Abolish or Perish? Managed Labor in Composition:
A Roundtable with Sharon Crowley
Strand 4: The Requirement and Drudgery
Sharon Crowley: [Friday, February 02, 2001 - 01:17 pm]
[Most] WPAs force teachers to offer a highly formalized and standardized curriculum using mass-market textbooks that have all the life edited out of them. Now I know that many teachers resist this pressure and do imaginative and good work in their first-year classrooms. But when those teachers are marginally employed, that resistance is very risky. 1. Stirring up the pot here. We're having an exciting discussion about labor in another thread here. So I want to throw out a (possibly dead on arrival) fish in a new thread: I got invited to be in this forum because I gave a paper at the recent Louisville conference in which I critiqued essays by Michael and Joe Harris that appeared in the fall issue of CCC. The paper was received as my papers on the first-year requirement usually are--with incomprehension and/or defensiveness. I didn't hear much at the conference that raised my hopes about the future of required first-year composition until I heard Tony's fine paper on labor issues. That cheered me enormously, mostly just because it was a fine paper and it was there, on the program with all those other papers patting the profession (ourselves) on the back for the self-sacrificing way we conduct ourselves professionally, helping the masses of students out of the illiteracy they bring us ad infinitum ad nauseum. But I was also cheered because it signified to me that a new generation of college-level teachers are able to view their work in the only sane way left to view it, as labor. This generation (some of its members anyhow) will not fall for the academic myth that professors are supposed to be unworldly people who have a divine calling to save the world from itself. 

2. In my paper at Louisville, I hinted that one of the effects of the universal requirement in first-year composition is that its curricula are standardized to the point that actually teaching the class is drudgery. Because I am a coward I did not deliver the section of the paper which argued that--given the conservatism of most WPAs, who owe their relatively cushy jobs to their allegiance to administration--what is often said about the first-year composition curriculum (anyone can teach comp) is often distressingly true. WPAs force teachers to offer a highly formalized and standardized curriculum using mass-market textbooks that have all the life edited out of them. Now I know that many teachers resist this pressure and do imaginative and good work in their first-year classrooms. But when those teachers are marginally employed, that resistance is very risky. I know many very talented teachers who have decided to just go with the mandated textbook and syllabus in order to keep their jobs. If I am right about this, one effect of the requirement is to reduce the quality of instruction offered in first-year composition. 

3. Let me repeat: this is not a critique of composition teachers. I'm trying to look at the first-year requirement as a system of exclusions and reductions, and that sort of look leads me to the conclusion I have drawn here.

Karen Thompson: [Friday, February 02, 2001 - 02:02 pm]
4. I don't mean to sound stubborn or repetitive, but Sharon reminds me that reducing class size goes a long way toward addressing that drudgery and job security has everything to do with taking risks in the classroom.
Tony Baker: [Friday, February 02, 2001 - 06:27 pm]
5. A correction: The "fine paper" to which Sharon alludes was actually written and delivered by my colleague, Tony Scott, one of the co-editors (along with myself) of this special issue of Workplace. Sharon is absolutely right that Tony Scottís paper was one of the high points of the Thomas R. Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition this past fall of 2000. Just want to make sure that I don't get credit for the other Tony's good work. 

6. I originally approached Sharon about this roundtable after her presentation on the abolition of the first-year comp requirement stirred some noticeable discomfort in her audience at the Watson Conference. Rather than a series of squirming, defensive stances against abolition, what I wanted to see happen was an informed, intelligent conversation about the issues provoked by Sharonís call for abolition. Michaelís and Joseph Harrisís CCC articles are certainly part of such a conversation, but the formal exchange of scholarship in journal articles and books lacks the organic immediacy that a forum like this e-roundtable (round-e-table?) allows and encourages. Anyway, I'm extremely pleased to be a part of this important discussion. 

7. Something to further illustrate the connection Sharon is making in this thread: again, from my recent job-search experience. It doesn't surprise me to encounter standardized fyc writing curricula, with prescribed texts and readers. However, I was taken aback when I interviewed with a school that has a standardized composition curriculum articulated in its handbook for part-time instructors, complete with prescribed texts. As an incoming tenure-track faculty member, though, I was told that the standardized curriculum would not apply to me. The standard syllabus and texts were standard only for non-tenure-trackers, who apparently shouldn't be allowed any autonomy in course design.

Michael Murphy: [Saturday, February 03, 2001 - 11:56 am]
If we believe that the teachers are by and large good and the course can be taught well but the circumstances are bad, then I say we keep working -- hard -- on the circumstances. 8. Agreed, Karen (#4). And of course I also feel strongly--as everybody knows by now, I guess!--that there are many other ways we can support teachers (in addition to lowering class sizes but short of abolition) that will help keep the course from being taught in ways that make it drudgery for either students or teachers. As everybody's been pointing out lately (see Tony, #7), issues of basic academic freedom (choices of texts, class procedures, policies, goals) is clearly one of them--and I don't think that even under present circumstances it HAS to be this way. If we believe that the teachers are by and large good and the course can be taught well but the circumstances are bad, then I say we keep working--hard--on the circumstances. 

9. Agreed also, Sharon, about the coming of a new academic generation comfortable with its labor identity (as you know from the CCC piece). Clearly, it's about time. 

Sharon Crowley: [Saturday, February 03, 2001 - 06:09 pm]
10. My abject apologies to Tony Scott! Michael, I don't think that you have yet addressed the point I tried to make in my last post--that it is the requirement that mandates standardized curricula.  Would you address that connection? I'm looking for good arguments against it. Thanks.
Michael Murphy: [Sunday, February 04, 2001 - 05:32 pm]
The tendency toward standardization has MUCH more to do with the different cultures of different institutions than the requirement--thatís why Iím committed to working on the required course instead of getting rid of it. 11. I didnít realize this point was addressed specifically to me, Sharon. Actually, though, this is the issue I wanted to talk about at the beginning of this discussion--see my first posting (Dissecting 8-10)--because I think much of our response to the labor situation in comp depends on it. Other people seemed to want to pursue the labor issues more directly (again, see those earlier postings). 

12. In the limited time we have left, Iíll at least point out the fact that the required course simply DOESNíT mandate standardized curricula in many depíts/programs. As really narrow, dogmatic, anti-intellectual, and oppressive as some really bad single-reader, single-assignment sequence, exit-exam programs are, there are many others that are NOT. I gave you the course description for our new ENG 102 (required fyc) at Oswego--pretty broad parameters, I think, which are nonetheless about as narrowly as I can imagine EVER circumscribing a course focus for teachers. And to be honest, I worried about THAT when we did it. Our one (much-debated) concession to the standardizers was to agree to a common handbook (Hacker); I canít imagine we would ever consider prescribing a text, reader, assignments, activities, even pedagogical goals (again, within very broad parameters like our descriptionís). And itís not my sense AT ALL that weíre an anomaly in this respect. My guess is that the tendency toward standardization has MUCH more to do with the different cultures of different institutions than the requirement--thatís why Iím committed to working on the required course instead of getting rid of it. It seems to me on the basis of my experience pretty much demonstrable fact that curricula donít HAVE to be standardized; if thereís a tendency for them to become standardized--and I agree there has been and continues to be in many places--then I want to work against that tendency. 

13. In fact, Iíd say that in terms of the typical content of the course, weíve been talking about a stereotype of first-year Writing here thatís--well, honestly, a little silly. I honestly think I could count on one hand the number of instructors I've know in twelve years of teaching (ptis, profs, tas, whatever) who thought of the course as "a series of exercises in formal fluency plus instruction in usage, grammar, spelling, and punctuation" (255), as you put it. Spelling? Really? 

14. What really happens in the course--or what can and should--is much harder to argue against than this strawman stereotype, much more complicated and interesting and useful. And the fact of the requirement gives us a space in which to work against exactly the impoverished and pernicious assumptions about language, knowledge, and their implications in class politics (or imagined lack thereof!) on which the old skills-and-drills courses were based. 

15. One quick example, because I know Iím going on here much longer than I probably should. But I want to suggest a little of what I mean by using the service ethic--and the requirement--as a forum in which to work against what itís often associated with. One of the best--and most central--discussions in my own fyc courses is almost always (of course, depending on studentsí interests and how they steer the course) focused on Geneva Smithermanís work on non-standard grammars. Students are astonished to consider that "grammar" is not science, that grammars are arbitrary, inherently "right" linguistically speaking (by nature of their very functionality), and--of course--deeply implicated in an economy of class judgments and prejudices. In fact, they tell me they take these ideas with them when they leave the course and go on to do work in other courses and disciplines (where faculty often have astonishingly narrow, chauvinistic ideas about what counts for effective, appropriate discourse), as well as when they speak and write with people outside the academy. And, without the required course, this just wouldnít happen very often: they can talk about this all in the Linguistics Depít until theyíre blue in the face, but since only a small handful of students ever take those courses, nobody really cares. Indeed, though recent work suggests it clearly hasn't been an unqualified success, what kind of a dialogue could the CCCC Statement on Students' Right to Their Own Language ever have had without the first-year requirement? 

16. I think something similar happens--or can--with Comp and WAC. Why do we HAVE to imagine Comp as a place that simply facilitates studentsí abilities to pick up disciplinary discourse seamlessly--facilitates the process by which students are indoctrinated into a discipline and its attendant worldviews? Canít Comp courses (at the first-year level and beyond) serve as a place where students are encouraged to think deeply about those discourses as knowledge forms with different kinds of cultural currencies that they might either trade on--or resist--in a range of ways? I suggest that many Comp courses already do this, and that thereís plenty of space for doing more of it (and other things, too) within the contested institutional terrain of Composition in the future. 

17. Again, sorry--Iím going on much longer than I should here on the last day, though thereís SO much more left to be said than we have time for. But for now, suffice it to say that I believe there are tremendous opportunities in the course that we risk giving up through what I see as--simply enough--throwing out the baby with the bath. In my depít, they keep asking me to teach upper division seminars and grad courses, but for me these courses are really a bit of a distraction and a duty, a way to buy the chance to do what Iím really most interested in. Truth be told, teaching required first-year Writing is hands down the most fascinating, consuming, pedagogically valuable thing I do. 

18. But then I know my perspective may be limited on this, or at least unusual. Let me return your question for me, Sharon, in a different form: what can you do to persuade me that my preference for and allegiance to the first year course is misguided, that the required fyc HAS to be coopted drudgery?

Sharon Crowley: [Sunday, February 04, 2001 - 09:14 pm]
19. Hi Michael: I don't say that the required course HAS to be coopted drudgery. I say that it often IS. I'm happy to hear that you haven't experienced it to be that way in your professional life. I know that what follows is cheap one-upping (of a sort I swore I would never do when I became an old fart and here I am doing it). I've been teaching in first-year composition programs since 1971 in several different universities, I've been attending CCCC for the same thirty years, and in 1990 I traveled around the country talking to marginally employed teachers as part of my work with the Wyoming Resolution. I must have talked with at least a hundred teachers of the required first-year course in that time. What I see, and what teachers tell me they are forced to do in required programs, is what I describe in the book. Last fall, a new WPA on the WPA-L listserv asked subscribers to name a list of recommended textbooks that he/she could require teachers to use in the course. Most all of the initial recommendations were for modes-based texts (somebody actually recommended Barnett and Stubbs, which surprised even me) until hipper subscribers pointed out the pedagogical incorrectness of such choices. Now I know in my bones that good teachers would not use such books and teach formalized standardized courses if they had their druthers. But marginally employed teachers don't get their druthers very often.  Gotta go--it's almost time for the X-files and Mulder's back tonight!
Tony Baker: [Sunday, February 04, 2001 - 02:57 pm]
20. I'd like to extend my thanks you all for contributing your valuable time and informed opinions to this discussion. It's been a real learning experience for me. I know it's only 2:55 Sunday afternoon, but I'm going to be unwired for the rest of the day and for tomorrow too. Please feel free to continue the discussion for the rest of the day. Thanks once again.
Michael Murphy: [Sunday, February 04, 2001 - 07:15 pm]
21. Thanks for arranging this all, Tony.  To all participants: it's been really interesting and invigorating. I really enjoyed it.
Walter Jacobsohn: [Sunday, February 04, 2001 - 09:27 pm]
22. I want more time to respond and ask questions--I agree with Eric about the importance of what has been happening in California over many years--it's particularly important if we want to go national. I would even like it if I could just post parts of stray drafts, including a response to Sharon (thanks for aiding and abetting our digressions from fyc...or were they digressions?) of which this part may be worth saying: ...I wish that more academics genuinely wanted to save the world from itself...that at least is an opening for dialogue--far too many think we're basically ******, and that includes the best. That's why I persist in believing that composition and its "service ethic", however mealy-mouthed, creates space accessible to change and action, more so than what is offered by many others in the university. Yes, not enough. 

23. Thanks Michael, you realize, of course, that your intelligence and graciousness are completely disarming--you've challenged me on a lot of my basic assumptions, and I too wish I had more time to respond--in many ways you help to demonstrate the limitations of the "logic" I have been following (part of a long unposted response to ALSO). If my "unguarded" responses have been too aggressive without that adding to their substance then I apologize sincerely (but the 80 hours plus ice cream on Sundays refers to conditions as they are now--in no way does it refer to your proposal...which is 60 hours--I should just take it, I'm well aware that you could point out my many other lapses if you so chose). I don't disagree with the principle--even less now that I have heard you defend it, but I still have reservations-- which won't prevent me from using your proposal as a model if the circumstances seem right (with special care to "insist" on the language used to protect it). 

24. "Alt. 1" (Alternatives 13) hasn't left my mind--it makes any effort on my part to just think and write uncomfortable--and that's how it should be. On the other hand, I wish that the other parties in this conversation had the luxury of time that I have right now--I would have liked to hear more of what they think is happening and where they believe things should go. I think it would have been helpful for many. It's a long haul. And thanks to Tony and Workplace--I want to see more of these conversations. Keep pushing the limits! 

Eric Marshall: [Sunday, February 04, 2001 - 11:40 pm]
25. Tony, thanks for arranging this forum. Sharon, Michael, Walter, Katherine, Karen, thanks for sharing your invaluable time and experience. This has been a real education for me, too. I wish we had more time. And I wish it wasn't the first week of the new semester for us! Anyway, I look forward to continuing the discussion in the future in other venues. Keep fighting the good fight! 

26. One parting thought, as I feel I never really offered a direct response to the question of abolition of fyc. In short, I don't think fyc should be abolished. But having taught it at three different institutions, in the form of nearly half a dozen different courses, I'm not entirely clear as to what we mean by fyc. We aren't merely discussing the abolition of required courses, or even required writing courses. So what then? 

27. The very wide range of abilities, experiences, educations, and facilities with language and communication of today's freshmen seems to make the concept of fyc a slippery one at best. Clearly, some students need help learning basic research paper writing skills, and at Queens College, where I teach, that falls to fyc. Some are already beyond that, and their needs are perhaps more rhetorical. But many (perhaps most), require work on skills even more basic: grammar, syntax, vocabulary, diction, development of theses, analyses, argumentation, and so on. If this does not fall into the often stigmatized class of remediation--and often it doesn't--then it must be part of fyc. These three categories cut a pretty wide swath for fyc. All the above skills, of course, are fundamental to a college education that isn't parochially vocational (and probably even to one that is). So if all students need the skills, why not require the courses that teach and hone them? And why dismiss need-based arguments in their defense?

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Abolish or Perish? Managed Labor in Composition: A Roundtable with Sharon Crowley
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