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.


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