The road to hell is paved with unbought stuffed MOOCs (and other pre-sabbatical thoughts)

I’ve been re-reading The Sun Also Rises lately as my just before sleep reading, so hopefully some Hemingway folks will understand my reference. Anyway, I find myself with some MOOCs not taken regrets and some MOOC plans that might be more unbought stuffed toys.

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Don’t Panic and Bring a Towel

I’ve got at least two other blog posts in mind to write (not to mention lots of end of the semester/school year stuff), but I thought I’d try to write something this morning about Marc Bousquet’s CHE commentary “The Moral Panic In Literary Studies.”  To very briefly summarize: Bousquet notes a fairly long-standing and well-documented demand for folks with PhDs in comp/rhet relative to those with PhDs in literature and how “many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a ‘moral panic’ in defense of traditional literary studies.” Bousquet also goes on to praise composition and rhetoric generally as a field of study and one where its graduates are employable. A long quote:

That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.

Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.

Aaron Barlow has a post here about this essay too, as does Alex Reid right here. I agree with both of them heartily and would encourage you to go to read them. A few brief additional thoughts:

  • I don’t know if I would necessarily use the word “panic” among my colleagues in literature at a place like EMU, an institution different than the “tier one” category of research/ivy league schools I think Bousquet has in mind. What I sense is more of a frustration with the general state of things.  The challenges a lot of my friends and colleagues in literature have is the call to “justify” themselves in terms of things like more hires and support. They tend to use the same kind of slippery commonplaces for saving “The Humanities.”  By the way, the machine generated twitter account “Save Humanities” is interesting reading in a similar context.
  • In contrast, comp/rhet as a field generally is better positioned to respond to these constant calls in higher education for justifying our existence, for accountability to “stakeholders” and taxpayers, for assessment data, etc., etc. The field has always worked at justifying its legitimacy– especially to the folks in literature who have tended to be higher up in the pecking order and who have traditionally thought of comp/rhet as a “lesser” field, one (in the words of Bousquet) that is populated with  “dullards not good enough to read poetry, … lowbrow opportunists, or—worse— … saintly philanthropists who ‘should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing.'”  What I think has happened is that the decades of explaining to colleagues why we weren’t all dullards or saints has served as good practice for making the case about the value of the field to to deans, provosts, and others who make decisions nowadays about things like faculty lines.

That’s not to say we’re all “winning.” Far from it. But if faculty lines are at least one indicator of perceived value and legitimacy within higher education, it’s hard not to agree with Bousquet’s basic point.

  • And this is not just about “young and emerging” scholars versus “the old guard,” in my opinion. I’ve seen plenty of younger/young-ish folks who are dismissive of the new and the digital and of comp/rhet and who long for the days when we could require Milton, and I’ve seen plenty of older/near retirement folks who are still seeking the bleeding edge and who talk about the digital work they’d be taking on if they were starting in the field now.
  • The rise and increased legitimacy of comp/rhet may indeed be “reviving English studies,” but simultaneously, it is leading to different institutional structures like free-standing writing departments.
  • It’s interesting for me to think about this recent Bousquet commentary relative to Ann Larson’s blog post/commentary “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead.”  In Larson’s long and problematic essay ( I responded to in my post “Not Dead Yet”), Larson argues comp/rhet as a field is actually the problem because (among other things) it’s a field predicated on managing adjunct labor. One of the key thinkers she supports in her position is none other than the previous decade’s Bousquet:

The neoliberal transformation of the university into a corporation staffed by an increasingly precarious class of workers leads us to Marc Bousquet. In How The University Works, he argued that Composition as a discipline has had a particular role in processing under-employed degree holders, those he called the “actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside.” Writing programs that employ low-wage teachers are often headed by directors with Composition credentials. In many departments, Compositionists help design and assess writing curricula that are then deployed by part-time teachers in the classroom. Thus, as Bousquet wrote, Composition’s intellectual work has helped to legitimate “the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing.”

Bousquet’s critique of Composition, which he first published in the early 2000s, inspired impassioned rebuttals from some who accused him of looking down on writing teachers and scholars from his perch as a cultural critic.  Joseph Harris wrote that Bousquet, like most faculty in English departments, treated Composition as the “instrumentalist Other of literature.” In JACPeggy O’Neil argued that Bousquet was letting tenured faculty in literary studies off the hook for their “ongoing prejudices against Composition” and that he had failed to recognize that “labor issues are intimately connected disciplinary concerns.”

Now, Bousquet’s critique from way back when (as I understand it at least) is also one that comes from within the field itself: after all, that essay that Larson cites was originally published in JAC and Bousquet is certainly not the first scholar in the field to discuss the labor problems with first year writing and the like.  I just have to wonder what he thought about being cited that way by Larson and what Larson thinks about this more recent commentary.


Thoughts on “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor”

I’ve watched “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor” twice now today, even though I don’t have anywhere close to enough time to be doing that– and I don’t have time to write this post, either. But I kind of can’t help myself, I suppose….

Anyway on the positive side:

  • It’s probably the most heart-felt and honest discussion about the problems of adjunct/contingent/non-tenure-track faculty teaching writing in college I’ve ever seen.  The movie features both adjuncts and tenure-track faculty from all over the country  who are interested in these labor issues. Though it’s only about teaching first year writing– I’ll come back to that in the “not so positive side” of things– the things these folks are talking about here are raw and real.  Not a lot of punches held back.
  • I talk to a lot of MA students (or would-be MA students) who tell me that they’re interested in our program in Written Communication because they are hoping to teach first year writing at a community college and they figure they’ll get started with part-time work and take it from there. I try to explain why that isn’t the best of plans, but I think they often think I’m just being a pessimist. This video ought to be required viewing for these people.
  • There are a lot of good ideas toward the end of the movie to help with the “adjunct problem,” most of which has to do with (basically) reimagining how it is we hire people to teach courses like first year writing. What we try to do at EMU with lecturer positions is sort of an example, but it’s worth getting to the end to hear some of those smart ideas.
  • This is the clearest argument I’ve seen in a long long time in support of the “abolitionist” school of thought regarding first year writing alá Sharon Crowley and others. In brief, that position is higher education should eliminate the “universal” requirement for first year writing because the labor conditions necessary to teach so many sections of fycomp are blatantly unethical. (Often included in the abolitionist argument is the claim that first year writing is of limited pedagogical value, but I’m not going to go there for now.) So instead of making every first year student take fycomp, simply staff as many as you can with GAs, tenure-track faculty, and teaching but non-tenure-track faculty (albeit inevitably “second tier” faculty, which is its own problem) who have adequate training, who are treated more fairly, etc., etc. If that means at a place like EMU we’re only able to offer 25 sections of first year writing instead of 100, so be it.

The downside of this is you have to be careful what you wish for. If students didn’t have to take first year writing at a place like EMU, fewer students would obviously take the class, and that would have an impact on department credit hour production, which in turn would have implications beyond the adjunct problem in fycomp. That credit hour production from the required sections of first year writing helps to offset the lower enrollment in other upper-level courses and it also helps us justify tenure-track hires. Further, a lot of the adjuncts complaining now about the injustices of their current employment would simply be out of the classroom entirely.

And this brings me to some of the not so positive sides of this movie:

  • This isn’t about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in “Higher Education” generally; this is specifically and exclusively about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in first year writing. I can understand why this is the case– the folks who made this movie were adjunct first year writing teachers– but to me it’s a striking weakness of this project.  Why didn’t they talk to adjuncts in other fields? How hard would it have been to have done that? It suggests that the long-standing argument about the adjunctification of higher education generally might indeed be mostly limited to first year writing, and if that’s the case, then the solution of abolishing the requirement is all the more appealing.
  • It’s difficult for me as a tenured professor to know how I’m supposed to situate myself as an audience to this piece. This is the case with a lot of this genre. A lot of the commentary from adjuncts in the movie is angry and even hostile to tenure-track faculty– or it at least puts me on the defensive– with repeated claims that contingent faculty are “just as good” as tenure-track faculty, that the jobs are no different, that the conditions are arbitrary, and so forth.  Besides the fact that that isn’t true– that is, the jobs are different in a myriad of ways and tenure-track faculty tend to have more degrees, experience teaching, etc– it’s difficult for me to grab on to how I’m supposed to react to this. “We don’t like your privilege, but what many/most of us want is a tenure-track job.” “We don’t like how you are abusing us, but we want you to help us.” It’s a strange space to be in. If I’m sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help; if I’m not sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help.
  • I thought that a lot of the folks interviewed for this were oddly naive and otherwise unaware of how “the system” works regarding adjunct labor. What I mean is while I think their critiques of what’s wrong with the adjunctification of higher education are spot-on (and again, that’s what’s good about this movie), I find it surprising that they didn’t seem to know this when they started down the adjunct path.  For example, a couple of folks seemed disappointed that their part-time teaching job has turned out to not be a way to wiggle into a tenure-track position. And along these lines a lot of these folks (maybe most of them?) seemed to be trying to make the adjunct life work by stringing together gigs at two or three different places, something that is a recipe for bad teaching and grumpy teachers. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been blogging about this for a long time, maybe it’s because I’ve always told adjuncts that this is not a way to get a tenure-track job and this is not a way to make a full-time income, and maybe it’s because of my comfy job security in a tough market. It just seems a lot of these people should have known better. Which leads me to my next point:
  • There is no doubt that “the system” exploits adjuncts. They do it because (as someone says in the movie) administrators are “addicted” to cheap labor, and administrators are playing off of the “do it for the love” of the job (and not the pay or the security or whatever) that just about everyone who teaches has. The folks in this video clearly feel exploited, and one of the things that also comes up somewhat indirectly is the extent to which  exploited adjuncts are women. That said, I think these folks are allowing themselves to be exploited. Miya Tokumitsu has an absolutely brilliant essay about this here, “In the Name of Love” that was originally published in Jacobin, so I’ll just point there for the time being.
  • Because here’s the thing: I can understand the frustration and sadness that comes from being stuck in this exploited position especially after you have a dream or a calling for this work and you’re not successful at it. I was in an MFA program; I am familiar with the “failed dreams” of would-be novelists. But these folks all have advanced degrees and undoubtably could remake themselves into gainfully employed people outside of academia. They aren’t “trapped” the same way that exploited workers are in other lines of work– migrant workers, the fast food worker without a high school diploma, and so forth. Universities are exploiting folks by offering them jobs at shitty wages, no doubt about that. But folks are allowing themselves to be exploited by agreeing to take those jobs. Universities aren’t going to stop exploiting adjuncts until would-be adjuncts stop  agreeing to being exploited.

A few random thoughts on the VCU MFA reunion

"Borrowed" from Pam Gerhardt--
“Borrowed” from Pam Gerhardt–

This coming weekend is the 30th anniversary reunion for Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program in creative writing. Originally, I thought I was going, but delays in information about the schedule of events, conflicting life events and obligations, and this pesky day job that makes getting to and from Richmond on a weekend in the middle of the term ultimately are all preventing it.

And actually as I think about it right now, that’s been the story of my life regarding reunions. I missed my 20th high school reunion because I was in Hawaii. I’m missing this one because of the above, but oddly and for unrelated reasons, I’ll be in New Orleans. Maybe I don’t actually like reunions but I am not willing to admit it. Maybe I want to lock the past in the past. There is something to be said for that.

I started in the MFA program in 1988 in large part because Greg Donovan, the director of the program then and I think the director of it now, called me up and offered me a graduate assistantship. I recall being rather coy and full of myself, saying something about mulling over other offers– which I had, sort of. I had been admitted to a couple of other programs but without funding. Greg said something like “Well, it’s not worth it to go into a lot of debt to get a degree in creative writing” and I was signed up.

At 22, I was the youngest person in the program at the time I was there– maybe up to that point. I always thought this gave me certain advantages because if I did something good, people would say “yes, and he’s only 22!” whereas if I did something bad, people would say “well, he’s only 22.”

I don’t want to romanticize it all now– there were a lot of “bad times” of various kinds and flavors, mostly of the sort that I think to happen to any 20-something graduate student living far from home– but I mostly hold on to the good. I think it says something that I’m on much better “Facebook-like” friend relations with people from my MFA program than I am with people from my PhD program. Oh, Annette and I still have some good friends from Bowling Green days, but the PhD was rather “intense” (to put it mildly) and didn’t exactly foster social bonds that well. I don’t like this word, but there was a lot more “camaraderie” in the MFA program, maybe because we were helping each other try to be artists, maybe because a short story or essay workshop class can seem a lot like group therapy. Maybe I feel that way now just because I was so much younger and way WAY more naive.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and when I get a chance to advise students now about whether or not to go into a creative writing program, I always say that it’s a great opportunity just as long as you realize that it doesn’t inherently translate into a job after you finish. You won’t find a lot of ads on Craigslist or that say “MFA in fiction writing required,” with the exception of jobs actually teaching creative writing, and those positions are few and far between. What I got out of it was the luxury and privilege of being with a group of other people who all cared passionately about their writing. In a lot of ways, it didn’t even matter a whole lot if that writing was any good or not.

And who knows? I’m on sabbatical next winter (the story of that is another post I’m mulling over), and it might be time for me to take up foolish things again, things like making something up.