Four blogs worth a visit — my Pratt Institute students!

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

It’s been a great semester with the four senior students who signed up for my blogging class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a small art school with a justifiably excellent reputation.

It’s been fairly challenging to teach and engage so small a group, but we’ve had fun and we’ve had some fantastic guest speakers, three who came out to Brooklyn in person and two via Skype.

My husband, Jose Lopez, a photo editor at The New York Times, explained how to use photos legally and well; Troy Griggs, a Times graphic designer, shared his thoughts about how to design a blog that will really engage readers and Rani Nagpal, who works with a major Manhattan real estate firm, taught us about SEO.

Anne Theriault, a Toronto feminist blogger whose work on the Belle Jar has been featured many times by Freshly Pressed, Skyped in, as did Sree Sreenivasan, who is the chief digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both were funny, lively and super-helpful. Much to my surprise, Anne told us she breaks several blogging “rules” — she doesn’t revise every post to death before posting, she posts only once a week and she rarely answers comments from readers.

Here are two of my students, Grace Myers (left) from Bowie, Maryland, and her bestie Ellen Trubey, from California.

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Grace’s blog is Rough Guide to Life, a lovely, thoughtful guide to meditation, breathing exercises and ways to slooooow down and enjoy life; the photo of her in a tree on her blog is very Grace! She graduates soon, so I hope her blog will continue, and continue to attract and inspire readers.

Darnell Roberts, our only male student, and an illustration major, writes this blog about video games. A passionate gamer, his drawing work is charming — one of his super-heroines is called GravityGirl. It’s been a sea of estrogen with four chatty women in the class, but he’s held up well.

Ellen’s blog, He Is Out There Somewhere, details the ups and downs of dating in 2014 and beyond, especially the travails of using sites like Tinder and OKCupid. Ellen is also an illustration major, and uses many of her own drawings to illustrate her posts. Like her, the blog is chatty, down-to-earth and practical.

Tiffany Park’s blog, Morning Calm, follows Asian artists exhibiting in New York City; her blog has won her three internships so far and she’s even been re-blogged by major artists like Takashi Murakami.

I also privately teach blogging webinars, and offer individual coaching at $150/hour (one-hour minimum), so if you feel it’s time to up your own blogging game, please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com. I work by phone or Skype, at whatever time suits you best.

I’ve helped bloggers from New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, NY improve their writing, photo selection, graphic design and theme, whether for a blogs that’s personal or one that’s professional, designed to attract new clients; some testimonials here.

Please visit my students’ terrific blogs — and please comment!

So proud of them all…

 

The life of an adjunct professor

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a while since I’ve taught college, which I’ve done at Concordia University in Montreal, Pace University in New York and elsewhere. This fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I’m teaching a two-hour writing class to freshmen and a two-hour blogging class to seniors.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I work as an adjunct, i.e. someone hired to work only part-time, with no benefits or security or chance of attaining a full-time position. I’m paid a set fee, negotiated in advance with the dean, paid every few weeks.

In return, I offer my skills, experience, wisdom and advice. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a locker. (I do have a mailbox.) I can make photocopies for my classes free.

I don’t live on, or anywhere near, campus, which means a two-hour commute each way and my physical unavailability to students between classes, held once a week.

If I want to meet with students — which, technically, I’m not paid to do — it’s on my own time and in the cafeteria. If they want additional advice, or just a chance to chat, it needs to be then, (when I also need to rest and recharge between classes!), or by email or phone.

I risk looking aloof and uncaring, yet my re-hiring, as it does for many adjuncts today, relies on student evaluations. So does my income.

Dilemma!

Should I hand out high grades like candy bars on Hallowe’en to placate them?

Grade harshly, if fairly, to prepare them for the reality of life as a working writer?

Minimize my time and energy out of the classroom to save both for other revenue streams, and for my own life?

Give them the most possible to prove my commitment to them; (see: student evaluations)?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don't they?
Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don’t they?

The irony?

Most undergraduate students have no idea what an adjunct is, or why we’re there — (cheap! lots of daily practical experience to share! plentiful labor supply!) — or why we might view them and their school somewhat differently than those with tenure or working towards it.

To them, we’re just another professor, someone they can shred, or praise, on Rate My Professors, even adding a chile pepper, (yes, really), to show  how “hot” they think we are.

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And, here in the U.S. where a year of tuition alone can cost $40,000 or more, we’re also fighting a consumerist mindset; I’m acutely aware that every hour I spend with my students represents a parental investment of  X-hundred dollars.

Am I worth it? Am I providing sufficient value? (Am I fun/likeable/relatable/helpful?)

And what are the objective metrics for those?

Unlike most aggrieved adjuncts, I don’t have a Phd nor multiple advanced degrees. I haven’t invested thousands of dollars and hours in acquiring academic credentials, in the hope or — worse — expectation that all this time and energy will produce a steady, well-paid income.

So, as much as working solely as an adjunct makes for a nasty, low-paid and tiring existence, as this Salon piece makes clear, it’s working for me.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

I was also fairly appalled to read this piece about how colleges are racing to blow millions on sexy, cool facilities like a “lazy river.”

I blog frequently about income inequality and the difficulty many Americans, even those well-educated, now have of finding well-paid work. It’s an odd and disturbing issue if professors who have invested their lives preparing to work in academia are, as the Salon piece says, on food stamps to survive.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

But my industry of 30 years — journalism, specifically print journalism — has also fallen to pieces and I now expect very little any more from the formal “job market.”

After losing my staff job at the New York Daily News in 2006, I had few choices:

1) return for re-training into a wholly new career (costly, no guarantee of work upon graduation); 2) keep trying to find a full-time job, with many fewer available; 3) learn a wholly new-to-me skill set (coding, HTML, etc) and compete with 25-year-olds; 4) remain freelance, but supplement/broaden my income with as many other revenue streams beyond print journalism as possible.

No. 4 is the course I took.

Have you had to re-tool or re-invent your career?

How’s it working out?

Are you an adjunct? Do you enjoy it?

Students….how do you feel about this?

 

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings
Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker
The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!
Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!
Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.

 

Back to school!

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Guess what Robert Redford and I have in common?

The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.

The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.

When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.

“It’s the one with the goats in front.”

And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.

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If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.

I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.

One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?

Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)

I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.

It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)

I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.

Both of which are really code for “demanding.”

If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.

My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.

That has proven valuable.

My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.

College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Are you headed back into the classroom?

If a student, what year and what are you studying?

If a teacher or professor, how about you?