Advice

'Only Connect the Prose and the Passion': Writing and Teaching

Brian Taylor

May 23, 2010

I suffer from performer envy. As a writer, when you feel burdened by the onus of creating, the pain of composing, you watch a singer-songwriter on stage and think, She only had to write that song once, and she gets to play it over and over. All she has to do is play. And people love her for it.

I'm not alone in my jealous desire, I know. In the early 90s some rock stars of book publishing—Dave Barry, Steven King, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, and others, formed a group called the Rock Bottom Remainders where they played covers of songs at the annual booksellers' meeting. Because it was fun—and easier than writing. Pretty much everything is easier than writing.

This winter I sat in front of a TV and watched the Who perform during halftime at the Super Bowl. When friends made snarky comments regarding geriatrics singing about teenage wasteland and t-t-t-talking 'bout their generation, I snapped back: "Making art that lasts isn't easy. Wouldn't you like to be paid to deliver a talk you'd written four decades ago?"

And then I remembered 30 years ago when, in college, famous professors would give lectures from yellowed pages of notes—no doubt the same lectures they'd been giving for decades, making the same jokes, quoting the same lines of poetry, using the same analogies. It never bothered me at the time, and it doesn't now. I understand how comfort and ease can be a compelling choice when doing your job. And if you do it well, who cares if you're cruising? Most people do the same thing over and over—at their jobs and in their lives.

But academe—and scholarly publishing—gives us an alternative: The option of reinvention, or at least, changing course. The Who, like many stars before and since, became a brand, and being a brand means giving the folks what they want. We all know that commercially successful artists risk losing their audience by trying something completely different. Some writers start publishing under pseudonyms when they become victims of the expectations of their readers.

Academe takes another approach: Think about Noam Chomsky, Stanley Fish, Martin Bernal. You could make a list of people who started off in one discipline or area and moved to write about something completely different. Tenure allows for that but is not necessary for it to happen. It's in the zeitgeist of the academy.

And of scholarly publishing. When I was at Oxford University Press, my boss spouted a platitude that's stuck with me for a long time: You don't publish books, you publish authors. Academic presses allow authors not to become victims of their own success.

So why, I wonder, was I so offended recently when I went to hear a name-brand academic give a talk that he's clearly given a zillion times before, complete with stale jokes and crusty stabs at politicians who are no longer in office. He was speaking to a crowd who already knew most of what he was saying (his talk was based largely on work he'd done three decades before in a best-selling book), and he was making arguments that everyone in the audience already knew and agreed with (including me). There was much bobble-heading, spontaneous clapping, and Amen-ing.

My friend David and I slipped quietly out after about 20 minutes. We had seated ourselves in the back, near the door, because we had had advance warning. "He's been giving the same talk for 30 years," said one of our academic friends who didn't even work in the same field. But we'd been naïvely optimistic. In academe, there aren't many rock stars. My anger turned to disappointment. I had gone because I wanted to be impressed.

My old boss, Stanley Fish, once got stern with me when I complained that an author was writing the same book over and over. Very few of us, he said, have a lot of great ideas.

But when it comes to giving talks, delivering lectures, or even playing a now-familiar guitar riff, the listener can tell. When you're uninterested in what you're saying, when you're repeating the same old lines, we hear boredom. At least when you write a new book, even if the argument is similar, the prose will be different. It's OK to recycle examples, if the context is different.

When I worked in admissions at Duke University, I gave the same canned speech five times a day. I'd travel from high school to high school, laying down my spiel. In the evenings, I'd do it again, with slides. At times I would find myself thinking about what I was going to have for dinner even as I was talking about Duke's unique opportunities for first-year students, or the acceptance rate to medical schools. Sometimes I would have to stop myself and ask, "Did I already say this?"

It's in the nature of that job that there's not a lot of room for creativity. But that is not the case for academics. How and what we teach, how and what we write our journal articles about, the focus and content of our books, is largely self-determined. So when professors read their lectures from yellowed hand-scrawled pages or slightly updated PowerPoint presentations, I wonder if they're doing both their students and themselves a disservice.

OK, if the lecture is excellent, by all means, bring it on. But how can you expect to have new ideas for the publishing part of your career if you don't take advantage of the opportunities that teaching new material offers?

Believe me, I know how hard it is to develop new courses, and I don't even teach large lecture ones. But even with the difficulties of finding time to prepare a new course, there's an intellectual excitement in figuring stuff out, in educating oneself.

As academics, we get a choice in our work lives. We can opt for a little of both the familiar and the new. That choice is a luxury, perhaps a bit of payoff for the fact that most of us are not earning rock-star salaries. We can teach the same essays, the same texts, and write articles and books on the topics with which we are most comfortable and most adept. But we are also free to take huge risks and follow pursuits that are completely unrelated to anything we've done before. Although, at some point, if we're good enough, someone will no doubt scream, "Play 'Freebird,' man."

Professors are, I know, human. We like to stick with what works, and often take the uncluttered path rather than the one that is steep, rocky, and potentially risky. I'll spare you a metaphor about the rewards of getting to hard-to-approach vistas or about the delight in taxing oneself. You know what I mean.

For my friends who are teaching way too many courses and can't deal with another prep or who are junior faculty members and are lecturing in large introductory courses, serving on multiple committees, and struggling with the tenure requirements of publishing, it may seem like too much to ask. But I wonder if doing the hard work of changing their syllabi wouldn't lead to profitable outcomes. They could double-dip; the thinking, teaching, and writing could all coalesce.

And for senior faculty members, who no longer feel the tick-tock urgency of publication pressures, I wonder if they, too, might do themselves a favor by forsaking the yellowed pages in favor of a new document or a Power Point presentation. Many do that already. Perhaps I'm just trying to remind myself, if I ever get too lazy, that I don't want to be that disappointing teacher, boring herself and everyone else from the podium.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.