|[Monday, January 29, 2001 - 10:26 pm]
|When comp studies is assumed by the university to be in the service of all other courses, composition instructors are much more likely to be undervalued, underpowered, and underpaid.
|1. I thought I'd start a new strand to create
a little space to discuss Sharon's interest in the institutional effects
of the universal requirement. One effect is the invisibility (both inside
and outside the university) of composition as an actual area of study.
In Comp in the University, Sharon proposes that compositionists
are automatically associated with the required first-year course(s), which
are still seen by non-comp folks as courses that focus on grammar and product.
Thus, comp faculty are viewed as "literacy gatekeepers rather than as intellectuals
and teachers" (243). An illustration: I was interviewing at MLA in
December for a rhet/comp position at a small school. English faculty at
this school are housed in a Department of Social Sciences and Humanities,
and I was being interviewed by the chair, a philosophy professor. He was
dismissive of--even angry at--my descriptions of student-centered activities
and my ideas to integrate a service learning component into first-year
comp classes. What he wanted to know was if I could keep bad grammar and
poor spelling out of "the real classes."
2. When comp studies is assumed by the university to be in the service of all other courses, composition instructors are much more likely to be undervalued, underpowered, and underpaid. They're less likely to have control over the curricula in comp courses, and they're more likely to be seen as interchangeable, flexible laborers by the university and (sometimes) by their own departments.
|[Wednesday, January 31, 2001 - 01:51 pm]
|"Service" can be seen as a real strength in the way it helps to inform both theory and practice--a form of "keeping it real," closer to students.
|3. There is
a lot I want to flesh out in this thread.. First, thanks Sharon, today
I am feeling fine--dentist's appointments are nine parts anticipation and
one part actual pain. As luck would have it, I had just finished reading
and re-reading Sharon's book among other material including Michael's recent
and Karen's essay in Moving the Mountain in preparation for an essay
I am writing (a lot of what I am going to say here are fumes from this
project faced with a looming deadline--prolix prewriting). Randy Martin's
introductory essay is just one part of a great collection, Chalk Lines
(Martin & Rhoades), of which any one of the essays has something powerful
to say--I can't recommend it enough. Being asked to participate in this
discussion is serendipity for me.
4. I read comp theory and actually get a good deal of pleasure from it because, among other reasons, of its ethical consciousness and political priorities--an attitude to pedagogy which I feel is the most relevant to the situations and students we face as teachers in higher education today regardless of the discipline (a real concern for students...whom we don't want to forget here)--but I am not a comp theorist nor am I as conversant with it as the other participants in this roundtable. I know enough to be aware that a lot of what we are talking about here has been dealt with in a far more studied and sophisticated manner than I am capable of, whether in the WPA listserv or book-length essay collections or professional journals (one short essay in particular comes to mind by Richard Bullock as well as the essay "After Wyoming"). The responses to Crowley's proposal (I like Schell's characterization of it as a "modest proposal") cannot be read as reactive (whether pro or con)--they in themselves constitute pro-active statements that help to resituate comp studies in a positive manner--one example: "service" can be seen as a real strength in the way it helps to inform both theory and practice--a form of "keeping it real," closer to students. I would like to try to keep my awareness of some of this work poised in the background.
5. A study at Seton Hall University demonstrated that students who went through Basic Writing (admittedly, one step before the required course) had a significantly higher retention rate and grade point average than those who had been, for whatever reason, exempted from the course. I don't mean to present this in any way as conclusive evidence, but at the very least it does help to show that the jury is still out on the usefulness of these courses. It is also interesting to note again that the Seton Hall program is NOT particularly progressive and tends to follow quite closely "current-traditional pedagogy." Yes, this study could be questioned--the point Sharon raises about the benefits of a nurturing environment that has real interaction between the professor and students rather than what is actually learned in the course can have a huge effect...but that for me is one of the genuine strong points of the "service" component--it would be nice to have all faculty for first year courses provide this kind of environment, but will it happen? How do you make it happen?...maybe comp should be showing the way more (though I duly note Karen's emphasis on class size as powerful in itself)...it's not just about writing anymore, its also about some important pedagogical principles and practices.
6. It's dangerous to consider any text or approach as somehow monolithic in its effect. I've had good teachers who have transformed my experience regardless of the material we studied in ways that I could hardly have imagined--yes, this argument can seem old hat, but it is not easily dismissed (after all, if we're being "guerrilla rhetoricians" that's part of our base). I don't in any way consider this an argument for keeping things the way they are, but I do consider it worth stating because among other things it brings us back to who teaches and how, often more important than what and why (to paraphrase Wilde). Just like how we teach is very important, the context in which we teach can't just be a given--it can't remain invisible.
7. To go back again to Michael's example of the course he developed: I want to know how much institutional support you have in the creation and implementation of this course, how much innovation is welcomed, do the faculty and administration respect and encourage these efforts with some general understanding of the discipline and its importance, and of course, who teaches and what kind of status are they given, etc. Otherwise you get the kind of impossible situation that Tony experienced in his job interview...innovations are window dressing and you're essentially a droid; your job is to grammarize so that real faculty don't have to bother (which some might argue has its own value that we shouldn't be so quick to denigrate--it does involve giving students access to the university--empowering). Acknowledging the precariousness of our efforts, we are not alone, is important to actually getting things done...that and a lot of perseverance and patience. Another example for me of "context" is the move by the part-time faculty forum to document good employment professional practices (there was a good overview of the Syracuse program recently) which I think is very needed so that we can actually discuss this as more than abstract principles that too many academics don't think applies to their particular situation...the problem is each situation is going to be unique--it's even ironic that departments with the best practices are often the ones with the most lopsided ratios of p/t to f/t faculty...of course, it's cost effective so they can afford it.
|[Thursday, February 01, 2001 - 12:13 pm]
|Much of the impulse to see the rising instructorate as the emblem of a corporatized academia is kind of misdirecting our collective ire about the situation. A bloodletting/exorcism, even? The instructorate is only corporate academia's most conspicuous -- and vulnerable -- manifestation.
|8. Wow, Walter
-- a lot to respond to! First, I agree wholeheartedly with what you say
(and you too to some extent, Eric, though I'm just now getting to your
posting) about the importance of class size and the kinds of intellectual
intimacy that happen at least partly as a result in Composition courses--and
seldom elsewhere in the university. This is what I meant by citing Thomas
Newkirk. In a study of Barrett Wendell's experiences offering highly individualized
writing instruction at Harvard, Newkirk sees this dynamic at work as far
back as the late 19th century, and--like you, I think--he imagines this
dedication to close work with students as perhaps an even more important
part of the intellectual function of first-year comp courses than theoretical
orientation. It's the REALLY loaded political question in Comp, he contends--much
more than the question of whether we teach rhetoric for the meritocracy
or writing as self-expression or even writing as ideology critique--in
part because it's predicated on all the issues we've been talking about.
It costs universities money to support student work in this way.
9. That idea's also behind a very large part of my full-time instructorships argument, I think: I worry a little that the teaching function of academia has gotten obscured behind the glamour and prestige of its research function, which as Zelda Gamson points out in Chalk Lines (which IS wonderful -- I got it after reading the two selections for this roundtable) expanded immensely during academia's post-WWII, GI Bill boom cycle. And I think that really supporting the work of the instructorate--which developed largely as a way to take up the teaching slack when academic budgets got tighter again in the 1980s--is one way to begin to cultivate this sometimes forgotten teaching function anew.
10. One related aside here: people have been making comments here and there in this discussion about the burgeoning managerial class in higher education. I have great sympathy with these comments, and I would suggest that much of the impulse to see the rising instructorate as the emblem of a corporatized academia is kind of misdirecting our collective ire about the situation. A bloodletting/exorcism, even? The instructorate is only corporate academia's most conspicuous--and vulnerable--manifestation. Blaming the instructorate for the rise of academia's corporate sensibility while ignoring the proliferation of its middle managers (as some faculty in my experience do) strikes me as not unlike blaming "the welfare state" for oppressive middle-class income tax rates while assenting blithely to estate tax abolition (as so many middle-class Americans do).
11. Now to Walter's questions about our course and working conditions. It's too early for me to say whether our work will amount to "window-dressing," as curricular innovations CAN--but my inclination right now is to expect a good deal more. As I said, the course is still unfolding: the new descriptions and titles (it's actually part of a four-course sequence) only go on the books this spring and get taken up by faculty writing syllabi in the fall. So only then, and in the year or two following, will we really know what people will do with the description.
12. But, certainly, I have my hopes. And part of this is because it's MY sense that the sort of expectations that you experienced in your interview, Tony, are very much on the wane, especially in English departments. I sense both great enthusiasm for innovation here at Oswego, Walter--in fact, our proposal was approved unanimously by dep't faculty, and we developed it working pretty closely with Writing Across the Curriculum--and very little concern that we project any kind of grammar-and-mechanics-police image across campus, let alone really do it. (Though I won't say that there aren't some people in other disciplines here who expect this.) My idea has always been that we should take advantage of the position the service expectation affords us and redefine the service we provide (what do we really think it means to be a literate person?), and I get the sense that there's plenty of room for that here.
13. Now, your other questions. Like most dep'ts, we're not model employers--or at least not innovators--with respect to the part-timer question. We teach about 40 sections of Composition each semester, and I'd say that on average about half of those sections are taught by part-timers who also teach a range of literary studies courses, mainly but not exclusively at the lower division (about $2500 per section, but full benefits), quarter by tenure-line full-timers, and quarter by people on a variety of other kinds of appts--term appt. full-timers, Writing Center staff members, and a couple of graduate students here and there. In fact, I myself am not on a tenure line--I'm a term-appointed, year-to-year full-timer replacing the current Composition Director while he's on sabbatical. And I suppose that alone--along with the disproportionate use of pti's for Writing courses--says something about how Composition has been regarded here in the past (and of course in the field in general: we're not an anomaly)--though I think that's changing. I like my tenure-line colleagues and find them thoughtful and energetic teachers, and my sense is that they like my work, are interested in developments in teaching Writing, and would like to keep me around--I certainly don't feel like a droid, or like I'm perceived as one. There's no question that it's not a position of unqualified strength and security for me--or for pti's--but so far thinking meaningfully about Comp feels very workable here.
|[Friday, February 02, 2001 - 08:35 am]
|All too often it seems like [academics] accept the part of the budget that they are given to play with in committee as being the real university budget, much like my hyperactive nephews and nieces think they have prepared the Thanksgiving meal when we send them outside to shuck the corn so we can cook. Why does a university president need three speech writers on her staff? To better sell the university? The opportunity to question why the assistant to the assistant to the vice-president gets his office remodeled at $50,000 a pop seldom appears.
sounds like a very good situation to be in--enviable even. It helps to
have a working WAC initiative (a pretty good sign of a faculty's awareness
and appreciation of writing and comp.) It's wonderful to be able to do
real work--reminds us of why we got into this profession. I think it's
perhaps a problem to always see the worst case scenario as defining all,
but I also think that the worst case scenario is the truer picture, and
it's not getting any better. This said, we can't forget that there are
real positive openings and even new awarenesses worth exploring.
15. Nothing could be truer that the rise in administration costs/managerial class (and perks and inanities) and the corresponding downtrend in % of budgets allocated to instruction is a scary and serious phenomenon, but I don't think anybody who has thought about the issue has missed that (though I agree that there are significant numbers of faculty who ignore this phenomenon...among many other things). I'm not sure who is blaming the instructorate or on what basis or what exactly is misdirected (which aspect of it? are you talking about the popular perception? pti's criticizing tenured? Maybe I misunderstood you here)...but I think it's harder to attack the managerial class problem because of the traditional hierarchies and divisions of labor, the paternalism that too many academics take for granted as insuring and protecting their privileges. It has always struck me how little academics get down to the nitty gritty and actually analyze budget allocations. All too often it seems like they accept the part of the budget that they are given to play with in committee as being the real university budget, much like my hyperactive nephews and nieces think they have prepared the Thanksgiving meal when we send them outside to shuck the corn so we can cook. Why does a university president need three speech writers on her staff? To better sell the university? The opportunity to question why the assistant to the assistant to the vice-president gets his office remodeled at $50,000 a pop seldom appears, though we know the answer, to entertain prospective customers and donors you need Tuscan leather and Waterford crystal. Oh, and let's not talk about sports....
16. The thing is, we're also talking about an increasingly complex system which demands that either academics take it on themselves, or you hire specialized support staff (both usually). As the university goes corporate it creates needs that it "has" to fulfill--this doesn't always mean that these are jobs we might necessarily respect or that it hires the best and the brightest--but it also doesn't necessarily mean that these are people paid a lot to sit on their butts--they do work, often essential work, many of them with far less job security than the professorate--more than a few will supplement their incomes with adjunct teaching, and more than a few do excellent work for admirable programs--though I have not yet seen a university managerial staff that is the model of efficiency...or that has the health and excellence of instruction as their top priority. The high-paid provosts, deans, vice presidents are relatively few...as with the salaries of some full tenured professors my problem is not that they earn so much (though the contrast can be very instructive), it's that the majority of the faculty earn so little...bringing me back to technology and distance education and the specialists needed there--the model for those kind of enterprises are already with us.
[Saturday, February 03, 2001 - 12:03 pm]
|17. I'm not sure my present position IS ideal,
Walter: I think it can be really difficult (and, well, dangerous) to direct
a program which affects all of the tenured professorate in a dep't and
has a tangible effect on students in all disciplines--as Composition does--without
tenure, or at least without being on a tenure line. But as I said, it's
been workable so far--and as you point out, that work can be really gratifying.
18. You're right that we should avoid cheap shots against those who perform important non-academic roles in good faith in university life (if I'm understanding your point correctly). Among other things, universities need to manage their employees' benefits packages, raise funds for a variety of purposes (many of them directly academic), prepare for large-scale reviews by accrediting agencies, etc.--all jobs which faculty don't want to do but which they benefit from, as you point out. But I also think there's a pretty thick layer of managers--deans of students, associate v.p.'s for retention, directors of product marketing, etc.--who are, all things considered, a good deal more deeply involved in the corporate functions of the university than most other employees. It's my experience that these people--who unlike the Director of Parking or a tech support worker, are usually paid pretty well (better than most faculty in the Humanities, I'd say, and God knows better than instructors)--also tend to be less critical in their participation in the kinds of programs I mentioned in my ALSO post yesterday, for instance ("whole student" stuff, etc.) than most faculty, including pti's. My point is that many people--including both many traditional faculty and many observers outside the university--have come to understand part-timers as the great emblems of the encroachment on academia of marketplace forces that compromise academic interests while by and large forgetting about this managerial layer (which I see as much less few in number than you do). This is the "misdirection" I'm talking about.
19. And yes, you're clearly right about faculty and budgets--your hyperactive-kids-shucking-corn image is both beautiful and right on the money. Though I'm not sure this is entirely evidence of the out-of-touchness of faculty. I've been in University Senate meetings when budget numbers come out (in long heavy packets!), and I know how impenetrable they are. I don't believe this is at all accidental.
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