Friday, December 22, 2017

The Semester Ends

(more notes toward more stuff, and the term that never ends)
It’s all over but the grades.
Wait a second – okay, that too.
I had a good semester. Maybe not my best, but my students did well. They always surprise me. And I always come away from my classes feeling like I’ve learned more from the experience.
I’d love to expand upon that, but what I’m left with at the end of this term is not so much about my students as about the folks who are now my bosses.
You see, when I started teaching at Columbia, I worked for a Fiction Writing department, a rare species in an academic world. For all its rarity, it proved a popular program. In fact, one of the largest in the country.
A few years later, the Fiction Writing department was forced to merge with the MFA programs in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction, which belonged to the English Department. We were now the Creative Writing department, or to be more formal, the Department of Creative Writing.
This year, another merger has me now working for the English/Creative Writing department. So we’re one big, happy family.
Happy families are all the same.
I wonder where I heard that one before.
Years ago, back when I was in grad school, I wanted to work for an English department. I really did. Creative writing was all fine and well, but students needed a solid grounding in language (at least one) and literature. You can’t go anywhere until you know where you’ve been.
To some extent, I still believe all of that, but I no longer think that the “solid grounding” is sole territory of the English department. It may be a gross generalization, but a generalization with a foundation of fact: English departments in most American institutions of higher learning, are bureaucracies. And the main objective of any bureaucracy is self-preservation. Everything else is at best secondary – like students, like education.
I’m aware that most of my colleagues teaching creative writing work for English departments, and some of them may grimace sourly as I enter their domain. To get my attention, they’ll rattle the bars of their cells with an empty soup can they use as a water cup. And they’ll mutter, “Welcome to the club.”
It’s true. All true. I was fortunate enough to work in a department that was an aberration and, apparently, an abomination, before the eyes of the MLA, the NCTE and the AWP. In my old department, we worked for the students. We shared experience. Adjuncts and tenured profs were allowed to commingle in plain sight. Academically, we were Babylon. We were Gomorrah.
Well, now that nonsense has been fixed. We are safe under the heavenly dome of the English department – the way it was, the way it has been, and the way it should always be.
Adjuncts! Renounce your ways and repent! Accept your anonymity and lowly place in the hierarchy. Wear your shame like a mendicant’s robe. And to those who teach creative writing, admit even further to your degradation! You are merely the shills and entertainers hired to lure the unwary into this holy grove. We the anointed will take over from there.
And to those lower still – those who teach writing in “popular” forms, sometimes thought of as “writing that people actually want to read” – the dishes are stacked in the sink. Make sure they’re all clean and dried before you leave tonight.
Resistance is futile.
So, here I am. A Babylonian in the City of God (or so-named; God cleared out of here eons ago). Unrepentant. Proud of my degradation, even proud of my shame.
I’m a science fiction writer – you can’t cast me into a dungeon lower than that! I accept my lot with pride, even as you lower another stack of dishes into the sink. Even from the dungeon, I can see your hierarchy for the shallow, sick skeleton it is.
I’m a science fiction writer – the kind who believes that what we do is subvert the status quo. We examine the quotidian, and insist that there are other ways. Tomorrow can be different.
We may be absorbed into the host (i.e. the English department), but we’re viral. Those who hope to change us will find themselves changed in the process.

Let us hope the change will be for the better.