Great Expectations

October 01, 2009

"Hey, Dr. J!" the student called, almost the moment I stepped out of my car one morning. He jogged toward me, obviously excited about something. "I wanted you to be the first to know—my first book may be coming out sooner than I thought!"

I'd had this student in my introductory fiction workshop the previous year. He'd always been a hard worker, diligent about revising and generous with comments for his peers. And, to his credit, he read more than most of his classmates—that gave him a definite head start in his development as a writer. He had both the ability and the motivation to be published someday.

But a book? Already?

"I didn't even know you were working on a novel," I said.

"I just started about a week ago," he told me. "You remember that last story I wrote for your class? I showed it to a friend of mine who just got his master's in creative writing. He said it's really good! He's going to help me turn it into a novel and then get it published."

I smiled and wished him success with the project. He wasn't my student anymore, and he wasn't asking my opinion, I told myself—just sharing information. I had no obligation to offer advice.

Among the many benefits of spending my days with young people is direct access to the kind of enthusiasm that student displayed—always welcome, potentially contagious, and certainly preferable to the widespread lack of interest I sometimes encounter in the classroom. But among the drawbacks of working with students at this early point in their lives is the responsibility I feel to help them develop realistic expectations of their futures.

The trick, of course, is doing that without crushing their spirits. In my primary field—creative writing—that's often easier said than done. Literary agents are taking on fewer clients every year; publishers are committing to even fewer books. The outlook for anyone hoping to make a living as a writer is, in a word, bleak.

But my students often respond to that negative portrayal of the publishing industry much the way they respond to any piece of information that doesn't square with their vision of the world: They ignore it. Never mind the carefully crafted manuscripts languishing in slush piles all across the country. Certainly that ignoble fate will never befall their work.

Several years ago, one of my most intractable students handed me a final portfolio filled with clean copies of unrevised drafts. He said, "I know you think my stories still need a lot of work, but I happen to think they're pretty good the way they are. I'm sending them off to a writing contest next week. I guess we'll see who's right." I imagine he thought I'd be humiliated by having given him a low grade when he was pulling down Stephen King-style millions.

I have no idea if that student is still writing fiction today, but I do know that many students who leave the university expecting quick success are damaged by the rejections they receive. One, in fact, told me that her first rejection letter was so painful, she hasn't sent her work out since.

Still, Flannery O'Connor's famous suggestion—that creative-writing classes should dissuade even more writers than they already do—has always struck me as hard-hearted. Anyone can learn to write stories and poems, just as anyone can learn to play the piano and improve their skills through regular practice and guided instruction. But that doesn't mean every pianist and every writer will be recognized for their skills—and that's what I want my students to understand.

Of course, it isn't only creative-writing students who fall prey to unrealistic expectations. My colleagues in the sciences, for instance, routinely deal with students who come to the university as pre-med majors but can't pass introductory science courses. And because I teach at a small university where students receive academic advising from faculty members, I get to know a wide range of undecided majors. Helping them understand which majors might be a good fit with their abilities and interests can sometimes be a daunting task. That challenge is only intensified by advisees like the one who decided on a major in international business, and then balked at the prospect of taking foreign-language courses.

"Are you sure about that?" he asked me. "I should probably talk to an adviser in the business department first."

"You definitely need to switch advisers," I said, "but the requirement is right here in the catalog." I pointed out the relevant information. "It's international business. You'll be traveling to foreign countries. Don't you think it makes sense that you'll need to speak more than one language?"

He shrugged. "I guess I just assumed that business people speak English."

On the flip side are the students who can't imagine what they'll do after graduation and have no expectations beyond a job in retail sales at minimum wage. English majors are particularly vulnerable to that kind of learned helplessness. They're used to having conversations that include questions like, "You're not going to teach? What else can you do with an English degree?" They've grown accustomed to turning their future career into a punch line: "Yeah, I'll be a bum, but I'll be a bum who can quote Shakespeare!"

I do what I can to help those students: I show them sample résumés that highlight the kinds of skills they've developed as liberal-arts majors (and I help them understand that they have, in fact, developed useful skills). I give them a list of terms they might use in searching job databases. But I don't offer false encouragement: I don't tell them it's easy for someone with a bachelor's degree in English to find a well-paying job.

And yet I have colleagues who insist that students have time enough to learn about the hard edges of the "real" world—that it's not our responsibility to prepare students for life outside the university. "It's not my job to turn out cogs that fit neatly into the big machine," one of those colleagues told me recently. But without that preparation, a college education becomes tangential to our students' "real" lives. It might be even be harmful, creating expectations that won't be fulfilled.

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with one of my former students. We've done this several times since she graduated from the university a year ago; each time, we end up talking through the frustrations of being young and new to the job market. This last time, though, I was struck by how our relationship had changed. Suddenly, I wasn't trying to adjust her expectations; I was a cheerleader, encouraging her to explore all of her options and reminding her of the skills and experiences that will make her highly employable when the right opportunity comes along.

"This is why I love talking to you," she said. "You always make me feel so much better."

"That's what friends do," I said.

I would never tell a friend that her expectations were unrealistic—that's definitely not my job. But my students are paying me for the best guidance I have to offer, no matter how discouraging it might feel sometimes. They are not my friends.

Not until they've graduated, anyway.

Pamela Johnston is an associate professor of English studies at Texas Lutheran University, where she teaches creative writing and American literature.