I’ve written out an introduction to this post four or five times now, so I’m just going to come out and say it: I was denied the opportunity to teach Creative Writing next semester, despite my clear qualifications for the position (an honor afforded only to third-year MFAs in my program), because I am one Professional Development Day behind. There are scores of explanations and arguments I have offered up, personal and professional; there are issues with the Department’s lack of transparency or consistency in regards to ramifications for such offenses. But I’m not going to use this space to continue making a case for myself, though, of course, it’s tempting. Who doesn’t want to be heard when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly? Mostly I’m not going to do it because, honestly, I’m tired making the case. What I do want to talk about, though, is power.
This is the tail-end of my fourth year as a graduate student. I earned my MA in English prior to attending this three-year MFA program, and I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic, my dedication to my students, and my willingness to take on voluntary work or positions in order to make my Department and professors look good. Sure, working on literary magazines adds a nice line to my CV and attending Department lectures and faculty readings is edifying intellectually, but ultimately the reason I do these things is to contribute to and foster a sense of community and to express my gratitude for being seen and appreciated. I’ve certainly not always been the best student, even during my graduate career, but when it comes to teaching and to professional engagement, I’ve never been one to skate by while doing the bare minimum.
It’s become apparent to me in the last six months or so, though, that despite the level at which I sacrifice my personal time, energy, or finances to contribute to the Department community or its affiliated entities (our literary magazine, our local reading series, our visiting-writer series, et. al.), what matters, ultimately, is what is quantifiable–the checked boxes, as it were. There is apparently little-to-no metric for quality or content at this level (or, what I hope is not the case: any level) of academia. It’s been made plain, in this particular situation, that I’m being made an example of; I am the cautionary tale. I’m being shown my powerlessness in order to teach a lesson.
But what is it when a graduate student (being paid $9,000/year and enrolled in Medicaid) is punished for, in one year of three, falling just shy of an expectation (though doing her best to make exceptional reparations for said lapse) while exceeding expectations in other voluntary (though still professional) ways? What is it when a graduate student is shown that, despite her dedication to a department and the taking up of unnecessary roles (leadership and otherwise), her box remains unchecked in the black-&-white sense the authority would prefer and therefore she must suffer the hand-picked consequence?
I expected more, and I suppose this is naïve of me. I expected to be seen as a whole person, for my character and perseverance and dedication, and instead I am a single highlighted box on a sheet of paper so easily lost amongst the chaos of an administrator’s desk. But we are not so powerless as we are made to think. What were to happen if we withdrew completely? What were to happen if when the system stopped working for us, we stopped working for the system? What would happen if–when it’s made clear that ultimately what it comes down to are the two-hour sessions once a month on our day off (when we might be working second jobs or visiting loved ones or exercising self-care), and not countless hours spent reading through submissions and leading meetings and selling magazines and attending readings and recruiting people to the program (or else keeping our mouths shut about it)–we simply stopped doing anything more than is contractual?
Why keep working for a system when it stops working for you?
I suppose I expected more for the simple way I was taught to assess composition papers: You grade for content. You mark the misplaced commas and run-ons in red (or green if you’re trying not to be aggressive about it), but you focus on the big picture. An “A” is occasionally a paper that is spot-on in regards to structure and content, but more often it’s a paper with heart, courage, empathy, and boldness that’s a little bit of a mess.
I expected to be seen as a whole person. And perhaps the only way to be appreciated, to be seen, is in retrospect; is as a result of someone else’s regret; is by falling off completely.