Not Dead Yet

Let me start with what I think Ann Larson and I both agree about, at least as she discusses it in her post “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead.” I think collective bargaining/unionization for academics is a good thing: faculty, lecturers, part-timers, and grad students ought to all organize, along with other units on campus. I’ve been in an academic union my entire life on the tenure-track, and while the union is far from perfect, I’d rather have and be in a union than not have and be in a union. I think that’s especially true at places like EMU.

But I disagree with pretty much everything else she says in this post, including her characterization of what I wrote here a while back. More after the break.


Larson’s post with the catchy title (as someone on Facebook noted, it could be a possessive s, as in “the dead of Rhetoric and Composition,” or it could be an apostrophe s, as in “Rhetoric and Composition is dead;” maybe both) is a sort of rambling complaint against much of what is wrong with academia and somehow connecting it back to Composition studies– specifically, first year writing and WPA work.  Someone on Facebook called this a “concern troll,” so it probably doesn’t need too much more attention. But I can’t resist responding, especially since she mentions me specifically.

But before I get to responding to Larson directly, I am  beginning to wonder about the frequently cited “fact” that about 70-75% of all faculty teaching in higher education right now are teaching part-time and that this alarming number represents a historical crisis. At the risk of opening the Latourian black box of assumptions here, what is this based on? I’m not saying it’s not true; I’m just wondering about why we assume this. I’m wondering how we can parse this out a bit more, and I’m wondering the extent to which this represents an actual decrease in the number of tenure-track positions in higher education, and how that (presumed) increase in part-time faculty is being distributed across academia.

I’ll offer three completely anecdotal reasons why I am asking about this increase in the number of part-timers/decrease in the number of tenure-track faculty:

  • About 40-45 years ago, the Department of English Language and Literature at EMU had about 50 faculty members, plus or minus a couple. Right now, the department has about 50 faculty members, plus or minus a couple. There has been a shift in what folks do (there are a lot more comp/rhet specialists than there were 30 or 40 years ago), but the number of faculty has remained relatively steady. I suspect though– I don’t know this for sure, this is just an educated guess– that we have increased the number of part-time/full-time but not on the tenure-track faculty dramatically.
  • As far as I can tell and as long as I’ve had any involvement in higher education, first year writing has always been taught mostly by non-tenure-track faculty. Obviously, I didn’t pay much attention to this as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, but I think everyone teaching freshman comp at the University of Iowa back then were graduate students. I can speak with some certainty that very few (if any) sections of fycomp were taught by faculty at VCU or BGSU, and about 90% of the sections of first year writing at EMU are taught by part-timers, lecturers, and GAs. This situation might be different at smaller/more liberal arts-oriented colleges, but maybe not. My first job was at Southern Oregon University, a regional university of about 6,500-7,000 students with an English department of fewer than a dozen faculty and not a ton of majors, and the gen-ed class that faculty taught was generally an intro to lit of some sort. Certainly not fycomp.
  • And then there’s this complaint from Richard Weaver about the teaching of introductory rhetoric classes in his essay “Language is Sermonic,” which I believe was published in the 1950s (though it might be later): “With a few honorable exceptions it (meaning rhetoric) is given to just about anybody who will take it. The ‘inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merly instrumental members of the profession’– to recall a phrase of a great master of rhetoric, Edmund Burke– have in their keeping what was once assigned to the leaders. Beginners, part-time teachers, graduate students, faculty wives, and various fringe people, are now the instructional staff of an art which was once supposed to require outstanding gifts and mature experiences. (We must note that at the same time the course itself has been allowed to decline from one dealing philosophically with the problems of expression to one which tries to bring below par students up to the level of accepted usage.)”

And so on. Like I said, I’m mostly being honest when I say I have questions about the accuracy of the adjunct crisis in higher education. But I also, obviously, am trying to point out that this “crisis”– specifically as it relates to teaching first year composition– has been in place for a long long time.

Anyway,  moving on: here’s what Larson said in her post about me:

Some Composition faculty entered the debate to offer advice to unemployed PhDs and graduate students. One response in particular illustrates a new low in Composition discourse. Steven Krause, of Eastern Michigan State University, insisted that the job market in Composition is a “completely different animal” than the market in literature. When people “express ‘rage’ about the terribleness of the job market in Literature,” he wrote,

I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place. …. I think a lot of their anger – and Schuman is angry, no doubt about it – comes from this realization that they didn’t beat the odds, that they fooled themselves (and/or allowed themselves to be fooled) into believing that they were somehow immune from the job market laws of supply and demand.

Krause suggested that, if English graduate students expected to get jobs, they should have studied Composition like he did. This response is indicative of Composition’s new position with regard to academic labor. It might be called an “anti-politics.” The labor crisis is no longer assumed to have been caused by “prejudice” or disciplinary “discrimination.” Such liberal epithets might have served the field well in Mina Shaughnessy’s day, but they no longer apply now that the MLA routinely advertises more Composition jobs than Literature jobs on its annual list. Instead, the new argument goes, there is no adjunct labor crisis. There are only immutable economic principles such as “the law of supply and demand” to which none of us can expect to be “immune.” In this neoliberal paradise, Krause suggests, underemployed PhDs are not victims of discrimination; they’re just fools who failed to take personal responsibility for whether or not they could find a job in a field they chose and whether that job paid a living wage. This is where Composition’s decades-long fight for status in academia was always fated to lead. Any semblance of class struggle, not to mention old-fashioned liberal sympathy, has been reduced to the dictum: “those unemployed people should have been smart like us.”

More or less responding in order:

  • I’m not a “Composition” specialist in the sense that Larson seems to be describing it. Early in her post, Larson describes Composition as a “sub-field of English.” This would certainly not be how I and many of my colleagues would describe the field, especially those who teach in and/or have degrees from comp/rhet programs not in English departments. And even though I have a PhD in English specializing in comp/rhet (though BGSU’s program is in “Rhetoric and Writing”), I certainly never thought of it as being “beneath” or “sub” any other degree in the department– like Literature, for example.
  • Comp/rhet as a field goes far beyond first year writing and WPA work. It includes rhetorical theory, technical writing, computers and writing, media studies (of a sort, at least), visual rhetoric, etc., etc. I don’t know anyone in the field who is exclusively invested in first year writing, and that includes the “boss compositionists” Larson critiques. A simple look at the MLA JIL illustrates this.
  • It is a “’completely different animal’ than the market in literature” because it’s a different discipline/specialization. Simple as that.  Committees doing a search in literature would probably not consider a candidate with a PhD in composition and rhetoric; committees doing a search in comp/rhet are probably not going to consider a candidate with a PhD in literature. I don’t understand why this is complicated or controversial.
  • I don’t think I was saying “if English graduate students expected to get jobs, they should have studied Composition like he did.” But if folks are expecting to get jobs in Composition and Rhetoric, then yes, getting a PhD in Comp/Rhet instead of Literature or some other related field would have been a good idea.
  • The reference to Mina Shaughnessy is interesting because she entered the field of Composition and Rhetoric in the 1960s before it was possible to get a PhD specifically in the field. That was also an era when it was much MUCH easier to get a tenure-track job in literature, too.  Anyway, I believe Shaughnessy studied 17th century literature; if she were to apply for a tenure-track job in Comp/Rhet at a place like EMU nowadays, she wouldn’t be considered. But that has nothing to do with “disciplinary discrimination” or “prejudice” or “anti-politics” or whatever; this is all about the way the field has matured and moved away from literary studies.
  • See above regarding the questions I am raising earlier here about the “adjunct crisis,” and yes, I think folks who decided to earn PhDs in unemployable disciplines (and we’re talking about fields of study that have been relatively unemployable for decades) and who paid no attention to the supply and demand of the marketplace have done this to themselves. It certainly wasn’t the fault of people in my field. So yes, folks who get a PhD in something like (for example) Shakespeare studies only to learn afterwards that a) there are few jobs in the field and b) they aren’t qualified for a job in Comp/Rhet should take some personal responsibility and not instead blame the Composition Elite/Neoliberal Complex. That’s just silly.
  • So, what can disenfranchised folks like Larson do? The options are obviously limited. On an individual level, I think the best option is to do what Larson has apparently done, which is to find work outside of academia.  I realize that’s not the dream/ideal, but it is what it is. On a more global level (and I said already), I think that part-timers/non-tenure-track faculty ought to do whatever they can to unionize. It definitely helps.
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