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?


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….

16 thoughts on “In response to Michael Bérubé on Crooked Timber”

  1. Professor Krause, yes, I’m really telling you that I don’t understand why rhet/comp people believe that the MLA as an organization doesn’t think much of composition and rhetoric. I know there are snotty literature professors out there, absurdly invested in their place in the pecking order, just as there are rhet/comp people with chips on their shoulders, as you say. I am well aware of the historic tensions between teachers of literature and teachers of rhetoric, and of the fact that at some universities those tensions have resulted in departmental divorce. But the fact that snotty literature professors exist does not demonstrate that the MLA holds rhet/comp in some kind of blanket institutional contempt.

    Look, for instance, at these passages from Russell Berman’s 2012 presidential address (and update your sense of what goes on at MLA conventions):

    However the terminology varies over multiple circumstances, we have to confront the scandalous open secret of American higher education: the greater the importance of teaching in one’s job description, the lower the compensation and job security. This is wrong.

    We are all teachers. We should be standing with our teacher-colleagues in K–12 who have been subjected to so much vilification this year and who are already facing the imposition of the Standards. To do so means strategic collaborations and coalitions with associations dedicated to K–12 and college-level teaching and with organizations representing educators’ labor interests.

    He is speaking, of course, of the NCTE — which was founded in 1911, and if indeed it was founded as a result of the MLA’s inattention to writing, perhaps it’s time to bury that particular hatchet. I’m a member of both organizations myself.

    Most important, I’m sorry to hear that you think paying college professors $6800 per course — a modest living wage — is ridiculous. I am finding to my dismay that some of the people who oppose our recommendations are the tenure-track faculty themselves. I don’t quite get that, either. But if you’re going to 4Cs this year, I hope to see you there.

    1. Just to be clear: I didn’t say MLA as an organization has contempt for composition and rhetoric as a field, despite many of its members feelings. I do think though that the organization doesn’t care much or know much about composition and rhetoric, this despite the fact that a lot (most?) people who are members of MLA have to teach some writing classes at various levels, and a lot of people who are members of MLA are members of the NCTE and specifically the CCCC. Maybe this is the way it should be: MLA is about literary studies, CCCC is about writing and rhetoric, and that’s that. While there are obvious cross-overs, the differences in focus is pretty clear.

      The passage you quote here as evidence about how NCTE and MLA ought to just get along is kind of interesting because it is about K-12 schooling and not about the CCCCs. I don’t know if you went to the big NCTE conference this past November or not or if you are planning on going in November 2012, but you will notice a very different vibe and group of attendees, not to mention very different kinds of sessions. Because I find NCTE so focused on elementary and secondary schooling (and I use the word “schooling” purposefully as opposed to pedagogy), I personally get just a wee bit more out of that conference than I do MLA, and I know I am not the only comp/rhet world who feels that way.

      Anyway, that the MLA doesn’t have much scholarly interest in composition and rhetoric is hard to dispute. And while I wouldn’t label this as “contempt,” this passage from Susan Schreibman, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen from the Profession 2011 special section on digital scholarship isn’t exactly suggesting MLA ought to broaden its definition of scholarship:

      Moreover, much of the digital scholarship undertaken in the fields
      of language and literature has necessarily focused on the creation of digital infrastructure for scholarly inquiry—in particular, digital archives and
      scholarly editions and the tools to use them. Such work relies on the traditions of scholarly editing, bibliography, and philology long relegated to
      second-class status in our profession. That the digital is conducive to the
      kinds of projects that have been denigrated by the academy (certainly since
      new criticism), including pedagogy, public humanities, and the creation of
      scholarly editions, has made the argument for including this work in tenure and promotion cases all the more difficult. Yet this work is essential to
      literary study in the digital age.

      And they then go on to note the need to make this stuff count as literary scholarship because, you know, it’s not like we could count things like articles about pedagogy or public policy or textbooks about teaching writing as scholarship in an English department, could we? So while I don’t think it’s their intent, it seems to me this project to convert “not real” scholarship into “real” literary scholarship says, in a backhanded way, that lots of the work people in comp/rhet in English departments is “not scholarship.” Thanks! Which, btw, is why about the worst job a comp/rhet specialist can take is to be the token writing person in a prestigious literature department.

      As for the $6800 thing: ridiculous is the wrong word, you’re right. I don’t think paying people a modest living wage is ridiculous at all, and I am happy to be working at an institution where faculty, lecturers (which are NTT faculty who are working full-time on renewable contracts and earn benefits and all the rest), and part-time instructors are all unionized. Now, the lecturer’s union and the part-timer’s union are still trying to find their way and there are of course problems with the faculty union too, but the point is as an institution, I think that EMU does reasonably well. It might not be a model to imitate exactly, but it’s a good example. And while I’m not always crazy about stuff my union does, I’d rather be in a union than not.

      Anyway, modest living wage is fine; I’m just saying that $6800 per section and assuming a 3-3 load is not realistic. Not even a little bit. That’s just never ever going to happen, and as I think about it now for a second, it was probably just a bad tactic for MLA to name a specific dollar figure like this. Better to say “living wage” and leave it at that, IMO.

      And there’s lots of other stuff we could talk about here too, about how the simple laws of supply and demand are working against us as a field and we ought to find a way to turn that; about how a lot of those people who are teaching part-time/NTT are locked into ABD status, which in turn speaks to the problems of how PhD programs work; about how maybe we need to find a way to discourage people from trying to put together full-time jobs from part-time appointments at multiple institutions, etc., etc.

  2. Have you considered that the alleged animosity between comp and lit teachers may have arisen as a way to justify the yawning gap between the monetary and affective benefits of TT and NTT faculty? The animosity could have resulted in part because of those material conditions, not the other way around.

  3. In that passage, Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen seem pretty clearly to be arguing that ” pedagogy, public humanities, and the creation of scholarly editions” are unjustly consigned to second-class status, and should be included in tenure/promotion cases. So their argument would, in fact, be advocating a broader definition of scholarship — as does the 2007 Report of the MLA Task Force on the Evaluation of Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. But I know that some rhet/comp scholars are annoyed and offended that Schreibman et al. spoke of “literary” scholarship. That’s precisely the part I don’t get. When an essay says “this work is essential to literary study in the digital age,” some people take this as a tacit denigration of the teaching of rhetoric and composition. …??

    But the issue on the table was the horrible working conditions of NTT faculty, and I continue to think it’s a mistake to let the lit v. rhet/comp tension eclipse that. As for the $6800 dollar figure: the MLA was directed to name a specific number by the Delegate Assembly motion that called for the establishment of per-course salary recommendations. The Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, which updates the figure each year, knows that most NTT faculty don’t earn that kind of money. But it has decided, so far, that it would be a bad idea for the Association to say “we’re aware that NTT faculty are paid horribly, so our recommendation is that pay be, uh, medium horrible.” We actually think that it is reasonable to ask that college professors make a minimum of $6800 per course, and yes, we want to persuade people that what’s really ridiculous are arrangements that pay less than half of that.

    Finally, the simple laws of supply and demand are not all that simple. TT jobs are down and NTT wages are low — and yet, over the past fifteen years, administrative positions have grown like mushrooms. How can that be? It is a mystery.

    1. Michael, I agree about the working conditions issue– well, I mostly agree. I think advocating “medium horrible” would be a bad idea too, but I think not naming a particular figure might have been more effective. Or not. I guess we’ll see. I don’t think this is a rhet/comp vs. lit issue per se, though I do think that a) the CCCCs and the NCTE as organizations and the CCC as a publication have longer track records at working on these issues (which is what I was bringing up in my original Crooked Timber comments), and b) it kind of is indirectly a lit v. comp/rhet issue since most NTT teaching is done in first year writing and a lot (mostly?) by people with graduate work in literature.

      Shawna, I don’t know if this gets at what you were getting at or not, but this is one of the rich ironies of the profession. I remember being in my doctoral program and talking at parties with folks working on PhDs in literature or American Culture studies (that was a big program at BGSU) and my non-comp/rhet friends would tell me I was nuts for specializing in comp/rhet since all I’d ever get to teach was first year writing. Well, the fact of the matter is the supply and demand thing is still working in the favor of people who specialize in comp/rhet, so most (not all, obviously, but still most) folks who finish PhDs in my field end up in tenure-track jobs where they teach advanced writing courses, graduate courses, and/or do writing program administration work. I don’t get to teach first year composition nearly as much as I’d like and that’s been the case at least as long as I’ve been at EMU. On the other hand, a lot of the folks in lit or culture studies who can’t get tenure-track jobs are hanging on to an academic life in NTT jobs, and guess what? they end up teaching a lot of first year composition!

      But yes yes yes, I agree that it is much better that MLA is taking on the NTT issue and making it a topic of discussion. I don’t agree with every bit of how it’s being presented, but it is much better than to ignore it entirely.

      As for still not understanding the “annoyed and bothered” part about literary scholarship. It’s really very simple. I don’t do literary scholarship. My (admittedly modest) publications and presentations have been about teaching research writing, about blogging in terms of teaching and as a cultural practice, about what should count as electronic and even self-published scholarship, about “how to” incorporate various electronic tools into teaching, about incorporating video into writing classes, about rhetorical situation, about the theoretical relationship between writing and technology, etc. I gave a presentation at a conference when I was in graduate school about a novel once– I think it was a Carson McCullers book– but that’s about it.

      So when MLA comes along and says “hey, we ought to count this stuff that we haven’t counted before as being literary scholarship,” that’s kind of insulting to me. It’s certainly different than had MLA come along and said “hey, this stuff that people do in English departments that isn’t literary scholarship, like things having to do with teaching or these ethnographic studies of how people write in the workplace or all this digital work that people do, we ought to recognize that this work is just as important as literary scholarship.” Does that make sense?

  4. As someone from a very different field, I welcome the MLA’s recommendation, because I raised the adjunct rate in my department from atrocious to horrible in this last year (my first as chair), and having a standard out there from English (not engineering, not psychology) will make it easier for me to defend that decision if asked about it. “We’re still $X below what MLA recommends for NTT English faculty.”

    1. Sherman,
      I’d encourage you to use standards from other disciplines, by which I mean you should find out what writing lecturers make when they teach for the STEM subjects. I teach writing in an engineering program, and I know several others who do, too. My overall impression is that we make about twice what MLA has suggested. I can’t say that definitively because of variations in job circumstances (I teach in that department, but since I’m not listed as instructor of record how much I get paid “per class” would be hard to calculate).

      Just a thought. Roughly 30% of the top ten engineering programs have an in-house writing specialist, too, which is strong evidence that the STEM subjects value writing. In terms of pay, they may value it more than the humanities.

  5. Sorry about the cryptic nature of the comment! I just meant that I wondered if getting better pay for the NTT faculty who teach lots of comp would help to raise the profile of writing teachers in general, including those on the TT who feel that comp scholarship is not given its fair due by lit scholars. (And I do agree lit people need to recognize that comp scholarship IS good.)

  6. I think there is another question here that is very much an issue to consider when we talk about raising the wages paid to NTT instructors. Who would bear the increase in cost-of-instruction for raising wages?

    This is an issue no matter who teaches a course or what the course is, but it has special relevance for courses that are required in the core-curriculum such as first-year writing.

    Professor Bérubé’s response to Steve suggests that institutions might re-align priorities internally to absorb the additional costs, perhaps by cutting administration salaries or positions. The more likely scenario is that students and parents would bear the cost in the form of increased tuition.

    This is not a direct reason to continue to pay NTT faculty an insultingly low wage. But it points to what I think is the real economic problem we face: what value do we give students for a course like FYW? Does the value justify the cost?

    Here’s what I mean: at my institution, it is possible for students to take FYW from an NTT faculty member and pay North of $1000 per credit hour (out of state, a little over $400 in state). Or, they could take the same course from the *same instructor* down the street at a community college and pay no more than $237 per credit hour (out of state, and as low as $79 in state, in district). They can transfer those credits in as part of an MSU degree program. It is a tremendous bargain. Same course, same teacher, vastly lower price.

    Surely there is some difference, many of my colleagues insist. But what is the difference in value to the student?

    This is relevant because if we are offering an overvalued product at an inflated price already, we may never have a sustainable solution to the salary fairness problem Bérubé raises.

    So here is my request to MLA and other professional organizations. Ask a simple question of institutions: what is your margin on a course like FYW? Show us your cost of instruction and your price, and help us understand how it is that you pay so little for those who provide a service and yet you can continue to raise the price that students and parents pay for it.

    For my own field of rhetoric & composition, and especially for those who are WPA’s, I have a different question: what is the value of the learning experience your programs provide in FYW and how is it related to a) cost of instruction, and b) tuition price? I’ve never met a WPA who could tell me what their institution’s margin on FYW is. Does it make money for your institution or lose money? If a university education was a happy meal, would FYW be the fries (high margin) or the burger (slightly lower margin?). Nobody knows. Nobody can say with certainty that the experience is any better than any other programs’ offering, either, in situations like the one I describe above: same labor pool, similar student populations, vastly different cost structures. Troubling.

  7. Professor Bérubé,

    I don’t have any direct evidence that the MLA as an organization has low regard, or contempt, for rhet/comp (for the record, my field is technical communication). What I do have is many instance of of personal experience and countless anecdotes from colleagues in rhet/comp and TC which all add up to the same thing: poor treatment at the hands of departments called “English,” where the rewards and benefits come from teaching literature, but most of the credit hours come from teaching writing.

    For instance, when the assistant department chair told me I’d have no problem teaching four sections while finishing my dissertation because “technical writing can be taught with the brain turned off,” or when colleagues in TC are repeatedly told that any good undergraduate English major can work in TC because it’s just a bit of rhetoric and some computer skills.

    Speaking more broadly, I can say with some accuracy that English departments have traditionally reinforced the idea that anyone can teach writing by encouraging graduate students in literature to teach writing. While pedagogically irresponsible, the economic repercussions at stake in this discussion can be summed up pretty easily: What happens when you encourage your school’s administration to believe that anyone can teach writing?

    So while I don’t know whether the MLA, as an organization, has animosity (or however you’d like to describe it) towards the fields of rhet/comp and TC, I have to admit that I don’t care. The organization that serves as the professional touchstone for the people whose behavior I’ve described is the MLA. So, as an organization? Don’t know. But from here, it all looks the same to me.

  8. The other thing that occurs to me this morning (after thinking a little, talking with Bill and others, etc.) is that the only way for MLA, NCTE, CCCC, or whoever to really address the issue of exploited adjunct labor is to disrupt the supply and demand chain. So, some ways that could work; what if MLA said…

    • English (and related) departments should only hire adjunct labor with the specialized training we would expect of tenure-track faculty for an area of teaching. Maybe it’s too much to insist that part-timers have PhDs, but it seems to me that NTT faculty teaching literature ought to have graduate work in literature, and NTT faculty teaching writing ought to have graduate work in writing (and more than just that practicum course that everyone takes).
    • English (and related) departments ought to insist that they not require courses that are staffed largely with NTT faculty. This is essentially the Crowley et al argument that the best thing we could do with first year composition is to eliminate it as a universal requirement, which would thus eliminate the exploitive labor practices. I have mixed feelings about that one in terms of how it would impact students, but it would go a long way toward ending the reliance on NTT faculty.
    • And for those adjuncts who are being exploited and working on the forever part-time track and inexplicably accepting these horrible teaching positions semester after semester, what if the MLA advised these people to stop taking those jobs? What if MLA had a frank and honest position that pointed out most part-timers are probably making less money teaching college than they would make full-time working at a grocery store, working retail, or waiting tables in a nice restaurant? As one of my colleagues pointed out the other night, if part-time teachers across the country took a year off from teaching to get a “real job” to pay the bills, then the entire system if higher ed exploiting part-time labor would completely collapse.

    And so forth. I don’t think any of these approaches are very realistic or pragmatic; then again, I don’t think these ideas are any less realistic than MLA arguing the standard for NTT labor ought to be a 3-3 load at $40K + a year with benefits.

    I can think of lots of reasons why MLA is not really interested in taking this approach though. If we insisted that the people who teach courses in first year writing ought to be at least as specialized as the people who teach gen ed courses in literature, then we would have to dramatically shift graduate studies in English toward comp/rhet. If we didn’t require students to take courses like fy writing or gen ed literature, then we wouldn’t need as many NTT faculty, which in turn might mean that tenure-track faculty might also have to teach some of those classes. (This is a scenario that is playing out a bit in my department as a result in a shift of gen ed requirements in literature.)

    1. English (and related) departments should only hire adjunct labor with the specialized training we would expect of tenure-track faculty for an area of teaching. Maybe it’s too much to insist that part-timers have PhDs, but it seems to me that NTT faculty teaching literature ought to have graduate work in literature, and NTT faculty teaching writing ought to have graduate work in writing (and more than just that practicum course that everyone takes).

      FWIW 90+% (I hesitate to say 99% without having my numbers from the last couple of years in front of me, but 90% is conservative) of the NTT folks that teach my FYW courses are literature folks. This would mean that there would be a lot of unemployed literature PhDs and ABDs in our neck of the woods. I don’t know how well those numbers hold up in other people’s programs, but if it is as close as I suspect perhaps it is that MLA doesn’t value it’s own. Maybe they need to look at the conditions that are indeed causing them to cannibalize their own. Just saying.

      Snarkiness aside, we (all) treat our NTT folks horribly. They are forced into the situation of having to teach insane numbers of sections in order to make ends meet (most institutions are not paying anywhere near $6800) and most don’t have any benefits and spend much of their time on the verge of being ill from spending too much time teaching, grading, and traveling from institution to institution and not enough time doing the things that we take for granted like resting and spending time with friends and family.

      Rather than putting the proverbial band-aid on a bullet wound (saying look at what we want) let’s take the bullet out and sew the damned thing up. Let’s figure out why conditions are so bad in the first place and do something to change them. We know that at most of our institutions FYW is the money maker (we teach over 300 sections a year) so let’s figure out where that money goes and find a way to do something about NTT wages and benefits. Enough of the stone throwing. Telling us that the MLA hates us and doesn’t respect our work does nothing productive and can really only hurt you in the end.

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