I am personally shocked to realize that I’ve already been acting as Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool for 6 months now, and also feel a fair amount of consternation that I never did a personal blog post about it. The biggest reason for this is that the job opportunity came somewhat out of the blue and initiated a frenzy of work which I knew would last exactly 6 months. Why? Because I made a difficult personal decision to accept the post as EIC even though it was full-time and I was still an English Professor, at least for 6 more months. This week in May, that particularly intense period of doing two jobs at once came to an end, and in some ways, the real work now begins. But at least I have the mental space and time to devote my attention to one major focus: making Bleeding Cool the best site it can be.
I have a lot of friends who are professors, or pursuing Ph.D’s and it does raise some questions for them and for me about how to discuss my decision to leave academic employment. Though I may sound arrogant for saying so, I know that a number of people found my previous 2 years working as an English Professor, comics scholar, and journalist something that gave them a sense of satisfaction, an object lesson that the divide between academic and pop culture can be bridged and writers can wear multiple hats at once. I still firmly believe that to be true. If I had continued as the New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, the position I had held for 6 months before becoming EIC, and which was a part-time freelancing position, I would also have continued to be an English Professor indefinitely. So, the question is not so much why I have left academic employment, but why didn’t I stay?
There are many reasons, and I’m going to give some of them here quite honestly. I know that some of my reasons are things that educators struggle with every day and fight the good fight, but they are issues nonetheless. Some of my reasons are purely practical, as well, and aren’t based on issues in education right now, like the difficulties of doing too many things at once.
Some of my reasons are:
-I realized that having pursued 4 degrees myself, and teaching all along (pre-school, middle school, high school, ESL, and finally as a professor), I had not actually been outside the educational system since I was 4 years old. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was an eye-opener for me. I had unique opportunities that took me all over the world, growing up in Germany, studying in England for 10 years, and teaching ESL in Japan, so I don’t mean to say that I lived a cloistered life. But it was a very specific education-driven life nonetheless. In all, I had been educated for 21 years, and taught in some form or other for 13. There were times, both in the past and more recently when it was very difficult to stay purely within the educational system because I also felt the drive to be a writer, something I’ve been for as long as I’ve been in education as well. That tension in time commitments has always been problematic for me and I’ve spent many years refusing to choose one or the other. Much of my writing was academic, but much was not and there was rarely enough time for it.
-I was very successful as an educator. Wait–why is that a reason? Because it was always problematic for me. I actually never thought I’d make a good teacher, but was inspired as a researcher. I delved into some of the most obscure texts in European literature as a medievalist for many years and translated texts that had never appeared in English before. I spent many hours in libraries, and for the most part, I loved it. When I had finished my degrees, I wondered if I ought to try to be a published writer instead of teaching. But those who knew me suggested I try one semester as a professor just to make sure. And then things got complicated. Contrary to my expectations, I walked into a classroom and was a “natural” at teaching. I shouldn’t be that surprised, since I come from a family of educators, but it was a conundrum. I was highly employable and I was good at it. And working with students in a real live environment changed my life. It made me a much more aware and communicative person, and I made a difference in the lives of my students, inspiring them with a love of literature and writing. How do you walk away from that? Maybe you shouldn’t. But then there are the problems with education that I mentioned above.
-There were a lot of things about formal university education that were not amenable to me and, unable to completely conceal this, I was generally known as someone who had opinions. As I also mentioned before, plenty of people fight daily to improve education and consider these struggles par for the course, but that doesn’t mean that educators should have to live such an embattled life. Some of the issues were, to name a few: the excessive amount of paperwork and assessments that increasingly developed over the course of my time teaching. When I started teaching, I had to supply a copy of my grades, and for writing courses, a portfolio students had created of their work. Just doing that was difficult enough to make sure students completed all the requirements. By the end of a 10 year period, I found myself having to constantly report (at an average of two week increments) on students attendance, behavior, estimated grade, status of completed work, and the worst of it being the end of semester duties. End of semester duties included having to personally collect and label copies of every rubric from every student, digital copies of final papers, comparative assessments of student progress in technical aspects of writing, and lastly assessments of the courses as a whole in specific numbers cued to rubrics. The end of semester duties in my final semester took me about 20 hours alone and necessitated scanning and labeling hundreds of documents with a fifteen word labeling system.
And I can say quite clearly from my personal perspective: this is not why I pursued four degrees or decided to continue to teach after my initial foray into teaching. Assessment may be the way to a better future, and yes, education should be accountable, but expecting professors who are already over-worked and underpaid to complete these duties is unreasonable. They are highly skilled professionals in specific fields, and data entry is not usually their area of expertise. They know all kinds of things, knowledge that might be lost to the world otherwise, and those are the skills and talents that they should be able to use in their work rather than drowning them in a sea of paperwork.
-I could add quite a lengthy aside about the well-known problems in the educational system and the hot topics of debate right now, but I’ll just mention them briefly: students do now feel that they have “bought” their education, that their professors are there to entertain them, and that if they don’t get the grade they want, they have a right to throw temper tantrums until the administration caves and takes the right to grade students away from the professor. Up until my very last day of teaching, I would have quite confidently said to you, “Yes, those are issues, but I have been able to handle them, actually. Because I don’t put up with it”. And I don’t, and haven’t. Sometimes that means standing up to bullying tactics, refusing to be worn down, and, in the end, believing in education as an ideal until you get through the confrontation with students and parents. But actually, something very funny happened in my last final exam that had irony written all over it for me. Without much warning, I faced the mother of these situations, the worst I’ve ever faced, where a student, several faculty, and the entire administration attempted to levy my decision on something. I already knew it was my last day, which made it humorous for me. But it did seem like a final confirmation of just how much professors are up against in striving to actually educate students and be fair in their decision-making. So, yes, there are big problems in education right now and unfortunately, professors are also left bearing a gigantic burden from all sides.
So those are the reasons I didn’t stay in academic employment, though I might well have done, and somehow tried to cope with these tensions and pressures, had I not been offered the position of EIC at Bleeding Cool.
It wasn’t so much that I had a better job offer, but that I had the right job offer for me. Having become increasingly immersed in comics scholarship, and then comics journalism, I found many of the same rewards that I had felt through teaching. If that seems unlikely, consider the satisfaction of demonstrating to the world at large how to critically evaluate a worthy artistic project, something meaningful with socially-challenging themes and the potential to change the perspective of everyone, especially young people. Consider mentoring young writers, many of whom are college students, in how to express their analytical skills and reactions to art and literature in a meaningful way. Consider giving creators an immediate response to their hard work, essentially saying, while projects they are working on are even still in process, that their work is significant and we appreciate it as a society.
I’m not saying that writing and editing are better than being an educator, but just that both can change the world. And, of course, they work better together than separately. So, it’s very cheeky of me to ask professors who are overworked and underpaid to do something that I’m no longer having to balance myself, but if you have it in you, consider writing as much as is possible in your situation. Your perspective and skills are invaluable and seeing the response you get to your writing may just give you the spark of energy you need to deal with all the pressures facing you in academic employment. Actually, I don’t just speak for myself in saying that since many of my friends have told me point blank that this is the case for them and that writing has enabled them to have the boldness necessary to push even harder for changes in the educational sphere. Sometimes in academia it’s surprising how little voice you can be allowed to have, but in writing, well, voice is everything.
If you’re interested in seeing what I have in mind for Bleeding Cool and what my initial reactions were to taking up my position as EIC, there are some pieces that ran on the site after my hire which I can only apologize for not posting here on my blog sooner:
The announcement of my hire: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/12/10/hannah-means-shannon-the-new-editor-in-chief-of-bleeding-cool/
My essay on my intentions at Bleeding Cool: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/12/13/what-does-having-an-editor-in-chief-at-bleeding-cool-mean/