Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist, and Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Why Am I Teaching Again?

Full kurosawa pryal

Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

You know that James Bond movie with the 52-year-old Sean Connery playing an aging Bond? The one with the tongue-in-cheek title, Never Say Never Again? Apparently, that title referred to an interview in which Connery had said he’d never, ever, ever play Bond again. And yet there he was, up on the big screen, trying to get those nukes back from SPECTRE.

Over two years ago, I left teaching. I’d been working in a contingent non-tenure-track job — one committee even referred to my status as “untenurable.” (That word is apparently a thing now.) I’d had enough, so I was out the door. Goodbye. Never again.

Then, last winter, I received an email out of the blue from the continuing education department of a local university: Would I be interested in teaching a creative-writing course in the spring semester?

Would I?

I had no idea. Because I cannot trust my gut to make good professional decisions, I made a list of pros and cons. Because I’m a glass two-thirds-empty kind of person, I started with the cons.

Cons

  • Pay: The pay would be $125 for six weeks of teaching, or $25 a week. I would have to teach one 90-minute class a week, plus class-preparation time. Furthermore, on the payment paperwork, there was a sentence that read, “Many instructors choose to donate their honorarium to the [continuing education] program.” (hysterical laughter)
  • Location: The course meeting place was located far enough away from my home to constitute an annoying commute.
  • Coffee: The building where I would be teaching did not allow food or drink, which meant that even though my class would be in the morning, I wouldn't be allowed to bring coffee to class. (I have literally never taught a class without a coffee mug in my hand.)

But there were some pros to teaching this class. It turned out that I wasn’t going to be an underpaid, coffee-deprived ghoul for no reason at all.

Pros

  • Course content: I would be teaching a creative-writing workshop — in particular, narrative writing, my favorite. I would have complete control over my curriculum, including how many pages my students turned in each week to workshop.
  • Class size: I could limit the course to eight students. In fact, I could have made it smaller, but eight seemed like a good size to me. If I chose to teach the course in the future, I could have six students, or even fewer.
  • Class frequency: The course only met once a week, which seemed very doable. I have never, ever taught a once-a-week class before. I wondered: What would that be like? Such a luxury! Such an extravagance!
  • Intangibles: The course would be a way to dip my toe into teaching a creative-writing workshop beyond the one-day workshops I’d done here and there in the past. Teaching creative writing for a university would give me credibility. The course would only be six weeks long, and let’s face it, I can do anything for six weeks.

Teaching the course suddenly seemed like one of those times when exposure could actually be a good thing. And you’d better believe I took that $125 check. (Donate it? Were they serious?)

So I assigned Bird by Bird (of course) and headed off to teach my first “real” creative-writing workshop. And it was fantastic. The students were so eager to do the work, and had such great insights. I was so energized after class.

I remembered I loved teaching.

Holy crap. I love teaching.

It turns out that teaching on three campuses in two different cities while pregnant with my first child just to make a living wage wasn't able to beat my love of teaching out of me. The callous disregard of some of my so-called colleagues didn’t, either. I’d somehow retained my hope, as Kelly J. Baker so recently and eloquently put it.

I'd really thought my love of teaching had been tortured, beaten, murdered, and buried. I’d imagined my love of teaching’s tombstone: Here lies Katie’s love of teaching. It lived for 20 years, starting when she taught kiddos to swim as a teen. Killed by a four-four writing load, freeway flying, and jerks.

But no. I still love it. These eight creative writers of wildly different life experiences and skill levels reminded me why. (Plus, I learned how to sneak in a spill-proof coffee mug.)

But it wasn’t just the students who reminded me why teaching is wonderful. All of the Pros on my list helped, too. I had control over my course — its content, its size, its curriculum. For nearly a decade, I’d been handed a syllabus and a book, and told what to teach. My own creativity could only fit in at the margins of a teaching career like that. Yes — core courses need be taught. But even in core courses, teachers can, and should, have some autonomy. Too many departments, however, don’t trust adjuncts and don’t allow them autonomy in their own classrooms. That’s part of the problem with higher education today, and one of the reasons I left.

The best part about this course I now teach — occasionally — is the relationship I form with each of my students. Some of them have become friends and fellow writers.

And freelance academics need all the friends we can get.

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