From Academic to Schoolteacher and Novelist

Brian Taylor

January 24, 2013

A few years ago I made the rather unusual decision to leap from the tenure track to teaching at a prep school. At the same time, I left behind my scholarly publications for a novel. When I first tried to write a column about my move from scholarly writing to fiction writing, I realized that the two major changes in my career were inextricably connected. I couldn't tell one story without the other.

By all objective measures, my tenure-track job at the University of Alabama at Huntsville was a good one: I had a 3-3 teaching load, money for research, good students, and great colleagues. When my family and I moved to Huntsville, it never occurred to me that I would end up opting out of academe entirely. But in the end, I discovered that the institution and I just weren't a good fit.

I had attended small schools all my life: My high-school class had 100 people, and I went to Pomona College, a small liberal-arts college in Claremont, Cal., because of its size. Even my graduate program at Washington University in St. Louis was relatively small. After earning my Ph.D., I landed a job at another small college, Wittenberg University, and I loved it. All of which should have convinced me to stay small, but it did not, and I found myself at a mid-size state university. While the Huntsville campus is far smaller than the state's flagship university ("Roll Tide!"), it was significantly larger than anywhere I'd been before.

Soon after I arrived there, something began to gnaw at me: I had lost the sense of community that had been so important to me in the past. To be clear, that was not through any failing of the university. It was simply a bad fit.

Huntsville has a sprawling campus with many part-time and nonresidential students, and most of the courses I taught satisfied general-education requirements. In practice, that meant I rarely saw students outside the classroom; in most cases, I would teach them for a single semester and then never see them again. That wasn't the sort of teaching I wanted to do. To make matters worse, my wife couldn't find work in the area.

While I felt lucky to have a good job, my wife and I weren't happy, so I started to think about leaving. But given the realities of the academic job market in my field, moving to another tenure-track position was a long shot.

I began to suspect that the best way to recover the sense of community that I so sorely missed was to switch to secondary-school teaching. I did my best to find others who had made that leap. I talked to a half-dozen people, and without exception, they were happy with the path they'd chosen. So I signed on with a secondary-school recruitment firm, landed a job at University School, outside Cleveland, and started a new career.

The verdict?

It's the best move I've ever made, and given the glut of Ph.D.'s in the humanities, prep-school teaching is an option more people should consider.

My students are bright, curious, and motivated. In high school, there are no majors and thus no general-education requirements. Nobody has told them, "You are a business major, so history doesn't matter. Just get a 'C' and move on!" In addition, my students write really well, better than many college freshmen I'd taught. (There is a good reason for this: At the lower school students write constantly, so by the time they get to the upper school, they know their way around a sentence.)

Because my ninth-graders have the basics down, I have the luxury of working with them on more difficult questions: What is the best use of historical evidence? How should they structure their arguments to be more convincing? And I do that knowing that with three or four more years of training, they will arrive at college far better prepared then many of their peers. I go to work knowing that I am making a difference in my students' lives, and that is no small thing.

In addition to the great students, I discovered a real sense of community among the faculty. In my previous job, I could not even find the math or science departments, but here I have friends in every discipline. Moreover, they are talented and enthusiastic teachers who are involving students in some amazing research projects. One has put together a biofuels project—turning waste oil into diesel. Another is working with students to track the coyote, deer, and fox populations in the forests around the campus. I could not imagine a more stimulating working environment.

So, you are probably wondering, what does all of that have to do with writing fiction?

The one real regret I felt at the prospect of leaving academe was leaving behind my research on the history of midwifery in 17th-century England. I had published a couple of articles on the topic, and hoped to write a scholarly book. Over the years I'd come to love those women, and I hated the idea of abandoning them.

It is true that there are a handful of high-school teachers publishing academic books. Anthony Rotundo is the best-known example, and a colleague at my high school has published an edition of Cicero's First Catilinarian Oration. But that route seemed unlikely for me. A book on my topic would require overseas research—meaning travel money and release time from teaching. Those things are simply not a part of the high-school world.

The answer, of course, turned out to be fiction, and I was thrilled to discover that my training as a historian prepared me well for writing novels. In part, that was due to the kind of history I loved most, for I'd always been drawn to character-driven microhistory, falling in love with Martin Guerre and Menocchio as an undergraduate. As a graduate student, I wrote microhistories, first about a Quaker missionary in western Kenya, then a Presbyterian minister in Halifax, and finally about a wealthy midwife in the English city of York. The last of those is key, because when I decided to try my hand at fiction, I based my protagonist on Bridget Hodgson, a midwife I had stumbled across in the archives. Because I'd already done a lot of reading for my scholarly publications, once I'd spent a few weeks filling in the gaps I was ready to write a novel.

It took me about a year to write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. Once the book was done, the next step was finding an agent. My academic background came to the rescue again, as the process of finding an agent is strikingly similar to finding an academic job.

As every graduate student knows, the most important part of your application is the cover letter. So, too, with publishing. The first thing every agent wants is a one-page letter about you and your book. It must be concise, well written, and grab the reader's attention. You can't get an agent with a letter alone, but a lousy letter will end your hopes immediately. (Sound anything like a cover letter for a job?) And after writing upward of 100 job letters, if there was one thing I could do, it was distill my entire existence into a one-page summary.

If you've been on the job market recently, you probably know what comes next: the writing sample. Again, that is how publishing works. Write a good cover letter and you'll be asked for a full manuscript of your novel. Then (as in academe) the waiting begins. Will the search committee, er, agent want you? It takes time to read a manuscript, so you find yourself spending the days prowling the house, staring at the phone, and checking e-mail. And then—with a little luck—the agent calls. He's on board. You've got it made, whoo-hoo ... but wait. You're not done yet. Getting an agent is necessary, but it's not the finish line. All you've got is the equivalent of an on-campus interview.

Your agent still has to sell your book to a publisher, and so the waiting begins again. It is every bit as agonizing as waiting for that phone call after an on-campus interview. With any luck, the call finally comes offering you a book contract. That's how it worked for me. It wasn't "quit your job and buy an island" money (not even close), but it was the first time I'd been paid for something I'd written.

As it turns out, writing fiction is a great combination with high-school teaching. There are no endless trips to the archives, no digging into obscure books to make sure that you've read absolutely everything, and no footnotes to worry about. Perhaps best of all, if you hit one of those annoying moments when you know something is true but lack the evidence to prove it—you can just make it up.

It's a slow process, to be sure, but I've found a rhythm to the day that works for me: I get up early, bang out a few pages, and head off to work. It can be a grind, but if I keep it up, I can finish a draft in six months. And at the end of it, I've got a book that people—not many perhaps, but a few—may actually read. And as a high-school teacher, I don't have to worry about whether the book is going to earn me tenure or not. The book just is.

Sam Thomas teaches history at University School, an independent day school outside Cleveland, Ohio. Before moving to the University School, he taught at the college level for seven years and received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. "The Midwife's Tale" is his first novel.