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How She Does It: A Day in the Life of a College Writing Professor

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Today is #dayofhighered, a day on which teachers in higher education have been asked to explain what they do, in response to some pretty savage and wholly inaccurate criticism levied by David Levy in The Washington Post recently (Robert Farley offers a great rebuttal). Writers in higher education (although, if they're doing their jobs, all teachers in higher education are writers) face additional scrutiny and women in higher education even more. As someone who lives all three roles every day, I feel the call to tell the public not only what I do but how I do it (as in "I don't know HOW she does it") and most importantly, why.

Instead of ending with the why, let me start with it, because I think it will put everything else in perspective. Otherwise, a detailed explanation of what I do as a writer and college professor every day might come off as complaining somehow, which is not my intent because no matter how time consuming, no matter how all-encompassing it is, the bottom line is:

I love my work.

But back to the beginning. The what. What do I do?

Well, right now I teach a four course load at a public university, with one reassignment, to administrate the Arkansas Writers Workshop MFA Program (brand-new this year, with all that brand-newness entails). This semester I'm also receiving one course reassignment to do some extra work for our university general education committee. I also founded and have directed for thirteen years, the Great Bear Writing Project, a K-12 university partnership that focuses on empowering -- through a local professional network and a national one -- teachers as writers and gives them much needed resources to teach writing (a vital 21st-century skill) to Arkansas elementary and secondary students across grade levels and subject areas. I love this work especially -- collaborating with gifted teachers for the benefit of students is immensely inspiring and rewarding -- but I'm told it's not especially visible. Some of it occurs off campus in the schools themselves and much of it occurs at night and on the weekends. I had a long meeting yesterday (Sunday) that was the highlight of my week (and that's no April Fool's) and I'll have a two-day working retreat reorganizing the site the last weekend of this month. Like the other two hundred sites in the network, ours received over $40,000 annually from the national organization to carry out this work, moreover, and, visible or not, no one gives you $40,000 without a lot of strings (work) attached.

So what about the teaching? College professors have a bit of an image problem here -- because we are not in our classrooms every moment of every day -- the way K-12 teachers are -- but rather teach in blocks. It is assumed that when we're not standing in front of a classroom, we're not working. I like the way my colleague, Anna Leahy, explains this to her mother, a lawyer. As a lawyer, Anna's mother is probably not in court every day but that doesn't mean that when she's not in court, she's not working. In fact, all of the time a lawyer spends outside of court is devoted to preparing for those vital hours when she is, and when she must be, on her best game. As a writing teacher, I spend the time I'm not in the classroom preparing to meaningfully fill the hours that I am, so that my students get the most for their tuition, so that they learn as much as possible about being good writers. In order for that to happen, they also have to write. They have to write a lot. They have to write a lot and I must respond to that writing, to every word, so that they will learn from it and bring what they learn to the next piece of writing and ultimately, out into the world.

In addition to my classes, much of my day is spent in various meetings doing, along with my dedicated colleagues, the work of the university, the bulk of which revolves around developing, calibrating and re-calibrating our curriculum to ensure that our writing students have the opportunity to follow the most current, up to day course of study available so that they will graduate ready to succeed professionally and personally. This is to say that I don't do much course preparation -- creating content, responding to papers, and so forth -- at school but rather at home, at night and on the weekends.

But wait, you might be thinking at this point, You said you do other work, writing project work on the weekends. And you're a writer, with three published books, dozens of essays and articles, and books in progress. You're also fairly involved in the national scene, doing work with colleagues across the country. When do you do all this? How do you do all this? What's your secret? You must have an advantage that others don't have. There must be a trick.

Here is where I add that I am also a wife and mother of two children still at home and that my family is the priority in my life, the largest marbles that go in the jar first and that everything else gets arranged around. Here is where I tell you that, besides having a life partner who also works full time but who completely shares with you the work of raising a family (single parents exist on a whole other plane; I am convinced they have superpowers and we should all bow down and worship them and bring them gifts), there is no secret, there is, according to my friend Julianna Baggot, who trumps me with eighteen books and four kids (you've got to check out Pure, if you haven't already), "no trick."

You have to work your ass off. You had to get up at five this morning in order to finish this essay in time to be published on #dayofhighereducation (you started the essay yesterday, Sunday morning, and, unfortunately, worked through church because you were on a roll). You have to stay up late. You work weekends; you work all summer, every summer. In fact summer is when most of the books and articles get written, even though that's also when you run a four week all-day writing institute for K-12 teachers (which is why May, the month your kids are in school but the summer institute hasn't started yet, is your "golden month"). Your house is pretty messy, though it would pass a health department inspection with no problem, which has become your standard. Colleagues regularly comment on the jumble that is your office.

You don't have hobbies. You don't need them. The last thing you do every night as you're falling asleep is check your Twitter feed, because it's all about writing, publishing, and teaching writing and those are your favorite subjects.

You live and breathe this life. You love this work. So you fall asleep exhausted but happy, knowing how very lucky you are to spend your days doing what you love.