What does a Comp/Rhet person do? (or, taking the bait on two recent comp/rhet articles)

Via the wpa-l mailing list, I learned about two different and oddly related articles out there in the blogosphere: “What Is a Composition and Rhetoric Doctorate?” from Inside Higher Ed and “What is Rhet/Comp for?” from Mark Bauerlein in the CHE. The IHE article is reporting on a session from the current CCCCs about the “split” between composition and rhetoric, the future of PhD programs in the field, and the shift into more “media” and technology oriented kinds of things. The Bauerlein piece, basically, is him wondering why it is that the field of comp/rhet, when they should have the answer for solving writing problems in the workplace and everywhere else, is worrying about things like social justice, identity, inequality, etc.

Nothing new under the sun down there in NOLA, as far as I can tell.

First off, the whole “what is a composition and rhetoric specialist, anyway?” thing is a very old discussion. In fact, back in 1999, I was on a panel at the CCCCs (made up of some of the folks I was in my PhD program with a few years before that) titled “Everyone Teaches Freshman Composition; What Do You Do?” The overall theme of the panel was that it wasn’t really possible to go out on the job market as simply and merely a composition and rhetoric generalist. The title of my talk was “‘Can you fix my computer?’: The Visible Need and Invisible Work of Computer and Writing Specialists in Traditional English Departments,” and I talked about what I saw then as the double-edged sword of having some knowledge of technology: being a technology specialist in terms of my teaching and scholarship had helped me secure a job, but a lot of my colleagues assumed that I was also the one who could solve their computer problems. This assumption still exists among some of my colleagues, but I will often nowadays be pretty blunt and say something like “you know, that isn’t really my job.”

Anyway, my point is there haven’t been general “composition and rhetoric” scholars for a very long time, though I don’t think personally the split is that neat as to mean you are either a “compositionalist” or a “rhetorician.” As far as I can tell, there are basically three kinds of jobs for someone with a PhD in composition and rhetoric nowadays (obviously, I describe these in broad terms and with many grains of salt):

  • Area Specialists. This would be folks who specialize in things like rhetorical theory and/or history, media studies, technical/professional writing, computers and writing, specialists in gender and/or race, ESL, sometimes English Education, etc. This is more or less the job I have right now: when I came to EMU, they wanted me to teach courses that had to do with computers and writing and that’s pretty much what I still do. Really, this sort of specialization isn’t that much different than what has been going on in literature for decades.
  • Administrators. These are positions like writing program administrators, writing across the curriculum coordinators, writing center directors, and the like. Sometimes people are hired right out of a PhD program to take on these kind of jobs, and sometimes these are positions that people rotate into for one reason or another. In either case, these positions usually occupy a weird space between faculty member and “suited” administrator. Incidentally, while there is some concern in the IHE piece about how we aren’t preparing new PhDs adequately for these kinds of positions, I feel like I actually learned quite a bit about administrative work at BGSU. Besides actually taking some coursework that focused specifically on writing program administration, I had a fair amount of quasi-administrative experience doing this kind of stuff.
  • Not really a comp/rhet person, but a literature person who does comp/rhet. I could go on and on about this because this was more or less the situation with my first job at Southern Oregon University. But in brief, I think there are a lot of jobs out there– especially at smaller schools or in departments that are very entrenched in literary studies– where they say they are looking for a teacher/scholar in composition and rhetoric, but what they are really looking for is someone “like them” (e.g., a literature teacher/scholar) who is willing and able to do the composition and rhetoric stuff that has to be done in the department– those “advanced writing” courses, maybe some light WPA work, etc.

I was going to have a fourth category about the comp/rhet person who wants to work at a community college because that was mentioned in the IHE article too, but I am not sure that is a large enough category and it isn’t a kind of job I know a lot about anyway. I have one good friend/colleague from my PhD program who has taken this path and has done quite well with it, but I don’t think that’s the typical path.

As for Bauerlein: well, I think he’s just kind of clueless.

He seems to be wondering why comp/rhet folks aren’t “cashing in” on the huge demand for writing instruction and are instead wasting their time talking about stuff like equality and identity and justice and media and stuff. Here’s a quote:

Bad writing by employees means reduced efficiency, and businesses see costs rising steadily.

It would seem, then that the fields of writing and rhetoric would have a golden opportunity to enhance their standing. “We can fix this,” people at CCCC, chairs of writing programs, and others leaders might proclaim. “We can make students better business communicators, more efficient readers and writers, more productive workers.” A little speech by comp folks at a state college about workplace readiness to big employers of graduates in the state might find a responsive (and generous) audience.

First off, there are lots and lots of technical and professional writing programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels that are training folks to do exactly this kind of work. I teach in such a program. And I think the field of composition studies in general is actually a lot more invested in this kind of work than Bauerlein thinks– the National Conversation on Writing is one “off the top of my head” example.

Second, the reason why no one at the CCCCs is going to say “we can fix this” is because that would be a lie of the sort common in infomercials advertising exercise equipment, real estate flipping, or other get rich schemes. It just doesn’t work to “fix” the writing of students or anyone else, which is the main reason why comp/rhet scholars are a lot more interested in investigating what are some of the causes and conditions of writing in the first place.

Third, as far as I can tell, business has never really paid well for writing. Tech writers do not make near as much money as the engineers or IT people who are developing the products that require well-written documentation. This poor pay translates to academia as well: there are few (if any) fields that pay as poorly in higher education as English studies in general, and we pay most people who teach courses like first year composition part-time wages that rival the hourly pay at a Starbucks. So why Bauerlein, who must be at least vaguely aware of the state of affairs of the place of writing in higher education, would make these bogus claims is a mystery to me.

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