In response to Michael Bérubé on Crooked Timber

It’s not often that Michael Bérubé responds specifically to me, as he does here in the comments on this post on the blog Crooked Timber called “More about adjuncts.”  I don’t expect anyone to read all those links, so to very briefly summarize:  under his leadership as president, the Modern Language Association has taken up the cause of non-tenure-track labor by arguing for things like a 3-3 load with salary of around $41K and benefits, and Bérubé writes about it in this post.

I’m all for all sorts of working people getting the best deal they can get– and that includes part-time college teachers, tenured professors like yours truly, the person who sells me fish at the Food (W)hole, etc.  But I’m skeptical of the MLA’s approaches.  As I said in my comment, I think the money per section MLA is suggesting is ridiculous (why not demand everyone who teaches part-time get a free pony?), this does nothing to address the very long-standing problem of supply and demand, and I think that what really needs to be questioned is the idea of encouraging anyone to cobble together a living by teaching part-time in the first place.

Anyway, I posted my comment a week ago and wasn’t thinking much about it until a conversation on the WPA-L reminded me of it.  So I went back and looked and I saw this comment from Bérubé:

Steven D. Krause @ 79:

It is interesting to me that the MLA is taking on this cause—and it is a noble one—when the organization and many of its members doesn’t seem to think very much of composition and rhetoric, which is where most NTT faculty work in English departments.

I just don’t know where this comes from. Is there a document somewhere, or a series of statements by MLA staff and/or elected leadership, that suggests that the MLA doesn’t think very much of composition and rhetoric? Because I hear this fairly often from rhet/comp teachers, and after all these years, I still don’t get it. What did the MLA do/not do to earn this rep, and what should it do to get rid of it?

Because as far as I’m concerned—and I know I share this conviction with the rest of the MLAleadership—the working conditions of NTT faculty are of critical importance for higher education regardless of whether those faculty members are teaching composition or Keats.

But it looks like I looked back a little late because comments on the entry were closed.  So I thought I’d post my response here:

What, really?  You’re honestly telling me you don’t “get” why it is that comp/rhet people think that the MLA doesn’t think much of composition as a field?  Really.  Really?

Huh.

Okay, well, let’s see:  depending on who’s history you want to believe, there has been a split among those who study the high arts of Literature and those who teach the base practices of writing in American universities since at least the 19th centry.  I don’t have my copy of James Berlin’s book handy, but I believe he makes the argument that one of the “perks” for the first PhD programs at Johns Hopkins and Harvard was that the more prestigious professors didn’t have to teach writing.  And as I understand it, NCTE and then the CCCC was more or less founded on the idea that MLA just wasn’t that interested in teaching of writing.

(By the way, there’s an interesting review essay by Geoffrey Sirc in the current CCC that might be relevant; here’s a link.  I just skimmed it, but I have to say that it seems oddly self-serving and, like Jeff Grabill, it actually makes me want to read the Miller book he trashes.  I’d probably agree with it.)

I think the MLA’s lack of interest in the teaching of writing continues to be reflected in its conference and its publications.  I gave up going to the MLA conference a long time ago because I haven’t been on the job market for a while (and thank God technologies like Skype are making the interview function of MLA increasingly ridiculous), but also because there are generally only a handful of panels on anything relevant to rhetoric and writing.  This year was arguably a little different as MLA “discovered” digital humanities, though I don’t think I missed much and I was less than impressed with MLA’s discussion of this recently in Profession 2011.  And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find more than two or three articles a year in PMLA that have anything to do with comp/rhet.

In my own experiences as an academic (I began my PhD studies in rhetoric and writing in 1993, though I became aware of this while in my MFA program from 1988-90), there has always been divide between the literature folks (aka MLA folks) and the comp/rhet folks, and the assumption in English departments (which are mostly literature folks, after all) is that the comp/rhet folks are a notch below them and just not worthy.  It’s complicated and I don’t want to overstate it because it is of course not universal– some of my best friends are literature professors– and I’ve always thought that too many comp/rhet folks had excessively large chips on their shoulders.  But I can think of numerous occasions where I have been told indirectly or even directly by literature colleagues that the scholarship and teaching I do is not as important as the work of literary scholarship because, my dear boy, we all teach writing, don’t we?  Pour a few cocktails into some of these folks and they’ll tell you outright that all of the scholarship in places like College Composition and Communication, College English, Research in the Teaching of English,  etc., is just rubbish.

So no, there is of course no MLA document or staff statement or whatever that makes this explicit.  But I think the MLA has earned this reputation among comp/rhet folks because of how many of us have been treated by some of our literature colleagues, and also by what the MLA has not had to say at its conference and in its publications about scholarship in rhetoric and writing.

What can the MLA do to change this?  Well, I think the first step is to acknowledge it….

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