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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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Hassel and Giordano. Assessment and Remediation in the Placement Process. CE, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/19/2015.

Hassel, Holly, and Joanne Baird Giordano. “The Blurry Borders of College Writing: Remediation and the Assessment of Student Readiness.” College English 78.1 (2015): 56-80. Print.

Holly Hassel and Joanne Baird Giordano advocate for the use of multiple assessment measures rather than standardized test scores in decisions about placing entering college students in remedial or developmental courses. Their concern results from the “widespread desire” evident in current national conversations to reduce the number of students taking non-credit-bearing courses in preparation for college work (57). While acknowledging the view of critics like Ira Shor that such courses can increase time-to-graduation, they argue that for some students, proper placement into coursework that supplies them with missing components of successful college writing can make the difference between completing a degree and leaving college altogether (61-62).

Sorting students based on their ability to meet academic outcomes, Hassel and Giordano maintain, is inherent in composition as a discipline. What’s needed, they contend, is more comprehensive analysis that can capture the “complicated academic profiles” of individual students, particularly in open-access institutions where students vary widely and where the admissions process has not already identified and acted on predictors of failure (61).

They cite an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education stating that at two-year colleges, “about 60 percent of high-school graduates . . . have to take remedial courses” (Jennifer Gonzalez, qtd. in Hassel and Giordano 57). Similar statistics from other university systems, as well as pushes from organizations like Complete College America to do away with remedial education in the hope of raising graduation rates, lead Hassel and Giordano to argue that better methods are needed to document what competences college writing requires and whether students possess them before placement decisions are made (57). The inability to make accurate decisions affects not only the students, but also the instructors who must alter curriculum to accommodate misplaced students, the support staff who must deal with the disruption to students’ academic progress (57), and ultimately the discipline of composition itself:

Our discipline is also affected negatively by not clearly and accurately identifying what markers of knowledge and skills are required for precollege, first-semester, second-semester, and more advanced writing courses in a consistent way that we can adequately measure. (76)

In the authors’ view, the failure of placement to correctly identify students in need of extra preparation can be largely attributed to the use of “stand-alone” test scores, for example ACT and SAT scores and, in the Wisconsin system where they conducted their research, scores from the Wisconsin English Placement Test (WEPT) (60, 64). They cite data demonstrating that reliance on such single measures is widespread; in Wisconsin, such scores “[h]istorically” drove placement decisions, but concerns about student success and retention led to specific examinations of the placement process. The authors’ pilot process using multiple measures is now in place at nine of the two-year colleges in the system, and the article details a “large-scale scholarship of teaching and learning project , , , to assess the changes to [the] placement process” (62).

The scholarship project comprised two sets of data. The first set involved tracking the records of 911 students, including information about their high school achievements; their test scores; their placement, both recommended and actual; and their grades and academic standing during their first year. The “second prong” was a more detailed examination of the first-year writing and in some cases writing during the second year of fifty-four students who consented to participate. In all, the researchers examined an average of 6.6 pieces of writing per student and a total of 359 samples (62-63). The purpose of this closer study was to determine “whether a student’s placement information accurately and sufficiently allowed that student to be placed into an appropriate first-semester composition course with or without developmental reading and studio writing support” (63).

From their sample, Hassel and Giordano conclude that standardized test scores alone do not provide a usable picture of the abilities students bring to college with regard to such areas as rhetorical knowledge, knowledge of the writing process, familiarity with academic writing, and critical reading skills (66).

To assess each student individually, the researchers considered not just their ACT and WEPT scores and writing samples but also their overall academic success, including “any reflective writing” from instructors, and a survey (66). They note that WEPT scores more often overplaced students, while the ACT underplaced them, although the two tests were “about equally accurate” (66-67).

The authors provide a number of case studies to indicate how relying on test scores alone would misrepresent students’ abilities and specific needs. For example, the “strong high school grades and motivation levels” (68) of one student would have gone unmeasured in an assessment process using only her test scores, which would have placed her in a developmental course. More careful consideration of her materials and history revealed that she could succeed in a credit-bearing first-year writing course if provided with a support course in reading (67). Similarly, a Hmong-speaking student would have been placed into developmental courses based on test-scores alone, which ignored his success in a “challenging senior year curriculum” and the considerable higher-level abilities his actual writing demonstrated (69).

Interventions from the placement team using multiple measures to correct the test-score indications resulted in a 90% success rate. Hassel and Giordano point out that such interventions enabled the students in question to move more quickly toward their degrees (70).

Additional case studies illustrate the effects of overplacement. An online registration system relying on WEPT scores allowed one student to move into a non-developmental course despite his weak preparation in high school and his problematic writing sample; this student left college after his second semester (71-72). Other problems arose because of discrepancies between reading and writing scores. The use of multiple measures permitted the placement team to fine-tune such students’ coursework through detailed analysis of the actual strengths and weaknesses in the writing samples and high-school curricula and grades. In particular, the authors note that students entering college with weak higher-order cognitive and rhetorical skills require extra time to build these abilities; providing this extra time through additional semesters of writing moves students more quickly and reliably toward degree completion than the stress of a single inappropriate course (74-76).

The authors offer four recommendations (78-79): the use of multiple measures, use of assessment data to design a curriculum that meets actual needs; creation of well-thought-out “acceleration” options through pinpointing individual needs; and a commitment to the value of developmental support “for students who truly need it”: “Methods that accelerate or eliminate remediation will not magically make such students prepared for college work” (79).