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

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)


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).