Fels, Dawn, Clint Gardner, Maggie M. Herb, and Liliana M. Naydan. “Toward an Investigation into the Working Conditions of Non-Tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 20.1 (2016): A10-A16. Print.
Dawn Fels, Clint Gardner, Maggie M. Herb, and Liliana M. Naydan published in Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, a section included twice yearly in College Composition and Communication. The authors provide preliminary findings from a study in progress on working conditions in writing centers. Specifically, they ask: “What are the personal, professional, and programmatic risks and benefits of contingent writing center positions?” (A12).
Their interest derives in part from recent data showing that the number of writing center personnel with tenured or tenure-line positions has declined during the recent decade. A 2001-2002 survey by the Writing Centers Research Project indicated that about 42% of writing center directors were tenured or on tenure-line tracks. In contrast, a 2014 study by Emily Isaacs and Melinda Knight found that only 29% of directors now held such positions. Moreover, Isaacs and Knight found that peer tutors staffed 81% of the centers studied (A10). Fels et al. cite as well 2011 data from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) that finds that the use of contingent labor has increased across all academic fields (A10).
Fels et al. write that they hope to address the underrepresentation of writing center labor issues in composition scholarship. Data from the National Census of Writing Database, they state, address “the status of writing center director positions” but do not draw the information from these faculty themselves, nor does its report on peer tutors enlist responses from the tutors (A10). In contrast, Fels et al. are surveying and interviewing “all levels of contingent writing center workers” (A11).
With a grant from the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA), an Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English, Fels et al. began their study in Fall 2015 by recruiting participants who were at least 18 years old who had worked in a contingent writing center capacity within the last five years (A12). They publicized their call on social media, on relevant web sites and listservs, and via word of mouth (A12-A13). More than 100 participants who took the preliminary survey agreed to interviews (A13). The researchers will also examine various documents such as “contracts, job descriptions, and policy statements” (A13).
To ground their project, Fels et al. sought out current position statements that specifically address labor issues in writing centers. At the IWCA web site, they found only a thirty-year-old article from the Writing Center Journal by Jeanne Simpson; this article, which was listed as a “Resource,” culminated in a statement advocating “clear job descriptions” and supplying guidelines for directors, while advising against the use of contingent faculty and staff (A11). The researchers note that the 2015 Indianapolis Resolution on issues with contingent labor in writing programs “does make mention of contingency in the writing center field, but only in the first paragraph” (A11).
Fels et al. hope to revise Simpson’s statement and encourage the use of their data throughout the field of composition (A12). They report “preliminary observations” (A13), including a range of participant comments, including one from an interviewee who finds that his part-time job “benefits his family” and supplies him with “considerable autonomy and healthy, collaborative, supportive relationships” on the job despite his recognition that he is “grossly underpaid” (A13). In contrast, other interviewees speak about diminished or non-existent academic freedom and lack of respect from colleagues (A13).
The researchers focus on a participant who was concerned not about her own job situation but rather about the effects of widespread use of contingent faculty on students, for example because of its effect on the “consistency” of the services involved (A13-A14). Issues of student welfare, the authors state, are related to what Seth Kahn calls “the emotional wages argument,” which claims that the intrinsic satisfaction of serving students should be adequate compensation for low wages in the teaching profession (qtd. in Fels et al. A14).
Fels et al. argue that this argument is a version of the tendency to blame poorly paid educators for their own plight because they are willing to work for less than adequate compensation (A14). However, Fels et al. contend that educators’ ability to serve students diminishes if their own needs are not met. They write that “educators . . . need to learn how to articulate their own value” and to understand and express the degree to which “they are integral to institutions of higher education” (A14).
The authors note that many of their interviewees expressed a sense that their own situation must be “unique” because, as one participant indicated, “it was hard to imagine other writing center administrators facing a similar set of challenges” (A15). One result of their study, they hope, will be to alleviate the feeling of isolation that many in the writing-center field report (A15).
Fels et al. estimate that it may take two years to complete the interviews and analysis they envision (A15). They hope to increase awareness of such issues as the replacement of experienced personnel with “less experienced and qualified candidates,” the lack of long-term contracts, the exploitation of staff who “work well beyond their contractual duties,” and the overreliance on student workers (A16). This study, they state, “will fill a void in the current scholarship” (A16).