At the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair in Minneapolis, I participated on a panel that I proposed, “Building a Creative Writing Community at the Community College.” The justification for the panel was as follows: “That so many writers now find work at the community college level presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to nurture creative writing in places where it has been largely ignored. Touching on economics, practicality, course and program creation, reading series, thinking outside the box, community outreach, and more, five writers with significant experience concerning these matters will provide insight for those who hope to better serve their students by raising creative writing’s profile at their schools.” Joining me on the panel were Susan Cohen of Anne Arundel Community College, Dan Stanford of Pitt Community College, Ilyse Kusnetz of Valencia College, and Al Maggines of Wake Tech Community College. I offer here the somewhat edited remarks I made to begin the session. I hope that it will convince many writers to seek out community colleges and participate in the valuable mission with which they are charged.
I was pretty lost. I had been to two undergraduate institutions and left both. I was living at home with concerned parents, not sure how to proceed. My father insisted I get a job and take classes at the local community college, Rockland Community College, in Suffern, NY. So I did.
I became a night-time custodian at the high school from which I’d graduated—I was the guy pushing the dust mop up and down the basketball court at halftime—and I registered at RCC. RCC saved my life. Really. I’d been up to no good. The bars, bad behavior, whatever. On a whim, I signed up for a modern poetry survey course and a poetry workshop. I was no math major, but I loved reading, and I could write pretty well, too, so . . . . It turned out that the men who taught these classes were the real deal, published poets with books and everything. John Allman, the author of many books of poetry and fiction with New Directions and Princeton University Press, taught the survey, and Dan Masterson, author of several books of poetry with Arkansas University Press, taught the workshop. And that’s where my life in letters began.
In the years that followed, I went on to get an Associate’s Degree in Poetry Writing from the Rock, and Dan and Jack guided me toward the next step, a bachelor’s degree working with Bill Heyen and Tony Piccione at SUNY Brockport. From there I went on to VCU and got my MFA degree. But, no book, no job. I found myself back at my parent’s house, teaching at RCC as an adjunct. But, as before, this was a time of great value. I learned a lot about how to teach. My original mentors were still there, always glad to help.
I went on to other things, eventually even a nine-year stint as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant, until, one day, Toni came to me and said it’s time to move on. She’d be retiring from Princeton soon and really would no longer be in need of my services. I’d recently published my first book and so was legit, but a creative writing job was still elusive and, again, it was a community college to the rescue, as I landed a fixed term position at West Virginia University at Parkerburg for a year before finally securing the university creative writing job I desired.
All of this was built on my engagements with community colleges, and I’ve never forgotten that. It’s the reason I submitted a proposal for this panel. It’s also why I’ve always made it a point to do what I can to support the work community colleges do and my colleagues in arms who labor there, teaching too many classes for not enough money.
How do I do this? First, I try to include a community college in every reading tour I make. Often I’ll have a gap, a free day I’d like to fill, so I’ll see what community colleges might be located between point A and point B. Since 2003, I’ve made at least 16 visits to community colleges, and I’ll return to read at my alma mater, RCC next month. I’ve offered my services to many more but was not taken up on the offers. I make these appearances at a reduced rate (usually $200 or so rather than the $500-$1500 I typically ask of colleges and universities), and if even that’s not possible, I sometimes visit for free. To me, it’s paying back. Sometimes I give readings, sometimes I visit classes, and sometimes I do both. These are my people, and I love doing it. The students remind me of me. I think all writers should do this, whether they graduated from a CC or not. I can be more specific about the reasons.
Let’s start with the practical reasons. First, most of us who teach in colleges and universities are evaluated each year, and these evaluations focus on three areas: teaching, research and creative activities, and service. To me, the most common service activity is generally the most odious: committee work. While I am forced to do a fair bit of this, I much prefer to do things in the service of my profession and the community. If I visit Dan’s college, which I have on several occasions, I might not get paid, but it’s just across town, and I can give a reading (that’s creative activity), visit a class while I’m there (that’s unpaid service), maybe judge a contest, that sort of thing. Bang, at least two lines on my annual report! And maybe I sell a few books, too, and maybe Dan uses my book as a text in a class or two. That makes my publisher happy.
What else can come of this? Well, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that my area needs to do more in the area of student recruitment. While it’s true that Pitt CC, where Dan teaches, is a natural feeder school into ECU, it is not necessarily a natural feeder school into our creative writing minor. While I’m visiting Dan’s school, I mention our new creative writing minor, and maybe I make a good impression on a student who’s planning on attending ECU. She hadn’t planned to minor in creative writing, although she likes to write, and if she came to ECU the next fall, without having seen me at Pitt, it’s quite likely that she would never even learn that she could take a CW minor. But now she knows and another creative writing minor is born. Do that enough and maybe your class won’t get cancelled. And then there’s that student in the back row that seemed a bit surly before your reading: why shouldn’t he be? He’s being forced to listen to, ugh, a poetry reading! But maybe my poetry reading was nothing at all like what he expected—I mean, the word “doth” was nowhere to be found, and I even used a curse word or two! Maybe that student—also bound for ECU—remembers you when it comes time to register for classes, sees that you are teaching intro to creative writing, and decides, what the heck? Maybe he’s as lost as I was and this can lead him to bigger things. Who knows?
There are more reasons, from good karma to moving forward our culture to building relationships with great folks, fellow teachers who might, at some point, between grading stacks of papers, actually have the time to have a beer with you! And, after a while, some of the folks matriculating in those classes you are visiting may well turn out to be your own students, now graduated and teaching there. Support them, too!
But this is how it’s valuable to me. How is it valuable to community colleges? First, and foremost, it allows you to give your students access to writers of note. While at RCC, I was lucky, so very lucky, to have been in classes visited by Galway Kinnell—in cute tennis clothes, racket bag beside him no less!—and Miller Williams. Jamaica Kincaid also appeared at the school to give a reading. This exposure was of great value to me, and it can be to your students, too. Kinnell examined a poem of mine and said he liked it! I never forgot that. It mattered.
It also helps raise the profile of your school. That’s why you should make sure to publicize these appearances and make them open to the public, which then is a third benefit: it helps you to fulfill the community college mission to serve the community! There is also the benefit—for those who are not creative writers themselves—of bringing into the classroom teachers with more expertise about a particular genre than you yourself might possess. If you are well versed in prose but a little shaky when it comes to poetry, call me; I can help! And let’s not forget that a visit by a writer can also give you a bit of a day off. I usually take right over! And of course, if you have time between grading stacks of papers afterwards, I’ll have a beer with you. I sense a theme here; I’m getting thirsty.
But bear with me a few minutes more before I turn this over to my CC colleagues. If I’m a writer visiting a CC, what should I do?
First, remember your audience. Don’t intimidate them; be their friend. Choose what to read with care—this isn’t the place to read your sonnet crown about Foucault and Derrida. Gloss things that they’ll probably need glossed, but don’t condescend. Ask questions of both students and faculty and be engaging. Most of all, be patient. These students are often from working class families, often the first of their family to attend college. They are frequently shy, unsure, and even a little afraid. And be patient with your hosts! It’s very likely that they have little or no experience in hosting such events. You can help. Why not put down a few more chairs or tape down the mic cord?
And what should community college hosts do? As I mentioned before, especially if the writer is coming for free, try—if possible—to use their book in a class or two. Make it possible for them to sell books at the event. If your bookstore doesn’t want to do it, the author will likely be happy to bring her own. Have a table available for this purpose with a chair for signing. Maybe offer to handle the cash. Have a bottle or two of water at the podium, and if there’s a mike, make sure it works before the event begins. Make sure to tell folks to turn off cell phones and know how to pronounce your guest’s name when introducing him. Before your guest arrives, give her your cell phone number and let her know where she can park. Invite everyone! The president, provost, deans, librarians, you name it. Have the librarian order the author’s books for the library! Have the student newspaper there if you have one. Make it a true event writ large. Call the newspaper, the local radio station. Create posters and hang them around campus and around town. Try to pay at least something if you’re able; it is, after all, a professional act. And, after the event, be sure to write a letter to the writer’s department chair, even her dean, that lets them know what their employee did and that you appreciate it. Such letters are important as they get put into files and can be placed in dossiers at reappointment time, tenure time, and promotion time.