Writer's Block on the Dark Side

Brian Taylor

May 15, 2013

When I became a full-time administrator about six years ago, moving out of the campus writing center and into a suite of offices, I knew I would face the skepticism of faculty colleagues who would view my decision as a switch to the Dark Side.

Being no great sci-fi fan, I understood the analogy, only in the most limited way, to be a reference to the seductive allure of the forces of evil. And while I shared that skepticism, I moved into administration partly out of curiosity. It was a path that promised to help me understand many aspects of university life that remained a mystery, even after several decades of working in higher education.

What follows is a rumination on what it feels like to careen toward the dark side of the professional moon and wonder whether, when, how, and by whom you might be guided back into a more recognizable orbit. In January, I resigned as an associate vice president and have been on sabbatical this spring until I resume my role as a full-time faculty member in September.

Throughout these past few years, as I have been an increasingly reluctant administrator, well-intentioned peers have tried to determine the source of my "problem." What, they wondered, did I miss about faculty life?

I had no ready answer when they asked whether I missed teaching (a frequent suspected culprit of my discontent). That's because "teaching"—as a descriptor—collapses distinctions between activities I always found sustaining (talking with writers about their ideas) and responsibilities I loathed (reducing complex cognitive endeavors to a single inadequate letter grade).

Of course I missed students, but not every one, and not all the time. The traditionally configured scene of the classroom had always been a "problem" for me, as evidenced by the fact that I have spent a lot of time exploring alternatives, like working with students at writing centers or on community-sponsored writing projects.

But I have come to suspect that what I've missed most about faculty life, aside from certain aspects of teaching, is my own scholarly writing. As an administrator, I found myself unable to work on my own writing projects for the first time in my career.

Why wasn't I moved to write anymore? It wasn't for lack of time, for lack of subject matter, for lack of opportunity. Lack of inspiration? Too Romantic. Lack of writing partners? Not exactly, although with my most sustained collaborators, our career trajectories had sent us into vastly different professional and personal spheres, and my own galaxy felt more remote than others.

Packing up my desk in the vice president's office, I thumbed through old folders, considering what to keep and what to throw away. I sunk under the weight of just how much work I was pitching into the recycle bin, or shredding altogether. And then I came upon a file labeled "From Afar," a worn, overstuffed manila folder that had travelled with me from my very first faculty office, across the campus and through various administrative appointments, only to land in my lap again for consideration of a return back to where it started.

In the folder, I discovered a collection of artifacts nabbed from the bulletin board of the writing center during the years I spent as its director: scribbled ideas from brainstorm sessions; gags deemed file-worthy; and photographs of the student tutors and me presenting at conferences and celebrating holidays and graduations. I also found postcards sent from tutors studying abroad in places like Guatemala, Galway, Florence, and Beijing—which may explain the folder's curious "From Afar" label. Those postcards were probably the folder's first contents. I was touched to find one postcard I had sent to the writing center from Louisiana, where I grew up and where I spent much of a sabbatical in the spring of 2007, my last semester as a faculty member and a life that seems worlds away now.

Flipping through that folder, I finally began to understand the source of my writer's block. What suddenly became clear was the extent to which students have been my primary guides in my own writing. Students have been the subjects of my writing and the partners in my process, and they have been its gravitational center. Without them, I didn't quite know what to look for or how to make sense of what I saw.

I realized that it was not the teaching that I missed or the writing so much as the relationship between the two.

When I started my career as an assistant professor nearly 20 years ago, little formal support existed to help a newly -minted Ph.D. "get the writing done." There were no centers for teaching and learning, and few if any of the faculty-as-writers books that now line our library shelves. But I did have my training in composition to follow, as well as the model of the National Writing Project.

So I wrote when my students wrote: in staff meetings for our writing center (my primary faculty appointment); in core courses and major courses. Sometimes it was five5 minutes of writing in class, other times it was five pages of writing homework. We shared and responded to each other's ideas. I mapped my workload onto their workload. It wasn't rocket science, but it got the job done.

As my writing emerged through discussions with students, so, too, did their voices inflect my work. Snippets of our conversations would end up sprinkled through my articles, transcriptions and analyses of classes and staff meetings, or co-authored publications sharing the results of joint research. We tumbled through space together: them toward graduation, professional schools, and their first "real" jobs; me toward annual reappointments, tenure, and promotions.

And then, pretty abruptly, that leg of the journey came to an end. True, it did so of my own choosing, my own desire to see what lay beyond faculty life. But I did not anticipate the sense of discontinuity in what had appeared would be a fairly straightforward career trajectory.

My administrative work focused on high-impact practices frequently identified as "transformational educational experiences," such as community engagement, study abroad, internships, and research. Many of those practices encourage students to move physically beyond the confines of their college campuses. I wanted to help them navigate between the everyday and the extraordinary, to find what is common about something that was once foreign, and, perhaps most of all, to experience what is remarkable about the familiar. But after six years of that work, I was myself ready for something both more familiar and more remarkable.

I have felt few things as powerfully, in a lifetime of teaching and learning, as that moment­ -- sitting quietly alone in my office, riffling through the words and images in that folder as I prepared for my journey back to the writing center and to the full-time teaching of writing. As it turns out, I didn't need to go very far at all to travel the distance between where I've been and where I'm headed.

For now, I have an office in a quiet corner of the library and no students yet to call my own. But that moment of re-entry will come soon, and there is much to do to prepare (and no doubt some improvising once the time comes).

My situation brought to mind the mission of Apollo 13, whose flight crew struggled mightily to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. Its spare transmission to mission control would by now seem cliched were it not for the sheer force of its understatement: "Houston, we've had a problem." The flight crew and the command center explored every possible scenario to optimize the chances of a successful re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Shortly before the oxygen tanks exploded, the spacecraft had made its midcourse correction, one that set it squarely on track for a lunar landing, thereby eliminating the option of essentially coasting around the moon's dark side and allowing gravity to pull it back in. Instead, the astronauts needed to thrust themselves back, firing up engines they never expected to use to power themselves home.

And they did.

As will I.

Elizabeth Boquet is a professor of English and director of the writing center at Fairfield University.