College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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

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)

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Hanson and de los Reyes. Adjunct Identity as “Compositionists.” Forum, Spr. 2019. Posted 05/27/2019.

Hanson, Gina, and Chloe de los Reyes. “Identity Crisis: Daring to Identify as More than ‘Just’ Adjunct Composition Instructors.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 22.2 (2019): A4-15. Print.

In the Spring 2019 Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, included in the March 2019 issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Gina Hanson and Chloe de los Reyes discuss the disciplinary identification of adjunct composition instructors. Of concern is the question of which faculty members may call themselves “compositionists” (A4), and what restrictions on the use of this title mean for those who, in the authors’ view, are denied the authority it confers.

The authors are part-time lecturers teaching four first-year-writing courses per semester in the English Department of a large public university in southern California; their experience includes teaching across a range of institutions and programs (A7). They note that the reliance of higher education on contingent labor has long been a topic of discussion, but argue that despite decades of concern, little has changed (A5). While acknowledging the importance of economic issues to part-time teachers, Hanson and de los Reyes focus on the “alienation and isolation” they see as inherent in adjunct status as it is commonly defined (A5).

Quoting Jody Norton, the authors note discrepancies between situations in which composition professionals tell adjuncts that “you are us” and those in which they “remind [adjuncts], in unambiguous terms, that you are not us” (qtd. in Hanson and de los Reyes A5). This distinction, Hanson and de los Reyes claim, derives from what Norton designates as the “uneasiness of what adjuncts represent to the future of higher education” (A5). Citing a 1989 document from the Conference on College Composition and Communication as well as one accessed in 2013 from the American Association of University Professors, the authors argue that a shared narrative casts the prevalence of part-time faculty as a threat to tenure, which is equated with academic freedom, and as a detriment to the “integrity of faculty work,” as the AAUP states (qtd. in Hanson and de los Reyes A6).

They further quote James Sledd that “it is hard to argue that tenure is essential to academic freedom when half the faculty will never be tenured” (qtd. in Hanson and de los Reyes A6). This uneasiness with the presence of adjuncts, in the authors’ view, contributes to the tendency among tenured faculty to marginalize part-time instructors.

Hanson and de los Reyes focus on what they see as the devaluation of teaching as central to the identity discrepancy between “[r]eal compositionists” and part-time instructors (A8). Quoting a line from Chris Gallagher that poses teaching time as “an impoverished metric for either teaching commitment or teaching impact” (A9), the authors also quote Melissa Janetta’s recruiting post for a 2018 CCCC workshop that laments the “under-representation of classroom research” in the literature of the field (A9-10). In the authors’ view, this devaluation separates teachers into “workers” versus “thinkers,” with only those who theorize beyond classroom practice and participate in the development of programs and other work outside the classroom deserving of the title “compositionist” (A8).

For Hanson and de los Reyes, this distinction is concerning at several levels. They argue that counting on tenured faculty to sustain the vitality of composition puts that responsibility on “a dying breed” (A10). Further, ignoring the knowledge created by classroom practitioners who are charged to “enact” the theories will continue to impoverish the quality of teaching itself (A10). Finally, improving “working conditions” but not the “professional conditions” that exclude classroom instructors from knowledge-making within the profession will further alienate even those who have persisted in the field because they are committed to it and want to contribute, often sending them into “greener pastures in the private sector” (A11).

The authors contend that they do not want to eliminate distinctions between different kinds of research; rather, they argue for recognizing that the two approaches have equal merit (A12). In their view, the claim that adjuncts “don’t research” overlooks not only the research done to produce articles like theirs but also the importance of recognizing that “our classroom practices are often the most useful kind of research in our field” (A12). Stating that teaching is “our community’s defining practice” (A10), the authors write that overlooking this kind of research will divide researchers from teachers and exclude knowledge vital to the field’s success (A12).

They argue that the narrative that casts part-time instructors as detrimental to higher education uses these teachers as a “sacrificial lamb” in the fight to protect tenure. They maintain that characterizing adjuncts as underqualified even as they teach large segments of composition classes leaves the impression that “anyone can do it because some unqualified yahoo just did” (A13), thus undercutting arguments that base composition’s status as a discipline on its members’ expertise.

The authors argue that recognizing the authority and knowledge-making skills of the many committed part-time teachers, fully recognizing them as “compositionists,” will provide a much more sustainable future for the teaching of writing. They write that they have chosen “to see ourselves as compositionists even if others do not” (13), arguing that the label of “worker” who practices what others theorize is a limiting institutional definition based on rank rather than on commitment and ability. Such definitions, they argue, should not supersede

the identity of compositionist [that] can come to mean a person who shares in the give-and-take of a distinct body of knowledge and not merely one who engages in the push-and-pull of academic politics. (A13-14)


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Fox and Powers. Promotion for Part-Time Faculty. Forum, Fall 2017. Posted 09/24/2017.

Fox, Steve, and Mick Powers. “Half a Loaf? Hard Lessons When Promoting Adjunct Faculty.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 21.1 (2017): A3-A11. Web. 14 Sept. 2017.

Writing in the Fall 2017 issue of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, a twice-yearly publication of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Steve Fox and Mick Powers report on their efforts to improve working conditions for part-time contingent faculty at IUPUI. Noting that calls for increased equity for these faculty urge better pay, increased benefits, more control over assignments, and better hiring practices, among other changes, Fox and Powers contend that “less common is specific advocacy for some sort of promotion process” for these faculty (A4).

They find “professional advancement” listed among the seven goals of the New Faculty Majority and mention of professional development and promotion possibilities in both the “CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for Non-Tenure-Track Writing Faculty” and the MLA Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members (A4). Such calls, they argue, speak to the conditions under which part-time faculty may achieve excellence in teaching for many years without recognition or without rewards such as higher pay than less experienced or less accomplished colleagues (A4). They share their experience working to remedy this situation as a case study (A5).

Fox and Powers report that IUPUI practices “Responsibility-Centered Management” that generally provides programs with “considerable autonomy,” with the result that salaries, hiring practices, and course assignments vary across campus (A5). In the School of Arts and Letters (SLA), which houses English and the writing program, part-time “salaries remain low, increases are infrequently given, and when given are applied equally to all part-time faculty . . . with no recognition of years of service or professional excellence” (A5).

Efforts to improve conditions within the SLA were part of campus-wide initiatives including an “office for part-time faculty affairs” and the establishment of a “committee on part-time faculty matters,” which recommended that part-time faculty be given an opportunity and process to earn promotion (A5-A6). The authors see the fact that the school’s associate dean for faculty affairs had been chair of English and had worked with part-time faculty in other contexts as important to the SLA’s role in April 2014 as the first school on campus to take up the recommendation (A6). They also cite the existence of the “Associate Faculty Coalition,” of which Powers is president, as a motivating factor (A6).

Part-time (associate) faculty provided input to the draft document generated for the SLA initiative. The school’s goal was to make the process similar to promotion procedures “for full-time faculty, without making it onerous or intimidating” (A6). Associate faculty expressed some reservations during the drafting process, for example arguing that the “modest” 10% proposed raise did not reflect the value of their contributions as faculty (A7); “[s]ome wondered why they should have to go through an entire dossier process in order to get a raise they felt they deserved without having to apply at all” (A7).

Powers felt that the benefits accruing to the new process, including a small raise where there might not otherwise have been any raise, outweighed the concerns. For the first time, the university would be presented with “documented proof” of “a noteworthy degree of excellence” that could ground future efforts. Also, faculty promoted to “senior” level would receive priority in course assignments; finally, faculty who prepared the dossier would have experience in preparing such a document as well as evidence of a promotion that would work in their favor should they apply for other positions in the future (A7).

Components of the dossier were “a candidate statement, a teaching philosophy, a CV, and an optional appendix with supporting documentation” (A7). These materials were reviewed by three-full-time lecturers, with a senior associate faculty member to be added the second year.

The SLA supported faculty with workshops; faculty in other programs did not always receive active support and were not always even notified about the opportunity (A8). Twenty-two associate faculty were accepted for promotion the first year; nine of these were in English (A8).

Fox and Powers note “other factors” that ultimately affected implementation of the initiative (A10). Foremost among these was “a severe budget crisis” that led to the suspension of raises except for promotion, transferred oversight of the school’s budget to the campus administration, and forced Fox, as writing program administrator, and Powers to argue for the importance of providing promised raises to promoted part-time faculty (A8-A9).

Although the raises and promotions were finally approved, the process was suspended for 2016-2017 because of budget issues (A9). Fox and Powers note that faculty just reaching the eligibility requirement of at least four semesters at IUPUI or who had decided not to apply the first year were thus prevented from applying (A9).

The authors note concerns that their initiative serves as “only a pale imitation” of true promotion and recognition (A9). They cite Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s argument that faculty should be focusing on “the long term and work for tenure for all faculty” (A10) rather than being distracted by short-term changes. They do contend that “rewarding their part-time faculty” benefits the university by furthering teaching excellence (A10). They recommend continuing to work for systemic change, including “meaningful representation in faculty governance” for the part-time faculty who, Tony Scott states, “do most composition work” (qtd. in Fox and Powers A10).