Organizing, Advocacy, and Knowledge Work

Get Uncomfortable

Posted by Amy LB on April 6, 2009

At the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication, I was fortunate to present on a panel with fellow Ink Work writers Seth and Kevin. Also with us were Rachel Reidner, Marcy Boland and (an honor) Eileen Schell.

Mary and I presented on similar themes. As full time faculty, we sincerely–even passionately– want to support adjunct and temporary employees, in part by fighting to improve working conditions and compensation. At the same time, we want to acknowledge how use of adjunct labor can be a detriment to curricular development. The dilemma,  I think, is obvious: I don’t want to diss the dedicated teaching of these folks, especially since I was adjunct labor for many years myself. They work hard on behalf of their students.  But my own experiences as an overworked adjunct, with limited knowledge of composition and rhetoric studies (in the early days of my career, pre-PhD) tell me that the current system of temporary labor does not support the best teaching (something Marc Bousquet discusses, too, in his latest book).

Sure,  I was a good temporary teacher (I’ve been a GA, and adjunct, and almost full time temp [read: three part-time contracts at a single school]). At the same time, I realize in retrospect that many of my pedagogical decisions were based on 1. what I could reasonably prep for in my seriously underpaid / overworked time, 2. the limited resources available to me as a temp (not much in the way of professional development or access to tech), and 3. the textbooks sold to me by publishing house reps.

So much of the work in comp / rhet labor reform  is grounded improving # 1. and 2.  I’m glad that people were working to improve the  conditions for temp labor when I was one of their ranks, and I believe that work should continue. At the same time, if we allow the labor system to continue as is, reforming only the way it treats temps, the problem of #3 remains.  Studies tell us that most folks teaching comp / rhet do so as a condition of their contracts, and not because they have studied the field or have a genuine disciplinary investment in it.

Of course, this is in part because of how most English education is structured: in MA and PhD programs, one chooses to study Literature, Composition / Rhetoric, or TESOL. That is slowly changing, of course, but right now, most of the temp employees and GAs who are teaching writing are paying their dues, working towards that gig teaching Literature. I don’t mean to disparage the folks taking these jobs–I did it! Rather, I am critical of a labor system that says master’s credits in English is all one needs to teach writing–that students get the same experience from a GA whose specialty and passion is, say, American Literature, as they do from a full time professor of Comp / Rhet.

We are often uncomforatble disussing this, I think because we don’t want it to be interpreted as fulltimers being unsupportive of GAs and temps. I think we need to get uncomfortable.


Posted in comp/rhet, Labor, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Faculty doing more administrative work?

Posted by sethkahn on April 6, 2008

I’ve only been back from Cs for about 20 hours, but I’m already thinking about next year’s panel proposal.  What I’m particularly interested in is the extent to which faculty go beyond our job descriptions to do administrative work, while administrative jobs grow (see the IHE essay I posted the other week).

In the context of InkWork, this phenomenon raises at least these questions I’d like to find answers to–

1.  How many comp/rhet faculty are hired to do administrative (WPA) work?  What kinds of job descriptions do they sign onto?

2.  How many comp/rhet faculty find themselves doing WPA work that they weren’t initially hired to do?  How do those responsibilities get assigned?  Evaluated?  Credited?

3.  How much of that responsibility crosses (or seems to cross) over into management territory?  In other words, how much of what we’re doing seems like it ought to be the purview of management instead of us?

4.  How and why do we take on that extra work?

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Adjuncts in “gatekeeper courses”

Posted by sethkahn on March 28, 2008

Not an issue that generally effects comp/rhet folks, but a distressing set of findings all the same.  Posted by Nick Carbone on the WPA listserv March 27.

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
(subscription required)

‘Gatekeeper’ Courses Should Not Be Assigned to Part-Time Instructors,
Research Suggests

First-year college students are significantly more likely to drop out
if their large introductory courses are taught by part-time adjuncts
rather than full-time faculty members, according to the results of a
study presented during a meeting of the American Educational Research


Working with transcripts of roughly 30,000 students who enrolled in
the four universities between 2002 and 2005, Ms. Jaeger and Mr. Eagan
looked closely at the role of first-year “gatekeeper” courses. Like
other scholars, Ms. Jaeger and Mr. Eagan define a gatekeeper as any
large introductory class (enrolling 90 or more students) that must be
passed in order to move forward in a course sequence. Biology 101 and
Chemistry 101 are the classic models, but the study also included, for
example, English classes that count toward general-education

They found an unhappy pattern: If students’ gatekeeper courses were
taught by part-time adjuncts, lecturers, or postdoctoral fellows
(which occurred from 8 percent to 22 percent of the time, depending on
the institution), the students were significantly less likely to
return for their sophomore year. That pattern was consistent across
all four universities.

It’ll be interesting to see Jaeger and Eagan’s paper when it comes out
later this year in  the journal _New Directions for Teaching and

I wondered if their methodology will be something institutions apply
internally to see if the trends hold for given campuses.

Posted in contingent faculty, Labor | Leave a Comment »

Who must lead? Everyone who values education.

Posted by Amy LB on March 18, 2008

We here at Inkwork obviously like Marc Bousquet. I just ordered his new book, and find myself waiting like a kid at Christmas.

Still, I disagree with Bousquet on at least one point.

I’ve just read his piece at Inside Higher Ed, wherein he reiterates a position he’s taken frequently of late. The title says it all: Why Contingent Faculty Must Lead. Now, I don’t disagree with his essential point: contingent faculty are now actually the majority at most institutions, and as such, they can have a powerful influence if they unionize and demand change. They can improve poor working conditions, receive benefits, and increase pay. Bousquet has written much about the graduate student unions that have achieved much in this way in recent years.

At the same I time, I worry that he has stopped emphasizing the importance of tenured and tenure-track faculty working loudly and consistently for these same changes. (I may be proven wrong when that new book of his finally arrives in my mailbox.) After all, in the Inside Higher Ed article, he notes: “Despite comprising a sizeable majority of faculty overall, contingent faculty have remained very much in the minority in faculty leadership positions…”. The tenured and tenure-track faculty should not be let off of the hook for one moment. They should work alongside unionized contingent faculty, as they have the more visible positions.

I worry that once we get comfortable in our offices, we look at contingent work as an inevitable introduction to academic work, as a difficult step in professionalization we all must undergo. We choose to forget that this “initiation” came with no or shabby health care and insulting pay. We forget that as tenure lines are cut back every year, the initiation period may last years, even an entire career.

If I ever stop writing about and working for contingent faculty, I hope Kevin will tack this post to my office door. I have an office, now.

Posted in contingent faculty, Labor, union organizing | 2 Comments »

Mark Bosquet’s Video Interview with Cary Nelson

Posted by Kevin Mahoney on March 17, 2008

And, there’s more where this one came from. For all of Bosquet’s video interviews, check out his You Tube page .

Posted in contingent faculty, Labor, union organizing | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I’m a little bit professional, and a little bit angry.

Posted by Amy LB on March 13, 2008

I read Kevin’s post on Tony Scott’s article [see “The Cart, the Horse, and the Road Not Taken“] with glee. See, I’d just spent an afternoon reading up on university labor issues for a revision of my dissertation. Yes, unlike so many graduate students, I’ve been lucky enough to land a tenure-track gig while I complete the Big D. Everything I read today, however, including Kevin’s post, reminded me of how few compositionists will find full-time work after completing the PhD. And the trend seems to be addressing this labor problem not with thoughtful analysis of the skewed market-driven system in academia, but with “reforms” that give in to the market-system as an inevitability.

I read a piece by Scott Jaschik In Inside Higher Ed wherein he describes the movement to replace part-time, temporary or graduate workers with full-time positions with “multiple-year, renewable contracts” that have “better pay and benefits.” To me “renewable” still = temporary. Still means they are not considered professionals. Better pay is nice, but why not just commit to and invest in making a tenured comp faculty? As Marc Bousquet says, “what a large sector of composition labor…really wants is not to be treated as colleagues, but instead to be colleagues.”

Jaschik interview Doug Hesse, who has overseen the creation of a program at the University of Denver that uses such “renewable” labor. Hesse defends this system, noting the increased pay and benefits, as well as the benefits to students who are now taught by trained compositionists. Yet, he does admit to wondering if he’s made a “Vichy regime” of his program.

You know what? He has. I’ll say it. And I respect the man. I attended a session peopled by Hesse and other instructors in his program at the Writing Research Across Borders conference in Santa Barbara just a couple of weeks ago just to hear him speak. They reported on some fantastic research and teaching they are doing in U of D. But, when I asked what repercussions his results have for the rest of the field, where such great work is severely limited by labor conditions, he side-stepped the question. I think more of us have to hop on the Bousquet-Bandwagon and realize that we can’t make someone “a little more professional” or “a little less temporary” any more than we can be a little more or less pregnant.

Posted in contingent faculty, Labor, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Stats on full-time faculty vs full-time admin

Posted by sethkahn on March 13, 2008

A story in the current Inside Higher Education reveals that the majority of full-time positions in American colleges/universities are now administrative rather than faculty. We’ve known intuitively for some time that the growth of management was happening and pretty much uncontrolled, but these numbers make that sense very concrete. The article doesn’t address salaries, or percentages of budgets that are now going to management salaries, but we can pretty easily imagine how those are playing out.


Posted in contingent faculty, Labor | Leave a Comment »

The Cart, the Horse, and the Road Not Taken; or, incomplete thoughts on Tony Scott’s article

Posted by k. mahoney on March 12, 2008

I just read Tony Scott’s, “The Cart, the Horse, and the Road They are Driving Down: Thinking Ecologically about a New Writing Major,” from the Spring 2007 issue of Composition Studies. On the forth page in, I actually wrote, “hmmm…you interest me, sir.” Whatever. I do that.

Anyway, my point of logging back on tonight and writing is because I found myself with Scott, then arguing with him (OK, with his article). Back and forth the whole way. Scott’s article takes issue with Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 CCCCs chairs address–in particular the lack of a consideration of labor when thinking about developing new undergraduate writing majors. Scott recounts Yancey’s proposal for “new writing majors” as follows:

Yancey proposed a major that emphasizes the ability to adapt to new trends in technology, and rhetoric as situated action. Yancey’s proposal realizes that emerging digital technologies are dramatically changing literacy and that academic writing is increasingly disconnected from the shape that writing is taking virtually everywhere other than classrooms. Postmodern in content and form, the proposal blends visual rhetoric with a creative style of explication, and resists framing the major itself in terms of what one might call traditional disciplinary content (83).

Scott calls attention to Yancey’s focus on circulation–in particular, her desire to have a range of “approaches” to composition “all oriented to the circulation of texts, to genre, to media, and to ways that writing gets made, both individually and culturally” (Yancey, qtd in Scott, 83).

While Scott is sympathetic to Yancey’s interest in grounding a writing major around the concept of circulation (he raises questions–good ones–about how we should theorize circulation), he points out a serious gap in Yancey’s proposal: Labor.

While I certainly find aspects of Yancey’s proposal very engaging and reflective of current scholarly concerns, her avoidance of institutional factors–of the material terms of labor that frame everyday writing pedagogy and the production of students’ texts–is crucial. This avoidance becomes especially salient when Yancy asserts that “First-year composition is a place to begin carrying this [major] forward…” (315). The proposal doesn’t mention the circumstances under which first-year composition is typically taught: it doesn’t mention contingent teaching labor, or the fact that professional scholars with Ph.D.s in rhetoric and composition don’t actually teach the overwhelming majority of first-year composition classes. If professionals in rhetoric and composition who are in a position to do so “carry forward” from first-year composition, will it be as managers and theorizers of a project that further expands the de-professionalization of teaching in academia? (83).

Bread and roses, brother. Seriously. I got my union up. This is exactly the kind of critique that needs to be made of any proposal for a new writing major. As a matter of fact, that is the critique I made of the proposal for a new General Education curriculum not to long ago here. The idea of a new General Education curriculum like a new writing major is great in the abstract. But what happens when you consider issues of labor? The question I raised to then-provost Rinker was “how will we staff an additional 95 sections of a new General Education course?” No answer. In fact, as it turns out, several key articles in the General Education Restructuring Team’s toolbox argued that any attempts to reform General Education curriculum should avoid discussing any issues of resources. Why? Well, you know, that would lead to “turf wars.” My question was aimed at dealing with the question of content and resources as inextricably linked. But I digress (and will do so again later). [note: this is the importance of “having the fight.” That is, not of “giving up” FYC, but staking a claim around issues of labor]

After a very useful discussion of activity theory and marxist theories of circulation, Scott returns to his focus on labor: composition programs–even those programs that have become well established, Ph.D. granting departments–still rely heavily upon contingent labor. Despite the fact that comp/rhet argues furiously for the importance of writing, we still staff the majority of our first-year courses with contingent faculty.

So, the $64,000 question: what is to be done?

And here is where I end up arguing out-loud with the pages in my hands. Here’s where Scott leads us:

Institutional transformation is necessarily local and varied, so eroding the numbers of courses taught by people who don’t hold full professional status will involve a number of measures, perhaps including abandoning the first-year requirement. The issues of “abolition” and situated administrative pragmatism are well-covered and beyond the scope of this essay, but with the development of a variety of classes staffed by fully-vested professional teachers, we might see letting go of first-year composition programs in their present incarnations as liberating. Rhetoric and composition might be able to move into a post-writing program era. Professionals in rhetoric and composition can then get out of the business of teacher management, and postsecondary writing pedagogy can be less constrained by technocratic mechanisms, such as mandatory syllabi and textbooks, and coercive assessments of teachers and student texts. More writing classes can be taught under conditions that enable professionally informed divergence and experimentation in pedagogy (90).

What’s my beef? Well, it’s what’s bypassed by giving up on first-year composition. First, there’s the issue about the purpose of the course and the reason why it is supposed to exist–“supposed to” in the pedagogically sound version, not as the “gatekeeper.” But, more to the point of Scott’s argument, the issue of labor does not go away. Instead of an organizing campaign to unionize contingent faculty, we get downsizing and lay-offs. And, I would argue, we get further de-professionalization insofar as the needs of our students do not go away with the “abolition” of the first-year course. More likely than not the work of tutoring–both through colleges and universities and new on-line writing labs–will be contracted out. When Nike rose as one of the “super brands” it hired the best and the brightest to “build the brand” and engage in “quasi-spiritual marketing,” to use Naomi Klein’s term. But those folks did not make the shoes. Production was contracted out. Out of sight, out of mind. I get concerned about these kind of moves insofar as the alternative of organizing contingent faculty and/or organizing to take back higher education from the logic of the market fades away.

Posted in comp/rhet, contingent faculty, Labor, union organizing | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Adjunct Organizing

Posted by sethkahn on March 10, 2008

From today’s (March 10) Truthout–

Adjunct faculty in Michigan are organizing rapidly. I’ve seen many of these numbers before, but the way they’re compiled in this article makes them very powerful. At Wayne State U in Detroit, adjuncts outnumber tenured/tenure-track faculty 4-1. You can read the article to see more; even writing them makes me furious.


Posted in contingent faculty, Labor, union organizing | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Labor and Composition

Posted by Amy LB on March 10, 2008

Here are my two cents of introduction: I think that no space for discussing the field of Composition generally, or our program specifically, would be complete without some discourse on labor. While much Composition scholarship has endeavored to reveal the negative effects of the distribution of labor in the university system, actual reform of that system has been very slow in coming. Indeed, in 2001, the Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee on Part-time / Adjunct Issues found that graduate students, adjuncts, and temporary full-time employees make up the bulk of college composition teachers [CCC. 53.2(2001): 336-348.].

Locally speaking, for several recent semesters, temporary employees have taught the bulk of Composition courses at KU. All tenured and tenure-track professors are required to teach Composition as well; our reliance on temporary employees, then, reveals both the growth and value of Composition in the university, perhaps in contradictory ways.

Composition is the only class that all KU students take. As we work to reform our own program, then, we need to ask: What effects, both long and short term, do our labor practices have on student learning? How do the terms of labor contracts affect the pedagogical choices teachers make? How do teachers for whom Composition is not an area of specialty (temporary, tenure-track, and tenured alike) see their role as teachers of writing? How can we better support, train, and advise the diverse group of persons teaching Composition?

In essence, I hope we can use this blog to discuss the good work all of our professors are doing in composition, as well as to consider how their varying status in the hierarchy of labor helps or hinders their success.

In other words, this is my ax to grind. (Well, one of them; I have an ax collection, really.) I’ll sharpen it here occasionally.

Posted in comp/rhet, contingent faculty, Labor | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »