|Walter Jacobsohn:||[Sunday, Jan. 28, 2001, 03:05 pm]|
|Crowley's solution is to cut off the arm.... For sure, the monster will now provide less bad food, but also less good food.||1. I wanted
to open with some preliminary comments because I dearly want to steer this
discussion toward the labor issue and because I have a root canal on Monday
morning and want to put my two cents in before that much anticipated moment.
I realize I am speaking out of turn and will abide by the moderator for
the rest of this discussion--I also understand that he may decide to put
them aside for now, and/or that additional painful operations may be performed
on them during my absence from this discussion.
2. I greatly admire Composition in the University both for its scholarship and specific arguments, but I think that its real contribution is how it exposes the far deeper ramifications of temp labor in the academy rather than just for first-year comp (fyc). It exposes a radical problem and fittingly offers a radical solution. My problems with some of the arguments and solutions offered can perhaps best be expressed in the following analogies:
A putrid monster dripping with disease and filth nevertheless provides the very needed action of bringing food to an isolated village. It accomplishes this task very inefficiently and nastily by dripping disease and filth on a good deal of the food such that a large portion of it is unusable. It also expresses itself in other forms of bad temper such as stomping on hapless villagers whenever they complain. Its two arms in which it carries the food are especially and horrifically corrupt with filth. Crowley's solution is to cut off the arm. I cannot see how the rest of the body will be reinvigorated by the removal of one of many offending protuberances. For sure, the monster will now provide less bad food, but also less good food.3. My sense of academia faced with the temp labor problem is that they have only offered the aspirin and, in that case, they had much better amputate as Crowley suggests. My own contention is that we can do much better than offer two aspirin, and we don't have to amputate. By this I don't mean that first-year comp as it stands is essential and that it should not be reformed. Nor do I mean that it cannot be usefully abolished in many cases. But first year comp is simply not the essential problem from my point of view--which is why I'd like to see this discussion focus on the larger issues of academic labor.
|Tony Baker:||[Sunday, Jan. 28, 2001, 11:30 pm]|
|4. Walter's analogies provide a pretty
vivid starting point for us--certainly more graphic and interesting than
the two questions I was going to begin with:
What's the relationship between the universal composition requirement and the widespread use of flex-time, pay-per-course instructors?I'm having difficulty reframing these questions in terms of Walter's "hapless villagers" or of his patient with the gangrenous leg. But I agree that it's important to not immediately jump in our conversation to examining alternatives to abolishing the requirement of fyc, although these alternatives will certainly arise. So we might devote some discussion to identifying some of the issues, trends, subtexts that are dripping all over academic laborers in fyc programs.
|Michael Murphy:||[Monday, Jan. 29, 2001, 10:53 am]|
|It's easy to stereotype Composition courses as narrow and oppressive gatekeepers focused on prescriptive approaches to mechanics and style, cleaning up the great unwashed for life at the university and in middle-management.||5. Hi, everybody. Like Walter (are
first names ok?), I'm deeply interested in the problems of academic labor:
I suppose I have enough of what Slaughter and Rhoades call the "structuralist"
in me to think that underlying economic relations account for much more
of the circumstances of our daily worklives--and work--than we sometimes
imagine, or can even recognize at any given moment. But I also don't think
we can ignore the place of Composition in this discussion--or at least
I don't want to move past it too quickly. Since the percentages of part-time
instructors (pti's from here on out, for me) are much higher in Composition
than in other disciplines (particularly literary studies, though I think
this is changing), we need to think carefully about why we imagine this
is so as we move to generalizations about the instructorate and larger
6. In fact, I think Sharon's article calls us to see Walter's first analogy as at least partly problematic--our students don't need Composition the way isolated villagers need food, the article seems to me to take pains to point out. In that case, who needs the monster and all its putrid dripping disease and injustice? Or at least we shouldn't inflict it on the villagers with the universal requirement.
7. But I find Composition much less this sort of monster than others might (and I don't mean to suggest that anyone else here, Walter or Sharon or anyone, necessarily believes in this kind of cartoon, which I think Walter meant as a kind of light-hearted, comic opening image). And I also agree--to move on to Walter's second image, I guess--that we can do better than aspirin in our efforts to make sure that required first-year courses provide useful intellectual experiences for students and exert positive forces on academic life. It's easy to stereotype Composition courses as narrow and oppressive gatekeepers focused on prescriptive approaches to mechanics and style, cleaning up the great unwashed for life at the university and in middle-management. But I believe the socio-economic--and intellectual--reality of how most Composition courses function is much more complicated than that. There's no question that the courses can be better--and here's where the bigger structural, systemic issues come in most directly for me--but they're also not at all the monster we sometimes make them, I think.
8. I myself really like the model that Sharon offers at the end of the chapter we all read. Though I think she's imagining a series of upper-division electives here, I don't know why some version of this couldn't be done in required first-year writing. She says: "I would hope that such a course of study would not confine students to practice in composing. Rather, it would help them to understand what composing is and to articulate the role it plays in shaping their intellectual lives" (262).
9. This is very consistent with my own vision for what Composition should offer beginning undergraduates. In fact, I believe our recent rearticulation of required first-year writing at Oswego, now called "College Writing I: Writers and Literacies," actually looks something like this. The description reads:
CW I asks students to explore their own expectations about the goals and purposes of written discourse, as well as those of the writing communities in which they participate, at the same time that they develop their writing skills and refine their writing processes through intensive practice. Focusing on language's function not only as a mode of communicating, but also of refining and deepening ideas as well as articulating cultural identity, CW I explores the questions: what does it mean to be a writer, and why might one choose to be one sort of writer rather than another? Attention will also be given to achieving focus, organization, and readability in texts, as well as to critical reading and research skills.10. Of course, Sharon's absolutely right about the institutional and political pressures surrounding Composition: the language of course descriptions, in particular, is always something of a negotiation between a range of parties on campus trying to exert some force over literacy practices, and one always makes some concessions. And I certainly don't want to hold up our still unfolding course as a model. But I also think we shouldn't assume first-year writing is an oppressive monster and thus give up a wonderful chance to do some really meaningful work with advanced literacy practices.
11. And I guess that's my point: whether we agree that this is potentially meaningful work worth doing makes all the difference in how we think about the labor force doing it. [Like Walter, I too am very pressed for time this week. I'll do my best to keep up with the postings and respond as regularly as possible.]
|Walter Jacobsohn:||[Monday, Jan. 29, 2001, 01:47 pm]|
|We should constantly remember that comp does not operate in a vacuum--what purpose will comp reform serve for the university in general? who will profit from it and push for it and how and why?||12. I wanted to confirm Michael's assessment of the monster--yes, I meant it as a light-hearted opening image, but I did invest it with slightly more thought. I was hoping that someone would ask about the other arm that we haven't proposed lopping off: administration. I also don't see the monster as being first-year composition or composition in general--I am talking about the university and comp. as an appendage, though I suppose I could have made that clearer. My intent is not that we should try to push for ridiculous extremes and encompass the reform of the entire university system in this discussion, but that we should constantly remember that comp does not operate in a vacuum--what purpose will comp reform serve for the university in general? who will profit from it and push for it and how and why? I don't think the labor situation in comp. is unique--presently it is more extreme than for other disciplines (if experience isn't enough, the result of the resent CAW survey demonstrates it vividly), but as Michael notes, that is changing. I don't think we can afford to ignore either the local or the larger complexities, the context for comp reform.|
|Sharon Crowley:||[Monday, Jan. 29, 2001, 06:24 pm]|
|When was the last time you argued for any change at your campus(es) by claiming that your proposal would improve the quality of instruction?||13. Like Walter, I want to talk about
the larger set of economic practices and rationalizations in which the
labor conditions in composition function. I was blown away by Randy Martin's
"Education as National Pedagogy" (thanks for including it in the packet,
Tony) and I hope we can keep his observations about monetarization in mind
as we talk. This seems like a good word to characterize what has happened
to the university in the last ten years or so. Money, or better, profit,
is now the bottom line. When was the last time you argued for any change
at your campus(es) by claiming that your proposal would improve the quality
of instruction? Those arguments just don't work any more--they're not even
heard. I also don't want to lose sight of the fact that labor practices
in composition are now more or less universal in undergraduate instruction,
at least at Research I universities. If you haven't had a chance to look
at the recent report on staffing from the American History Association
I recommend that you do so. It's available at their website and also MLA's.
Comp is of course still the champ when it comes to marginal employment
but other humanities disciplines (i.e. modern languages) are not far behind.
So there's another "larger picture" we need to heed--the corporatization
of the American university.
14. And I guess I'll include my standard disclaimer right off: I am not arguing that composition should be abolished. I'm interested in the institutional effects of the universal requirement, which seems to me to be a separate issue from curriculum, although it certainly effects what can be done in a composition curriculum. Hope your root canal went okay, Walter.
|Katherine Wills:||[Monday, Jan. 29, 2001, 11:00 pm]|
|How does money circulate from the "cash cow" of composition through the institution? Can we conduct institutional and structural analysis at the micro-level (classroom) or macro-level--without a cash flow chart? What tools do we need?||15. Walter asks "What purpose will comp. reform serve for the university in general? Who will profit from it and push for it and how and why?" This question echoes Sharon's expressed interest in the institutional effects of the universal comp requirement. Walter, if I connect what Sharon calls the "set of economic practices and rationalizations" of labor in composition to the cut line from a film about cynicism of commerce, I get a rudimentary answer: Follow the Money. Note bene: the (big) money is not going to contingent instructors--the "labor" in a labor-intensive discipline--or their professional development. What troubles me about eliminating the universal comp requirement is that I don't see any reform in the underlying institutional structures that support classrooms as profit centers. Indeed, the university bean and head counters, our comrades in the intellectual bureaucracy, might use part-timers to teach upper-level writing courses or writing in the disciplines. How does money circulate from the "cash cow" of composition through the institution? Can we conduct institutional and structural analysis at he micro-level (classroom) or macro-level--without a cash flow chart? What tools do we need?|
|Karen Thompson:||[Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001, 03:49 pm]|
|15. Let me stir things up here further by suggesting that wherever the writing is taught (in a writing program, across the disciplines, etc.) if there are labor intensive (writing intensive) courses there will be forces trying to exploit adjuncts/grad students in those courses. Perhaps writing need not be taught at all at the university level, just presumed. So much for open enrollment. Additionally, class size strikes me as a real educational issue which interests students and instructors--especially if we're ever going to get full-timers to teach writing. Reducing class size is not easy because it speaks directly to the corporatization/monetarization dynamics. Currently, open enrollment is under attack and class size is growing (except at the most elite institutions.) Both of these issues involve the larger communities (students, their families) and they need to be involved in order for some of these things to change. Doesn't this mean that we not only have to talk about academic labor in the broad sense, but in the context of a general workforce that is increasingly contingent?|
|Katherine Wills:||[Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001, 07:54 am]|
|16. Karen, in your 1999 Workplace interview, you argue that people are not motivated by moral arguments; they are more readily moved by economic realities. Sharon relates the same idea that money or profit is now the bottom line in academia. At a micro-level, each composition classroom (or class taught by a part-timer) functions as a model site of surplus value for the university. The Martin article states that, at a macro level, corporatization encourages the national mobilization for globalization and hypercapitalism (Rhoades). At the institutional level, what economic arguments can we make that hiring cheap labor is a short-sighted and penurious solution? This is a tricky proposition because it appears to diminish contingent labor's job opportunities. How do we convince students, parents, legislators, and community stakeholders that cheap labor is not a value? This is a tricky, also, because many administrators currently benefit with salaries enhanced by windfall from the use of contingent labor. As Walter notes, fyc is not the essential problem.|
|Karen Thompson:||[Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001 - 10:13 am]|
|17. Great work putting together a lot of the texts. As someone else already pointed out, many educational institutions do not have education as a top priority. One of the reasons I raised class size is that is something you can talk to students and their families about--along with faculty accessibility. When I compare what goes on at a university like Duke where my son studies to the situation at Rutgers where I teach, it's obvious how much more contact he has with full professors, professors who are doing research and are involved in the workings of the institution. This has to do with class size as much as it has to do with what type of faculty are in the classroom. The only time students become aware of this problem is when they want a recommendation and their comp teacher is the only one they know. Class size and accessibility are key. Preserving opportunities for part-timers should not be an issue: there's some minimal legitimate use for contingent faculty that's unrelated to comp, and there are specific ways to protect individuals through negotiations.|
|Michael Murphy:||[Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001, 10:35 am]|
|The problem is
that I just don't know how to overthrow this corporate sensibility in toto,
at least in the short term. Over the long haul, organizing all faculty
as a labor force seems to me the best way to work against it.
Aren't we now in a position to at least insist that they take the "contingent" off "contingent labor"? That is: can't we take advantage of the economic value we present universities to argue for more fully professionalized--and tenurable--positions for instructors?
|18. Not only does "follow the money"
strike me as an increasingly appropriate motto for ANY analysis of academic
change/politics--and, yes, Katherine, I too wish I knew the specific tools
we needed to do this kind of analysis effectively!--but I think Katherine's
on to another really important point in her Monday posting, too. If we
stop using part-timers in Composition, the general institutional bottom
line will demand that they be put to work elsewhere, that those cheap,
part-timer FTE's be reabsorbed somewhere else in the university. And, if
not in first-year comp, then maybe upper division Writing--or, more likely
(and frighteningly, I think), in Western Civ (along with 400 other students--see
Karen's Duke/Rutgers posting, minutes ago--and remember what Thomas Newkirk
says about "the politics of intimacy"!) or required foreign language courses
(now THERE, at least to my mind, is an elitist imposition!...). Inarguably,
universities DO regard classrooms as profit centers these days--and with
increasing explicitness, as Sharon points out.
19. The problem is that I just don't know how to overthrow this corporate sensibility in toto, at least in the short term. Over the long haul, organizing all faculty as a labor force seems to me the best way to work against it (as ironic as becoming a bargaining unit in order to resist marketplace pressures will doubtless seem--I know firsthand--to some traditional faculty, who pride themselves on a kind of monkish sense of vocation, complete with self-imposed vows of poverty). And the kinds of innovative and enlightened public/private structures Rhoades and Slaughter call for at the end of their essay--"infus[ions of] the private sphere with public forms of economic, political, and normative control" (64)--sound wonderful to me, though I can't quite envision them clearly. If anybody can help with these kinds of major structural shifts, I'm very, very interested.
20. But even under improved circumstances, at least the ones I can imagine right now, I think we'll always have to find ways to negotiate the university as a corporation, as a profit center--ways to argue for what we see as improvements in instruction, curriculum, and staffing by making them SOUND like smart business moves (if not immediately profitable ones, then at least good PR!). I think we have a long history of making these arguments in Composition--we've had to. And my sense is that doing useful, critical work in a corporate, managed university in the future will absolutely depend on it. I guess what it comes down to is that I see much of our hope for creating change lying in our work--and sorry to sound so mercenary about this--as sort of guerrilla rhetoricians. No?
21. In fact, that's what I suppose we've begun to talk about here now. I'm not sure that quality-of-instruction arguments don't have a certain power--at least a PR, lip-service value that most administrators take very seriously--but I've always argued, along with Karen, Sharon, and Katherine, that arguments from ethics, fairness-of-employment arguments, don't get us very far these days in contingent labor discussions. I think two-pronged quality-of-instruction AND economic-effectiveness approaches are most powerful right now. It feels a little uncomfortable for many of us to say it, but like it or not we ARE, as Katherine points out, a "model site of surplus value" for universities. Composition teachers do a good job, and they do it cheap. And yet I'm not sure this has to compromise our negotiating position--that it's necessarily an argument for extending present working conditions, for continuing the exploitation of pti's. But then, I guess everybody here knows my take on this now: aren't we now in a position to at least insist that they take the "contingent" off "contingent labor"? That is: can't we take advantage of the economic value we present universities to argue for more fully professionalized--and tenurable--positions for instructors? But then, as I've said, this is obviously my own axe to grind…
|Walter Jacobsohn:||[Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001, 12:52 pm]|
|"We can either wring our hands or roll up our sleeves, and I don't know anyone who can wring and roll at the same time."||22. Because labor in academia is
"different" on some important levels it is a mistake to assume that any
sweeping reform can fix things--one of the biggest problems is that though
we tout interdisiplinarity and multidisciplinarity we seldom look beyond
our discipline even when we are dealing with issues that affect all the
disciplines. Karen talks about her directness as an activist more than
an academic, but the very field she suggests we enter into, parents, students,
elite schools catering to the privileged vs. open enrollment is complex
and fascinating--a challenge to theory (you do have to incite academics
to action with more than just a reminder of their ethical responsibility--it’s
one of those professional deformities--not to mention needing to adapt
to the power structures they are dealing with) as much as it is a challenge
to forego lip service.
23. This brings me to issues that I think need to be dealt with:
25. I'll give you a tentative example of something I'm working on presenting--why not create an informational network that gives everyone access to this kind of debate (my focus would be labor) using the web and eschewing individual publication in specialized journals, books etc. Get permission and reprint articles on this topic from all the disciplines (include union contracts etc. so as to make it easier for people not presently involved to get involved and take action) and keep an eye out on how we can communicate effectively to the public by explaining the issues clearly and simply. The web site itself would be proactive but not narrowly ideological, linking to other sites that have specific takes on the subject--not repeating info.--giving people access and making new connections--linking. Funding? As many professional orgs. and unions as possible--all those who could potentially benefit. Depending on funding you could give it more room or less. Obviously not a solution, but it does help to create the space that makes action easier, and that focuses academics on certain specific problems, while supplying the multitude of perspectives that help to keep the initiatives from being co-opted, that we can actually do something about. There is a lot more I can say about this particular idea--but I want to insist that this is only one small possibility among many others open to us that involves redefining ourselves in order to act effectively...not to mention a certain humility. Sorry--I really like this quote from Patricia Schroeder: "We can either wring our hands or roll up our sleeves, and I don't know anyone who can wring and roll at the same time."
|Eric Marshall:||[Thursday, Feb. 01, 2001, 12:48 am]|
|It is because
composition (like reading, though not like math--the other primary required
skills) is needed in every college course, in every discipline,
that it languishes in the educational basement, not despite that
fact. That's the sad irony.
I cannot imagine that institutionalizing a further tiering of the academy would result in anything but a further exploitation of even more people.
|26. I'm glad Karen pitched in with
a more explicitly Labor perspective; that's what I was going to do, and
now I feel I can hold off on that a bit. I, too, very much appreciate the
work that Michael and Sharon (among, of course, many others) have done
in this field. In the articles we read for this discussion, I agree with
many of their/your premises, though not with all of the conclusions. I
believe, however, that there are certain realities at work here which are
too often--perhaps always--unmentioned and therefore overlooked. First,
by the very nature of the discipline, composition instruction is problematic.
Writing well and teaching writing well are two very different enterprises.
Success in the former by no means ensures success in the latter. Of course
comp folks know this, but do all academics? Does the public? And of course
it applies in all other disciplines as well: a skilled practitioner is
not necessarily a good teacher. But comp is different, seemingly. Most
academics think themselves good writers. Many, perhaps most, consequently
undervalue the skills involved with teaching writing well--believing, wrongly,
that anyone who can write well can teach it. Thus, in many institutions,
virtually all faculty, even full-timers, take their required turn with
an obligatory comp section or two. Can one imagine that attitude being
extended to lit courses?
27. Within the discipline, other problems exist. For so many of us, especially, perhaps, in urban institutions like CUNY, in many cases teaching writing has morphed into teaching the English language. These, too, are very different enterprises requiring different kinds of skills, not to mention inclinations. Their conflation (along with Composition's typical subsumption into English Lit departments) damages the respect for each, and greatly affects public (and the academy's) perceptions of both.
28. The status of a department, sub-department, or discipline, seems to me to be connected (for better or worse) to the level of the students in the classes: upper division courses versus lower division; courses with/for majors versus all others; composition versus literary studies. The hierarchies may be implicit, but they are nonetheless clear.
29. Since at least the second half of the twentieth century, the academy has privileged specialization over generalization. Perhaps comp, perceived by many as the epitome of general subjects (all students need to be able to write well; written communication skills are clear class markers in our society, most colleges require comp of all freshmen, etc.) suffers for this. One may be able to get by in the world without a basic knowledge of, say, physics, but not of writing. Hence, physics is a special skill, writing a general one, and their relative status is so reflected, as is, not coincidentally, the relative salaries paid to adjuncts in those fields at institutions without collective bargaining. It is because composition (like reading, though not like math--the other primary required skills) is needed in every college course, in every discipline, that it languishes in the educational basement, not despite that fact. That's the sad irony.
30. Like the others, I too believe changes need to be made. But I don't believe that the service ethic is completely misplaced, nor that the service model should be entirely replaced. We need to educate, first our colleagues then the public, about nature of the discipline and its concomitant enterprises. We also need to get away from the rather conservative, acquiescent, and often Fordist thinking about the situation. I cannot imagine that institutionalizing a further tiering of the academy would result in anything but a further exploitation of even more people. More on the Labor perspective to follow.
Abolish or Perish? Managed Labor in Composition: A Roundtable with Sharon
Introduction: Managed Labor and the Intractability of First-Year Composition
Strand 1: Dissecting the Beast
Strand 2: Institutional Effects
Strand 3: Alternatives?
Strand 4: The Requirement and Drudgery