The following is a letter to Ga. Sen. Gail Buckner (D-44) and Ga. Rep. Joe Heckstall (D-62) about the proposed 77% tuition increase and extraordinarily severe cutbacks for all universities in the state of Georgia. Some details excerpted for space.
. . .I am a doctoral student in creative writing at Georgia State University. Every class day, I get up, throw two heavy bags into my little jalopy with no radio and no air bags, brave the suicide run up I-75 North, fork over $5 cash to the State of Georgia for parking, and engage in the business of Chaucer’s Clerke: “And gladly would (s)he learn and gladly teach.” I also am a published poet, author, and scholar of poetry with many awards to my credit (among these, a Hambidge Center for the Arts and Sciences teaching fellowship and a Pushcart Prize nomination). I am writing to voice my strong opposition to any further budget cuts for higher education in Georgia, particularly at GSU and most particularly in creative writing and literature programs systemwide.
I have been a professional writer—meaning that my writing and related activities have fed, clothed, and housed me–since 1986. I left a good-paying job as a writer at CNN and took an enormous pay cut to pursue advanced study in the art of poetry and to teach college students. . . .
Like so many other graduate students at GSU, I teach introductory courses to pay my way. My job pays for most, but not all, of my doctoral studies. It also is part of a rigorous professionalization program that trains us to teach adults at the college level. . . .
Much of my work involves remediating woefully underprepared graduates of Georgia high schools. . . I frequently teach that a sentence has a subject and a predicate; that books contain useful information; and that it is not acceptable to miss a deadline. By “teach,” I mean that I repeatedly must find engaging ways for students to work on these issues during the course of a semester. At the same time, I have to get students up to speed on the basics of ethos, pathos, and logos; writing essays in a number of different modes (e.g., analysis, argument, personal, etc.); training them to use the library databases as sources instead of Wikipedia and Google; and inculcating a sense of professional ethics in terms of avoiding plagiarism and citing sources in the styles of their respective disciplines. I also must attend monthly professionalization meetings and twice-yearly in-house graduate student conferences. My job also frees tenured faculty to pursue their own research.
How ironic that Chancellor Davis estimates a 77% tuition increase just to maintain the status quo when roughly 72% of all courses at my institution in recent years are taught by graduate students, part-timers, and adjuncts, according to the American Association of University Professors. Where do you suppose all that lottery cash is going? Certainly not into hiring more full-time faculty, nor into cost-of-living increases, nor into lowering class sizes, nor into graduate research funding to lower our courseloads so that we can do our research.
I have undergraduate students who live without gas and electricity, yet attend GSU on the HOPE scholarship. I have given away desk copies of textbooks to students who are struggling with homelessness or marginal living conditions. I have bought diapers for one student’s newborn when she was unemployed. This semester, I have given free tutorials to one former student outside of my normal office hours because his skills were so deficient. Some of my students are single parents, working two jobs and struggling to pass remedial English on the third try so that they might better themselves and their families’ financial situation by earning a college degree. . . . Most of my students have the expense of commuting to GSU from all over metro Atlanta from locations underserved by public transportation. The days of running to Daddy to cover another several-hundred-dollar “temporary fee increase” are long over, especially when Daddy’s been looking for work for months or has lost the family home to foreclosure. For them, and for me, there truly is nothing else that can be cut.
After ten years of serving the University System of Georgia, as either an adjunct faculty member or a graduate teaching assistant, I still haven’t learned how not to care about my students or their writing.
It is incredibly exhausting work, especially when I am teaching myself about the intricacies of 17th-century devotional verse, theoretical debates over various metrical substitutions in contemporary formal poetry, various approaches to narrative theory, and the effects of time shifts in the novel as preparation for comprehensive examinations in poetry and fiction. (Those who think “anyone” can write or that creative writing is an “easy” discipline should try a graduate-level workshop or course in Form and Theory sometime.) I have taken a 1.5 load nearly every semester of my doctoral studies in order to finish as quickly as possible. I did this purely for financial reasons. I can say that both my learning and my teaching suffered as a direct result of the system’s existing financial pressures. Apparently I finished just in time, given the proposed cuts in faculty and course offerings. My new concern is whether any of my dissertation committee members will have their positions cut or be forced into early retirement. Assuming that I am able to earn my doctorate under these circumstances (in six years instead of twelve), I have resolved to leave the state of Georgia shortly thereafter for a state which supports the mission of higher education as something more than glorified technical training. How I will make a living is anyone’s guess, but if I want to teach in higher education, I know that the prospects of finding a full-time tenure-track position in English, much less creative writing, in this state are next to zero.
My fellow grad students who are still taking courses must wait two years between offerings of some required courses. Writing workshops at the graduate level today are the size of undergraduate level workshops I took at GSU in the early 1990s (15-20 students); undergraduate writing workshops are the size of freshman composition courses (25+ students), which is to say that they are double-booked. Intermediate and advanced students who are writing majors cannot fully develop their talents when they get only half the contact time for which they are paying. The same is true of non-English majors who are taking freshman composition and introductory literature survey courses. Unlike other disciplines, English grading requires an enormous amount of time and written feedback; you can’t run hundreds of essays through a Scantron machine and leave that on your desk until Monday morning. My nights and weekends, when not filled with my own time-consuming research, are stuffed with reading, correcting, and responding to student papers, not to mention the difficulties of thinking up ways to engage weaker students in developing habits of reading, writing, and thinking to which they, frankly, should have been exposed well before high school.
As it is, graduate students at GSU have been forced to make do with very little for a very long time. Without supplementary income from student loans, which assume the ability to find gainful employment upon graduation, I would not be able to survive. This year, I must attend three professional conferences. Conferences are where scholars exchange ideas and interview for jobs. As I have recently finished coursework and am studying for comprehensive exams, it is imperative that I be able to attend these conferences. Even on the slimmest of budgets, any one conference costs over $1000 once you figure in airfare or gasoline, hotel accommodations, and registration. Such expenses are an enormous burden–25% of my salary. I can compete against 120 other grad students for the hope of a $200 reimbursement after the fact, but that doesn’t even cover airfare in coach.
We don’t even have dedicated research areas for graduate study in our library. In the fifth-floor silent room, which is as close to a graduate carrel as one can find at GSU, there are approximately eight electrical sockets for 50 or so desks. Think about graduate students in English, history, Spanish, and other humanities disciplines trying to find a quiet place to plug in their computers while they work on research and you begin to get some idea of how difficult conditions are for research in the arts and humanities. This is how much Georgia, the land of Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mitchell, Henry Grady, Alice Walker, James Dickey, Conrad Aiken, Sidney Lanier, values its young writers, who work under materially different conditions than those authors did, and who look to the University System of Georgia to help them develop their craft. At what point should the state reallocate funding towards, instead of away from, its best advanced students? If you want to attract the very best minds and reap the rewards of their training, then you have to offer attractive funding at the postgraduate level and you have to make up the difference by waiving out-of-state and international student fees.
[. . .]
As my elected officials, I urge you to stand up now, when it counts, and defend higher education in Georgia. Higher education, with the detailed analysis and difficult habits of thought it entails, is this state’s only real economic hope. Otherwise, we will be condemned to begging for a lettuce-packing plant here and a convention there, forever at the mercy of those civic leaders educated in states whose university systems are properly capitalized.
Recently, GSU quit reading the names of undergraduate degree recipients at commencement. This speaks volumes for what this state really thinks about the importance of a college education beyond mere job training. Until Georgia invests in higher education, as opposed to the sports palaces and building contracts “appertaining thereunto,” we will continue to turn out underprepared high school and college “graduates” who don’t see the point of reading the newspaper, budget proposals, Flannery O’Connor, or between the lines. Unfortunately, you are counting on these great minds to stimulate our economy. There is one great advantage to pursuing the proposed USG cuts: such “graduates” will be extremely easy to govern.