A “Modest Proposal” Revisited: Adjuncts, First Year Composition, and MOOCs

I’m posting this at 37,000 or so feet, on my way back from Italy from an international conference on MOOCs sponsored by the University of Naples (more accurately, Federica WebLearning). Normally, I wouldn’t pay as much as I’m paying for wifi on a plane, but I wanted to stay awake as much as possible to get back on USA time by Tuesday morning and because I had some school/teaching work to do. Plus there’s a weird extra seat next to me because my row with three chairs has a row of four chairs right in front of it.

Anyway, I’ll be blogging about that in the next few days once I go through my notes and collect my thoughts about the conference and about Italy. In the meantime though, I wanted to post this. I was trying to place this as a “thought piece” in something like Inside Higher Ed and/or The Atlantic, which is why there is more “apparatus” explaining the field and the state of adjunct labor in fycomp than is typical of things I write about that here. But nobody else wanted it/wanted to pay me to publish it, so it will find a home here.


The new school year is upon us and, as reliable as any other ritual of the new semester, the laments about the deplorable state of adjunct faculty have returned. The articles, tweets, and posts usually refer to  “the adjunct crisis,” but since the word “crisis” suggests something short-lived, I think it’s more accurate to say “the adjunct condition.” In my field of composition and rhetoric, the adjunct condition is especially visible in first year composition and rhetoric, (aka “freshman comp,” aka fycomp), the almost universally required small group introductory writing course. And it’s a condition rather than a crisis because it’s the way we’ve done business for over 30 years.

The specifics vary, but the staffing practices for fycomp are as universal as the requirement. Where there are graduate programs, many sections of fycomp are taught by supervised graduate assistants. In fact, almost everyone who has been a graduate assistant studying in an English department or a related field in the U.S. had their first solo teaching experience in a section of fycomp. The rest of the sections are taught mostly by non-tenure-track faculty, and mostly by part-timers who are hired on a “per course/per semester” basis. At my university, a little more than half of the 70 or so sections we offer every semester are taught by part-timers; at some institutions (particularly at community colleges), the percentages of the sections taught by part-timers is closer to 90%.

How did we get here? For starters, there is an abundant supply of would-be adjuncts eager to teach at any price. Jason Brennan, a business and philosophy professor at Georgetown who blogs at the site “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” argued most adjuncts are victims of the realities of supply and demand, and there was no reason why these folks should put up with these conditions. After all, adjuncts are by definition well-educated; as Brennan wrote, “They could just quit at any time at get a perfectly good job at GEICO.” Brennan was taken to tasks for his comments on Twitter with the hashtag #ProfessorGEICO and in a piece by Rebecca Schuman on the web site Vitae. But while Brennan’s language might have been harsh and too direct, it’s hard to argue that he’s wrong.

But the other cause of the adjunct condition is just as important: addiction. Higher Education is addicted to the availability of cheap labor in a pattern that is similar to the serious addiction in America to pain killers. Administrators (and I include myself in this group since some of my current duties include administrating our fycomp program) hire part-timers with the best of intentions of solving what they hope is a temporary staffing problem– not unlike that temporary prescription to oxycontin after knee surgery. But because adjunct labor is so much cheaper than tenure-track labor (and with none of the pesky issues of shared governance and academic freedom), we have long ago forgotten the temporary problem that started us down the part-timer path in the first place. We’re no longer using part-timers/oxy/heroin to simply deal with the pain– we’re using to function.

Let me add I don’t think adjuncts deserve to be treated this poorly. Far from it, and in my experience, it’s difficult to overgeneralize how adjuncts found themselves adjuncting. Many are engaged in the work only for a few years– I was a part-timer in the early 1990s for about three years before I started my PhD in composition and rhetoric. On the other end of the spectrum, many are long-time part-timers– sometimes for decades– cobbling together something approaching a full-time job by working part-time at several universities and community colleges.

Some long-term adjuncts are not on the tenure-track because of a combination of choice, family demands, a spouse, the inability to move to a different region of the country, and so forth. Many long-timers– far too many, frankly– are not able to get into a tenure-track position because they don’t have doctorates (that is, they have an MA or are ABD) or they have doctorates in fields where the positions are few and far-between. This is particularly true for adjuncts who teach fycomp: all of the part-timers I have worked with who have PhDs all hold their degrees in some area of literature.  Most people who earn PhDs in composition and rhetoric (certainly not all, but most) secure tenure-track or full-time but not tenure-track positions.

Regardless, any solution to this problem has to address both supply and demand.  There are things adjuncts can do to help themselves– unionization immediately comes to mind. But besides the fact that it’s difficult to start a union in the first place, it’s only a partial solution as long as the supply of labor remains high. Further, even when administrators admit they have a cheap labor addiction problem, they feel they have little choice but continue to hire adjuncts because courses– particularly courses like fycomp– need to be staffed.  

This brings me to my “modest proposal,” offered in the same spirit as Jonathan Swift’s famous satire. Though to be clear, this is not entirely my modest proposal; rather, my proposal is largely based on the proposal Sharon Crowley outlined in “A Personal Essay on Freshman English.” Crowley, who retired from Arizona State University’s faculty in 2008 and who received a lifetime achievement award from the Conference for College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in 2015, is a brilliant writer and rhetorician who spent much of her career criticizing fycomp both for its lack of pedagogical value and for its labor practices. In “A Personal Essay, ” Crowley offered a simple solution:

Let’s just stop insisting that every student who enrolls in a two-year college or a four-year university must take a required composition course. Please note that I am not proposing the abolition of introductory-level writing courses. I suggest, rather, that universities simply stop insisting that every student who matriculates must somehow deal with an introductory-level composition requirement, either by taking a course or testing out.

“A Personal Essay” was reprinted in her 1998 collection Composition in the University, but it was originally published in 1991. Further, in “A Personal Essay,” Crowley recounts her involvement in the 1987 “Wyoming Resolution,” which was a CCCC’s executive committee statement that was supposed to push back against the terrible working conditions for part-timers teaching fycomp in the 1980s. In other words, adjuncts have been exploited as cheap teachers for fycomp for at least 30 years, around the time when I would have been a student in one of these courses. Thus my characterization of the adjunct problem as a condition rather than a crisis.

I don’t agree with Crowley about the lack of pedagogical value in fycomp. College students should be required to do more writing–not less– and generally speaking, I think most of the adjuncts and graduate students teaching fycomp do a good job. Still, the labor practices have been unsustainable and unethical for a long time, and the adjunct condition is not going to improve unless we try something radically different.

So here’s my modification of Crowley’s original proposal:

Let’s offer only as many sections of traditional fycomp as we’re able to offer staffed by qualified graduate assistants (because this arrangement extends an important apprenticeship teaching and learning opportunity), full-time (though not necessarily tenure-track) faculty, and tenure-track faculty. Further, let’s offer students the choice of taking one of these sections to meet their writing requirement, or they can enroll in an fycomp MOOC where they would complete assignments and produce a portfolio of writing that would be evaluated, either for credit or for a waiver of the requirement. Between these two options, we might be able to both meet the needs of most of our students and we might be able to push back on the adjunct condition.

Logistically, institutions could offer their own MOOCs, which would allow their fycomp MOOC to  resemble the course is taught locally. For those institutions not interested in getting into the MOOC game, I am sure Coursera, EdX, or another MOOC provider would eagerly agree to offer a course. Either way, there would be a fee (presumably much less than it would cost for the conventional course) so that those students who complete a portfolio of writing from the MOOC can have that work evaluated.

In fact, arguably the MOOC option is just a way of broadening the already common practice of waiving students out of the fycomp requirement. In other words, instead of using current measures like high school GPAs, ACT or SAT scores, AP tests, CLEP tests, or writing placement tests, we could instead ask the most prepared of fycomp students to take the MOOC for credit, thus creating the conditions where we could give our face to face attention to those students who most need it.

Needless to say, there are a host of problems with this proposal.  For starters, my modest proposal aims to solve the problem of adjuncts potentially at the expense of students’ learning. This is why most colleges cap the enrollment in sections of fycomp to 25 students or fewer: the practice, research, and conventional wisdom suggests small courses are the best way to learn to write. But as the technologies of MOOCs improve and as we learn more about how students are motivated to learn in these spaces, I think the conventional wisdom of “smaller is always better” becomes less certain. Besides, if smaller is better for fycomp, it’s probably better for the many courses we routinely teach in lecture hall sections of hundreds of students. We’ve always made compromises in higher education about teacher/student ratios based on available staffing and costs.

I am also certain the loudest objections to my modest proposal will come from the people it is aimed to help, part-time adjuncts. This is what Crowley discovered in her work with the Wyoming Resolution. Crowley wrote that the proposal was  “vigorously opposed” by the part-timers it aimed to protect and she notes that she was accused of being “antifeminist” since most of the part-time teachers who would be out of a job with her proposal would be women.

I understand the adjuncts’ objections. If my modest proposal were to be implemented and if it were to actually succeed (two giant “ifs,” I might add), most part-timers would go from being poorly paid to not being paid at all. But again, if the last 30-plus years have taught us anything about the exploitation of part-time adjuncts in higher education it is that nothing is going to change until we try something radically different.

If nothing else, I think what we have to do in fycomp and related courses in the university is re-evaluate the costs and benefits of the status quo. Do the benefits of small sections of fycomp outweigh the costs of staffing those courses with exploited labor? Would the benefits of ending (or at least curtailing) higher education’s reliance on adjuncts outweigh the costs of a watered-down the fycomp requirement?

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