Guest Post, Ben Grossberg: Ponzi Scheme

Maybe I’m putting the worst construction on it.

Why do undergraduates major in creative writing?  Surely many dream of being writers.  And no doubt some are looking for a relatively breezy route to their Bachelor’s.  And then some want to be college professors.

Actually, it occurs to me all these motivations could sit together pretty comfortably.

My fear?  That the dream of being a professor — an unlikely proposition — motivates a lot of them, and that I implicitly encourage it.

writing workshopThe creation of my position, tenure track in poetry writing, depended on students taking up creative-writing study.  That my university — a school of about five thousand people — should need a tenured poet!  It’s easy to imagine a school this size having literature faculty teach creative writing.  My colleagues would do so energetically and certainly well enough to meet the needs of our students.  It’s even easier to imagine a place this size having a single creative writer, one who covers all genres.  But no.  Creative writing is popular.

Even so, the maintenance of my position depends on students continuing to choose the major.  In lean years, I must actively recruit so my classes will “make,” as we say here.  (The euphemism calls to mind a child mastering his or her body functions.  Faculty ask each other in the hall, Did your class make?)  And the result for a professor whose classes don’t?  Composition, general education classes.  Eventually tenure lines get cut.

So a Ponzi scheme — one with two levels.

Students who want positions like mine, the next level up, become investors.  And in order to continue in my position, to “pay myself,” I need to maintain an influx of them . . . even though I know most will never realize profit.  They will get a decent undergraduate education, and of course that is important.  But the dream that motivates many – that profit – is, by a function of numbers, very unlikely.

And I tell them how unlikely – tell them gently and encouragingly.  Gently and encouragingly because I know my job depends on them taking my classes?  Gently and encouragingly because peeing on someone’s dreams is hard, and I’m bad at it, and because, finally, what do I know?  These young writers are talented, some of them, and I don’t pretend to be sure what kind of growth anyone is capable of.

So I tell my students how hard it is, how the profession is shifting toward contingent faculty.  I point to my own qualifications, which are reasonable, and still how very lucky I was to get this job.  I note that I was up for another job, too, and had I gotten that one, I’d be living out in rural Missouri right now – a particularly dismal prospect for a single gay man.  And, I say, I’d be lucky to have that job, too.  I also point out where my colleagues’ degrees are from; there are ivy leaguers, undergraduate and graduate, up and down the hall.  My students don’t know it, but they are already in a kind of academic caste.  Our university is a fine school, but not a prestigious one.  And I do more than this.  I put together panels of writers with other jobs – editors, office workers, even a particularly well-published plumber I know.

But here’s the catch: nothing I say or do is as powerful as my example.  What the students see in the classroom is a performance, of course – but a happy one.  It’s happy because I teach at a tuition-driven institution, and we are directed from all sides to welcome our students.  Happy works; it’s the ethos of the school.  But happy also because I really love being in the classroom.  Students don’t see the unhappy stuff – mountains of grading, meetings and more meetings.  They don’t see the amount of time I spend alone, must spend alone to do my job competently: writing, reading, grading.  They don’t see how this academic life has forced moves I didn’t want to make, and that, for eight years of post-undergraduate schooling, I made no money, and that I now make far less than any of the professionals I know.  Hey, I’m not complaining; I love my job.  I feel incredibly lucky to have it.  Really.  But not naively so.  This is a good ride, but it’s not the only ride out there, and you don’t have to be on this particular bus to write.

A colleague recently told me that teaching, unlike most jobs, cannot be said to harm the world.  Perhaps she’s right: teaching is largely carbon-neutral.  And most students experience a significant liberalizing – an ability to read and articulate more clearly, and a widening of the subtleties of thought which enriches the experience of life.  So maybe that even helps the world.  I’m not saying students get nothing out of creative-writing study.

And, of course, not all of them dream of being professors.

But can I really expect an undergraduate to concentrate on creative writing without fostering some hope based on the readiest model to hand, their professors, especially if the job looks fun – if I make it look fun?  And then, every year, half a dozen (or more) of my students apply to MFA programs.  With trepidation, I ask about their job plans.  I regularly hear that they can’t picture any life other than being a professor.

Haven’t I implicitly fostered a largely unrealizable a dream — and profited from it?

What else to call that but a Ponzi scheme?

Benjamin Grossberg

Benjamin S. Grossberg’s most recent collection of poems, Space Traveler, was published by the University of Tampa Press.His earlier books are Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa, 2009), winner of the 2008 Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award, and Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath (Ashland Poetry Press, 2007).He is Director of Creative Writing at the University of Hartford.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post, Ben Grossberg: Ponzi Scheme

  • February 4, 2015 at 4:53 pm
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    Well, thanks for being honest! One of my professors was the same way; he encouraged, but he encouraged us to cast a broad net. I’m a Creative Writing major at ASU. I chose it, not because I want to teach, but because I want to write. If writing leads to teaching, then so be it. There are other jobs available to writers. People write now more than ever, with the internet expanding by leaps and bounds, and most techie folks not having a clue about content… writers will find a place. It’s all good!

    My husband (techie web developer) is jealous of my education. He claims that the classes he took to get his degree in web development and virtual reality did not do nearly enough to expand his mind. So, even if I don’t make it as a novelist, or an editor, or a teacher, I can be the most socially aware, well-rounded, critically minded administrative assistant the world has ever seen. There are worse things. And it’ll still pay off the student loans.

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  • March 15, 2015 at 2:56 pm
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    While I appreciate your concern I, as an ASU Creative Writing student, feel the need to tell you that you don’t necessarily have to worry as much as you do. While I have a few classmates who seem interested in using their degrees to teach, I’ve talked to many more who have very different plans. My goal is to eventually write for a comic book or video game company; they’re an art form that I love and also feel are under-represented in the literary world. Like pursuing a teaching position, I’m aware that it will not only be difficult to get into but likely won’t pay well. I’m okay with that.

    You fear for your students’ futures, that they don’t understand how difficult it can be to achieve their dreams. The way I see it, regardless of where they end up, they’ll enter the job market with inspiration. The best thing you can do is teach them, about writing, about being a professor, and about the work required. Whatever the students take from it is their concern. At the end of the day you get to take home a paycheck that you earned for lighting a passion in a writer’s life. If you still think that’s some kind of Ponzi scheme, maybe call it an Upside-Down Funnel Scheme. It sounds better.

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  • March 16, 2015 at 10:09 am
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    I appreciate your brutal honesty here. I’ve considered teaching as a career option for my future, but I’ve never actually spoken to an actual professor about it, so it is nice to have a little insight. I’m majoring in English Lit. and Film Studies, so I would go that route with teaching rather than creative writing.

    From my personal experience with creative writing classes, I have never really thought that it would be especially fun to teach them. My professors seemed stressed, especially in the beginner courses. I would imagine that there are only so many bad stories you can read before losing your mind. However, I know there are probably a lot of enjoyable elements of this career as well. As for accidentally fostering a dream, I don’t think it is a big issue. I think “teacher” is a personality trait and you cannot remove the dream from those who desire to be a professor because it is a part of them. I think undergraduates, for the most part, have somewhat of a grip on what they want and don’t want to do already. Most of us have probably sat through some classes where the students gave a professor hell, so we have an understanding of how hard it is in that respect. We also know our odds in succeeding in certain paths and pay attention to the job market.

    To sum it up, there will always be students who want to become professors, but I wouldn’t blame you for contributing to an illusion that it is better than it is.

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