withaphd

Mister Doctor Coach

I’ve never felt like “Plocher” is a particularly challenging surname to wrap one’s mouth around. As I tell my students, “it rhymes with joker.” (I don’t give the students a hard time about the other pieces of my name or my ridiculously long work e-mail address. Some day, I’ll write about changing my name when I got married, and all the misadventures that come with having two middle names.) Some of my students never quite get it—I hear lots of “Plucker” and “Plotcher” and “Ploh-tcher” deep into the semester.

One student, though, after inadvertently addressing me as “Miss” and mangling my name several times, just called me “Mister Doctor Coach.” It started as fumbling for the right title, but it caught on with him. That’s all he ever called me afterward. He still calls me that when he sees me in the hallway.

I have written a lot about the emotional challenges of leaving the academy, about expectations, about failure. You can find those on my #postac page, or a longer, more reflective single piece in the “works” page. Most of the conversations I’ve had lately with other PhD holders and graduate students, though, have been about the “professional journey.” That’s not something I’ve written about all that much, and certainly not from my current perspective, four years out from my leave-taking.

“Mister Doctor Coach” isn’t a bad summary of where my journey has taken me. These days, I am definitely #withaphd rather than #postac. I am not, technically speaking, “in my field;” my doctorate is musicology (with a minor in comparative studies) rather than English (in which I hold an undergraduate degree). I do what I do because I figured out (after sorting through the narrative wreckage) that my field was teaching all along.

My professional journey has been shaped by the needs of my family. I was lucky enough to get through graduate school without accumulating significant debt because my spouse had a good job with excellent insurance and we still basically lived like grad students. I juggled my work as a gradjunct with being a stay-at-home dad, including taking my son to the numerous therapy appointments that followed his autism diagnosis. (I mentioned that we had really good health insurance, right?) With two kids, one of whom needs more supports than many, the idea of either a) sticking around in the Twin Cities and ramping up my adjunct workload or b) chasing VAPs that would require frequent relocation became…implausible. I decided, when the first round of musicology openings closed, that I wasn’t going to keep, as I put it, “paying Interfolio for lottery tickets.”

Shortly thereafter, my family moved from Minnesota to Texas. My spouse’s family lives mostly in the Austin area, so we had some nuts-and-bolts support. We were also, though, broke. It took my spouse longer than expected to find a job. I interviewed for a few entry-level positions outside academia, and applied for many, many more.

None of those panned out. The interviews I had seemed to be decided in the first few minutes when I failed to convince potential employers that my doctorate didn’t make me a flight risk. Several straight out asked if I would be going back to the higher ed world, and seemed skeptical when I demurred. These were entry-level positions, mind, mostly in writing-related fields.

Sending out applications doesn’t pay the rent, and rent in the Austin area is…high. I needed something that I could do, even part-time, that would generate some income while I looked for my imagined perfect job. Requirements for substitute teaching? Some college education? I had lots of college education. I spent a half-day at orientation, had my fingerprints taken and background checked, then started finding my way around Austin ISD one school at a time.

For months, I’d sub three to five days a week and spend the other days filling out applications. I wasn’t happy, but I’d also helped get the household to a point where we didn’t have to take on credit card debt to meet basic living expenses. By the spring, I was getting long-term substitute jobs that paid better (marginally, but it mattered) and gave me the opportunity to do actual teaching. (Short sub jobs were pretty much always some combination of babysitting and riot control.) I remembered that teaching was a big part of why I had gone to graduate school in the first place.

Texas, for better or worse, has a robust alternative certification path into the teaching profession. I took it. The classes were the expected mix of useful and redundant. My year spent as a substitute gave me more than enough classroom time to get my probationary certification. Which brought me back to…interviews.

This time around, I was interviewing for jobs with a certification in hand, a full year of subbing (including those precious long term assignments) and years of teaching in college. The first question was still “you have a doctorate, why on Earth do you want to teach middle schoolers?” Because of the certification timelines, I was interviewing during the late summer rush. (Teachers have until mid-summer to opt out of their contracts without penalty. This means that when administrators come back from July vacations, they have only a few weeks to fill newly-vacant positions.) Some of the interviews were really rushed. In the worst, the principal announced that we had 10 minutes for the interview, mispronounced my name, didn’t even try to apologize, and seemed most interested in how much of a disciplinarian I could be. The interview only made it about six of the allotted 10 minutes, and my “thanks for the interview” note included a polite refusal to be further considered.

I eventually landed a job at a charter school in East Austin three weeks after the school year started. Most of my meetings with the principal included admonitions that teaching middle school was not like teaching college. It isn’t, and I knew that, and my lessons were planned for the eighth graders I was teaching. I was a first year teacher, and neither the lesson plans nor my putting them into practice were perfect, but I left most meetings with my principal furious at the repeated idea that I couldn’t tell the difference between a thirteen-year-old and a 20-year-old. I did have great co-workers and assistant principals from whom I learned enormous amounts. They weren’t quite enough to keep me there.

I felt bad about leaving that job because it felt like I was abandoning kids who’d already been abandoned or neglected by too many people. The commute was costing me, though—two hours a day spent sitting in Austin traffic, barely moving. The hours and the stress made it harder for me to do my job and harder to do the right things at home. It was not sustainable. I let the school know that I wouldn’t be returning and went through another summer of applications and interviews.

With more distance from graduate school and proof that I could last at least a year in a secondary school gig, most of the interviews went better. I still had to deal with some degree skepticism, but it mostly had to do with why I was teaching English when my graduate work was in music. (I got pretty good at explaining that, as much as I’d been a band nerd and sung in choirs, I’d never had any interest in being a band or choir director.) Importantly, I was also better able to explain how the variety of teaching I’d done, including teaching at the college level, contributed to the success of my students.

By the end of the summer, I had landed a job at my current school, where I’ve taken over the AP literature class in addition to teaching various on-level and intervention courses. I coach the ultimate frisbee team. Most of the AP students call me “Dr. Plocher.” In the on-level and intervention classes, I get a lot more “mister” (with or without the Plocher). Some of my ultimate players call me “coach” in class. I’m usually not picky about it. (Teachers, like everybody else who works with other people, choose their battles.)   

My higher education experience improves my teaching in a few obvious ways: especially with high school seniors (and most especially with the AP students), I can set realistic expectations for college. I try to teach my students that professors care in direct proportion to the amount that their students care. Many of my students will be first-generation college students. I do my damnedest to help them advocate for themselves, to get them used to the idea of asking for help when they need it.

From a practical standpoint, the skills I picked up in graduate school are invaluable for nuts-and-bolts teaching. I’ve always been a fast reader; graduate school forced me to refine my analytical chops to keep pace. I can do background research quickly. After having to teach syllabi that were handed to me three days before I started an adjunct job, I do okay with shifting administrative priorities and requirements. (I confess I still complain loudly about them, though.)

There are moments—not many—that I look around and wonder “what am I doing here with my musicology PhD”? The money’s not great, but it is much more than I made as an adjunct. I also know where I’m working from semester to semester, which is something you can really only appreciate if you’ve been in situations where you don’t. I get to collaborate (and hang out with!) some great colleagues without having to compete with them for funding.

I’m doing work that is necessary and important. Sometimes it’s thankless, but not always. The gratification is mostly deferred—another thing graduate school taught me to deal with. Teaching is a different job every day; frequently it’s a different job from period to period, even with the same lesson plan. It will wear you out and lift you up and you will feel your students’ departure at the end of the day…the end of the year…graduation just as keenly as they do, although for different reasons.

This, all of this, is why I secretly like the ridiculousness of “Mister Doctor Coach.” All of those titles are part of how I got to where I am. It’s almost August, and my dreams (as they seem to do at this time of year) are filled with the classroom again. The school year is just around the corner, and I’m looking forward to it…which isn’t something I could say four years ago.

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Novel vs. Dissertation, Round 2 (Revision bonus!)

I’m doing “Camp” NaNoWriMo this month, working hard on revisions to my 2013 NaNo project Ghosts of the Old City. The first full draft of that novel was completed in 2014 the weekend before I started my first full-time teaching job. Since then, I’ve drafted two other novels—Spires of Trayan (my 2015 NaNo project, a sequel to Ghosts that wants another 20-30,000 words and some research) and The Space Between Notes (my 2016 NaNo project, which is a thin sci-fi novel or fat novella that only wants another 7-10,000 words). I’ve made several stabs at revising Ghosts, enough to have a few colors of ink on the manuscript that I printed out way back when.

By now, “finishing” the novel is in the ballpark of how long it took me to finish my dissertation…although I wasn’t drafting a sequel dissertation while ostensibly finishing the first, nor was I branching out into dissertating on, say, literature. This month is the first time I’ve really dug into making changes (rather than just suggesting them to myself in margins or identifying problems). It’s gotten me thinking about the how revising a novel is and isn’t like revising a dissertation. (For a comparison of NaNoWriMo versus writing a dissertation, see my old post here.)

Audience

While dissertations are contributions to scholarship and (in a tiny way) to human knowledge, the audience for the document itself boils down to your advisor and committee. Turning the dissertation into a proper monograph is a different step, with different needs, than figuring out which references you need to include to help ensure that Dr. ______ signs off on it. Dr. X expects to see a careful, critical-theory heavy definition of “new music.” Professor Y wants more engagement with existing research. Dr. Z wants your footnotes to do some specific thing, and will throw a small but enthusiastic fit if you don’t.

(There is always a Dr. Z. Sometimes I wonder if professors draw straws to decide who will play that part.)

The revision process for the dissertation becomes, depending on how involved committee members are, a process of juggling occasionally competing needs, a delicate attempt to balance what you want to say with how you need to say it to get some more letters after your name. You pick your battles. For my master’s thesis, my advisor wielded a mechanical pencil of doom, marking all sorts of things. Some of them, I thought, were actually good. Good enough that I’d leave them alone and only change them if she marked them a second time. (I never attempted to go for a third.)

With the novel? Well, the audience at this stage in the process is me. I am writing a story I would like to read. I’m beholden to myself and myself alone. I can pick as many battles as I want, and feel responsible to pick all of the ones I can find. Once the draft goes to beta readers (in a month or so—drop me a line if you’re interested), the calculus will change. It will change again when agents or editors get involved.

Right now, though, revisions are thoroughly in the “author knows best” stage, which is certainly more fun than trying to suss out what a committee wants.

Staggered Starts

Dissertations are not novels, and they’re not, as mentioned earlier, scholarly monographs. Even with a plan for the whole thing, dissertations tend to be written one chapter at a time. This alters the revision process and hockets it with drafting. I was revising my first chapter while I was drafting my third (and revising it again when I was finishing my seventh). Finish a chapter, send it to the advisor, get feedback, use revision as a break from drafting (and vice versa). This process results in a dissertation that is much closer to being “finished,” usually, at the end of the drafting process than a novel is.

The NaNo process amplifies this difference: the whole point is to shut off your inner editor and get words onto the page. Most people, if they have a better idea for a scene they’ve already written, either take some notes or re-write it. Nothing gets sorted until later. When you do get around to sorting it, there’s invariably material you never want to see again. You do rewrites, but you’re rarely trying to alternate between drafting and revising. I didn’t really start making headway on my revisions for Ghosts until I read through the whole draft several times and went to work right at the beginning, a very un-NaNo process. No staggered starts.

Digging in the Guts

I tell my students that the purpose of revision is to help a piece be its best self. I also tell them that this means getting rid of parts that aren’t working. (High school seniors who freak out about needing to write a 5-8 page paper really freak out when you suggest that the paper would be better if they cut out a page and a half in the middle.)

With Ghosts, I threw away big chunks of text even before the first complete draft was finished. Of the 52000 I wrote during November of 2013, I threw out something like 10,000 almost immediately. They didn’t fit the way the story had grown. And now? I am still digging out the most “NaNo-y” passages and replacing them. I understand so much better what the story is, who the characters are, what needs to happen. There’s a lot of work I’m still doing to make the novel its best self, even before I get to the stage where other people start poking it in my blind spots.

The dissertation didn’t require throwing so much writing away, though there were equally painful cuts involving interesting research that proved to be tangential. I would have loved to follow up on some of the new music/pop crossover that appeared around the edges of my research, but that would have taken me out of my carefully-determined (and painstakingly-justified) timeframe, as well as away from my thesis. It would have changed the dissertation’s self.

I did change a few things substantially in the dissertation, particularly in the early chapters as I refined my argument and its scope. That’s probably the closest confluence of novel-revising and dissertation-revising: the writing and revising both refine your understanding of what the text’s “best self” is. Digging around in the guts of the work is about discovery as much as it is about doctoring. And it’s just as visceral as it sounds. There is a story you want to tell, and you evaluate whether you’re telling it, whether the story you think you’re telling is the story you are actually telling. Sometimes, the story your draft really tells is more interesting than the one you had in your head. Sometimes, the story your draft tells is just kinda dumb. Reconciling either can be messy and painful, but making things better often is.

Reflections on a Third Teaching Year

Forty-eight hours ago, I turned in my keys and signed out of my school for the summer. That doesn’t mean there’s no work to do: I have some projects to plan, some bureaucracy to manage, some trainings to attend…but by and large, the next two and a half months are mine for other things. Including (finally!) getting back to Walking Ledges.

My thoughts after my first year of teaching full time were long enough to require three separate posts. Last year, I apparently didn’t feel that anything beyond signing my contract renewal was noteworthy.

This year has been different in that it has been largely the same as the previous one. Signing that second contract was a big deal; working a second year in the same place was less about the moments and more about the way the work shaped other moments.

Teaching advanced placement and intervention simultaneously kept me on my toes. I joked that I had “only the skinny parts of the bell curve.” That’s not entirely true; some students end up in intervention classes who don’t belong there, and the same is true of AP classes. They all require different strategies (differentiation!). They all require attention. They all require—have a right to—the best teaching the school can provide. We  teach the students who walk through our door.

That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed from that first set of reflections: students are the best thing about the job any time they aren’t the worst thing about the job. (Most of the time, the worst part of the job is bureaucracy.) What did change? Well…

Improvisation and Iteration

My class assignments changed back in August, and I had to hit the ground running with my AP Literature course. Mid-August up through November was a bit of a blur. I knew only a few of the texts I taught. One or two were a matter of staying ahead of my students. One of the perks of having done this for a while, though, is that you’re better able to leverage the authority you get just for being the one at the front of the room. I’ve always worked from broad outlines and sketches, filling them in as I go. That’s become my general mode of lesson planning…at least until I’m wrangling challenging material or challenging students. At those times, I damn well better bang out specific, timed lesson plans. Most of the time, though, teaching AP allowed me to improvise and bounce ideas around with my awesome students.

Teaching intervention was, most days, at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d taught the course a full year. With it being a one-semester course, I’d already taught it twice by the time the 16-17 school year started. That meant that I had plenty of material sitting around waiting to be re-used. Or modified. Or shifted to a different context. Or thrown out all together. The pleasure of teaching a course I’d been through before is much like the pleasure of editing and revising. The iteration helps you smooth things out, improve the good things, eliminate the ones that aren’t working, and try new things in small doses.

Of course, you get new students. Tests change. Administrative requirements change. Lessons that were awesome for one class can fall flat the very next period. So even when you’re fine-tuning, you frequently have to improvise a new melody.

Collegiality

I’ve said it before, and I meant it: I like teachers. Not all teachers are awesome people, but it seems like most of them are. (No self-congratulation intended!) In a year when there was so much craziness going on in the world, I appreciated having colleagues who could help keep me grounded and focused on the things I could control. My fantastic department head won district teacher of the year, and deserved every bit of it. My fellow AP/pre-AP teachers are doing cool stuff with curriculum. My next door neighbor is the loudest guy in the building, a raconteur who holds down the head of the teacher’s lounge lunch table. It’s good to have work friends again.

Plus, my colleagues get (most) of my jokes. Even when they’re not funny jokes.

On Finding my Niche

I started teaching full-time at a charter in East Austin, commuting too many miles and too many minutes. I spent my days with eighth graders who, mostly, were not good at being in school (no matter how smart they were). I’d done most of my substitute teaching in middle schools. It seemed like a good idea. Looking back, it’s hard to sort out which challenges were first-year-teacher things, which were specific to the school, which to the commute, which to the grade level… Being a first year teacher is hard!

This year, teaching AP, things felt…right. Teaching advanced placement seniors is about as close to teaching college as you can get without actually doing it. There are advantages, though: I get to spend so much more time with my students. I see them every day, learn so much more about who they are and what they hope to do. I would have gotten some of that with professor-ing full time, with the mythical tenure-track job. I was absolutely not getting it as an adjunct. The AP kids, usually, remember to call me by the correct title.

I still love teaching writing. I got faster, over the year, at grading the exam-specific stuff. I’m working on more and better ways to build writing into the curriculum. I love showing students how a text can do multiple things at the same time, how no matter what a multiple-choice exam might require you to ‘understand,’ literature and life are messier. When I do my job well, when it is at its most satisfying, its the students who get that, who find the meaning in the glorious mess, who explain it as best they can (which is sometimes brilliantly).

Next year, barring another last minute change, I’ll only be teaching seniors—AP and “on-level.” As excited as I am about spending the summer writing, about my summer to-do list, I’m already excited about what’s coming up when August rolls around.

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.)

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.

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“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…
…Briefly.