Academia: A Nest of Vipers?

Over the years and on many book tours for my mysteries, people have asked me “Is academia as vicious as all that?”

The answer is Absolutely. How do I know? Because I not only escaped that world with lots of notes, but I have many friends who are still there, reporting one fiction-worthy incident after another to me.

I’ll start with a minor example that shows you how petty and small-minded academia can be. Back in 2011, I was invited to teach at Michigan State University’s English department, where I had earned my PhD years before. The current chair had realized via a news story that I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. He was impressed, and I was flattered.

When I started teaching, the office manager wouldn’t order a plastic name plate for my office door, the kind that all the faculty members had. We’re talking about something that costs just a few bucks and is recyclable, for a department with a budget well in the millions. That was as silly as it was insulting.

My current mystery State University of Murder focuses on a charming but dictatorial chairman of an English Department, Napoléon Padovani, who manages to alienate almost all his colleagues in an oppression blitzkrieg. He’s a composite of department chairs I’ve heard about from across the country.

One chair had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: he suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they might win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. There’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

And another chair who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement.

A religious studies chairman I know of argued with a rabbi teaching in his department as an adjunct that Judaism was absolutely not a culture but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. Their disagreement was a major reason the rabbi wasn’t rehired.  I should add that the chair was not Jewish.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was a former boyfriend had burst into her apartment, knocking the door off her hinges, and roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the chair did absolutely nothing.

And dispatches from a department I know of are that the current atmosphere is “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, those faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. And the faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, taking real situations and people, extrapolating from them, making them more ridiculous, more threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true. And the emotional toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

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Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder. He teaches individualized writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  This blog originally appear at the Mystery Fanfare website.

Literary Agents Have Messed With My Mind

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  They didn’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.  So I brought her the deal.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a long distance relationship would work out despite her saying she’s come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

University Teaching Is Not A Demolition Derby

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country, and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, these stories make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas — all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Some teachers aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.  I heard from a former student today about how her new creative writing teacher tears down everything she writes and it’s profoundly undermining her confidence.

Creative writing is one of my passions, and I’ve heard of other professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse. I’ve never done that. I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to offer something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the piece is well-done humor. As for dissing a student’s work, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher during my freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and role model. She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way too. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers by identifying what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply, “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block Is Bunk and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

In Praise of Passionate Professors

I did an MFA in Creative writing and English at UMass/Amherst when it was rated the third best writing program in the country–not that I picked it for its status. I wanted a school that was close to my New York home but not too close, which ruled out many other programs.

dubois_pond_chapel_620x305UMass was where I got my start as an author because I published my first story while still a student, in Redbook, which had 4.5 millions readers at the the time.  This was after having won second prize in the department’s writing contest my first year, and first prize my second year.

Each semester I had a writing workshop, but some of my favorite professors were actually literature teachers (we had to do thirty credits of lit classes). I still think about them years later because they passed on the most precious teacher’s gift of all: excitement. They were so passionate about the writers they taught that they set off fireworks in my mind that still glow whenever I think about those writers or read them.

Paul Mariani was a Hart Crane expert and while I’d read a biography of the doomed poet and some of his letters before signing up for Mariani’s Symbolist poetry seminar, Crane’s work seemed inaccessible to me, arcane and closed. But Mariani made the poems intimate, open, immediate, and I still quote lines from “Voyages,” “Chaplinesque” and “The Broken Tower” today. Crane feels like an old friend and I re-read his poems more than any other poet’s.

white buildingsThe late Ernest Hofer taught Contemporary British fiction and brought over English paperbacks for his students because we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. in those pre-Amazon days. Under his tutelage I read writers I probably wouldn’t have found on my own: Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell. Hill’s Strange Meeting is still one of the best WW I novels I’ve ever read. Hofer was also a Henry James expert and he let me co-teach a James class with him in which I also supervised an honors student. That gave me even more teaching experience than I already had.

susan hillCynthia Griffin Wolff was just about to publish her psychological biography Feast of Words about Edith Wharton which would change Wharton scholarship forever. Her seminar was rigorous and exciting. She knew Wharton so well that she never consulted her manuscript or any notes.  Even though I was already in Wharton’s thrall, I left Wolff’s class with a deeper respect for Wharton that led to three books of my own connected to that author.

feast of wordsEach of these professors was dedicated, focused, patient, good-humored–and in love with their subjects. You can’t fake that last quality.  It’s why I try my best to only teach books and classes I’m enthusiastic about now that I’m a guest at Michigan State University.  My hope is to pass on some of the gifts that were given to me in those formative years with such grace and generosity.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

Teaching is Not a Blood Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories.  Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do.  Teachers who aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse.  I’ve never done that.  I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished.  And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny.  As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say.  I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment.  In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model.  She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth.  She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was.  She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites.  She encouraged us all with grace and good humor.  I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.  Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing.  We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses.  Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.”  Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.