Griffiths, Brett. “Professional Autonomy and Teacher-Scholar-Activists in Two-Year Colleges: Preparing New Faculty to Think Institutionally.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.1 (2017): 47-68. Print.
Contributing to the issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College dealing with the preparation of two-year-college faculty, Brett Griffiths discusses the importance of preparing these faculty to advocate beyond the classroom for pedagogical practices grounded in the expertise of writing professionals and the field of composition. Recognizing that two-year faculty face the challenges of “our current teaching context,” which includes “the mass production of knowledge for profit, globalization of economic relationships,” use of contingent labor, and success measured solely by completion (47), Griffiths notes that these faculty are often not empowered within their institutions to act as advocates for theoretically valid teaching (60). Her study examines how two-year faculty in three institutions constructed their professional identities in ways that either helped them position themselves in leadership roles or, conversely, “unwittingly undermined” their potential as leaders (49).
Griffiths studied ten faculty, most holding MAs, from colleges chosen for their differing demographics (“urban, suburban, rural”) (50). In each case, she collected teaching artifacts, observed and videoed a class session, and conducted interviews. Her coding procedure resulted in more than 175 codes; she provides examples in appendices (52). Her goal was to distinguish teachers’ classroom actions, such as “planning the curriculum, conducting a class-length lesson, [and] grading a paper,” from the “pedagogical rationales” driving choices and addressing constraints (50). The specific focus of the cases reported was the “influences on an instructor’s teaching and the tensions they experienced between teaching choices and perceived expectations” (52). This focus allowed her to distinguish how teachers coped with these tensions.
Griffiths draws on the work of “sociologist and professional identity scholar” Magali Sarfatti Larson to consider how professional identity can be consolidated. Sarfatti Larson, she writes, delineates two components of professional authority: “a monopoly of competence,” which means that writing professionals are perceived as most qualified to determine what counts as good practices, and “a monopoly of credibility,” which means that these professionals are believed to implement these practices well (48). Griffiths contends that two-year faculty must be prepared to position themselves to make these monopolies more visible within their institutions and communities.
The author draws as well on Sarfatti Larson’s claim that “control over the regulation of . . . knowledge” is essential to establishing professional authority and autonomy (49). She distinguishes between “control over technique,” which involves specific activities “associated with knowledge of the field,” and “control over scope of service,” which addresses “the knowledge, protocols, and professional theories that shape . . . practice” (49; emphasis original). For Griffiths, this theory indicates that the professional autonomy to affect policy beyond the classroom is built on the ability to develop, assess, and revise professional knowledge and to convey “the value of that knowledge to a broader community—our institutions and the voting public” (49).
Griffiths’s study examines how her participants positioned themselves in relation to “scope of technique” and “scope of service” and how that positioning affected their effectiveness as leaders and advocates for sound teaching in their institutions. Her findings lead her to classify the instructors as either “independent contractors” or “teacher-advocates” (55). She arrived at this distinction through interviews in which many instructors described their freedom to do what they wanted within their classrooms and the tensions that arose when their classroom practices did not accord with departmental directives (56).
Interviews with instructors working from a “negotiated syllabus” revealed considerable disagreement over many components of the syllabus and their program’s overall design. Griffiths records a determination, in the words of one instructor, to “subvert” elements of the program’s requirements with which he did not agree (qtd. in Griffiths 57). Instructors in this group engaged in “workarounds” and even used “fake” materials to appear as if they were following the departmental requirements when in fact they were teaching according to their own understanding of best practices (57, 58). Disagreements included varying approaches to teaching grammar, the number of required essays, and whether a modes-based curriculum was appropriate (57).
Griffiths notes that these choices made by instructors as “independent contractors” deliver “two narratives for the course outcomes” to the students (54) and, in the case of tensions over the inclusion of “style” as an outcome that no one had been able to define, result in a sense of “normlessness” that, in Griffiths’s view, undermines claims to professional competence and credibility (56-57). She also found that in giving feedback, instructors tended to further provide mixed narratives by applying the departmental rubrics despite their claims to disavow them (55).
She writes that at first she joined these instructors in imagining that they were engaging in “victories of composition soldiers against the omnipresent oppression by an education overlord” with little understanding of teaching practice (59). But she claims that the “freedom” and “independence” these teachers assert differs from professional autonomy as Sarfatti Larson explains it (56).
The independent contractors, Griffiths states, avoided debating and defending their positions with colleagues, choosing instead to “teach outside of the department expectations while appearing to adhere to them” (58) and permitting colleagues the same perceived freedom. However, Griffiths argues that such tactics left instructors working within a system that frustrated them; a teacher who chooses this version of “freedom” “opts out” of more broadly based efforts to improve experiences of both teachers and students alike (56).
Griffiths contrasts these faculty with “autonomous teacher-advocates” who, rather than teaching “as if” they supported departmental outcomes, “assert[ed] control over scope of service to evolve those outcomes based on contemporary research in writing studies” (60-61). The majority of these teacher-advocates taught at a specific institution, which both encouraged and required them to become active, collaborative participants in designing and implementing outcomes and policies (60-61). One instructor at another of the institutions stepped forward on her own in a less-than-inviting environment to direct a textbook review (62).
The author highlights the importance of graduate preparation if faculty at two-year colleges are to embrace these more active roles (62). Most of the faculty she studied “had very limited engagement with the meta-discourses of the profession . . . or with the language of their labor contracts,” and no “clear sense of what footing they possessed to exert change” (62). The failure of faculty to develop this kind of awareness, she writes, “will likely continue to limit the status and autonomy” of two-year-college instructors (63).
She stresses the “responsibility” of moving beyond the apparent freedom of the classroom to the larger context in which instructors should be willing “to assert—sometimes uncomfortably—within their departments and institutions an articulation of the shared norms and practices” that have been developed and promulgated by the discipline (64).