While I enjoy the work that I do, I am almost impossible for institutional types to classify. I am a writer with an undergraduate degree in English and an interdisciplinary liberal-arts master’s degree. I am an award-winning high school creative writing teacher who has never taken a creative writing class myself. I have more than a decade of classroom experience, but no degrees in education; I pursued an alternative route to certification by only taking four undergrad education classes. I have been a fairly successful adjunct composition professor, but I have no graduate coursework at all in rhet/comp. Of my five full-length book publications, one is poetry, one is a coffee-table art book, one is literary criticism, one is a curriculum guide, and one is Southern history. (Another curriculum guide is forthcoming.) I do have a number of literary publication credits – poems mostly and a few stories – in small online and print journals. Finally, I’ve done some freelance journalism, mostly feature articles in magazines, but I’ve never been a traditional reporter or staff writer.
In some ways, I am finding that my bobbing-and-weaving career path is working against me. As I finish my eleventh year of teaching, my mind has wandered onto the subject of what I might do next. Well . . . I can’t move up into educational administration, because I have no degrees in that field. I will never be hired to teach creative writing on the university level without an MFA, and I can’t be hired as a full-time comp professor without a Ph.D. I don’t qualify as a historian, archivist or preservationist, because even though I have published in the genre of history and have participated in historical research projects, I have no degrees in that field, nor have I taught in it. For now, continuing to teach where I am is just fine. And that’s good thing . . .
The closest institutional definition anybody could give to what I do might be “cultural studies” or “American studies.” There is an element of ethnography in my approach to my usual subject – the American South – but I’m not an ethnographer, because I’m not an anthropologist. Frankly, I’m not even heady enough about what I do be a cultural-studies person. I’ve read some of that stuff, and it’s so incredibly wordy and highly theoretical— I’m more concerned with general audiences being able to understand what I write. I consider myself a multiculturalist, which is a definition usually applied in the literary field and sometimes in sociology.
I’ve never really cared about the fact I don’t fit a definition in some bureaucrat’s standards-and-practices manual . . . until recently. It came up when a colleague of mine wanted to employ me as the lead scholar on an NEH grant proposal to conduct a workshop for history teachers, and the feedback was that my lack of history credentials was a liability to the proposal. It also came up when I talked to the department head at the university where I teach composition about a full-time opening they have there, and he told me flat out that I can’t even be considered without a Ph.D. In both cases, my abilities and skills matter less than being able to check a box on a form or score points on a rubric.
What is striking to me about my situation is: an editor’s greatest strength is in his ability to be interdisciplinary, to know a little about a lot of things. An editor can’t correct what he doesn’t know is wrong. I also like to remember something that poet Joel Brouwer said to my students once when he came as a guest speaker: “Creative writing is a great career if you’re interested in everything.” But when dealing with large government-run institutions, like universities and the NEH, careers are made on being able to do a few things really well. I’m too intellectually curious to focus that hard on only doing one thing, and it is apparently working to my detriment . . .