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Kahn, Seth. Devaluing Teaching. CE, July 2020. Posted 09/22/2020.

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Kahn, Seth. “We Value Teaching Too Much to Keep Devaluing It.” College English 82.6 (2020): 591-611. Print.

Addressing issues in English/writing studies related to teaching versus research and the professional and labor concerns connected to those issues, Seth Kahn points to a rhetorical tendency in the field that he contends asserts the importance of teaching while often “unwittingly” (608) or “inadvertently” (603) contributing to its devaluation. Of concern to Kahn in particular is the degree to which this often implicit devaluation comes to the attention of decision-makers who are already inclined to denigrate teachers and exploit vulnerable populations (609).

Kahn argues that writing studies has produced a rich scholarly literature on effective teaching that demonstrates how the field is “anchor[ed]” in classroom practice (594), but in his view, this scholarship does not find its way to administrators and politicians who affect educational budgets and priorities (591). Rather, these policy makers are more likely to encounter documents like collective bargaining agreements, departmental personnel policies, social media posts, and articles in widely shared public venues like The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) and Inside Higher Ed (IHE) (591). In Kahn’s view, even well-meaning discussions in such publications encourage audiences to see teaching as less valuable than other academic activities (595).

Kahn contends that assertions and actions meant to demonstrate how the field “values” teaching often undercut their own claims when they rely on ambiguous meanings of “value.” “[C]atered monthly lunches to talk about responding to student writing,” he asserts, “don’t pay the rent” (593). He writes that participating in a “discourse of teaching devaluation” (595) even as positions that “usually require more teaching” (597) become more common both undercuts work toward labor equity and damages public perceptions of academia as a whole.

Kahn sees differences in compensation as clear messages to policy makers that the field does not truly value teaching. He contends that even important scholarship on labor issues shies away from questions of compensation (594); he also reports that responses to most of the proposals in the 2016 CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for Non-Tenure-Track Writing Faculty were “generally positive” but that the call for a minimum of $7,350 per course was “not popular” and deemed “impossible” because non-tenured faculty might out-earn their tenured colleagues. Kahn argues that any tenured faculty member making less than an adjunct teaching eight courses “was also being underpaid,” denoting a larger problem than adjunct pay per se (598).

Kahn points to data revealing that faculty who “just teach” earn less at all levels from those assumed to do research and perform other academic tasks, both within institutions and across types of institutions. His sources reveal that faculty at master’s, four-year, and two-year institutions where faculty are often expected to teach more make less than faculty at doctoral universities (596-97). He notes that institutions rationalize providing lower compensation for teaching faculty by asserting that they are asked for fewer “commitments” (597). Kahn argues that such programs simultaneously acknowledge that participation in teaching-related scholarship would improve teaching (597); he proposes that faculty in lesser-ranked institutions are often active scholars whose research may well outperform that of their better-paid counterparts (598).

In Kahn’s view, institutional policies in which teaching loads increase because of faculty’s “failure” to publish at prescribed levels and the use of phrases like “release time” to do research cast teaching as “punishment” (598-600). He argues further that severing teaching and research often means that faculty whose positions primarily entail teaching are denied the resources to do scholarship at all (598), even though the field claims to be committed to research for and by teachers (595).

Although contending that questions about the value of teaching are distinct from debates about tenure, Kahn locates in IHE and CHE a discourse on tenure and promotion that addresses labor and equity issues only as they pertain to research-intensive positions, with teaching-intensive positions rhetorically erased (602, 606). Kahn argues that this focus on only one faculty cadre elides the fact that it is possible to “build a successful academic career” without feeling overwhelmed by research-heavy demands (602). Such rhetorical framing, he claims, by “generalizing” about the “unimportance” of teaching in an academic setting (602), reduces it to an “[a]fterthought” (600).

Kahn finds the denigration of teaching visible in an article in CHE about recruiting English majors. Distinguishing between the content of such articles and the way they are framed, Kahn finds the idea of encouraging faculty with “expertise in material representative of the English major [to] teach general-education courses” an “interesting concept” (604). However, he writes, not only does the framing imply that the non-tenure-track faculty already teaching the courses would not possess the requisite expertise, it casts such courses as “service courses” that would be a “burden” and moves on to argue for incentives like bonuses to already highly paid faculty (603-04). Such approaches instruct policy makers that “faculty who teach primarily lower-division courses are lesser,” thus “mak[ing] them easier to exploit” (604).

He further notes how subtextual denigration of certain kinds of teaching finds its way into mainstream discussions by analyzing the framing of a news article in IHE on a study of teachers’ motivations for teaching well. He writes that the reporter ignores the limitations acknowledged by the study authors, including the failure to include any two-year-college faculty, and instead presents “faculty ‘generally’ as people who need more motivation to teach well” (606). In Kahn’s view, this generalization erases “those many thousands of us who primarily identify as teachers” (606).

Further examples from CHE and IHE illustrate Kahn’s view that substantive issues can be addressed without devaluing teaching, for example by pointing to structural issues rather than the commitment and ability of adjuncts as explanations for the problems contingent labor poses for students (607). Kahn argues that taking more care not to devalue teaching and the colleagues who do it may not address “the regime of neoliberalism” and its attendant effects, but it is “easy to do right now” and a necessary condition for any of the more extensive goals (607). He makes three “calls”:

  • Be quieter when denigrating any teaching
  • Be louder about valuing all teaching
  • Try to stop other people from denigrating teaching (606; emphasis original)

He writes,

When you denigrate teaching labor, you may not feel like you’re bashing teaching but the effect is the same: You make it easier for people who want to de-professionalize us to do it.

Please stop. (609)

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.

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