College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Borgman & McClure. Advantages of Online Teaching and PhD Studies. FORUM Fall 2019. Posted 10/30/2019.

Borgman, Jessie, and Christine I. McClure. “The Ultimate Balancing Act: Contingent Online Teaching and PhD Coursework.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 23.1 (2019): A3-A8. Print.

Jessie Borgman and Christine I. McClure recount how the opportunity to both teach and take courses online allowed them to develop professionally and pursue rewarding careers.

The writers are long-time contingent teachers with wide experience in online environments. Both are pursuing PhDs in technical communication programs. MClure takes both face-to-face and online courses, while Borgman’s are all online (A3). As they pursue their graduate studies, they have both experienced teaching full loads as contingent faculty, taking on multiple courses at a range of institutions (A4-A5).

They note that they encounter negatives common to contingent positions, such as pay levels not commensurate with their professional standing (A4), “identity issues,” and “lack of professional development opportunities” (A5). They report heavy workloads, including the need to read and respond to a huge amount of student work, to keep with their own coursework, and to continue their own research and writing (A4). They write that this workload has affected their stress levels, their abilities to find time for their families, and their health (A4).

However, the authors contend that their strategies for dealing with these characteristics of their teaching jobs as well as their PhD coursework have allowed them to pursue career directions that would not have been possible without online education. Acknowledging literature that claims that online teaching is more time- and energy-intensive than face-to-face work (A4), Borgman and McClure simultaneously find the ability to work online both as teachers and as students “freeing” (A3).

A strategy they cite as both freeing and enabling is the recognition that they are not tied to “9-to-5 lives”: they “must always be prepared to do what [they] can when [they] can.” They characterize this situation as “a new fluid workspace” that has allowed them to meet demands that would otherwise be impossible (A4).

They also note personal characteristics they believe contribute to their achievements. These include being “extremely organized,” “highly motivated,” and possessed of “excellent time management skills” (A3). They have developed the ability to use synched calendars to coordinate the many intersecting threads of their job, coursework, and home requirements (A5-A6).

The lack of professional development led them to accumulate their own strategies over their years of teaching; they cast their decisions to enter PhD programs as a desire for “more” (A5). They also find that their coursework has led to networks and collaborative alliances that allow them to grow “more confident” about their career trajectories (A5).

One advantage they cite for their online trajectories is the ability to avoid heavy debt loads. They find that flexibility in their programs and employment allows them to take time off as needed to accumulate funds and that financial assistance may often be available from institutions where they work and study (A6).

Borgman enjoys the freedom afforded by contingent work, as well as the opportunity to teach at a wide range of institutions; she does not seek tenure-track employment. McClure notes the value of the benefits she now receives in her current full-time position as an instructor, but is pursuing her research agenda to work toward a tenure-track job (A6).

The authors stress that working online as contingent faculty and studying online need not, “at least for some,” be a “disadvantage” (A6).

Being online students and educators has been more of a blessing in both our lives than a hindrance; we have been able to pursue more opportunities than we had imagined. (A6-A7).

 


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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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Cox, Anicca. Full-Time Lecturers and Academic Freedom. Forum, Fall 2018. Posted 10/05/2018.

Cox, Anicca. “Collaboration and Resistance: Academic Freedom and Non-Tenured Labor.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 22.1 (2018): A4-A13. Web. 01 Oct. 2018.

Anicca Cox, in the Fall 2018 issue of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, discusses a case study of her institution’s decision to replace non-tenure-track part-time faculty (PTLs) with full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers (FTLs) on two-year contracts. She interviewed three of the ten new full-time hires and three part-time instructors who taught in the program (A6).

Noting that the percentages of FTLs in higher education is increasing, Cox reports that this change has entailed better working conditions, more access to benefits, and more job security, among other positive effects (A5, A7). She suggests that this trend may reflect institutions’ “response to the increasingly publicized problems of an outsized reliance” on contingent labor that constitutes a “seemingly altruistic move” (A5). She writes that the more stable teaching force provides institutions with more predictable costs than hiring based on shifting enrollments (A5).

Cox focuses on how the PhDs most likely to be preferred for such positions negotiate possible constraints on their academic freedom and professional identifications. The program she studied hired ten new FTLs, nine of which were either literature PhDs or were completing doctorates, as well as a new tenure-track writing program administrator (WPA) to implement a revised first-year writing program (A6). Part-time instructors who had previously taught at the institution were not hired for the new lines.

The new WPA “designed a heavily scripted curriculum” in which all components, including textbooks, were prescribed (A6). The full-time instructors were given office space and professional development specific to the program; they were evaluated much more broadly than the part-time faculty and often included ongoing research in the evaluation dossiers they prepared (A7).

Cox’s study asked how these instructors

perceived themselves fitting into the institution and department relative to their own sense of professional identity, and how those feelings shaped and otherwise intersected with their work as instructors both inside and outside classroom. (A6)

Her study, part of a larger analysis, emphasized both the effects on professional identity of the new context and the question of how collaboration among teaching professionals was impacted by the new alignment (A7).

Interviews with FTLs revealed that they “did not feel like hired mercenaries” but did not feel fully integrated into the department (A8). A focus of their concern was the sense that they were not considered “intellectual contributors” and were enlisted to perform a “role” that did not jibe with their professional preparation (A8). One respondent expressed concern about being issued a “teacher proof” curriculum dismissive of her scholarship and expertise (A8). In comparison, the PTLs, while accustomed to being given scripted curricula, expressed concern that the new program materials were not appropriate for the actual student population they were used to teaching (A9). These teachers felt less conflicted over identity issues because they saw themselves primarily as teachers, not researchers (A9-10).

Tensions in the FTL position also affected collaboration in that the new lecturers felt constrained from “simply asserting their purported academic freedom” and, rather than challenging the program structure, began devising ways to adjust the curriculum without “getting caught” (qtd. in Cox A10-11). Collaboration, in this study, became a way of “spread[ing] the blame” so that renewal at the end of the two-year contract would be less likely to be threatened (A11). Part-time lecturers, in contrast, relied on long-standing patterns of “informal collaborations,” sometimes making “radical changes” in the prescribed teaching materials (A11), despite having lost the opportunity to share practices with many of their colleagues in the new configuration. These teachers posited that the failure to hire from within their ranks reflected a desire on the part of administrators to eliminate “the baggage they carried over from previous iterations of the first-year writing program” (A11); Cox posits that they acted to modify the curriculum despite recognizing the precarity of their situation in the new program (A11).

Cox supports the shift toward more full-time positions but notes that the particulars of the arrangement she studied drove instructors to invest energy in sustaining a coherent professional identity rather than working together to improve student outcomes (A12). She writes that the benefits of the full-time jobs were “not enough to neutralize the frustrations” engendered by the lecturers’ compromised fit within the department (A12). She recommends that should these kinds of readjustments become more common, they be constructed

in a way that recognizes and honors the laboriously forged and deeply felt professional identities of workers by supporting continued professional development and encouraging autonomy in curricular design. (A12)


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Leonard, Sandra. Plagiarism and Contingent Faculty. May TETYC, 2018. Posted 06/29/2018.

Leonard, Sandra M. “Plagiarism and Contingency: A Problem of Academic Freedom.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 21.2 (2018): A1-A13. Print.

Writing in the May 2018 Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, Sandra M. Leonard discusses the pressures placed on contingent writing faculty by the kinds of plagiarism policies she finds most commonly in place. Such policies, among them the approach endorsed by the 2016 Modern Language Association handbook, call for a no-tolerance approach to plagiarism, in Leonard’s view lumping a wide array of writing practices under “an all-inclusive definition” (A3). Leonard writes that while many full-time faculty may be empowered to revise such draconian definitions and develop teaching practices more in line with composition theory, contingent faculty are caught between their struggles to teach well and their need to observe institutional requirements (A4).

Leonard contests claims that plagiarism rarely occurs and that it can be handled with a standardized response. Citing the work of Rebecca Moore Howard and a New Zealand study reported by John Walker, Leonard notes that instances that meet strict definitions of plagiarism occur in a quarter to a third of sampled student work (A3). According to Leonard’s research, studies demonstrate that most instances involve “improper paraphrase,” designated as “patchwriting” by Howard (A3).

In this view, when inflexible policies fail to distinguish between such errors, which may be unintentional, and deliberate fraud, they risk punishing students for what Howard considers an important step in the learning process (A3-A4). Leonard contends that students who commit this infraction may not know they are using sources incorrectly and thus cannot be effectively deterred by blanket warnings and “integrity statements” (A4). She cites composition professionals who consider such missteps from students an opportunity to teach revision as well as to inculcate a deeper understanding of intellectual property issues (A9).

Leonard argues that inflexible language in institutional policies delivers mixed messages to contingent faculty, leaving them without resources to deal with such a complex pedagogical issue (A5). Required by policy to report all instances, faculty may find administrators bowing to concerns about students as “unhappy customers,” with the faculty member depicted as “harsh” for doing her job (A6-A7). Leonard cites cases of faculty whose careers were affected by addressing a plagiarism case (A6). She notes that contingent faculty are especially at risk because institutions are not required to explain why an instructor is not rehired (A6).

Leonard details the burdens imposed when contingent faculty attempt to address plagiarism, including the time to hold “highly sensitive” meetings, often without private office space, and fill out extensive paperwork (A5). She argues that charging a student with plagiarism results in stress and forces the faculty member to take on a “pseudo-legal” role as a “prosecutor,” positions far beyond either his expertise or level of compensation (A6). Moreover, Leonard writes, taking on a plagiarism charge can affect the mood of a class and lead to lower evaluations, which may then be used to justify “retaliation” (A6).

The author reports a number of effects on faculty agency as a result of plagiarism policies. A zero-tolerance policy removes teachers’ ability to make decisions about how to handle various levels of infractions (A7). Teachers may fall back on assignments they consider “plagiarism-proofing”: instructions so unique and precise that, ideally, students do not have a chance to plagiarize (A7). Leonard contends that students can still defeat these efforts; also, designing assignments for this purpose may preclude many of the pedagogical choices considered most valuable in process pedagogy, so that “preventing plagiarism” appears to be “more important than teaching course material” (A8). In such contexts, the option of  “low-stakes” assignments “has no meaning” if students can be punished for citation or paraphrase slips (A8). Further, she maintains that “plagiarism-proofing” in this way actually prevents students from learning how to negotiate intellectual property boundaries through practice and feedback (A8). In contrast to the ways other skills are taught, enacting zero-tolerance for paraphrase and citation errors means that students would have to demonstrate “perfection at every stage” despite being denied the learning inherent in making mistakes (A8).

Leonard notes that contingent faculty are especially likely to be “caught up in a fight of mixed messages” (A9) because so many of the issues involved occur in first-year writing, which is increasingly taught by part-time instructors (A10). In some cases, Leonard writes, instructors decide to ignore plagiarism altogether rather than risk the dangers involved (A8-A9). Others may rely on detection software despite opposition from scholars in the field; in some cases, institutional policy on the use of such software may leave faculty with no choice (A9).

In Leonard’s view, policies should specifically recognize faculty expertise and agency by granting the ability both to determine when a case merits punishment and to design a “successful in-house procedure for dealing with plagiarism that works for their class culture” (A10). Such policies would allow instructors to emulate creative solutions like those designed by Gerald Nelms and Kate Hagopian (A9, A10). Leonard stipulates that policies should ensure support for faculty who find that sanctions are in order as well as the legal and institutional guidance to manage such a complex and charged situation. This support, moreover, should “also incorporate plans . . . that do not draw on part-time faculty labor outside of contracted hours” (A10).

Leonard writes that, despite increasing awareness within composition of the challenges involved in dealing effectively with the many skills involved in successful use of outside material, institutional policies “haven’t caught up” (A10). She advocates for changes that will no longer “displace the stresses of academic dishonesty onto the most vulnerable faculty” (A10).


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Fels et al. Issues with Contingent Writing Center Workers. Forum, Fall 2016. Posted 12/9/2016.

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).