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Wootton, Lacey. Truth-Telling by NTT Faculty as Parrhesiastes.

Wootton, Lacey. “The Affordances of Governance Structures for the Non-Tenure-Track Parrhesiastes.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 24.1 (2020): A10-A16. Print.

Writing in the Fall 2020 Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, Lacey Wootton argues that non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty should consider the rhetorical practice parrhesia, “speaking frankly,” especially in contexts of unequal power. She writes that parrhesia can be grounded in existing institutional structures where it can enhance faculty’s ability to foreground important and often unwelcome truths.

Wootton explores three different interpretations of parrhesia. In that of Michel Foucault, the parrhesiaste’s first allegiance is to the truth, a stance that may lead to risk and lost relationships but which is necessary if speaking truth can play its “disruptive and critical” role (A12). Kristen Kennedy’s interpretation, Wootton writes, draws on Cynic rhetoric; in this manifestation, the use of parrhesia is linked to kairos and context in that it can be an effective move if its “ethical imperative to speak” signals the inequity of the spaces it disrupts (qtd. in Wootton A12). Not only the speech itself but also the rhetor’s visibility in the particular setting calls out the exclusionary nature of the setting on which it intrudes.

Wootton also cites Arthur E. Walzer, for whom the truth enacted by parrhesia can be  delivered with “artifice and guile . . . that allow the truth to be heard and the relationship to be maintained” (A12).

Wootton contends that institutional structures in academia can provide a context in which parrhesia is appropriate and in fact invited. When NTT faculty hold positions, often appointed ones, on committees and other institutionalized bodies, parrhesia becomes a manifestation of their acknowledged role (A13). These positions within an institution’s accepted hierarchy can constitute the “standing” necessary for effective  intervention, in Foucault’s formulation (A13).

A risk for parrhesiastes who adopt this strategy is that of losing “one’s allegiance to the outsider agenda” and instead settling into “business as usual” (A13). In Wootton’s view, a commitment to parrhesia’s role as truth-telling can undergird the courage necessary to disrupt norms.

Wootton accentuates a need for “political intelligence and structural understanding” for NTT faculty working to move within an institution’s governance environment (A14). She advises that finding pathways into the structural spaces that supply standing requires attention to local conditions; although structural opportunities for participation are often embedded in faculty manuals and other written policies, Wootton writes that “one can’t fully understand local politics” through such documents alone (A14). NTT faculty must work through a “long, incremental process” that may begin with filling in gaps in committees at the department level, “not displacing tenure-line faculty, but rather supplementing their work” (A15).

Such persistence, she argues, foregrounds the power of parrhesia as “presence”: In itself, the figure of the truth-teller confronting risk for the sake of the greater good through the “expected rhetorical behaviors” (A 13) of “codified structures” can disrupt oppressive norms (A 14).

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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)