๐˜ฟ๐™š๐™ฅ๐™–๐™ง๐™ฉ๐™ข๐™š๐™ฃ๐™ฉ ๐™ค๐™› ๐˜ฟ๐™š๐™–๐™ฉ๐™: Research Can Be Murder

Inย Department of Death,ย the latest Nick Hoffman mystery set in the wilds of academia, Nick has become chair of his university’s English Department–but nobody reading the series could have predicted that would ever happen. It’s definitely not something that Nick ever wanted.

I introduced him to mystery readers in Let’s Get Criminal as an English professor who wasn’t respected in his Midwestern department for way too many reasons. To start with, he was a “spousal hire,” which meant he got his position only because the university wanted to hire his partner.

Spousal hires at a university can arouse a lot of animosity in their new colleagues even when they’re well-qualified, because they’re basically just part of a package deal. In most cases, they would never have been hired on their own at that point in time. Other professors will feel they’re intruders, unworthy of joining the rarefied club whose membership they guard so zealously. And it doesn’t take much to anger highly combustible professors anyway in an environment where grudges flourish like feral hogs, walking catfish, Burmese pythons, and other invasive species that are ruining the Everglades.

Nick was also looked down upon because he enjoyed teaching the most basic course the department offered: composition. His peers would do anything to avoid being stuck with it. That kind of course put him at the level of graduate assistants and adjuncts, and liking the hard work involved in helping students strengthen their writing skills created suspicion and even contempt: who was he trying to kid?

And then there was his scholarship: Nick is a bibliographer. A bibliographer of Edith Wharton. That means that he’s not only read every single book, story, review, and essay that Wharton wrote, he’s read everything that’s ever been writtenย aboutย her. In every language. The project took him four solid years. He’s annotated each item and created multiple indexes for the bibliography which is a splendid guide for anyone doing research about the American author who was the first women to win a Pulitzer for Literature.

That might sound significant, but to his new colleagues, it’s grunt work, uninspiring–and worse than that, his book isย useful. Unlike their own books which are written in abstruse critical jargon that only appeals to minuscule audiences.

I chose this focus for Nick’s scholarship because my college writing mentor was a Wharton bibliographer and I wanted to honor her years of research. And it appalled me how that book did not get her promoted to full professor when she should have been.

Nick has had a different path, pockmarked by murders of course. He did get promoted to full professor; a visiting authors’ fellowship was established in his name by a grateful student who struck it rich; and through a bizarre twist of fate in the 10thย book of the series, he’s heading up a department filled with people who loathe him more now than ever.

He regrets having agreed to become chair before the first week in his new position is over. What happens? Nick is unexpectedly privy to a bribery scandal that threatens to blacken the name of the university. Nick himself is the object of intense administrative harassment and spying. And of course, he becomes involved in yet another murder.

Can his research skills and his love of crime fiction help him out of this tangle of problems? They always have, no matter how little respect they’ve earned him from his colleagues.

In classic mystery form, the murderer and motive are revealed at the very end of the book amid a scene of crazy academic chaos unlike anything Nick has ever witnessed or dealt with before.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer at the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in a wide range of genres.ย  He coaches and mentors writers at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Teaching Creative Writing Shouldn’t Be An Xtreme Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty members invariably tell meย  behind-the-scenes stories.ย  The tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, and ridiculous vendettas make great raw material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series.

But I’ve also heard stories from students that arenโ€™t funny, stories about what itโ€™s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. These teachers seem to enjoy badgering and browbeating students as if theyโ€™re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and Iโ€™ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while theyโ€™re reading aloud and say, โ€œThat stinks!โ€ or “That’s crap.ย  Stop reading.”ย  This behavior is abusive and inexcusable.

Iโ€™ve heard of some creative writing professors who are so intimidating that they make students shake with fear. Others I’ve been told about play favorites and donโ€™t let everyone read work aloud. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a community, not a cage match.ย  Why do any professors believe they have a right to make their students suffer?

I teach the way I was taught by an amazing creative writing teacher at Fordham University who became my mentor and model. She ran her writing 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. Iโ€™d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.

Teaching isnโ€™t combat, especially teaching creative writing. Weโ€™re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if theyโ€™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–without tearing them down. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: โ€œGood teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.โ€ Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.ย  He teaches at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Larger Classes Can Cheat Students

As the author of twenty-five books in many genres, I do a lot of touring and public speaking.ย  That includes speaking at universities where faculty clue me into their struggles in and out of the classroom.ย  One of the things that gripes professors at state schools is when they hear administrators publicly congratulating themselves on doing “more with less” in the face of budget cuts.

It sounds lovely and even heroic, doesn’t it?ย  But it never seems to apply to the administrators themselves.ย  What exactly are they sacrificing? They don’t take pay cuts and work harder, or work longer hours.ย  Their salaries keep going up, as national surveys show.

One thing it does mean is that their underlings–professors and adjuncts–teach ever larger classes.ย  The pressure on class size across the country is insidious and undermines educational excellence, but nobody in charge seems to care or understand its impact.

A year and a half ago, I had a class of amazing fiction writers who were funny, smart, wildly diverse, and hard-working–but there were twenty-nine of them.ย  That’s right, twenty-nine.ย  In a creative writing class.

There was no way I could give individual students the attention they needed.ย  I did the very best I could, though, and got a hearty round of applause the last day.ย  I applauded them back because I was so proud of their work ethic and their talent.

But I think that like many students around the country, they deserved a much smaller class.ย  Creative writing is intimate, intense, and has the potential to change people’s lives.ย  I saw that more recently in another creative writing class that was equally talented, but had only eighteen students.

These students got to know each other’s work and each other in a much deeper way.ย  They quickly formed a private Facebook group; chipped in for a coffee machine and coffee to use at breaks; and they were were concerned when someone was absent. They shared class jokes; they shared moments of deep emotion; their writing changed; they changed.

Thanks not just to their personalities and interests, but to the class size, they became a devoted community of learners and teachers.ย  Isn’t that we hope for?