Emily Rodgers is a Pittsburgh-based adjunct English professor at AI, Duquesne University, and the Community College of Allegheny County. Outside of her role as an instructor, Rodgers is a musician who is both singer and songwriter in Emily Rodgers Band. She has been praised by NPR All Songs Considered, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Burgh Sounds, Pittsburgh City-Paper, and Tribune-Review. During our interview, Rodgers talks about balancing life as an instructor and a musician, a juggling act that is no easy task for the faint-hearted. To find out more, visit http://www.emilyrodgers.com.
Emily, what originally led you to pursue and teach English?
It was a bit haphazard. I was unhappy in my work and applied to Carnegie Mellon’s English program on a whim not thinking I’d get in. I did, with a small fellowship, so I figured I’d better go! While I was there, I worked as a teaching assistant and really liked it. I liked working with students on their writing, but also meeting them and being part of their first year experience. The class was for international students who were in their first semester. After graduation, I applied to teach at a number of schools and was hired as an adjunct at both Robert Morris University and Community College of Allegheny. I loved getting to know the students and our discussions in class and I was hooked. I’m not longer at RMU, but am still at CCAC, as well as Duquesne University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
As an English teacher, what is the most difficult obstacle you face?
Managing my time. My Duquesne students have to take a one-credit orientation/college prep course their first semester. On a whole they do not enjoy it but, in that it focuses on time management skills, I joke that I should probably enroll, as I need it more than they do. I take grading seriously; I hate the idea that a student spends days on a piece only have to have a teacher slap a grade on and no other text onto it. But because I take grading (and everything else in life) far too seriously, I let student papers pile up. If I just sit down and do the work, I feel a thousand times better. The guilt of not having returned work is crushing.
In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of being a teacher?
There are not many full-time positions available, so most of my colleagues and I scramble to get courses from semester to semester. And the pay for these courses is minuscule. For example–last semester, I had six classes at three schools; this semester, I have three at just one school. It’s so much work for so little financial return. I also struggle to balance the social toll it can take. I love leading discussions and speaking individually with students, but just a few hours of that and I’m spent. It’s hard to then either go home or to the library and do additional required work, like prep and grading. For me, two hours of teaching makes me as exhausted as eight hours at a desk job. Being in front of 25 people, either lecturing or leading a discussion is wonderful, but can be stressful. There is nothing like asking a question about the text and waiting nervously for someone to answer. It’s a blessing when I get to know at least one student well enough to make her speak so I’m not standing there like a fool.
You’re also a musician. How do you balance one artistic career with another?
Not well! This past year was a bit intense. I recorded an album, filmed a number of music videos, and toured while also teaching at three schools. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until it was over. I teach writing and writing is a large part of my songwriting process, but my music is inherently about singing and presentation/interpretation; it’s different enough from what I teach for it to feel like a respite from teaching. It would be harder to teach poetry and then go home and write poetry.
In what ways have you grown as a person through your experience teaching?
I’m capable of projecting a great deal more than I thought! My first semester, I kept asking students if they could hear me in the back because I was so nervous. I’ve always been soft spoken. (Or so I’m told–I sound loud in my head.) Apparently, I still mumble in conversation but can generally be heard in a classroom setting. I’ve also come to appreciate myself more than I had in the past. I’m so self-critical and it matters to me to know that I matter.
Why do you write? What gets in your way? What motivates you?
I’m motivated by reading good work, especially good contemporary work. It makes me want to create my own. What gets in my way is self-criticism. I’m extremely mean to myself. Cruel in a way I’d never be to someone else. I have difficulty turning off my internal editor. This makes me a good editor, but it makes writing first drafts nearly impossible.
Do you have any insight to offer writers?
Avoid cliched plots, but adhere to the cliche that is “get your butt in the chair.” Sit down. Start writing. I tell students to do this constantly. They tell me it works. One of these days I’ll follow my own advice.