Managed Labor in Composition:
A Roundtable with Sharon Crowley
Anthony D. Baker
|1. In his 1974 survey of U.S. colleges and universities, Ron Smith
found that the number of schools with a first-year composition requirement
had dropped from 93.2% in 1967 to 76% in 1973 (Moghtader et al 463). Based
on this and other dramatic changes in the world of academia, Smith made
the following prediction: "All signs point to more schools dropping the
composition requirement" (148). Turns out he was wrong. The first-year
composition (fyc) requirement has become more entrenched. According to
Michael Moghtader, Allana Cotch, and Kristen Hague's 2001 replication of
Smith's survey, a full 97% of surveyed colleges and universities have a
specific writing requirement, and in 85% of these schools the requirement
is fulfilled in the English Department--read: fyc (464). The requirement,
it seems, is not budging.
2. But it does have opponents. For the last ten years, Sharon Crowley has been calling--loudly and clearly--for the abolition of the nearly universal requirement of fyc. Her 1998 collection of essays explores in depth fyc's historical and institutional baggage and argues against the illogic of continuing its requirement. Crowley is not, however, the requirement's first detractor. Since the birth of the compulsory first-year composition course at Harvard in 1885 and its immediate adoption by most U.S. institutions of higher education, its function and worth have been at the center of often heated discussion both in English studies and across the university.
3. Debate about the abolition of the fyc requirement never stays within safe, well-marked boundaries. As a territory, fyc is an intersection of problems: literacy problems, pedagogical problems, theory problems, assessment problems, curricular problems, professional problems, identity problems, labor problems, management problems. Discussion of any proposal to abolish the fyc requirement will quickly turn from talk of amputation as a radical solution to talk about symptoms, vital signs, and alternatives.
4. The roundtable discussion that follows this introductory essay only begins with abolition. It includes voices from composition teachers from various universities, from various employment ranks, with various degrees of experience, who use the abolition call as a springboard for exploration of the issues involved with teaching writing within the managed university. Participants include full-timers and part-timers, tenure-trackers, and non-tenure-trackers, graduate students, labor scholars and activists, and composition scholars. Sharon Crowley, Walter Jacobsohn, Eric Martin, Michael Murphy, Karen Thompson, Katherine Wills, and I met online for a week-long roundtable discussion in January of 2001. In our discussion, participants freely explore the thick connections among a whole host of key issues, including tenure, collectivism, management models, ethics of service, basic material issues, and developing a rhetoric for change. We join a conversation already in progress, a debate in its second century.
A Brief History of the First-Year Comp Abolition Debate
5. The call to abolish the requirement of fyc is not new. Robert Connors has characterized the discussion about the fyc requirement as cyclical, as an ebb and flow of two types of discourse: reformism and abolitionism (3). The first wave of abolitionism, which arose in the 1890s--the same decade in which the requirement was born--was based on two practical claims: first, required fyc was originally intended as a "temporary stop-gap until the secondary schools could improve"; second, the drudgery of teaching fyc was "a bad use of trained literary scholars" (Connors 5). Later waves of abolitionism illustrate the variety of complaints against its requirement, many of which are still ringing today.
6. Thomas Lounsbury, in 1911, claimed that "the average student loathes it," and that "under the compulsory system now prevailing the task of reading and correcting themes is one of deadly dullness," in which "more and more does the business of correcting and criticizing themes tend steadily to fall into the hands of those who . . . have themselves little experience in the practice of composition" (qtd. in Connors 7). In 1913, Preston W. Slosson proposed that a WAC program replace fyc:
The real way to make sure that every Columbia graduate, whatever his other failings, can write whatever it may be necessary for him to write as briefly, logically, and effectively as possible, is not to compel him as a freshman to write stated themes on nothing-in-particular but to insist on constant training in expression in every college course. (qtd. in Connors 8)Alvin C. Eurich bases his 1932 call for abolition on his study of pretest-posttest compositions of freshmen in the University of Minnesota's fyc program, which claims "no measurable improvement in composition was apparent after three months of practice" (qtd. in Connors 11). In 1939, Oscar Campbell claims that teaching fyc destroys potentially strong faculty, wastes their talents, and obscures the importance of literary study (Roemer et al. 380). Leonard Greenbaum, writing in 1969, disdains the futility of fyc:
Freshman English is a luxury that consumes time, money, and the intelligence of an army of young teachers and of younger teaching fellows. It imposes the standards of taste of a single discipline upon a freshman population whose command of language is sufficient to its purpose. It seldom solves the educational problems of the students with real inabilities to speak, to read, to write. . . . It would be better to stop what we are doing, to sit still, to rest in the sun, and then to search for the populations whose problems can be solved by our professional skills. (qtd. in Connors 18)7. In the 1990s, Crowley built her own call for the abolition of the fyc requirement on the following six claims: the universal requirement exploits teachers of writing, particularly part-time teachers and graduate students; the requirement exploits students; it has negative curricular effects; it negatively affects classroom climate; it has negative disciplinary and institutional effects; and the requirement of fyc has negative professional effects (241-243).
8. Crowley's 'New Abolition' movement differs from its predecessors in several important ways. First, the New Abolitionism is the product of "a newly scholarly and professionalized discipline of composition studies" (Connors 23). With many national journals and books devoted exclusively to composition studies, conversations concerning fyc now enjoy more constancy and sustainability, allowing for more elaboration and more venues for consensus-building. Indeed, Crowley elaborates on her earlier abolitionist stance in her 1998 volume Composition in the University, in which she historicizes and problematizes the functions and claims made on behalf of maintaining the fyc requirement and exponentially strengthens her argument for its abolition. Second, the New Abolitionism is being argued not between literary experts and embattled teachers, but between "serious and prepared experts on writing issues" (Connors 23). Rather than calling for abolition from outside the field of composition studies, as Connors characterizes previous abolition movements, the New Abolitionism "is the work of insiders" (23). Third, New Abolitionists typically appeal first to student interests, and only secondarily to the interests of teachers, departments, and colleges. Connors claims that Crowley and other recent supporters of abolition are more "ideologically informed" and "sympathetic to both students and teachers in ways that few abolitionists have ever been" (24). A final distinction that sets New Abolitionism apart from its predecessors involves the status of the New Abolitionists: many are or have been writing program administrators, familiar with how to get things done practically and politically within their departments, within their institutions, and within their professional organizations (Connors 24-25).
9. Like its predecessors, Crowley's proposal to dismantle the fixture of the required fyc course has met with resistance. When she presented a paper calling for the abolition of the fyc requirement at the Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville in the fall of 2000, she stirred some noticeable discomfort in her audience. The ensuing series of squirming, defensive stances against abolition were nothing new to Crowley; in a later conversation, she related how she has even been booed at conferences for her abolitionist stance. Proposals to abolish the fyc requirement have been called "fundamentally elitist" (Roemer et al. 378). Joseph Harris claims that abolitionist proposals "seem to desire to get rid of the field hands in composition while somehow retaining the more leisured status of the bosses in the main house" (62). While these defenders of the fyc requirement, I think, are unnecessarily venomous, they do raise an extremely important question: What is the relationship between the call to abolish the fyc requirement and the instructors of these required courses?
10. At least one point that modern-day reformists and abolitionists must agree on is the shamefully marginalized status of many composition instructors. Colleges and universities are relying more and more on contingent faculty to teach fyc courses. According to a 2000 survey, 85 percent of U.S. schools with a fyc requirement employ part-time instructors to teach composition, an increase from 42 percent in 1973 (Moghtader et al. 465). On the average, one-third of the instructors who teach first-year writing courses are part-timers; one-fifth are graduate assistants (Moghtader et al. 465). Additionally, one-third of the schools surveyed offer no specific training for their composition instructors, and when training is offered, it may vary from a required course to a single, annual orientation session to an informal mentoring program (Moghtader et al. 465). These statistics should distress any one in composition. Summarizing their survey findings, Moghtader, Cotch, and Hague voice their own concerns with labor issues:
it is deceptive to state that the growth in the composition requirement necessarily means that all is well with writing programs--particularly if this growth translates into an overreliance on a staffing population of part-time instructors who lack benefits, recognition, and long-term job stability. And it is from this position that any predictions about the future of the writing requirement must be made--regardless of the reformist or abolitionist side that one takes. (460)11. Given the increased reliance on part-time labor, and given the recent studies of how poorly these instructors are compensated (for example, "Summary"), the need to do something about these conditions in the managed university is intensifying. Moving a Mountain, an extraordinary collection of essays edited by Eileen Schell and Patricia Stock, addresses this need by offering case studies that describe "strategies for transforming non-tenure-track faculty's hiring procedures, contractual arrangements, salaries and benefits, work orientation, teaching evaluation procedures, and professional development opportunities" (29). Both Joseph Harris and Michael Murphy have addressed the labor problems in composition with proposals for adjusting the configurations of the existing management model.
12. What happens if we consider Crowley's call for the abolition of the fyc requirement in the context of composition's labor practices? How might a discussion of abolishing fyc as a requirement illuminate features of the corporatized university? These are questions that sparked the online colloquy that follows. The alternative forum of an e-discussion enables a spontaneity and polyvocality not usually possible in traditional modes of academic monologue. Participants in this colloquy begin with the abolition proposal and spin from it an exploration of the whole web of problems associated with teaching composition. As this discussion illustrates, consideration of a radical proposal helps us to reframe and reshape the simultaneous problems surrounding first-year composition, without necessarily attempting to close or resolve crucial academic labor issues--issues that resist tidy models or pat answers.
Connors, Robert J. "The New Abolitionism: Toward a Historical Background." Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995. 3-26.
Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998.
Harris, Joseph. "Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Class Consciousness in Composition." CCC 52.1 (September 2000): 43-68.
Moghtader, Michael, Alanna Cotch, and Kristen Hague. "The First-Year Composition Requirement Revisited: A Survey." CCC 52.3 (February 2001): 455-461.
Murphy, Michael. "New Faculty for a New University: Toward a Full-Time Teaching-Intensive Faculty Track in Composition." CCC 52.1 (September 2000): 14-42.
Roemer, Marjorie, Lucille M. Schultz, and Russel K. Durst. "Reframing the Great Debate on First-Year Writing." CCC 50.3 (February 1999): 377-392.
Schell, Eileen E., and Patricia Lambert Stock, eds. Moving a Mountain: Transforming the Role of Contingent Faculty in Composition Studies and Higher Education. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001.
Smith, Ron. "The Composition Requirement Today: A Report on a Nationwide Survey of Four-Year Colleges and Universities." CCC 25 (1974): 138-148.