the menagerie for the Great Wallace Show.

When I started doing readings for The Circus in Winter, I took lots of pictures and put them in scrapbooks. I wanted to remember as many of those wonderful moments as possible.

But I noticed that many of the pictures from those years featured me standing behind a podium or sitting at a table.

That isn’t how I remember readings and events. I remember looking out at a sea of faces.

So for the last few years, I try to take a picture of the audience at all my readings.

Check out the new Route Book page

When I was creating my Route Book page for this website, I decided to do more than caption the photos. Where. When. I decided to share my memories of those events, and what I realized is that I’ve met and re-met so many people by going on the road.

Readings are hard on me. I have a bad back. I have anxiety issues. I’m an introvert. But I also love the experience of being in the room when people are experiencing my work or reacting to my ideas.

So feel free to follow the link and thumb through the pages of my route book. Maybe you’re in one of the pictures?

Check out the new Events page

I’ll be adding lots of pictures to the Route Book page soon; I’m going to be on the road a lot this fall. For more information, check out the Events page.

And may all your days be circus days. 

 

Circus in Winter is 10 Years Old

Circus in Winter is 10 Years Old

The Circus in Winter

It’s July 5th, P.T. Barnum’s birthday, the 10-year anniversary of the publication of my first book, The Circus in Winter.

I. Circus back then

In 2004, I was teaching at The College of New Jersey. I was 35 years old.

That was the summer my sister got married. The first time I saw the book on a bookstore shelf was on June 17. We were on our way to her wedding rehearsal, which was near a Borders. I asked my dad to stop so I could go inside and see if the book was on the shelf yet. It was! I took a picture.

I wondered why my pub date was July 5th if the book was available in a bookstore on June 17?

My agent called me on July 5 to say congratulations and asked “What are you doing right now?” and the answer was that I was shucking corn.

Me and my sister, June 2004

Me and my sister, June 2004

That was a fantastic summer, full of happiness and starred book reviews and wedding receptions and a book tour.

I didn’t realize at the time how special that summer was, that sometimes a book pops and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s been hard to write my third book with this knowledge in the back of my mind. Here’s something I said to Bryan Furness when he asked me how a writer gets past moments like that.

In late July 2004, during my town’s annual circus festival, I did a signing in my hometown historical museum and many, many people came. Ex-boyfriends. Former teachers. Former circus people. Former babysitters. Childhood friends. It was completely overwhelming in a good way. I sat next to the skull of the elephant that killed my great-great uncle, the artifact that started my writing journey.

July, 2004

July, 2004

The next morning, I got to ride in a convertible in my hometown’s annual circus parade and wave at people. My brother and sister walked alongside the car and threw candy at the crowds lining the streets. The sign on the side of the car said: Guest “Author” Cathy Day.

Ah, the unnecessary quotation marks of the Midwest!

In my life thus far, these are the four greatest moments (in chronological order):

  1. Returning to my hometown as a published author and riding in the parade
  2. The morning a few months later when I was solving the New York Times Magazine acrostic and realized that the answer was a quotation from Circus.
  3. The day I got married.
  4. The day in 2010 when I returned to Peru with a group of students from Ball State who had adapted Circus into a musical. They performed in a circus tent on the same ground where the real circus had performed a hundred years earlier. I wrote about that day here.

II. Circus today

I’m incredibly fortunate that people are still reading The Circus in Winter. It was selected as the 2014 Common Reader at Hanover College. The other day, I got an email from a young woman who had just finished it.

I am attending Hanover College in the fall and I was required to read The Circus In Winter. I just finished reading it. While I was reading I didn’t know how I felt about the book. I kind of liked it and I kind of didn’t until the very end when Jenny talks about hometowns and how no matter what you can always go back. Just those very last paragraphs really got to me and it helped me appreciate the book so much more. Besides that I love the little bits of the book that actually happened. I understand some details were changed and so were names but it’s amazing for me to think something exciting has happened in Indiana.

Back in 2004, I sent a postcard to every county library in the state of Indiana asking them to add Circus to their collection. Someone asked me why I’d done that. Why focus on getting the word out about the book in Indiana rather than New York or Los Angeles? The answer is contained in that email.

III. Circus tomorrow

I’m visiting Hanover College on Aug 25 and 26th.

In September, I’ll be in Connecticut for two events with Ben Clark, who wrote the music for Circus. We’ve actually never done an event together where we trace the evolution of a story into song. I’ll let you know more about those events as details are finalized, but one of them will be at the Mark Twain House and Museum. Very excited about that!

And then from October 23-November 16, Goodspeed Musicals is mounting a full production of Circus. I’ll be there, although I’m not yet sure which date.

Will you do me a favor today? Will you like the Facebook page for The Circus in Winter? If things go well with the musical, I hope that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will reprint Circus, and those likes might help me make my case.

I’m writing this on the porch of my house in Muncie, Indiana. If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be back home in Indiana or that I’d be blogging  or that there’d be something called “Facebook” or that there would no longer be a thing called “Borders” or that my book would be a musical, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Thank you very much. Today I’m filled with so much gratitude for the blessings this book has brought me.

I have a new job

I have a new job

General

A few weeks ago I went to the high school graduation party of my second cousin, Erin. She’s going to be a freshman at Ball State this fall. I asked her if she was taking ENG 103 with “Staff,” and she said, “How do you know?”

“Because starting July 1st, I’m the person who makes sure there is a class for you to take and someone to teach it.”

So, today I officially started my new job as Assistant Chair of Operations of the English Department at Ball State University.

What does this mean?

Well, I work in a very large department. We have a chair and two assistant chairs. Basically, I’ll be in charge of:

  • Scheduling classes. This is pretty complicated when you consider 100+ sections of first-year writing, the needs of 60+ faculty members, and the desires of hundreds of students who want to graduate on time.
  • Advising. I’m the primary advisor, which means I’m the person who figures out when you can graduate, whether that class should count for the major, etc.
  • Library budget.  One thing I’ve learned about academia over the last 20 years is the value of a good university library. I’m the person who reminds everyone to turn in book and journal acquisition requests.
  • Personnel. I will hire and help to review the yearly performance of our full-time contract faculty.
  • Communications. With the help of three interns, I oversee our social media accounts, department blog, and yearly newsletter.
  • Other things I’ve probably forgotten.

2014-07-01 16.41.08A few of my thoughts today

Right now, I feel least confident about the advising aspect of this job. I know the creative writing curriculum very well, but now I’ll need to understand the needs of all the majors, notably the teaching majors.

I feel most confident about the communications aspect. It’s a challenge I look forward to. How the hell do you communicate effectively with such a large number of people? I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to my job as a writer (communicating with readers) and as a teacher (communicating with students), and now I’ll apply what I’ve learned to my job as an administrator (communicating within and without the department to faculty, students, alumni, donors, deans, etc.)

Because my job will involve hiring contract faculty, my new position will give me a front-row seat to the adjunct crisis. This issue has been on my mind a lot for the last few months. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I’ve been sharing many articles like this one. Unfortunately, I will not be in a position to fix the problem (determine budgets and create teaching lines, etc.), only to manage the problem. But I am determined to use whatever privilege I’ve been afforded to do right by everyone.

Most writers who work in academia eventually take their turn in administrative roles. Writers have a reputation for flightiness in these matters, but I have many friends and acquaintances who are/have been excellent administrators. Most of my grad school cohort have all been directors or assistant chairs or chairs by now.

Conventional wisdom for writers in academia is that you should practice a healthy kind of selfishness: keep your head down, do what needs to be done at the institution that employs you, but volunteer for nothing that will distract from the limited amount of time you have to write. I know many writers who have directed writing programs, but very few who have chaired an entire department or who would want to. Creative writers aren’t typically very good at being bureaucrats. And that’s what I have agreed to become, really, a slightly bigger cog in a large bureaucracy called an American university.

My problem is that I have always liked being in charge of something. This goes all the way back to my junior year of high school when I was elected class president and spent one class period a day working behind the scenes to put on The Prom. I’ve never been so happy. All those moving parts. The lists. Creating a structure, a system, a kind of machine. If you build it right, things go smoothly. I love trying to figure out how a system works.

This blog was created in an effort to figure out how my classroom works, and I shared that thinking with you. However, I cannot do the same thing re: my new position. Much of what I do will concern confidential matters. There are many blogs about being a writer, some about being a teacher, but none (that I’ve ever seen) about being an administrator. Why? I imagine it’s because you’re too freaking busy, because it’s not interesting to most people, and because there’s a lot you can’t really talk about anyway.

However, I think that this silence re: the professional lives of academics is one of the reasons that we’re in the mess we’re in. The public doesn’t understand what we do. Some of my most popular posts here at the Big Thing are on “unspoken” topics, such as how to ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school or how to write a Statement of Purpose. I’ll try to find a way to share what I’m learning with all of you in a way that’s helpful but also professional.

(Many thanks to Nicole Walker for pointing me to this blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean. The blogroll will be of much interest to anyone interested in higher ed issues.)

Will this job make it easier or harder to finish my novel? That’s a good question. The position comes with release time. I’ll go down to one course a semester. I’ll need to be in the office more often, but I can work something more akin to “banker’s hours.” I’m looking forward to more compartmentalization in my daily and weekly routine, and that, I hope, will be good for my writing habit. I do better with a little structure to my days. I recognize, however, that protecting my writing time and the head space for it is largely up to me.

This past weekend, I became very nervous about taking this job. I went into my closet and realized that most of my teaching clothes are for fall and winter. In the summer, I mostly wear t-shirts every day. So I went to Goodwill and TJ Maxx and bought myself a shit-ton of classier summer attire. I rationalized these purchases by remembering this quotation from the fashion designer Mainbocher:

“How you look influences how you feel, and how you feel influences how you act, and how you act influences how many other people act.”

I’ve never really been in a position of authority before, but I’m grateful that the newly elected department chair, Dr. Adam Beach, thought I could do the job. I anticipate that the focus of this blog might change a bit–in fact, I have no idea what category to call this post!–and I hope you’re willing to go along for the ride.

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

I’ve been blogging a lot lately, just not here on WordPress. I’ve been using Pinterest and Tumblr for quick posts. The interfaces are simple, and the stakes are low because not a lot of people follow me there.

What am I blogging about? Well, they aren’t “essay-like” blog posts, as you are used to here. These are more visual, like a bulletin board or scrapbook. Or they’re more utilitarian, like a ledger. That’s why I don’t think to share them here on the Big Thing.

A few years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Morgan Library on diaries. I was especially interested in how artists use them.

I spent a lot of time looking at the writing journal John Steinbeck kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Here’s a great post from Austin Kleon’s blog about that.

steinbeckI want to hold myself accountable, too, like Steinbeck did. That’s why I started this little Tumblr blog called Every Day I Write the Book.

I also use Tumblr (and Pinterest) like scrapbooks. A place to archive the images and maps I find.

Sometimes I just reblog a picture.

Sometimes I add a picture to a scrapbook I keep for Linda.

Sometimes I make digital scrapbooks comprised of images and maps of one particular place, like Villa Trianon.

The pages I’ve been writing this week are set at Villa Trianon, and I look at these pictures to sort of “will” myself into that time and place.

exterior villa

I suppose it’s no different from cutting something out of a magazine and pasting it down so that you can go back and look at it later.

If you’ve seen Somewhere in Time, you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes I do more than just clip images. I actually start writing about what they mean to me. Proto blog posts. Like this one on the so-called “classic” look.

In this article, Edwidge Danticat talks about how she creates bulletin boards so that she can see her ideas and the images that inspire her, as well as the overall plot structure.

That’s what I’m doing, too, I guess, except my bulletin board is digital. And share-able.

But this research can’t overtake the actual writing. Instead, I play with my bulletin board/scrapbooks as a way into the writing or when it’s time to take a break from writing–instead of smoking. (The urge to do so has been strong lately for some reason.)

I’ve also been watching period dramas to keep myself thinking in the past.

  • A Room with a View, both the 2007 and 1986 versions
  • Ridicule
  • Austenland
  • My Immortal Beloved
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • A Royal Affair
  • The King’s Speech
  • Agora

Another way that I will myself into the past isn’t digital at all. I read books that were published at the time I’m writing about. Right now, I’m reading a novel by the Duchess of Sutherland, who was a friend of Linda’s. It’s not very good, but the book smells old, the details are marvelous, and it definitely transports me into that milieu.

 

If you have any other suggestions for me, let me know. Good luck with your own writing projects. Thanks, as always, for reading.

[And so ends today’s writing warm ups. Time to start writing for real.]

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

 

It should come as no surprise that during the school year, I blog a lot about teaching, and in the summer, I blog a lot about writing. Because that’s where my head is.

Last night, I did a little research on the technology that made it possible to print pictures in newspapers and magazines.

In a nutshell: for a long time, it was very hard.

But it got me thinking about how easy it is now. Think about how addicting Tumblr and Facebook are. Think about how addicting it is to be able to Google whatever you want to look at. I mean seriously, how do we even stop ourselves? How do we not gorge ourselves visually every single day? Continue reading

I was doing a little research the other day on Linda Porter’s very public divorce from her first husband. Here are some clippings (posted on my Tumblr) that tell the whole sordid story.

Further evidence of the fame and notoriety Linda brought with her into her marriage to Cole, who was pretty much a nobody when they met.

Back to the book…

P.S. This is the first blog post I’ve ever done from my phone.