Adventures in Taglines

When I started this blog, it was not supposed to be about #postac. I was going to write about writing, all the time. I was going to say profound things. I was going to share my keen insights into the writing process. I was, if nothing else, going to write about the things I was thinking about to try and make sense of them. I had the vague idea that I should have some sort of web presence to point to when people asked about my writing.

That’s what I was doing when I wrote Of Dreams. It was my third post on the blog. It’s still responsible for my highest traffic day. I just re-read the post. It’s raw, and probably the most open I ever was about how much quitting higher education had wrecked me. It was not self-consciously #postac, because I didn’t even know what #postac was. I found out quickly enough. I left academia at roughly the same time Rebecca Schuman was carving out Thesis Hatement and venting her spleen (usually constructively!) on pan kisses kafka.

I was fumbling through on my own with far less attention. I kept writing about writing, but I kept writing #postac stuff, too. It got me traffic. I cared about it. I wanted to document my journey in solidarity with all the people I knew were going through similar struggles. When I went and read other people’s postac writing, I felt less alone. I changed the tagline on the blog to “The Adventures of a Post-ac Writer.” That was back in 2013.

Last week, I went through and checked my links, shuffled a few things around in my sidebar. The virtual housecleaning was necessary—some of the links were broken. Pan kisses kafka is on indefinite hiatus while Dr. Schuman gets her memoir out, continues to write for Slate, and does the whole “parent” thing. Some of the postac sites that had featured my work don’t exist anymore.

I wondered, almost two years ago, whether you can ever really stop being a postac. I wasn’t sure you could, any more than you can stop being from where you grew up. We carry our pasts with us, always.

That doesn’t mean we have to write about them.

I just finished my second year as a full-time classroom teacher. It’s been three years since I was even nominally on the higher-ed job market. I’m much more concerned about preparing my students for college than I am with the preparations necessary to teach college. Really, I wrapped all of my big thoughts into the 4,000 word essay I wrote for “How to Leave Academia.” I still have little ones, and there are occasions where my past and my present overlap in hopefully interesting ways. I’m still going to write about those here. It has felt increasingly wrong to keep the “Adventures of a Post-ac Writer” tagline, though, no matter what it might do for SEO.

My PhD hasn’t expired. I’m still #withaphd. The #withaphd hashtag is great, because it helps erode the “you are your degree” mentality that is so prevalent among academics (and exiting academics). I’m still a writer. But I’m not really a “post-ac writer” anymore. I haven’t been for a while. I’m a writer and teacher who happens to have a PhD.

So, new tagline: Adventures in Wordwork. That label more accurately gets at the mix of writing, reading, and teaching that occupy my time these days, that occupy this blog. Let’s see how it works out.

(P.S. If you are looking for my writings about postac, There’s an annotated list accessible from the menu at the top of the page.)

Contractual Obligations

Back in April, I did something simultaneously trivial and momentous:

I signed a contract renewal.

On the one hand, it was pro forma. I would have had to be terrible at my job to not be invited back. Ninety-nine percent of the staff at my school who want to come back will be there next year. The contract was electronic and I signed it electronically. It was something that I did in under five minutes between my fifth period class ending and the start of my lunch.

On the other hand: Contract. Renewal.

If you haven’t spent time as contingent labor, it might be hard to understand the magic of that phrase. As an adjunct, it’s common to get phone calls on, say, August 10th, asking if you’re available to teach a class starting August 25th (or even August 15th). Sometimes your jobs end unexpectedly after one semester. Everything is precarious. Much—if not most—of the time, you grab at what’s available because you don’t have time to wait for what might be coming. Twenty-seven hundred for a class guaranteed is better than the potential to pick up a $3600 class in a few days. What? You have to drive 35 miles each way to get there? Well, even so. (I once taught a class that was exactly 100 miles away from my apartment. I “needed” it for my CV, so I took it even though after gas and childcare I netted only about $200 for a semester of getting out the door at 5:50 a.m.)

Stability, even more than money, was the reason I got out of the adjunct racket. I have kids. I needed to be able to help plan their lives and activities. That’s hard when you don’t know when or where your next paycheck is coming from. Since “graduating” from the family restaurant at 16, I had worked the same job two years in a row exactly once: the administrative assistantship I had for two years during my masters. Since then, it’s been new classes, new institutions, or both…or the job hunt, for which “stability” is a terrible sign.

Renewing my contract means that I will have the same full-time employment two years in a row. For the first time. Ever. I’ll be teaching most, if not all, of the same classes. I can actually develop curriculum to be used in the same context, rather than having to develop and adapt it simultaneously. I can continue to work on getting better at my job rather than getting used to it.

I do not have to spend the summer looking for jobs, or worrying that I will not find one. I don’t have to do any calculus about whether a cross-town commute will be feasible, or try to figure out how to tailor my resume to different positions. I do not have to wonder what is going when an interviewer asks me about my PhD, or fails to ask about it.

Best of all, it means I get to keep doing a job I still love and still care deeply about, even when my freshman intervention classes won’t let me finish a sentence or my seniors complain about reading 35 pages in a week. I wrote “Smile, you love this job!” on my little calendar white board the day I hung it up in my classroom. My students give me a hard time about it. I don’t care. I can love my job without liking it every minute of every day. And now I know that, for at least another year, I get to keep doing that job.

That April Thursday, we ordered pizza. Partly, that was because Thursdays are the day I run out of steam for cleaning the kitchen and cooking. Mostly, though, it was because I wanted to celebrate. There may come a time when I take signing my contract renewal for granted, when it’s just a thing that happens in April that I have to remember to do, like renewing car insurance. I’m not there yet, though. Even two months later, it still feels good.

Boulez, Looking Back, Looking Forward

I woke up yesterday morning to early posts of Pierre Boulez obituaries. He was nearly 91, a venerable master of his craft and a giant of 20th-century music. Boulez was brilliant—I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. Still, I’ve never cared much for his music. For a time, pieces like Le marteau sans maître represented everything I disliked about being a graduate student in composition. (I appreciate the music better these days, but it’s not something I go out of my way to hear.) I dismissed Boulez as a polemicist, both in the music he wrote and what he wrote about music (in part because as a composition student you don’t hear much about it beyond the infamous “Schoenberg is dead”).

That began to change when it became clear Boulez’s work as music director of the New York Philharmonic would need to feature prominently in my dissertation. He was the counterbalance to “Downtown” composers going “Uptown”—his Prospective Encounters series did something of the opposite. The geographical and musical tension—and the power dynamics that lay beneath it—were the foundation for my research. Without Boulez, my dissertation might have been just another ramble through the youth of minimalism.

It’s been odd to read and hear Boulez stories in the last few days. He eventually made peace with parts of the establishment that he had spent his youth railing against. Especially as a conductor, his reputation blossomed after 1977, the year he left New York (and my dissertation). The remembrances I’ve seen today are colored by his years at IRCAM and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Journalists and friends alike have written about his warmth, his humor, his willingness to take time to talk about his craft.

That’s a mighty contrast to the image of Boulez painted on his arrival in New York. Then, he was the chilly demagogue arriving suddenly from France (only months after saying he would not take the New York Philharmonic job if it was offered), a man who inspired angry letters to the Times, some of them from American composers he’d directly or indirectly insulted. The New York Times published a long piece in 1973 titled “The Iceberg Conducteth.” Philharmonic players spoke anonymously to reporters about how Boulez couldn’t “perform.” (He had the misfortune to succeed the often lax, grandiose Leonard Bernstein at the Phil.) When he departed for IRCAM in 1977, critics tended to damn with faint praise, with Harold Schonberg’s complaint typical: “Going to his concerts was like taking a pill. It was good for you, but not an event you looked forward to with great anticipation.”

On the same occasion, the Village Voice’s Leighton Kerner wrote: “They blew it. The New York Philharmonic blew it. The audiences blew it. The critics blew it. The musicians’ union blew it. And Pierre Boulez blew it.” The title of that piece, though, was “Boulez, the Philharmonic, and What Might Have Been.” Kerner recognized what I eventually came to understand over the course of my research: that Boulez had tried to make a real change in what the Philharmonic meant, what new music meant to New York audiences (and American audiences more generally). I remember being shocked, a year or so into the project, finding myself defending Boulez (whose music I’ve never liked) over Bernstein (who wrote some of my favorite works) in casual conversation. I was defending him not in terms of composition or conducting, but in terms of what he had done to make new music matter to people. Bernstein’s goals always seemed more general to me, more content to leverage existing institutions and practices in the same way that systems had always been worked.

Pierre Boulez tried to change that…and did. The programming changes he made in New York didn’t really survive his departure, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. (It also says nothing about his subsequent work at IRCAM and elsewhere.) I can’t agree with all of his ideas about music, but I admire the conviction with which he pursued putting them into practice.

This all happened the week I bring in the hard copy of my dissertation to wave at my English IV classes. We’re doing research projects and some of my seniors are freaking out because five to eight pages is the most they’ve ever been asked to write. When I show them 392 pages of body text, a nine-page bibliography, and another 20-ish pages of appendices and front material, they look at me like I’m showing them a picture of myself on the moon or riding a narwhal or BASE-jumping off an erupting volcano. It just doesn’t compute. (Incidentally, they did not have nearly the same freak out about my NaNo victory.) With the dissertation at my desk, I was able to reread work that seems surprisingly distant just three years after I finished it.

Skimming through it and reading what I had written about Boulez, I realized something: I want students to share the experience I had with him. It’s not that I want them to go look at 40-year-old newspaper articles or read obituaries about a Frenchman whose music they’re unlikely ever to hear. I want them to have that experience of learning something that changes their thinking. Those old newspapers and concert programs and interviews changed the way I thought about Boulez. Writing a dissertation changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Research matters.

That, I think, is an opinion I can happily share with the late maestro.

Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

With a PhD

I’m back on the (secondary school teaching) job market this summer, which has meant interviews. It has also meant, again, dealing with the many iterations of “You have a PhD in music, why do you want to teach English to teenagers?” It’s an old dance at this point, but it has not gotten any less frustrating.

“Where are the leather patches on your elbows, Dr. Plocher?”

Most of the time, when my degree is brought up by the interviewers, it happens immediately. There is a skepticism that borders on the accusatory: what do I really expect to be doing with a PhD? Sometimes the skeptics believe that I will jump ship back to higher education. (That ship is sinking!) More often, they leap to the conclusion that I somehow lack the patience and skill needed to teach students who aren’t paying (or whose parents aren’t paying) for the privilege of my oh-so-erudite company. College teaching is not like middle or high school teaching, they warn me, as if I hadn’t spent a year as a substitute and months in training. (That one was persistent even at my job last year, where I spent months trying to convince my principal that I did, in fact, understand there was a difference between 13 year olds and 20 year olds.) I still get hints of that even after a year as a “regular” teacher.

Sometimes, my interviewers are just baffled by my degree and wonder why I changed fields. That’s easier to deal with. My “I realized that teaching was the part of the job I liked most” spiel has gotten much more practiced since my first interviews last summer. (It hasn’t gotten any less sincere, though.) Sometimes, I explain what musicology is and that I never had the slightest desire to be a band or choir director, and that, besides, I do have a degree in English, I know rather a lot about it, and I love teaching it.

I hate having to defend my PhD. It seems stupid to me that I need to—it was a job. Again, nobody talks about being a failed waiter. A little more than two years ago, I decided that the hardship of staying in academia outweighed the rewards, especially when I factored in my family. It is that simple…but it can never be quite that simple, because advanced degrees carry expectations with them. As “Dr. Plocher,” I am expected to fill a certain role in society. Some shreds of prestige cling to the title even without the associated professorship.

That is probably why, maddeningly, I also get annoyed when interviewers don’t mention my doctorate. It was seven years of my life! Finishing my PhD is one of the things I am proud of, no matter how much I sometimes regret starting it. Yes, I am a licensed Texas educator. Yes, I have some job experience now. But…I also wrote a dissertation on new music using French sociological concepts. I’ve presented papers at national conferences. That does not speak directly to my ability to handle a classroom full of eighth graders, but I think that it’s proof that I can do hard things, that I understand and appreciate mastery and that it means something when I say I am putting just as much effort into being a good teacher as I put into the fractional expansion of human knowledge that earned me my degree.

Ideally, discussion of the degrees I hold lasts less than two minutes and consists of a short description of what I did and why I’m no longer doing it. When I have control of the situation, that’s what I aim for. Beyond that, I’d rather talk about the job that I’m applying for, about the work that I’ve done, about the ways I am trying to get better at my job. Having a doctorate doesn’t make me better than other people, but it also doesn’t make me any worse. My degree is something that I earned while doing a job. It’s not who I am as a writer. It’s not who I am in the classroom. It’s not who I am as a person.

It affects all of those things, though, which is why it is worth discussing…

Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.