Yesterday on a blog, I found a father’s concerns about his daughter wanting to become an English professor. Memories of career dreams poured over me and my own idealization of the English profession. I once fancied myself Mr. Chips.
Immediately I pondered several questions. Does the young woman want to teach English as an end? Does she have a passion for writing and see the profession as the perfect solution, even a hide, for one who loves to read, write and expostulate on literature, its meaning, value, significance, et cetera? Is she open to other teaching opportunities: community college, trade/tech schools, secondary schools, overseas and especially teaching in the boondocks? Would she drop back and get the lowly secondary teaching certificate for high school — IF she could even find a slot there; or even in a prep school? Is English professing a means or an end?
More cynically I wondered if she might, all sexism aside, be attracted to a particular professor. (I could wonder the same about a male student under the influence of professorial charisma.) Good professors are actors and romancers.
The points are that the cushy university, tenured position, if it ever existed, has become incredibly difficult for the best of candidates. Professors are under much administrative pressure to publish and also to carry significant committee and university duties. Funding shrinks, especially in the Humanities. Universities still need indentured teaching assistants to teach English composition — so that the senior professors can pursue their career dreams and play the effete aesthete. Universities cannot or will not afford Master’s scale to teach these courses. Teaching the frosh is anathema to many Ph.D’s.
As far as a livelihood that will support a writer is concerned, they are whatever a person can find to survive and/or starve in pursuit of discovery. One could join a military service, for example, and manage to find time to write. I think of Fred MacMurray playing the novelist on the USS Caine (fictional) and Alex Haley in the Coast Guard (real). The passionate would-be novelist/poet can do as Hemingway and go into journalism (not an easy slog by any means). Melville went to sea as a seaman. He was a better writer for it. Nothing has changed in the artist’s world. One could go into PR, but that demands a huge compromise. I found being a public information officer rather pleasant, but low-paying. PR people are usually among the first eligible for cutting. Working at Starbuck’s will work for some.
My heart says, “You go, Girl! Live your dream. Stake your will, talents and skills against all odds. Do it now while you’re young and have lots of time and resilience to recuperate and re-invent yourself, two, three, four times over. I want to say that; really I do. Regretting a road not taken gnaws at the soul.
In youth we always think we will be the exception to the naysayers. That possibility exists, of course it does. So, go out, be a hammer rather than a nail. You surely would, if you only could as Simon and Garfunkel sang; but write yourself a note, young lady, a note that says, “I shall never become bitter if what I choose in full knowledge of the world doesn’t work out.” Laminate the note and tuck it into your purse. That’s a tough one, too. It’s T. S. Eliot’s “shadow that falls between the motion and the act” (The Hollow Men).
Finally, the universe of arts and letters far transcends and dwarfs the individual artist, professor, college, and university. In the chance that a youth will choose the mundane pragmatic over the romantic challenging, I say to that person, remember that the academic approach to literature, even teaching literature, is only one approach. Writers do not write for professors, scholars and critics. They write out of desire, passion and native wit. They direct their own study. Art was invented by more creators without degrees than with them. When there are no longer bookstores either on the corner or on the Internet, when there are no longer libraries, when there are no more writers and readers groups and publishers, then I will despair. Besides, academe can stultify a lot of passion and creativity — not always. The artists are the first heroes in this epic. You can even find them in your cellar hide.
God bless youth!
Steadfast and cautious,
P.S: For an interesting story of twenty somethings, literary types all, making their way in New York City, see this NYT article on Literary Cubs.