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.

21 thoughts on “Not Dead Yet”

    1. None of which means, of course, that the adjunct crisis isn’t a crisis– it is, a moral and practical one, and we need to respond by pushing for adjunct unions and working in solidarity with them.

  1. The 70-75% stat includes contingent positions, so it includes part-time adjuncts and non-tenure track lecturers, etc. I cite multiple sources for the figure in the essay. As for the question about whether the rise in contingent labor corresponds with a decreasing number of tenure-track position, the MLA is a good source on this. The most recent study shows that “only 32% of faculty members in English, across all institutions, hold tenured or tenure- track positions. Comparison of the 1993 and 2004 surveys documents a decline over the decade in the percentage share of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the English faculty. This comparison also suggests that, as tenured faculty members in English leave or retire, institutions are not fully replacing them with tenure-
    track faculty members.” You can read the study here:

    Other than that, I’m not really sure how to respond to a list of anecdotes.

    1. That is, indeed, the key point. The growing use of full-time but non-tenure-track instructors (who are nearly always paid far less than tenure-track faculty of similar rank and experience, and who, of course, have less job security, and therefore less power, and less comfort in exercising their academic freedom) is also part of the story — one which often receives less attention than the use of part-time contingents (what many people mean when they say “adjuncts,” though the word is used in various ways), because the conditions aren’t quite as shockingly exploitative, but it’s still a significant part of the picture (and possibly a greater threat to faculty governance, and the traditional tenure system).

      Steve, here’s the Chronicle salary survey data for your institution: . It’s showing that 60% of the teaching force is “full-time staff whose primary role is instruction” (this includes people who are non-tenure-track as well as tenure-track), which suggests that 40% are adjuncts (adjunct data is much harder to come by). I’m not sure whether they’re counting by individual staff members or by FTEs (possibly the former), but it sounds like you’re in the ballpark for matching the national picture (especially when one takes into account that community colleges generally use more part-timers than universities, so you could be on the high side in use of full-timers and still confirm the larger picture).

      It looks like instructors (probably the main category into which full-time non-tenure-track folks fall, though some of us carry assistant and even associate or full professor titles) are unusually well paid (which could be affected by a number of things, including the availability of potential instructors in the area, the disciplines in which they cluster, etc., etc.). The adjunct pay data (which is self-reported, so scanty) is here: .

      1. Our community college has moved over 30 years from 16 FT tenure/ 2PT to 8FT /more PT than I know how to count. At the same time, the number of students doubled.

  2. I’m the guy who characterized the original post as concern trolling. Most crisis rhetoric is just a way to generate heat, and the best way to reveal the pyrrhic nature of crisis pieces is to do what you did. Break it down. I don’t agree with everything you write here, but I agree with a lot of it. Thanks for taking the time to create a civil dialogue.

  3. Thanks for that link, Freddie. I think that is interesting.

    And Ann, if I am not mistaken about that MLA report (I don’t have time to read it now), it is suggesting that the “replacement” of faculty has not continued in a one-to-one fashion like it used to: that is, a Miltonist retires and the department hires another Miltonist, even though the previously retired Milton expert was only teaching one seminar in his area of expertise every other year. That doesn’t mean that the institution didn’t hire someone else– someone in another discipline in English (again, my department is about the same size as its been for decades; the difference is we’re not all a bunch of literature scholars anymore) or even in another department entirely. So that’s why these numbers are very hard to nail down: they go far beyond the specialized scope of the MLA.

    Perhaps this is just obvious, but I support all of the calls for more TT faculty for all of the reasons various folks have mentioned, and I think it’s a mistake for all kinds of different reasons for institutions to try to “make due” with part-timers. So I want to emphasize here in raising questions about “what do these numbers mean?” that I’m don’t think they’re true; I’m just trying to open the block box a bit and figure out more what they’re based on.

    Having said that, it seems to me there are at least three things at play here (and I might post this on my blog at some point, fwiw:

    * I suspect that if we did a “head count” of TT faculty in 1975 versus now (with stops in-between, of course), at most universities, the number of faculty would probably be about the same. The thing that’s changed is really the number of students and thus the number of part-timers, so the ratio/percentage of folks teaching in college is tilted in that direction. It’s not so much that faculty have been “replaced” with part-timers (though see my next point on that); rather, it is that the growth in the TT ranks have not kept up with enrollment. But this is just an educated guess, frankly. Maybe I’m totally wrong on that one.

    * One thing I’ve seen very clearly in my time in the tenure track over the last 17 or so years is a fairly significant increase in “administrative creep” for all kinds of largely bad reasons. I think the result is a lot of faculty (including me!) are doing some quasi-administrative work and getting some reassignment from teaching, which means that even with roughly the same number of faculty, we’re teaching a lower percentage of the classes. I’ve seen this quite a bit at EMU, which is hit with the double-whammy of being pressured to not hire more administrators. While I generally agree with that– we have enough suits as it is around here– it does mean that administrators get faculty to do this work instead, and that means they are teaching less and less.

    * Finally, I think my argument about fycomp stands in that we’re just not teaching a whole lot more sections with part-timers now than we did 10 or 20 or even 40 years ago. So, where has there been a bigger increase in the use of part-timers to teach? What other fields, for example? I honestly don’t know.

  4. Also — although I’m a literature Ph.D. with 20+ years experience teaching comp (a generation younger than Mina Shaughnessy, but in some ways in the same position in terms of developing on-the-job comp/rhet expertise, and an interest in publishing in the field, despite a lit Ph.D.) — I can see the argument for separating out rhet and comp entirely (though that’s not how it’s done at my institution, which does offer a rhet/comp. Ph.D., or at any other institution where I’ve taught). However, I’d only be in favor of that if the rhet/comp. program is truly freestanding: not drawing at all for teaching staff on M.A., M.F.A. or Ph. D. candidates or degree-holders from English (or any other department/field). At my institution (and most others, I’m pretty sure), the whole enterprise would fall apart pretty quickly under those conditions, and the Rhet/comp department/program would soon be reduced to desperately recruiting hordes of Ph.D. candidates, while knowing that most of those people, once they received the degree, would be needed to fill the part- and full-time non-tenure-track jobs on which the tenure-track jobs in rhet/comp. rely. As I think I commented on another post of yours, rhet/comp has a ratio problem: because, as you point out, most tenure-track jobs in rhet/comp are at least partly administrative, the tenure-track faculty need someone to administer. The administrees may well increasingly be rhet/comp. Ph.D.s (or M.A.s or A.B.D.s) rather than lit. ones, but I’m not sure that’s exactly an argument in favor of expanding the discipline (in fact, from my point of view, it’s a reason to warn potential grad students away from rhet./comp., since there’s every indication that past success in job placement will not predict similar future success).

    1. Cassandra, can you explain what you mean by “because, as you point out, most tenure-track jobs in rhet/comp are at least partly administrative, the tenure-track faculty need someone to administer”?

      I see this as backwards. Most TT jobs in rhet/comp require administrative work because comp programs are large and require administrative work on a level that other, smaller departments do not. TT folks are not trying to create a labor force so as to have someone to manage; that labor force exists because the courses exist. Now, some folks think the existence of FYC (and other comp courses) is a problem, but that’s a different argument.

    2. First off, I think Sarah is right: I think you have the relationship/role of administrative work for comp/rhet scholars pretty much backwards. WPA work is an important emphasis in the field, it’s definitely a specialization worthy of study, and I took some coursework in it way back when. I’ve even had some mostly interim work as a WPA. But there is much much more to the field than WPA work. At EMU, we have a small but viable undergrad major and MA program, and most of the 9 (or so) faculty in our program are teaching advanced writing classes to support this major and some other programs. Two out of these nine folks are directly connected to the first year writing program; the rest of us are interested in first year writing of course but not doing that work.

      And by the way, there are plenty of free-standing comp/rhet programs that are getting along just fine right now.

      Second, I’m not really advocating/pointing out an expansion of comp/rhet as a discipline per se– that is, I don’t think we need more PhD programs or more PhD students, at least not any more than are working their ways through the pipelines now. But what is pretty clear though is the career outlook for those who earn PhDs in comp/rhet is considerably brighter than those who earn PhDs in literature.

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