How I Got My Job: UCSC creative writing lecturer Steve Coulter charted unconventional path to academia

UC Santa Cruz creative writing lecturer Steve Coulter with his Celtic harp.
UC Santa Cruz creative writing lecturer Steve Coulter with his Celtic harp.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Steve Coulter, UC Santa Cruz creative writing continuing lecturer, spoke with Lookout about what it’s like being a lecturer, busking in Europe and what the future holds for writing with the advent of ChatGPT.

Steve Coulter is a lecturer who teaches first-year writing courses at UC Santa Cruz, but his path is an unconventional one. Coulter went to various colleges, including spending the summer in 1975 apprenticing with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. While studying creative writing at UCSC, he played in two local bands: Tao Chemical and Isle of Skye.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in the mid-’80s, Coulter went to Europe, where he spent 20 years busking with a Celtic harp in a duo called Northern Lights. For the first 10 years, he traveled in a camper van to Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy, picking up some Dutch, German and Italian along the way. Eventually, Coulter moved to County Kerry, Ireland, and saved up enough money to transform a rundown house into a recording studio and create a concert series that focused on traditional Irish music. He continued to busk, and spent time playing harp on a famous Irish mountain pass called Conor Pass.

However, with the advent of online file-sharing programs like Napster, many musicians saw their incomes plummet. This affected Coulter’s recording studio business and his own musical career, which led him to move to Hawaii.

Coulter purchased land on the Big Island and built his own house in 2005. He continued to play music in a marimba band, performing the Shona music of Zimbabwe. Coulter moved back to Santa Cruz in 2008 to get his teaching certificate to teach English. “I wanted to teach English and get back into writing and just hanging out with words again,” he said. He taught eighth grade in Watsonville and after two years left to pursue a Ph.D. in education in UCSC. He spent three years working toward his doctorate but ultimately chose not to complete the program, and instead went to work full-time at UCSC as a lecturer.

Coulter feels passionately about his students and their success, and bridging the gap between professor and students. Last summer, Coulter took his students to the Irish town of Dingle for a five-week writing course. Students who take the trip can check off two general-education requirements and immerse themselves in Irish culture. Coulter plans to offer the course again this summer to 25 UCSC students. (If interested, apply on the UCSC website.)

When Coulter isn’t lecturing, he is playing music with two bands — Stone Circle and The Coast Ridge Ramblers — and working with the UCSC Climate Coalition.


  • UC Santa Cruz, bachelor’s degree in creative writing
  • UC Santa Cruz, master’s degree in education

Lookout: What does the typical day look like for you?

Steve Coulter: I would normally teach three days a week and I would be teaching probably two classes. Six classes at the university would be kind of a normal thing, and I would meet with a classroom of 20 to 25 students. It’s becoming the case that most of the courses at the university are large lecture classes with 200, 300, 400 students. But the exception is that first-year writing courses are limited to 25, or in some cases, 20 students. There’s a real craving among students for that kind of personal contact with a professor and each other. I teach at a personal level and then meet with students. I meet with students three times each quarter for half an hour to go over papers, so I get to know the 40 to 50 students per quarter pretty well. There is, of course, a certain amount of busy work, like grading and committees.

UC Santa Cruz lecturer and harpist Steve Coulter
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What do you love most about your job?

Coulter: What I love most is developing a connection with students that goes beyond purely academic. A lot of papers they’re writing connect to their personal lives. Then, of course, at the end of the quarter having students tell me, “Oh, I really loved your class” [or,] “That really changed who I am” or, “It changed my views of the world.” It’s so satisfying to see that somehow I did help to facilitate personal growth in my students through the medium of writing.

Lookout: What is your biggest challenge about your career?

Coulter: One of the biggest challenges at the university right now is the student mental health crisis. I mean, we’re having a national mental health crisis in a sense. But it’s particularly difficult for students coming out of adolescence into adulthood realizing that the generations that preceded them have messed it up pretty bad and they may not have a future. I sometimes ask my students to write a paper [about] “Do you want to have kids?” And a lot of the numbers are quite shocking, that very few of them do. They’re like, “No, I don’t want to bring a kid into this world because I have no hope for the future.” I am generalizing here, and exaggerating to a certain extent. But we’re seeing a lot of depression and anxiety among students. In some ways, my challenge is much less getting students to write good papers and more just to learn to somehow become happy, fulfilled and encourage their well-being.

High school students stress one aspect of the “youth mental health crisis” is the pressure they feel to be perfect and...

Lookout: Who do you think is the best type of person for this job?

Coulter: Somebody who loves words, writing and reading. Someone who enjoys hanging out with people of that age group. You have to be organized because there’s a lot of keeping track of all the different marks on papers. You have to have a lot of patience and be a performer in a sense. Certainly, if you’re teaching a lecture class, you’re really a performer. In my classes, I rarely lecture, but in a sense I’m still orchestrating the class and creating the class as an event. Maybe performer isn’t the right word — maybe the producer of the event. You have to basically stand in front of a room and get people to do things all together. And not everyone likes that.

Lookout: What do you think the future of teaching and being a professor will look like?

Coulter: Right now, our profession is being disrupted on a really deep level by ChatGPT and there’s a huge amount of talk in academia about what to do about it. We already have numerous cases of students submitting papers written by ChatGPT and it’s very, very hard to detect. The effect of artificial intelligence on the world is enormous and I find it very frightening, primarily because it’s being controlled only by a bunch of young, super smart guys over in Silicon Valley who wrote the code, and guys like Mark Zuckerberg, who have enormous amounts of power but very little wisdom. It’s going to change everything about the way we live in the world and writing courses are just the beginning. It’s really a Frankenstein moment and we’re already having to rethink our writing courses so our assignments are things that ChatGPT can’t do. And that eliminates a whole lot of valuable assignments.

UC Santa Cruz lecturer and harpist Steve Coulter
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What is something that most people misunderstand about your job?

Coulter: I don’t know about most, but one of the things that’s quite misunderstood is you become a better writer by having your instructor put red marks all over your paper, you become a better writer by studying books of grammar and that writing classes are supposed to be about developing the ability to use correct English. Those are all misunderstandings. The real task of the writing instructor is to partially encourage students to read as much as possible because that’s the best way to become a good writer. There’s also the misconception that there’s one form of good writing, which is the way you’re supposed to write academically, and there isn’t. Even within academia, the writing styles vary a lot between different disciplines.

Lookout: Are there any specifications for your job?

Coulter: There are two levels, one is professors, which are required to have a Ph.D. in literature or rhetoric. The second is a lecturer, which [are required] to have a master’s degree in literature, but mine is in education. You should have one of those two degrees and probably some [teaching assistant] or classroom experience.

Lookout: What advice would you give a new graduate or career-switcher interested in pursuing this job?

Lookout: I’m the wrong person to ask about this because my route to get here was so different from the normal route. I wouldn’t want to give anybody any advice on that. The final paper they write in my class is quite often a paper called “I search for my profession” — [it] is a paper where they basically are researching what their future occupation might be.

There is a cultural notion deeply embedded in American culture that in order to become a happy person you have to make a lot of money, which is actually not true. In the field of positive psychology, it has shown pretty clearly that people who are super rich are not happier than people who have enough money. I mean, I’m not making a lot of money because it’s not a high-paying profession at all and yet I’m really happy doing it. Somebody who’s working in high finance might be making 10 times as much as I am and be a lot less happy because they don’t enjoy what they’re doing. So, I mean do what you love. I often tell my students, stop thinking about money and grades so much and start thinking about what makes you happy as a person.


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