AC Response: Carolina Hotchandani
Carolina Hotchandani is a poet and assistant professor of English in the Goodrich Scholarship Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2019 Work In Progress program facilitator, and recent transplant to Omaha. We asked her to share some thoughts about the resources available to artists, creatives, and educators working here and how they stack up when compared to other cities. Read her response below and join the conversation by leaving your comments.
In 2006, when I graduated from an M.F.A. program in creative writing, I felt little of the celebratory spirit one associates with graduations. Such landmark moments in the life of a creative intellectual can be bittersweet; they can even tilt more toward bitterness than sweetness, for universities are islands of resources for people like myself. They are islands where like-minded colleagues and inspiring conversations abound. While pursuing my M.F.A, I was allowed to live a contemplative life—a life that centered on reading, writing, and teaching. Admittedly, I was paid little for my teaching, as graduate stipends at universities are modest, at best. However, upon completing my M.F.A., there was nothing I wanted more than to embark on yet another graduate program. Once again, university life held the promise of being a creative sanctuary where I’d be able to nourish my work with the support of colleagues and professors. I knew full well that jobs in academia were far from abundant, but I had little courage to imagine a life outside of it. What would such a life even look like? Because those times preceded the recession, I had the luxury of not sharpening my imagination; I instead nurtured my denial: I chose to hope for the best and enroll in a Ph.D. program in English literature.
When I completed this program, my idealism had fully metamorphosed to despair: as I searched for tenure-track positions in my field, I’d encounter maybe ten jobs posted per year. Still, however, I was deeply attached to university life, though the question of why I’d continue to cling to the prospect of a future within academia was much more glaring now. When my spouse secured a stable job before I did, I followed him, moving from Chicago to a tiny town in the rural Midwest where I found a temporary harbor in the form of a visiting position at a university where we lived. The snowy cornfields that surrounded our home depressed me. The gravel driveways and the shop with a “Sheep and Goat Equipment” sign on its front lawn reminded me of just how much I missed the city. I kept thinking: academic life is far from lucrative, and it often requires that people live in places where they would not otherwise choose to live—often far from loved ones and even romantic partners—so why devote oneself to this enterprise?
I came to realize that I clung as desperately as I did to the university existence because within it, I found a strong sense of community among people who did not fit the mold of homo economicus: they were not primarily driven by money. Certainly, they needed food on their tables, but one concern they shared with me was that feeding their creative labor was as much a priority as feeding their bodies. Even in our tiny rural town, my colleagues and I created a mini-community: we would gather once a week, write for a few hours, discuss how the writing process felt, and ask questions of each other’s work that would help to refine it. These conversations sustained me through a difficult year. If it were not for the university, I would not know these people. But I came to wonder, were universities really the only kinds of institutions that could function as sources of communities for creative, thoughtful people?
I decided, at that point, to move to a larger city. The place where we moved was not New York or Los Angeles—far from it. But when I moved to Omaha, Nebraska, I did encounter a community that clearly invests in its arts/culture industry. I joined the Nebraska Writers’ Collective and worked as a teaching artist for Louder than a Bomb. I discovered and taught at Amplify Arts, which aims to foster communities for working artists, offer practical support for their work, hone the cultural conversations in which artists engage, and generally enrich the life of the arts in Omaha. Encountering these institutions, I became less unhealthily dependent on academia so that ultimately, when I did find myself lucky enough to secure a tenure-track position in a university, I had encountered viable alternatives to the university and was making a conscious choice to pursue a career within it.
The oversaturation of universities with aspiring professors in the humanities and arts points to a problem that exists outside of it—namely, a need for other kinds of communities to exist where artists and intellectuals can draw inspiration from one another and offer support to younger minds that are hungry for role models, for constructive criticism, and for a sense of kinship. This call for alternative artistic and intellectual communities is also revealed by the fact that a thriving arts/culture industry in large urban centers like New York and Los Angeles draws so many budding creative minds to them. These cities then benefit from the talent that saw its inception outside of them, while also causing many to struggle as they try to make ends meet in places that are already teeming with starving artists. The fact that people are willing to endure poverty in expensive cities for the sake of culture and community underscores the fact that these aspects of life are essential and vital for so many of us. We are living in a time when the divisions between the coasts and the rest of the country are stark—when political divisions are reinforced by cultural divisions—and when there is an urgent call for cities in the middle of the country to provide and benefit from investing in their arts and culture industries. If young, ambitious, creative people could see the middle of the country as a region where they would flourish artistically, we’d have a chance at keeping them here—and at softening some of the frightening divisions plaguing our country today.
Carolina Hotchandani is a poet and assistant professor of English in the Goodrich Scholarship Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her poetry has appeared in AGNI, Cincinnati Review, Feminist Studies, Prairie Schooner, and other journals.