It all started with a simple question. This past weekend was the BRAWN Summer Institute, which means I spent the past three days at Boston University attending workshops and comparing teaching techniques with about 80 other Boston-area college writing instructors. Over lunch on Sunday, one of my colleagues asked a simple question that inspired a flurry of conversation. How many of us intended when we were younger to become college composition instructors, and how many came to teach college-level writing by a circuitous or even accidental route?
In the process answering this question, my colleagues and I uncovered the wild, weird, and roundabout ways that life sometimes unwinds. One of my colleagues trained to be an actress; one intended to be a ballerina. Another always knew she wanted to be a college professor, but she trained as a linguist, not a lit or writing scholar. One colleague grew up wanting to be a nature writer, and another discovered the field of composition studies after accidentally realizing he wanted to study the science of writing. Yet another colleague was coerced to share the story of how he’d actually flunked out of college but continued to hang out on campus for a few years without telling his family, even going so far as to rent a cap and gown and sit with his former classmates when his parents showed up for graduation. Is it fate, chance, or cruel karma that someone with that kind of history would eventually find himself at the front of a college composition class, teaching?
Teachers of writing, it turns out, are excellent storytellers, and we each have stories to tell. When I was in high school, I had no intentions of teaching college-level English; instead, I wanted to become an interpretive naturalist, wearing khakis and a Smokey Bear-hat while leading nature walks. After realizing that most interpretive naturalist jobs are seasonal rather than year-round, I decided studying biology would be a more dependable choice than studying natural resources, and after realizing I had little interest in the dissection and laboratory work that college biology classes involve, I switched to English, thinking a career as a lit professor would offer a dependable day-job to fund my extracurricular nature studies.
It’s interesting to consider (especially in retrospect) the alternate lives any of us might have led if our lives had turned out differently: this is the classic question of the road not taken. If you can’t pursue all the goals you ever envisioned, how does it happen that you end up walking the path you do choose? Are our lives a maze of forking choices, each irrevocable and final—don’t look back—or are our lives like a meandering labyrinth, where there’s only one route to our destination, albeit one that wends and winds in a nonsensical and even dizzying fashion? At the end of our days (or at least our careers), will we look back and see how all the twists and turns make their own kind of logical sense, or will we look back with longing and regret, noting the turns we might have missed?
As it turns out, adjunct writing instructors juggle jobs that are just as seasonal, unpredictable, and underpaid as any interpretive naturalist position, so perhaps you never can escape your fate. My high school penchant for biology survives in my blog, where I post pictures of birds and buds, and somewhere along the way toward finishing a doctoral dissertation about American nature writing, I discovered I didn’t want to be a critic responding to other people’s prose but a writer who produced my own.
The same BRAWN colleague who asked us yesterday if we’d planned to become writing instructors also asked whether we’d initially planned to teach writing or become writers, and my knee-jerk response was immediate and emphatic. “I still want to become a writer,” I insisted: there is no past tense about that. Perhaps the acorn never falls far from the tree, and perhaps an acorn has no choice but to become an oak in the end, regardless of any apparent denials.