College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

Leave a comment

Daniel, James Rushing. Student Debt and Composition Classes. CCC, Dec. 2018. Posted 01/30/2019.

Daniel, James Rushing. “‘A Debt Is Just the Perversion of a Promise’: Composition and the Student Loan.” College Composition and Communication 70.2 (2018): 195-221. Print.

James Rushing Daniel addresses “debt” as a pervasive force in current culture and in the lives of students in writing classes. He argues that a course based in the study of debt’s history and effects is a useful and pedagogically appropriate composition option.

Daniel presents statistics illustrating the increasing financial pressure associated with a college education, in particular the influence of the student-loan industry. For example, in the early 1990s, 51% of students graduated with debt averaging $10,200, while in 2012, 71% owed loans averaging $29,400. Time to repayment has risen from 10 years to 19.7 years (196).

In Daniel’s view, this phenomenon is part of a larger component of the neoliberal “fast capitalist economy” discussed by Tony Scott in Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition (199). Daniel writes that debt, in such theories, is “an ideological apparatus with significant bearing on the agency of subjects in contemporary global society” (197). As such, it drives choices of educational environment and direction, career, and life events such as marriage or home-owning (197, 215). Debt also carries moral weight that further reduces citizens’ abilities to resist the pressures of neoliberal culture (201). Moreover, it forces students to view education “increasingly . . . through an economic framework” (198). Daniel sees debt as a ubiquitous and pervasive element students will face in college and beyond.

To Daniel, composition scholars and the academy in general have failed to properly attend to debt as a component of students’ lives (215). He cites robust efforts to retain students that ignore these students’ financial burdens and thus actually exacerbate the conditions that drive many students to leave college without completing their degrees (201). While, for Daniel, scholars like Marc Bousquet, Chase Bollig, and Pegeen Reichert Powell address debt as a factor in the political economy of writing classrooms, with some exceptions such theorists tend to “gloss its enduring effects while overstating composition’s capacity to prepare students to navigate it” (201). He quotes Bollig, for example, as arguing that a critically active writing class can help students “resist and thrive” in the face of capitalist exigencies (qtd. in Daniel 201).

The author cites scholars from varied fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy as well as literary studies to enlarge his discussion of debt. Among insights gleaned from those fields is a critique of “debt’s most disempowering aspect,” which is “its narrative of impermanence” (204). Accepting that most people will be “in debt forever,” in this reading, means disabling the illusion that any debt is a “temporary financial transaction” on the path toward an affluent, entrepreneurial future, replacing it with a more accurate awareness of the function of debt in fast capitalism (205).

Daniel asks compositionists to recognize how writing programs are “necessarily entwined with the problem of student debt” and to consider the costs that students ultimately pay to join a college writing class (202). He presents his own intervention, a course designed to introduce students to the ways debt functions in neoliberal society. He contends that this course stops short of promising to free students from debt’s powerful influence. Rather, he hopes that by bringing the issue of debt to the foreground, the course can provide students with a deeper awareness that may lead to more informed choices and one day inspire them to “strive for financial justice in public contexts” in whatever ways they feel are open to them (203).

Suggesting the first-year students will need more scaffolding than students taking the course in later semesters (206), Daniel responds to several potential critiques of his course plan. To the concern that the topic may be too narrow, Daniel responds that because of its influence in all aspects of current life, the topic of debt speaks to the field’s goal of making coursework meaningful to all students (207). While Daniel notes that some students may find the topic irrelevant if they haven’t borrowed to attend college, or if they have already made debt commitments they can’t change, he points out that many may need to borrow later and will benefit from the broader awareness that can inform future decisions (207-08). Some students, he argues, may be reluctant to share personal information, but this resistance can be addressed with work on personal writing as part of a composition curriculum (207).

He responds as well to concerns that a focus on a single topic may not teach the more general competences that have been defined as the field’s obligation to students (213). Drawing on the scholarship of Patricia Bizzell and others, Daniel argues that “taking up social issues and viewing them rhetorically” aligns with compositionists’ goal of creating writers who are critically aware of the power of writing as social action and able to engage in public discourse effectively (213-14).

The course Daniel introduces begins with an introduction to basic economic concepts, then moves to personal writing that encourages students to situate themselves in the matrix of capitalist economics by sharing their experiences of the financial system (208-10). A third unit may involve rhetorical analysis of financial documents and advertisements so that students can assess how debt is presented as impermanent and empowering when it may be a more complex factor in students’ lives (211-12). As a final focus, the course examines possible ways of negotiating or resisting common narratives about and normalized interactions with debt to present “models and opportunities for activism that could be emulated if students so desired” (213). He provides readings, assignments, and examples of student work.

In Daniel’s view, it may not be possible for students to “resist” and “thrive” simultaneously (214). He reiterates that writing professionals should temper their expectations that critical awareness can free students from capitalist exigencies. He encourages the “short term” goal of “present[ing] students with more agentive modes of thinking and acting in the context of neoliberalism while being clear that there are no panacea” (214). To this end, he urges writing studies to respond to his claim that the field “has largely failed to acknowledge debt’s vast material and ideological function” (215).

In particular, he notes, future research should address how debt as a necessary adjunct to education affects how students understand and value the writing they find themselves viewing “through a financial lens” (216). By correcting its neglect, he claims, the field can address the degree to which debt as a permanent reality in capitalist culture has endangered “the fundamental connection between education and democracy” (215).

1 Comment

Lamos, Steve. Writing Faculty Job Security and “Negative Affect.” CE, Mar. 2016. Posted 03/27/2016.

Lamos, Steve. “Toward Job Security for Teaching-Track Composition Faculty: Recognizing and Rewarding Affective-Labor-in-Space.” College English 78.4 (2016): 362-86. Print.

Steve Lamos addresses the need for improved job security for “teaching-track” faculty: “faculty members whose jobs primarily or exclusively consist of delivering undergraduate instruction off of the tenure track” (362). Lamos argues that the ongoing discussion of this need, especially within composition studies, fails to adequately address the degree to which pervasive “negative affect” (363) prompts constituencies within higher education to devalue the kinds of work these teachers do.

Lamos reviews the literature on labor conditions for teaching-track faculty, which often advocates for tenure for these positions (362). He underlines the exigency of this concern with statistics showing that in today’s “neoliberal environment” of higher education, 75% of all hires and 95% of hires in composition do not include tenure (363).

To define “affect,” Lamos turns to discussions by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth as well as Sara Ahmed. Their work theorizes what Lamos calls a “precognitive sensation” that exists below conscious levels and “circulate[s]” in ways that, in Ahmed’s words, “mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, between the individual and the collective” (qtd. in Lamos 363). Such circulation of emotional forces around teaching-track work, Lamos writes, is predominately negative, rendering the labor involved in this work “unimportant, uninteresting, and ultimately unworthy of attention” (363).

Lamos contends that efforts to promote job security must address this negative affect if they are to succeed, but many advocates for improved labor conditions fail to do so. For example, he argues that the claims of Marc Bousquet that solidarity with other labor movements will result in change actually requires the field to downplay its unique commitment to emotional work in order to align with larger groups, thus failing to acknowledge the ways in which negative attitudes toward emotional work within higher education will spur resistance to productive change (369-70). Similarly, calls for various forms of review and credentialing, including one of his own, fail to explain how such a credential, even if awarded, can come to be seen as valuable enough to improve the status of teaching-track work (371).

To progress, in Lamos’s view, composition theorists must develop means of making the various constituencies with the power to address teaching-track status “feel good” (363) about the work such teachers do. His article particularly focuses on larger institutions that generally privilege research over teaching because these institutions function as “higher education trendsetters” (364). Although emotional labor is devalued across most educational contexts, Lamos writes, within more prestigious research universities it is especially “subject to a kind of gendered dismissal” based on a sense that it involves work that women find “inherently satisfying” and thus not in need of other compensation and that, by its nature, consists more of “pandering to difference” rather than enforcing academic standards (366).

For Lamos, negative affect revolves, first, around this view that emotional work is peripheral to the mission of higher-education (365-66), and second, around a failure to understand that the success of emotional labor requires “educational spaces” where students’ minds and bodies can engage with “smart environments” (367) in which students can experience the pleasure of intellectual work. However, such spaces are seen by the institutional elite as “idiosyncratic,” needing to be replaced by spaces that produce “universal, acontextual, and easily assessable” results (367).

Lamos makes the case, however, that the work done by teaching-track faculty in these contexts is essential to learning. Emotional labor in general works to make students “comfortable enough to learn” (364); the kind of emotional labor specific to composition, moreover, strives to “mak[e] writing processes themselves . . . feel good and right and natural” (365). To argue for the value of this kind of work within the overall education mission, he presents the “‘studio’ model of basic writing instruction” developed by Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thompson and the “Accelerated Learning Program (ALP)” promoted by Peter Adams and colleagues.

These program augment “‘regular’ curricula” with the specific kinds of support needed for all students to advance (372). The example of a specific engineering student in Grego and Thompson’s project sheds light on Lamos’s view that affective work with students enhances learning when it makes them “more comfortable” in academic settings and helps them understand how interpersonal components color learning environments (372-73). A second focus of these programs has been demonstrating their ties to retention and graduation rates. Lamos presents data indicating that ALP in particular has generated quantitatively documented evidence that providing students with affective support can reduce attrition and costs (374).

Lamos makes three “assertions” about how best to improve job security for teaching-track faculty engaged in what he calls “affective-labor-in-space” (375). He first recommends explicitly imbuing this labor with the kinds of associations that larger constituencies within higher education will feel good about. Doing so means not only citing evidence on retention and graduation but also continuing to make the case to authoritative stakeholders that emotional labor is “profoundly important to the future of higher education” (377) and that it is “unique,” a kind of intervention unlikely to be undertaken elsewhere in the academy (375, 377, 379, 380). He argues for the effectiveness of such an approach at his own institution.

Next, he urges that the ability to perform such labor be “institutionalized” as a factor in assessment and hiring (377). Expecting documentation of this ability allows it to be “emplac[ed]” so that it becomes “part of our institutional fabric” and thus becomes a stepping-stone to more secure employment (377).

Finally, he advocates emphasizing the importance of job security to teachers providing this kind of instruction. However, he notes that there is little likelihood that tenure will rapidly follow (379). Political barriers such as “right-to-work” laws often prevent direct activism, and some skeptics may note that faculty have demonstrated that they can perform affective labor well without substantive reform (381). To counter such resistance, faculty have worked instead to promote improvements such as “soft reappointments” and “‘evergreen’ contracts,” measures that make securing ongoing employment less onerous and less contingent (381).

While Lamos urges national educational organizations like NCTE and MLA to make job security a focus, he emphasizes finally that “[s]uch work must be made to feel good and right and essential to individuals from across the political spectrum” if progress is to be made (383).