College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

Lamos, Steve. Writing Faculty Job Security and “Negative Affect.” CE, Mar. 2016. Posted 03/27/2016.

1 Comment

Lamos, Steve. “Toward Job Security for Teaching-Track Composition Faculty: Recognizing and Rewarding Affective-Labor-in-Space.” College English 78.4 (2016): 362-86. Print.

Steve Lamos addresses the need for improved job security for “teaching-track” faculty: “faculty members whose jobs primarily or exclusively consist of delivering undergraduate instruction off of the tenure track” (362). Lamos argues that the ongoing discussion of this need, especially within composition studies, fails to adequately address the degree to which pervasive “negative affect” (363) prompts constituencies within higher education to devalue the kinds of work these teachers do.

Lamos reviews the literature on labor conditions for teaching-track faculty, which often advocates for tenure for these positions (362). He underlines the exigency of this concern with statistics showing that in today’s “neoliberal environment” of higher education, 75% of all hires and 95% of hires in composition do not include tenure (363).

To define “affect,” Lamos turns to discussions by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth as well as Sara Ahmed. Their work theorizes what Lamos calls a “precognitive sensation” that exists below conscious levels and “circulate[s]” in ways that, in Ahmed’s words, “mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, between the individual and the collective” (qtd. in Lamos 363). Such circulation of emotional forces around teaching-track work, Lamos writes, is predominately negative, rendering the labor involved in this work “unimportant, uninteresting, and ultimately unworthy of attention” (363).

Lamos contends that efforts to promote job security must address this negative affect if they are to succeed, but many advocates for improved labor conditions fail to do so. For example, he argues that the claims of Marc Bousquet that solidarity with other labor movements will result in change actually requires the field to downplay its unique commitment to emotional work in order to align with larger groups, thus failing to acknowledge the ways in which negative attitudes toward emotional work within higher education will spur resistance to productive change (369-70). Similarly, calls for various forms of review and credentialing, including one of his own, fail to explain how such a credential, even if awarded, can come to be seen as valuable enough to improve the status of teaching-track work (371).

To progress, in Lamos’s view, composition theorists must develop means of making the various constituencies with the power to address teaching-track status “feel good” (363) about the work such teachers do. His article particularly focuses on larger institutions that generally privilege research over teaching because these institutions function as “higher education trendsetters” (364). Although emotional labor is devalued across most educational contexts, Lamos writes, within more prestigious research universities it is especially “subject to a kind of gendered dismissal” based on a sense that it involves work that women find “inherently satisfying” and thus not in need of other compensation and that, by its nature, consists more of “pandering to difference” rather than enforcing academic standards (366).

For Lamos, negative affect revolves, first, around this view that emotional work is peripheral to the mission of higher-education (365-66), and second, around a failure to understand that the success of emotional labor requires “educational spaces” where students’ minds and bodies can engage with “smart environments” (367) in which students can experience the pleasure of intellectual work. However, such spaces are seen by the institutional elite as “idiosyncratic,” needing to be replaced by spaces that produce “universal, acontextual, and easily assessable” results (367).

Lamos makes the case, however, that the work done by teaching-track faculty in these contexts is essential to learning. Emotional labor in general works to make students “comfortable enough to learn” (364); the kind of emotional labor specific to composition, moreover, strives to “mak[e] writing processes themselves . . . feel good and right and natural” (365). To argue for the value of this kind of work within the overall education mission, he presents the “‘studio’ model of basic writing instruction” developed by Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thompson and the “Accelerated Learning Program (ALP)” promoted by Peter Adams and colleagues.

These program augment “‘regular’ curricula” with the specific kinds of support needed for all students to advance (372). The example of a specific engineering student in Grego and Thompson’s project sheds light on Lamos’s view that affective work with students enhances learning when it makes them “more comfortable” in academic settings and helps them understand how interpersonal components color learning environments (372-73). A second focus of these programs has been demonstrating their ties to retention and graduation rates. Lamos presents data indicating that ALP in particular has generated quantitatively documented evidence that providing students with affective support can reduce attrition and costs (374).

Lamos makes three “assertions” about how best to improve job security for teaching-track faculty engaged in what he calls “affective-labor-in-space” (375). He first recommends explicitly imbuing this labor with the kinds of associations that larger constituencies within higher education will feel good about. Doing so means not only citing evidence on retention and graduation but also continuing to make the case to authoritative stakeholders that emotional labor is “profoundly important to the future of higher education” (377) and that it is “unique,” a kind of intervention unlikely to be undertaken elsewhere in the academy (375, 377, 379, 380). He argues for the effectiveness of such an approach at his own institution.

Next, he urges that the ability to perform such labor be “institutionalized” as a factor in assessment and hiring (377). Expecting documentation of this ability allows it to be “emplac[ed]” so that it becomes “part of our institutional fabric” and thus becomes a stepping-stone to more secure employment (377).

Finally, he advocates emphasizing the importance of job security to teachers providing this kind of instruction. However, he notes that there is little likelihood that tenure will rapidly follow (379). Political barriers such as “right-to-work” laws often prevent direct activism, and some skeptics may note that faculty have demonstrated that they can perform affective labor well without substantive reform (381). To counter such resistance, faculty have worked instead to promote improvements such as “soft reappointments” and “‘evergreen’ contracts,” measures that make securing ongoing employment less onerous and less contingent (381).

While Lamos urges national educational organizations like NCTE and MLA to make job security a focus, he emphasizes finally that “[s]uch work must be made to feel good and right and essential to individuals from across the political spectrum” if progress is to be made (383).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

One thought on “Lamos, Steve. Writing Faculty Job Security and “Negative Affect.” CE, Mar. 2016. Posted 03/27/2016.

  1. Pingback: AT COLLEGE COMPOSITION WEEKLY: | Virginia S. Anderson

Leave a Reply. Entering a name or email address in the fields below is completely optional--but feel free to do so!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s