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Recently, I was asked to write a book review for a professional journal. Given that I knew I wanted to read the book, was confident I could write a good review, and have nothing else in the publication pipeline right now, I ignored the truly crazed status of my to-do list and agreed.
Yesterday, I stopped reading a chapter here and there, and committed to finishing the book. No, you won’t get my review here. What you will get is my personal reaction to this book. How are those things different? Well, my review for the journal will put this book in conversation with all the other interesting recent books on writing center studies and comment on the professional need for the books, and all of that wonderfully boring outside of the profession kind of stuff. My personal reaction to the book — that is the stuff of this blog. Because in addition to all that wonderfully boring stuff I will write about, this book made me think about myself and my career.
Hell, my whole life is making me do that right now! This book just gave me an interesting frame in which to do that. The book is a case study of nine writing center directors with different backgrounds working in different institutions in positions with different types of contracts. There was hardly a chapter in the book that didn’t resonate with me in some way. The whole thing got me thinking about my own career trajectory, which is a little weird for me.
Yes, this is yet another thing that creates a dissonance for me between the class I grew up in and the class I’m slowly moving into. I wasn’t really raised to think in terms of career, you see. Since I was 16 I moved from one job to another: bagger at the grocery store, checker at the grocery store, front desk worker at the hotel, video section manager at the grocery store, night shift desk worker at a hotel, shift supervisor at Starbucks. All of these jobs were just that, things I could leave easily for something different or seemingly better. Even when I started teaching the adjunct nature of what I did as a graduate student made teaching feel like a job, not really the career to which I aspired.
Things have changed though, and as I move through at least three of the different types of writing center positions described in this book, I have to acknowledge that I am on a career path. See, I started out my work in writing centers like many of the directors in this study. I’d been working on a Rhet/Comp Ph.D. and worked in the writing center, admittedly more than most, but it wasn’t where I saw myself building a career. Writing centers weren’t even going to be a part of my dissertation until I took my first position directing one.
In many ways, I saw that position as a job, something to do while I finished my dissertation, and the nature of the position helped me to see it that way. My first position as a writing center director was an academic staff position at a large, regional, RI institution. I started out as a 10 month employee and my official title said nothing about the writing center. I was a Coordinator in the Undergraduate Tutorial Center. Yes, my primary focus was to direct and expand the writing support services, but my title didn’t reflect that at all. I found this awkward, and more than a little embarrassing, at writing center conferences, where upon introduction I would make it a point to explain that I did the work of directing the writing center, without that title. I learned to do that work, on that job.
One of the things this book does, and which I will talk about very sagely and academically in my review, is to try to understand how the different types of position a writing center director can shape the position, and even determine whether or not a person will stay in that position over time. Eventually, I needed to leave that job, and it was easy to do while still thinking of it as a job. I’d advanced as far as I could in that position, and at the time I missed teaching and faculty life. Consequently, I took a chance. I left a fairly stable academic staff job for a two-year contract that came with teaching and faculty status. I had ample reason to believe this two-year contract would be a stepping stone to more permanent employment at the same institution, but that didn’t change the initial temporary status, or the employment insecurity that can bring. The gamble paid off though, sort of.
This fall I will begin a tenure-track faculty and writing center director position, at a new institution. According to general lore, this is the holy grail of writing center positions. I will have a tenure home in the English Department and a 2-2 course load because of my release time for directing the center. It is, however, back in North Carolina, which means that in the last two years I will have made two cross county moves. (Yes, you can bet you’ll be hearing more of this.) In this particular case the general lore is confirmed by the case studies in this book I am reading to review. The directors who stayed in their positions for the length of the study, and up to one year after, were the directors who taught, and were on the tenure track. I chose not to stay in my first two positions because they did not offer me one or the other of these elements. What I have to wonder though, is how much of my decisions were based on the way academia socializes us to think that success is a tenure-track job? Do people seek out and stay in tenure-track faculty / writing center director positions because those positions represent the best working conditions for writing center directors?
Certainly, the temporary nature of my two-year contract played into my decision to apply for other employment, and yes – probationary tenure-track employment received first consideration. Seeking out those positions was primarily motivated by my desire to stay in one place for a while. I know I didn’t really consider whether or not splitting my time between teaching and faculty responsibilities and directing the writing center was necessarily the best way to direct a center. It wasn’t until I started thinking about my working conditions that I realized how often in the past two years I missed my academic staff job.
I know, right?!? When I first started, I wasn’t sure I would be able to hack it because I was so used to fall break, spring break, etc. It took me at least two years to adapt from an academic schedule to the M-F 8 – 5 staff world. I miss that structure though. I miss being able to plan my time off / vacations when they make the most sense for me, not when the academic calendar says. As a staff person, when I decided to take time off during spring break, or fall break, I could actually take that time off. I didn’t have to spend it catching up on grading or planning for my courses. Yes, while I was in that position, I missed the teaching I get to do now. Thinking about the last couple of years though, what I wanted to accomplish and what I was realistically able to get done, I am not entirely convinced that balancing assistant professorship with writing center directing creates the best working conditions.
Like the authors, I don’t have the answers for what is the best. I am not even sure we can define one particular set of conditions perfect for directing a writing center. There are too many factors, to many variables, and ultimately it is a matter of personal preference. What I do know, is that as I move into this new position, my biggest challenge is going to remain balancing the competing demands for my time and attention.