Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Carolyn Kremers: The Non-Conforming House – Part 2

I hope I won't be flogged by Deb Vanasse (the kind person who posts these blogs), because I'm submitting this Part 2 on a Sunday instead of a Friday.  I have reasons, of course.  The truth is, I took a big risk.  I decided to write my four blog-posts on Fridays only, and to submit each post on the same Friday it was written.  Such spontaneity would be in the true spirit of blogging, right?  I figured any time of the night would do for emailing the submission, since Deb likely would not stay up past midnight on Fridays looking for such things.  And so I launched my experiment.

All went well the first Friday.

The second Friday, though, my non-conforming day job—Adjunct Lecturer at UAF—trumped the writing.  Friday was the deadline at UAF for "Freshman Progress Reports": so-called Midterm Grades—except it's not the midterm yet, it's only the end of the fifth week of class.  One-third of the semester has flown by already, and I've scrambled to deal with teaching, writing, and the construction at my house.

Beginning in mid-August, a massive amount of chomping, pushing, and spreading of dirt (i.e., tundra/mushrooms/wild rose bushes/fireweed/tree stumps) took place as Pete-the-dirt-work-guy sought to flatten the steeply sloped area at my house—enough to slip three one-ton steel beams beneath the jacked-up cabin: two beams that are 40 feet long and one that's 35.  He needed to balance the beams atop three pairs of steel pilings he'd driven 15 feet into the ground, down to bedrock.  This delicate operation created the new "fixed" foundation and raised the cabin two feet higher off the ground than it was before.  But the dirt work also resulted in a cliff, at the bottom of my stairs, higher than my head—with all manner of tree roots and layers of sediment and rock sticking out of it.

Additional scrambling has occurred these five weeks, as I've worked to revise several poems and essays, skyped once with my long-distance writing group, tried to get regular exercise such as swimming and yoga, struggled to continue the prescribed daily exercises for the torn tendon in my left shoulder, hauled five-gallon jugs of water from my car down the 19 steps to my cabin and then up four more steps to the screened porch, taken showers (non-daily) at the university, and done laundry as infrequently as possible at the dingy but lively B & C Laundromat.  I have also managed to drag numerous birch logs into piles, cover the piles with green tarps, sweep the birch/alder/willow leaves off all the outdoor steps and other wood surfaces so that snow might be easier to shovel, and haul my heavy snow tires one-by-one up the stairs and on up to the top of the driveway, since I waited too long and it snowed, and then it was scary driving home from UAF and too slippery to risk getting stuck at the bottom.

It has also been important to stand in line at TDS Tire to get the balled radials off and studded snow tires on, and then to carry the radials down the my stairs and stow them under the storage cabin.  (New radials will have to be bought next May, but who knows?  Maybe someone will want this set—to drive on or plant zucchini in--if I wait until spring to leave them at the dumpster station.)  And it has been essential to shovel the five inches of sudden wet snow for three hours last Saturday in order to get my Subaru up the driveway, and to continue to stay on top of my two courses: English 111X—Introduction to Academic Writing, and English 213X/Honors section—Academic Writing about the Social and Natural Sciences. 

Since I have 32 writing students this semester and all but three are college freshmen; and since, earlier in the week, I spent many hours responding in writing (using Google Docs) to 32 essays and holding individual conferences (15 or 20 minutes in-person) with each of the students; and since, by the end of the week, I still needed to update the grades for all of these students on Blackboard Grade Center (the electronic gradebook used by some faculty at UAF), it turned out I had no time to write on Friday.

For me, writing requires a certain frame of mind.  I must feel fresh, have energy, be able (and willing) to sit and concentrate for an extended period of time.  My mind must be free of—or become free of—worries and distractions.  It must be able to submerge itself into something different from the mundane.

And so I sat down on Sunday instead of Friday and wrote this blog.

Once upon a time, I was a tenure-track faculty member in the MFA creative writing program at Eastern Washington University in Spokane.  I taught courses in my specialties: creative nonfiction writing workshops, literary form and theory, poetry, environmental literature, literature and storytelling by Native Americans and Alaska Natives.  I received a fair salary, including health insurance and a pension plan.  My work was appreciated by many, and I knew that it was because students and colleagues told me it was.

"How's your writing going?" Dr. Jeffers Chertok, Interim Dean of the College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences, would ask me at social gatherings.  And smile, and listen closely to my answer.

Now—due to faults of my own and a short series of disastrous personal decisions, and the twists of the universe, the downturn of the US economy, age discrimination perhaps, and what I sometimes call the purposeful dismantling  (over the past two decades) of the US education system at all levels—I am reduced to teaching college composition, semester after semester…Reduced?  Actually, I always consider teaching to be a privilege and a responsibility.  And I always enjoy the students in my classes…My efforts, however, inevitably turn out to earn less than the minimum wage (which, in Alaska, is currently $7.75 an hour).  And the position includes, of course, no job security, no opportunity for advancement within the English Department, and no private pension plan or group health insurance.  (Thank goodness for the promise of Social Security, whatever it may turn out to be.  And this year I offer my sincere thanks for so-called Obamacare.)

Why do I do this?  Why do any of us—among the now legions of aspiring writers, across the US, with MA and MFA and PhD degrees in creative writing—attempt to use adjuncting as our day jobs?

I could write a long and complex answer to that question, for, more than once, adjuncting has been a stepping-stone or even a life-saver for me.  To be honest, though, I have no desire to write in-depth about that.  Let others discover for themselves the dead-end street that (I think) adjuncting can be.

"Never sell your homestead," John Haines admonished me years ago.  And I haven't.  He was a king of the non-conforming job, I suppose, but he never became a composition slave.  (He didn't have the academic degree for it, for one thing.)

On the other hand, I take heart from the recent words of Alaska's percussionist/composer, John Luther Adams (himself a former, though short-lived, UAF adjunct).  In a blog-post called "Alaskan Composer Wins Pulitzer For Become Ocean," sponsored by National Public Radio, interviewer Tom Huizenga asked: "Any ideas of how winning this award might change your career?" 

John Adams' reply: "I never thought much about career. I'm an artist. You know, I moved to Alaska in my 20s. I never studied with the right people at the right schools. Early on I didn't win the right prizes. It seems that every time I had the opportunity to make the right career choice, I made the wrong career choice, which in the long run turned out to be the right artistic choice. And now, after 40 years or more of doing this, it seems like maybe there's a larger audience for the work and that's profoundly gratifying." 

Carolyn Kremers lives in Fairbanks and teaches part-time in the English Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  Her books include Place of the Pretend People: Gifts from a Yup'ik Eskimo Village (memoir), The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North (anthology co-edited with Anne Hanley), and Upriver (poetry; a sequel to Place of the Pretend People).  Upriver was a Finalist for the 2014 Willa Award for poetry, from Women Writing the West.  Her website is


Sandra Kleven said...

Carolyn, Nice to read your post. I, too, was part of EWU but as an MSW student back in 1989. Curiously, my social work practicum was to teach in the graduate school, there. Instead, when I graduated, I ran the Single Parent Parent project there but returned to AK in 1991. At the time, I envisioned a career in academia, especially focusing on the arts in social work... which had been my specialty. As a poet and editor of CIRQUE, I have found my calling but the payment per hour can be counted in golden crops of language. I am happy. I still want to teach, though.

Carolyn Kremers said...

It's good you're happy! Cirque is a beautiful journal, I think. If you still aspire to teach, perhaps someday you will find a way. There are many venues for teaching...many are volunteer...but as you say, sometimes one's calling pays in things other than money.

Jill Wagner said...

To my admired and beloved EWU thesis advisor, your work is still appreciated! Thank you shaping who I am as a writer and person. I will look forward to more of your posts.

Carolyn Kremers said...

So nice to hear from you here! Thank you for your kind words. I hope you and your wonderful family are thriving in Spokane. The carpenter tool-belt you gave me is still hanging on the screened porch here, ready to help build a new deck (someday... :)