The Accidental Academic and the Literary/Commercial Divide

cal headshotBy day, I teach creative writing at UC Berkeley. I direct the Poetry for the People program, founded by the late African American poet and essayist June Jordan. My courses are in poetry and spoken word, but in the context of the African American Studies Department. Therefore my colleagues are mostly social scientists, and not writers of poetry or fiction.

I call myself an “accidental academic,” because I never set out to teach college. This particular position is a hybrid of teaching, activism, and young adult development, and I was selected for the job because I happened to have the necessary mix of skills. If it had simply been a creative writing teaching position, I would never have been hired. At the time I applied, I hadn’t published a book and I was an MFA dropout. But the program was in crisis, and the previous director had left abruptly. They needed someone who had high level mediation and organizational development skills, as well as a national reputation in poetry and university teaching experience. I had been an artist in residence at Stanford, teaching spoken word, and I had an agent who booked me on the national college circuit, so I managed to cobble together a passable resume. Once I got the job, I transitioned the program out of crisis, then I finished my MFA and worked to pass my review so I could have the job permanently.

I am a lecturer—like an adjunct professor—and for the first seven years I had no job security. Every summer, I got a letter telling me I still had a job in the fall. Fortunately, my union won the right to a “continuing appointment” for lecturers who prove they are needed and are doing an excellent job. Now I have a secure position, and I got a raise. Which means that I currently get paid the same amount as an entry level administrative assistant. This is typical of lecturers and adjuncts, who get paid much less than tenure track faculty, often for doing the same work. The job is officially 2/3 time, but some years it has required more than full time commitment. When I began, I made even less money, and I couldn’t live off the salary in the expensive Northern California Bay Area. For many years, I made my living with a combination of teaching and touring as a spoken word performer and hip hop theater artist.

Since becoming a mother, I have continued to teach, but stopped touring. My partner and I have blended our incomes, and he is the primary breadwinner, while I am the primary parent. I have made the artistic transition from being a performance poet and theater artist (which was not particularly compatible with parenting) to writing fiction (which is much more compatible).

Overall, the day-to-day of the teaching work doesn’t do anything for my career as a novelist. It doesn’t bring in a great deal of resources, or give me access to much of a creative writing network in fiction.

What does make a big difference, however, is that teaching at UC Berkeley means having the literary credibility of an elite public university. Sometimes that can be the difference between being accepted or rejected as a presenter at writing conferences and festivals. This also means I am likely to have an easier time placing articles in different publications, because my bio makes me seem like more an “expert.” That is to say, two people can say the exact same thing, but if one of them is on the faculty of Princeton and the other one is a car mechanic, the Princeton scholar will have more credibility. I believe this is part of the classism of the society, the notion that people from the upper classes are presumed to be smarter, and should be taken more seriously. Thus, people associated with the educational institutions of the upper classes are also taken more seriously.

Certainly, we have many examples (especially on the internet) of people shooting off their mouths with very little information, who can’t think critically or strategically, and would benefit from some education on the topic at hand. I am not opposed to the idea of education. But rather, educational institutions are not the only way of learning, and don’t have the monopoly on information, knowledge or intelligence, particularly when access is so often dictated by socioeconomic class. I believe these class-based biases are harmful and based in prejudice. The bias toward amplifying voices from elite US educational institutions is equally unfair, but having to function in a society with this hierarchy firmly in place, I am definitely willing to use that bias to forward my activist agenda.

In the much criticized commercial vs. literary divide, writers of genre and other popular fiction are presumed to be unintelligent, until proven otherwise. Many readers will simply assume that our books are too lowbrow for them to bother with. Conversely, people who teach in a university are presumed to be intelligent, even when they themselves prove otherwise. In fact, the long history of academics falsely claiming expertise is part of the reason that university teaching has the potential to undermine my credibility as an activist, particularly with low-income communities. Therefore, I am hoping to spin the writing of urban fiction with my university pedigree, with the goal of getting a broad array of readers to take a chance on my book, people from various class backgrounds, with and without formal education, highbrow, lowbrow, and in between. Because, ultimately, my heist book is about economically disadvantaged women directly confronting corruption among the 1%. Fingers crossed…I hope this strategy works!

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

One Reply to “The Accidental Academic and the Literary/Commercial Divide”

  1. This is a great example of how it’s possible to have a writing career that not only doesn’t conflict with a “day job,” but is supported by it in a symbiotic way. It must make both careers so much more rewarding!

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