27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)

It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul

I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.



  1. Your most poignant post yet, Melodie. I bet you're a great teacher.

  2. Teaching is like writing. To do it well, you've got to love it because it is not going to make you rich!

  3. Hi, Melodie --
    School starts on Monday here, so your post was a nicely timed reminder of why we teachers do this. Thanks so much and good luck to you ahead!

  4. You say it so well, Melodie. After twenty-five years in the classroom prior to my first published novel and ten more books since then, I'm back teaching--writing workshop series in public libraries. Loving it! My biggest complaint as a public school teacher was the few "teachers" who really didn't love their students nor their subject.

  5. Thank you, Leigh! I'm always a little bit nervous on that first night. One never outgrows that, I think.

  6. Janice, I agree entirely. If only good teachers were paid what they are actually worth.

  7. Thank you, Art! It was an interesting exercise, to actually be honest with myself about this. Part time profs in Canada are paid so little, we don't feel valued by the college administration. So there must be other reasons I would do this.

  8. Fran, I came across that when I was a sessional prof at my college, in the day school. Some of the full-time/tenured profs were making five times what I was, teaching the same number of classes, and they hated teaching. Something is very wrong with our system.

  9. I've thought about teaching part time. It would be a pay to give back, as you said, and to meet new people in my community and make a little extra money. But I wouldn't even know how to start to make the connections to make that happen. And maybe I'm a little overextended as it is. (Not maybe actually. Definitely, sigh.)

    Good for you for doing it all these years!

  10. I don't know ANY teachers who are doing it for the money, but then I don't know anyone teaching at Harvard or Yale, either. I do know that up here in South Dakota, a full-time teacher is still going to be putting in a minimum of 60 hours a week during the school year. I, too, was a part-time teacher, and then for a while, a full-time teacher, and now I'm retired. I just finished a flash summer course at the university - The History of the World, Part 2, in 4 weeks - and all I can say is, NEVER AGAIN. Too intense (3 hours a day, 5 days a week, and that was just in the classroom). I did it because I did have the fantasy of teaching part-time, because I was flattered to be asked, etc. And it was good; and better now I'm back to my usual scruffy retired self. :)

  11. Thanks for this post, Melodie. I was an English professor for over thirty years, often as an adjunct--first because I wanted more time with my children when they were young, later because I became what's known as a trailing spouse, following my college administrator husband from city to city, constantly starting over again at the bottom of the totem pole, teaching the 8:00 remedial composition classes and whatever else other people didn't want to teach. It's a frustrating business. My frustrations eventually boiled over into a story called "Adjuncts Anonymous," about a group of adjuncts plotting revenge against the loathsome composition program director. (It's in my short-story collection, Her Infinite Variety--not that I'm suggesting you buy it, Melodie. At adjunct wages, you can't afford it.) When we made our last move, my husband suggested I take a year off from teaching and focus on writing. One year has turned into five and may well turn into permanent retirement. I'm relishing the time for writing, and for reading excellent posts such as yours, but I miss teaching--for all the reasons you mention, and especially for the students (much as they made me crazy when I actually had to put up with them every day).

  12. Barb, I'm laughing! Yup, you are one crazy-busy gal *now*. (Okay, maybe just crazy, like me :)

  13. Eve, when I was sessional, I was exactly that: 3 hours a day in the classroom, teaching 5 different courses a week (yes, you heard that right. 5 different courses. BK is right on the mark. We get the courses and times that nobody wants.) For that, I made about $2000 a course, so about $20,000 for two terms. I'd make more at Starbucks. This system is broken.

  14. BK, I will definitely look for your book! Yes, we've had similar experiences. I got the 8 am, campus 45 minutes away courses, with 45-70 students, no marking help. These days, I'm teaching max 20 students at night, so it is doable. Problem was, the first half of the baby boom got the tenured positions. Not their fault. It's just demographics.


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