dispatch (not) from #4c15: the cheerful slide into irrelevance

This post is very long, and on a subject of interest to few. Consider invoking your privilege to not read it. (Seriously it’s really very long so please don’t read it and then complain that it’s too long. You’ve been warned.)

For the last few years I’ve filed dispatches from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. CCCC is the biggest conference in the field of rhetoric and composition/writing studies, a giant gathering that brings together thousands of academics into hundreds of panel sessions, special interest groups, committee meetings, and myriad associated events. Satellite conferences and industry meetings spring up alongside it. There’s lots of parties and socializing that goes on. For many this probably sounds like the pits, but for a nerd like me, it can be dream.

I didn’t go this year, for a variety of reasons. First, because I’m trying to finish this  damn dissertation, and knew I would get no work done this week if I went to Tampa. Second, because I feared (it turns out correctly) that I would have my money tied up waiting for travel cost reimbursements from attending campus visits; when you go to a school  to  interview for an academic job, you get reimbursed, but the reimbursement often takes forever, and like a lot of grad students I make ~$20K a year. So I didn’t want to get into a situation where I had to travel and didn’t have any money to do it.

But I also didn’t go, if I’m being honest, because of my increasing alienation from the conference and what it says about the field. My friend and mentor Tony Silva– a total mensch, one of the most giving scholars I’ve ever met, and someone with a CV longer than your arm– once said to me, “awfully hard to find any writing at that writing conference.” And that’s not just a reflection of the conference, but of the field.

I could wax on forever about what rhet/comp is and where it comes from, and if I did I’d be in keeping with disciplinary tradition; it’s a field obsessed with its own meaning. I’d much prefer to say simply that rhetoric and composition is– or was– a field that took as its subject matter the investigation of writing and argument as issues worthy of serious research inquiry, particularly on the collegiate level. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, some English professors were frustrated to find that their colleagues in literature refused to  take scholarship on writing and pedagogy seriously when it came to hiring and tenure review. Stories of profs who were dedicated to teaching writing more effectively being told by literature faculty to literally not include that research in tenure reviews are common. So faculty at some schools, including here at Purdue, banded together to make the study of writing process and writing pedagogy respected and valued professionally. They looked to the past for a subject matter to orient college writing around, and found that the study of rhetoric– the study of persuasion and argumentation– had a long lineage from which to draw. And given that most students will go on to write not out of an aesthetic impulse but out of the desire to get what they want, to persuade others to some purpose, rhetoric seemed a valuable and student-centered subject matter.

That’s the field that I wanted to join. As I’ve said in this space before, it’s not uncommon for people to look to my work in applied linguistics and second language studies and as why I didn’t just go to a PhD program in those fields. One answer that I’ve written at length about before is freedom. But more, as much as my quantitative leanings frequently make me feel like an outsider in the field, I fundamentally believe in the basic, core stand that the field’s progenitors took: that writing matters, that college writing matters, and that writing and the teaching of writing deserve to be a field of research inquiry because they matter. For all of the attendant headaches of being in a humanities PhD program, particularly in a world where a lot of people treat “grad student” as a sad joke, I still believe in that idea.

It’s just hard to say that the field believes in it, anymore.

*****

For decades now, lonely voices in the field have argued that rhetoric and composition has come to have little to do with college writing at all, at least as college writing is understood by the vast majority of instructors, administrators, and students who are involved in it. Brick and mortar research about actual writing pedagogy has become almost nonexistent in the field’s major journals; quantitative work, once an assumed part of the landscape of rhetoric and composition, identified as inherently reactionary and racist/sexist/homophobic; classroom practice assumed to be the work of liberating students from the need to write rather than giving them the tools they need to write when their lives require it; and writing as the study of language, words, and texts defined as a conservative viewpoint that should be replaced with an entirely abstract view of composition that is not married to any particular skillset whatsoever.

In 1996, Davida Charney wrote a piece titled “Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word,” in which she argued against a burgeoning movement, in the field’s biggest journals, to distance itself from empirical work entirely. Undertaken by scholars like the late Jim Berlin (himself of Purdue), Elizabeth Flynn, and Carl Herndl, this movement regarded empirical research as inherently the tool of establishment power and contrary to the liberatory work that, they argued, was the real responsibility of writing instructors. At an extreme, scholars have suggested that any systemization of the knowledge-generation process is politically illegitimate. As Charney argued, these attitudes reflected deeply naive attitudes about the actual epistemological beliefs of science and empiricism, and that we could and should undertake empirical work while recognizing traditional inequalities in access and power.

In 2005, Richard Haswell published “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship,” a profoundly necessary, empiricism-driven polemic in which Haswell demonstrated the degree to which the National Council of Teachers of English and CCCC conference had abandoned empiricism. Haswell examined the publishing history of the NCTE journals, then as now the most widely-read and respected in the field (and thus most likely to result in hiring and tenure) and other associated rhet/comp journals. Eager to avoid appearing to only treat quantitative work as rigorous, Haswell instead defined the work he thought we needed to perform as RAD: Replicable, Aggregable, and Data-Driven. Rigorous qualitative work would certainly fit this bill. The point is to create knowledge that can be used in conversation with past knowledge, to have systemizable methods for developing new information that can give us, in his words, the “ability to deflect outside criticism with solid and ever-strengthening data.” Instead, he found that the NCTE had essentially abandoned publishing this work altogether, with even the field’s most traditionally empirical journal, Research in the Teaching of English, having come to publish only small-n case studies or ethnographic research when it published what  could be considered empirical research at all. As Haswell writes, this is a form of slow disciplinary suicide, as the research that rhet/comp refuses to publish is the research that most of the rest of the academy sees as essential. As Haswell says, “a method of scholarship under attack by one academic discipline in the United States but currently healthy and supported by every other academic discipline in the world does not need defending.”

In 2007, Susan Peck MacDonald published an article titled “The Erasure of Language.” In it, she lamented the field’s wholesale abandonment of language as a core area of interest. That might sound amazing to outsiders; how could the field of English, and particularly the subfield of writing studies, abandon language? And yet as MacDonald meticulously describes, that’s precisely what has happeend. The field has long ago marginalized the actual use of language, the consideration of putting words into a particular order for a particular purpose, whether stylistic or persuasive or creative. Like Haswell, MacDonald demonstrates this empirically, examining panels at the CCCC conference that is the subject of this essay, going back over half a century. She finds a consistent drop in the number of panels that take language issues as their core subject. Perhaps collapse is a more appropriate term. In the place of language, MacDonald finds that social and theoretical issues– cultural studies and liberatory pedagogy being a large part of those, we can be sure– had become  dominant, squeezing out traditional modes of inquiry in the conference and sending a clear message to young scholars about what is valued, and thus what is published, and what isn’t. The result is that an aspect of the field that stakeholders could once assume was central to our purpose, the mastery of language and how to teach it, has been sidelined into disciplinary irrelevance. And as MacDonald says, it also has resulted in generations of young writing teachers who have no ability to do the brick-and-mortar work of grammar and mechanics teaching that, whether we like it or not, the people who cut our checks believe to be important.

To the degree that we do focus on in-classroom  teaching, it tends to be about everything but actual prose. The desire to make everything digital or multimodal is overpowering in the field. Digital and multimodal composing can be great, but they are very often invoked or implemented in an entirely frivolous way. Many college writing teachers seem to feel pressure to shoehorn in “technology,” whatever that means, in a way that is totally disconnected from writing texts. So you get less writing instruction than you should followed by a half-assed unit on Photoshop or HTML. Alternatively, you get deeper and deeper into Byzantine pop culture phenomena, writing dissertations about teaching the rhetoric of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is exactly the sort of thing outside critics of the academy love to mock. Far from being a way to demonstrate our value to the university, this risks costing us our disciplinary identity; often writing seems like a field that doesn’t want to teach its bread and butter but rather wants to play with tools from fields that are already established in their roles. Why would the average dean want to pay a writing program to teach students basic programming when she already pays the computer science program to do that much more thoroughly? You could ask the same question about graphic design or game development. I think all of these things have a clear place in a broad world of composition, but only if they are situated in a framework where writing itself is given appropriate attention and respect, and right now, that isn’t the case. Though I like Adam Weinstein generally, I thought his Gawker post mocking the panel titles at CCCC last year was cheap and unfair. But it should disturb people in this field that this kind of mockery is so abundantly easy to pull off.

The end result of all this is a field of composition that can’t create systematic research that can direct our teaching or prove our value to stakeholders, leaving us permanently vulnerable to administrative entities that question the value of our work. I’m subscribed to a listserv of writing program administrators that is full of informed, passionate voices. One of the most common ways people use that listserv is to query whether any research has been done on a topic of pedagogical or administrative need to them. Very often, the answer is to say that we just don’t know the answer to the questions. But how would we, when the field treats the generation of this kind of research as politically conservative, even bigoted? Many of the people who participate on this listserv are the self-same people who, as editors at major journals, are unlikely to publish empirical work or pedagogical work that is concerned with a topic other than critical pedagogy. In other words, what these people need as educators and as administrators cannot be served by what they privilege as scholars. Meanwhile, the erasure of language from our field means that young undergraduates who love and care for prose will seek to develop it in creative writing, literature, or increasingly, as something they do as a side gig as they dutifully pursue careers as C students in computer science or biology.

As Keith Rhodes and Monica McFawn Robinson write in an absolutely essential piece titled “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing,”

Composition scholarship has produced little new knowledge about how writers make gains throughout the reign of social construction. Without a full philosophical shift, neither will it be likely to persuade more realist or idealist audiences that it has anything to offer to anyone outside its circle—which circle does not necessarily, or even with much likelihood, include the students who encounter composition briefly in an early stage of their college careers.

As Rhodes and McFawn Robinson point out, for all its self-aggrandizing swipes at radicalism, the field’s insistence on a vague social constructivist perspective and resistance at creating new knowledge that  can build on older knowledge actually has a conservative effect. It leaves the work of actually developing pedagogical best practices to major textbook companies and educational testing firms, corporations that most writing instructors view as somewhere ranging from a necessary evil to the devil. I share their distrust, but when we refuse to actually build a coherent base of shared knowledge, these entities will rush in to fill the gaps, and they do, to the tune of billions of dollars. “Far from having the sort of radicalizing social influence that social constructionists ironically idealize,” write Rhodes and McFawn Robinson, “social construction has mainly established a way for composition practitioners to insulate themselves from stumbling across the kinds of accumulating anomalies that, as Kuhn pointed out, become the force that drives paradigm change.”

To me, one of the most glaring of those anomalies is the distance between what the field perceives itself to be and what empirical research into its publication and conference practices reveals it to be. Today, at CCCC, the keynote address was given by Dr. Adam Banks of the University of Kentucky. Banks is a great scholar, an engaging public speaker, and did a great job as the program chair of last year’s conference. Not being in Tampa, I couldn’t take in his full speech, only observe it through social media, which is an interesting phenomenon. For this reason, I can’t really comment on Dr. Banks’s speech, but I can say that I was incredulous to see many of the people tweeting about it say that the essay is too prominent in the work of rhetoric and composition. To whatever degree Dr. Banks’s argument is truly that we need to move away from the classic essay, I simply cannot square that with the reality of the research elite of this field. I have for years now been replicating and extending the research of Haswell and Robinson, and hope in the not-too-distant future to publish my findings in a journal that will accommodate that kind of research. Speaking on a preliminary basis, I can say with confidence that far from having improved, the conditions Haswell and MacDonald identified have only deepened. So I don’t know what kind of turn away from the traditional essay can actually occur that hasn’t already occurred.

In this I recognize a constant condition of the field: at conferences, scholars in rhet/comp seem convinced that the field is full of empirical work and writing pedagogy, even as they give and attend panels that are about anything but. In his keynote preview, Dr. Banks writes that “We think intensely and attentively about what it means to prepare students to write and communicate in academic and workplace settings.” Dr. Banks is my senior in both career advancement and expertise, and I recognize that he has a knowledge of the field that I don’t. But from my perspective, from all of my experience in 6 years of graduate education in this field, I say with great respect that this largely isn’t true. As Haswell and MacDonald and related research argues, this is exactly what we don’t do, anymore.

If you doubt that, I encourage you to look at the program of the very conference I’m describing. Browse the titles of hundreds of panels and thousands of papers: how many of them actually focus on how we could better serve our students as young writers? And why is a field that has itself marginalized that work so permanently convinced of its dominance?

*****

Nothing has demonstrated the danger of this change to me more fully than my dissertation research. For the past two years, I’ve been researching the college higher education assessment movement, a national push to standardize assessment of undergraduate learning, and in particular the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, a key competitor in a very high-stakes effort to become the “college SAT.” The pressure to perform more standardized assessment of college learning grows every day, with the past two presidential administrations having come on strong in favor of this kind of assessment. Raising the stakes, the Obama administration has argued for a set of national college rankings that focus on value, and which tie access to federal aid to these rankings. There is an immense amount to say about this subject– that’s why I’m writing 200 pages about it– and a lot of it is critical. I have enormous issues with this test in particular and the project of standardized tests of collegiate critical thinking in general. But make no mistake: this push will have massive impacts on college pedagogy going forward. Yet at the average rhetoric and composition conference, you’d never know.

This has resulted in the strange condition of having a research topic that seems to me to be of vital importance to my field, and is often quite interesting to those from outside of it, but which I always struggle to get taken seriously by those within it. So, for example, at the beginning of this year I had an hour-long off-the-record conversation with a reporter at one of the biggest newspapers in the  country, as he was looking for background on the CLA+ and tests like it; but trying to discuss my research with college writing researchers is often an uphill battle. Not because they’re rude (almost everybody’s quite polite) but because it’s so outside of the core of the kinds of research that are happening right now that they have nothing to connect with it. Similarly, I was invited to talk about the CLA+ effort at Purdue by the local public radio station, and yet most people within the university concerned with writing pedagogy seem not to know that this administrative change is likely immanent. It’s frustrating not because I don’t think these people have anything interesting to add or say but precisely because I know how insightful and smart they can be, and I dearly wish this kind of direct engagement with high-stakes policy issues was far more common in our field. I’m not saying that everyone should be interested in what I’m interested in. I am saying that these issues are huge and pressing and have to be confronted.

Here’s the essential element for me. I am not, despite what many would assume, entirely opposed to the current national college learning assessment push. In a world where the difference between having a degree and not having one is still huge (despite constant skepticism from the media), and where such a degree can run people hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, it’s vital to ask how well we’re doing. But there is a profound difference between our intent to assess and our ability to do it well, and current standardized assessments fall far short of doing so. There are theoretical and political reasons to oppose these tests, and at present, there are many within rhetoric and composition who could express those reservations well. But there are also profound empirical reasons to doubt the ability of these tests to be valid and reliable measures of college learning. That’s been one of the most consistent and important findings of my research: the challenges to these tests come from a hard-nosed social science perspective as well as from theoretical and humanistic resistance. I don’t privilege the former over the latter, but many stakeholders in the world do, and I think it is to the best interest of our field if we train young scholars to be able to do this work. Look at Haswell’s excellent methodological critique of Academically Adrift to see the power of a writing researcher who has empirical chops critiquing a bad argument. But in order to produce those young researchers, we have to create the incentives for them to be trained in this way, and we can’t do that if we don’t publish such work.

That, of course, is a self-serving argument, as I am someone who still hopes to find a niche and build a career in this field. But I truly believe that we need some– some, not all, not even many– of our researchers to become proficient in the techniques of the social sciences and basic statistics. As it stands, now, here’s the influence I can confidently say writing researchers have on the current higher education assessment push after two years of research: none. We have none. Educational testing companies have some. Text book manufacturers have some. Politicians have some. And, crucially, scholars in fields like education and business and engineering have some, which we could have too. But we’ve self-marginalized by arguing that we can’t, shouldn’t, won’t do certain kinds of research.

*****

More than anything, it is the labor conditions of today’s university that makes this all so deeply painful and potentially tragic.

For while social constructivism, cultural studies, critical pedagogy, theory, and abstract notions of the digital dominate our scholarly journals, the truth is that in most places the study of writing is the study of the research paper, the argumentative essay, the resume. This isn’t a contradiction with what I’ve said before; my argument is that writing scholars mostly research subjects that have little to do with the actual day-to-day reality of teaching students to express themselves in prose. But the teaching of writing is undertaken not by tenure-track academics who have a research responsibility but, dominantly, by adjuncts, graduate students, visiting professors, and permanent non-tenure track faculty. It’s these people that I most fear we fail, because they frequently are at permanent risk, risk that amplifies greatly if they don’t do the kind of traditional pedagogy they are expected to by their institutions. When they need guidance for how to better teach library research, or how to help students in basic writing courses use paragraphs, or what research shows about whether peer review is helpful or not, where can they turn? To a degree, not to rhetoric and composition journals, or at the very least, not to our flagship journals, which I will again say simply do not publish that sort of thing regularly anymore.

The deepening divide is clear to me if little acknowledged within the field: a small and shrinking number of tenured researchers are producing work that primarily concerns abstract theories that are remote from the classroom or critical pedagogy that assumes instructors have disciplinary authority sufficient to take resistance as their courses’ major aim. Meanwhile, the large majority of college writing classes are taught by one form of contingent or otherwise at-risk labor, workers who do not have the time to read much current research, the funds to attend conferences, or the ability to treat writing as a theoretical abstract rather than as a craft that they are required to facilitate.

The concern that the field should be facing is that more and more of the people who are trained to be writing teachers and researchers will end up working just as writing teachers, with huge class loads, low pay, no security, and paltry benefits.

That the academic job market is bad generally and bad for the humanities in particular should  come as a surprise to no one, at this point. But rhetoric and composition has, for several decades, enjoyed a significant hiring premium over literature. This hiring premium is a point of pride in the field, and one that is clung to in part because of the continuing disrespect that those at the heights of literary scholarship (to the degree that they still exist) tend to show towards writing studies. But while rhetoric and composition remains perhaps the healthiest field in English, this is like saying that Moe is the smartest of the Three Stooges. What I and others I know who are on the job market have quietly been saying to each other is that the rhet/comp market has shrunk markedly, but the field’s established leaders seem not to notice or understand. Again, I’m working on a compilation of numbers that I want to publish in peer reviewed form, but I can say without hesitation that the post-2008 market collapse has not nearly corrected itself and has in fact deepened, and in particular for us. Our advantage over literature and related fields remains, but that is a numbers game based on how tiny rhet/comp is compared to literature as a PhD-granting field. That doesn’t change the fact that, by what I take to be an honest accounting of this year’s jobs, there are perhaps 150 tenure track lines and another 25-30 jobs that are non-tenure track but still desirable in their permanence, duties, and prestige. I will further estimate that the field may graduate as many as 250 PhDs this year– a tiny number compared to lit, sure, but too many for our job market, especially given everyone who struck out on the market last year who is trying this year, and everyone in visiting prof or postdoc positions whose contracts are ending.

You can quibble with these preliminary numbers, and many will, but that there is a looming jobs crisis in rhet/comp  seems not to have occurred to many in the field’s PhD programs. In particular, there is typically a second wave of jobs that emerge in February and March, as initial searches come up empty or as people leave positions for new jobs. This second wave essentially didn’t happen this year, with a paltry number of TT lines coming up and most of those located in places like the Caribbean  or the Middle East. Disturbingly, I personally know of at least 10 or 12 searches in the field that were begun and abandoned, presumably due to funding cuts. The seeming ignorance about job market realities of many of the field’s bright lights is particularly frustrating given that they are, frequently, the very people putting out advertisements for visiting professor lines, lectureships, and adjuncts. To be abundantly clear: I don’t mistake this problem as wholly or primarily their doing. I know that they often have no choice but to hire NTT faculty and would love to hired more funded lines. But I do wish there was more of a dedication to grappling with the fact that our vaunted hiring advantage has largely eroded, and to have difficult conversations about whether we have overexpanded the number of doctoral programs we have and the number of students we take on.

I can not responsibly say that the job market would be better if we had retained our focus on teaching students to communicate in writing more effectively and researching how to do so better. (In addition to current work, not replacement.) The overall economic realities of the academy are so ugly, and the terrible assault on the humanities and liberal arts so powerful, that there’s a good chance that it just wouldn’t have mattered. But it’s also the case that a big part of the reason for our traditional advantage in the labor market is because we were able to point to the (yes) practical value of our work. I know that can be a dirty word in the academy, but it’s appropriate here. Yes, that kind of attitude risks denying the traditional principles of the humanities and moving in the direction of a mechanistic view of teaching and learning. But in a better light, it’s a matter of saying that we direct our teaching and research for the good of students and their eventual academic and professional needs.

A position like mine is easy to ignore, but the labor market realities are not. Right now, the numbers are still good enough that doctoral students who are left out in the cold just didn’t have what it takes. But  more and more, tenured professors are going to find it harder and harder to place the students they’ve been training to do most anything but teaching writing. I hope and pray the market rebounds, and it very well might, but we risk a really dark future where conferences like CCCC become a smaller little bubble that is further and further removed from the contingent work of teaching college writing. It’s a bleak vision.

*****

The rejoinders to this argument are typically that it’s a type of conservatism or prejudice. I can imagine the exact language of these criticisms, in fact: that my argument “puts women scholars/queer scholars/scholars of color under  erasure.” But this argument presumes that women scholars, queer scholars, and scholars of color are only interested in a particular kind of scholarship, and are specifically not interested in empirical or pedagogical work, and that just isn’t true. More to the point: what actually puts scholars under erasure is building a research field that has no connection to the kinds of tasks that will actually serve them in the labor market, whether academic or not. What really puts people under erasure is graduating into a life as an adjunct making $18K a year teaching six classes a semester after 7 years of graduate school. That puts people under erasure in a way the essay of a graduate student on WordPress never could.

Another argument, and one I understand, is the fear that the humanities will lose its traditional identity and just become another quantitative shop, and worse, that it will lose what distinguishes it by doing what education and quantitative communications and linguistics already does, but worse. That’s a powerful objection. To that I would simply say again that I am talking about balance, here, not dominance; I’m talking about restoration and not replacement. I firmly believe we can increase the number of writing scholars doing empirical research and brick-and-mortar pedagogical work without abandoning the liberal arts or losing what makes us distinct.

I know that this long argument will ultimately be taken as me opposing many kinds of scholarship that I actually enjoy. It will be taken as anti-cultural studies, anti-theory, anti-critical pedagogy, anti-politics. That’s not the case. I value all of these kinds of engagement, and think that all of them can be part of a healthy, functioning disciplinary landscape. I’m a defender of the humanities. Indeed, I want us to do more of the empirical and pedagogical work I’m calling for as a means to defend the humanities. We can create space for abstract theory (I love abstract theory and find it profoundly practical) and cultural studies (cultural studies can be vibrant and generative) and critical pedagogy (the academy needs critical pedagogy) if we do the work that the universities pays us to do and if we do it  well. But at present, the field is so massively tipped in one direction, and seemingly so dedicated to tipping ever-further, that I fear for the future. I would never want everyone or even most people in our humanistic field to use numbers or to be focused on practical classroom writing pedagogy. But we desperately need more people doing that work. All of the tired old mockeries of the humanities are built on deliberate misunderstanding and casual prejudice. But no one is entitled to relevance; relevance has to be built.

I still believe, fundamentally, that I made the right choice. I still have had a tremendous graduate education at both the MA and PhD levels. I’ve worked with dedicated, giving faculty who have always told me to go my own way and have supported me as I have. I’ve been blessed with many brilliant peers who challenge and support me. I’m still moved by the good research that gets done in the field. I admire and respect so many people who work in rhet/comp. And despite how often people I argue with in my second life as a political writer use my field as an insult, presuming by its name that it can’t create anything of value, I’m still proud to identify myself with it. When I do go to Cs, I always look around and say “my people!” Because despite my abundant frustrations, they are. But I fear for the future. And though I have been privileged to have developed a small but vital audience in my online writing, people in my own field are those I find hardest to reach. I have always said and will continue to say that I am the opposite of a big deal, but it is the case that I have been lucky enough to enjoy at audience that at times reaches the hundreds of thousands and to have had my work discussed in some of the biggest publications in the world. Within my own community, though, ideas like mine are marginal, and very easy to ignore. In this sphere, I lack a voice.

This is the kind of essay that, I’m sure, my faculty advisors would prefer I not write. There’s little to be gained in doing so. And I have for years thought of the most cynical ways to build a career in this field, accepting the field for what it is instead of wanting to change it and trying to just jump on a tenured life raft. I certainly recognize that this is all self-serving of me. Well, you’ll have to take my word for it that I speak out of concern for more than myself. As a socialist, I believe the world owes me a living, but not that it owes me a particular kind of living. I love to teach, and I’m good at it, and I’m a hardworking researcher, and I maintain a belief that there’s some school out there that will want to hire me to teach writing and language and maybe research methods, and to work at the intersections of writing and applied linguistics and literacy education. But if not, that’s OK, I’ll figure something else out. The field will go on without me. I just want it to go on, healthy and confident, into the future. Unlike many I know, I don’t think the academy is hopeless. I think there’s a chance for a better future. But we have to acknowledge the problems we have now, and resolve to address them, if we’re going to build it together.

10 Comments

  1. You usually like Adam Weinstein? He’s the type of person who butts in on Twitter debates saying, “PhD here.” He’s also an ex-military contractor (P.R., propaganda) who reliably supports the militarist policies of the Democrats. He builds his brand by constantly using that misdirection ploy where he says, “look at what those crazy right wingers are doing,” while leaving the centrist consensus unquestioned.

    Saying you usually like him puts a serious dent in my esteem of you, like that time you said you “kinda liked” Satan.

    1. I dunno about his motives. I know that most of what he writes seems anti-militarist, to me, and I think the left needs more people who are informed about the military writing about it. If I’ve erred in that estimation, I’ll figure it out in time and change my mind. For now, I don’t agree with everything that he says, but he has some good perspectives and it takes a village.

    2. “Saying you usually like him puts a serious dent in my esteem of you, like that time you said you ‘kinda liked’ Satan.”

      I’m reminded of when Winston Churchill, on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, said, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

  2. Thanks for writing this Freddie. I agree with you. Balance is something to aspire for, and more RAD, more quantitative, and more research that can be recognizable as research to people outside of the field will help. Dispatch from the C’s: I attended a couple talks today that are continuing to point out what you’re pointing out in your post, yet, as you say, MIA: labor, CLA+, the reality of teaching for the overwhelming majority of writing teachers. So much work to do. What’s particularly disturbing is that the number of panels on labor issues are half of what they were last year, and they weren’t particularly plentiful last year. How much longer can the field possibly ignore this? Tampa is beautiful though!

  3. Are you looking at jobs in applied linguistics depts? I was in kind of a similar situation. As I was finishing up grade school, I had become convinced that my field was going in completely the wrong direction. Lots of people privately agreed with me, but they (cravenly, in my opinion) went along with the trends anyway: students so they could get jobs and departments so they could recruit and place PhD students. I ended up moving to Europe, bouncing around a few different kinds of departments, and retooling myself. Eventually the stars aligned and I got a TT job in the US in a different subfield. I still don’t regret the training I got (though it kind of sucked having to basically walk away from my dissertation work), but now I’m in a subfield where my work can have some influence, whereas on my original path I was unemployable.

  4. I think a lot of people who know me (not least family) find it weird that I ended up teaching at a community college, instead of a more “prestigious” school. But this is why. I feel like community colleges are the ones that value learning, and see the faculty’s job as improving students knowledge and life, which the bigger schools treat teaching as a regrettable necessity.

  5. Hi Freddie, I’ve been a big fan of your political writing on this blog for a while, and I’m thrilled to see that our professional interests also intersect. I think you are right that a social-science-driven (or -shaped) composition curriculum is coming, but I may be less happy about the prospect than you, or less resigned to it. Basically, I think that writing should be taught on the basis of the subjective experience of the instructor as a writer and teacher (which should also provide the content of the journal literature), not on the basis of theories tested against data that objectify the student’s writing experience. That’s a clumsy way of putting it. If you have a moment, I’ve elaborated the argument at my own blog, where I guess I’ll be writing a reflection on this post soon too.

    Another thing: I used to use Arum and Roksa’s study as a little anecdote about why a regular writing practice is important. A kind of morality tale. I sometimes use Robert Boice’s research in the same way, despite my fundamental resistance to “evidence”. Your post has prodded me to rethink both my resistance and my use of such studies. That’s also the subject of an upcoming post.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this. I also sometimes want to apologise for long, detailed posts. But we need this sort of conversation. Somebody has to start it.

  6. Mr. DeBoer:

    Having heard Dr Banks’ speech at the Cs, I find many parallels in what he said, and what you write. Both of you articulate a kind of “call to awareness”, and both of you take on the universe of writing, academia, labor, and position of the Rhet/tComp field.

    Your post spends many words that express your concern about research. I wonder whether the problem you perceive is less about the research that is being done, and more about what is being published? Certainly, 20 -30 page statistical research is the exception, and I have no clear answer for you about why this is so (though I have my suspicions).

    If what you are looking for is a sort of call to research by institutions (including journals and CCCC /NCTE in this), then you call is well placed.But where would you have the researchers focus? You sound the alarm – and rightfully so – about the standardization and testing. What has been published, and continues to be published from research, is slowly making its way to lay people, school teachers and administrators. Hence, the growing movement of opting about at local levels. Could more be published? certainly, but the root of the weed that is standardized assessments, is – as you’ve noted – political players with one hand on the Dept of Education tax troth, and the other in the hands of software companies. What research would help those in positions of power and policy making to understand that their bankrupt ideas would make them look like a naked emperor?

    While I that you may be overstating the end of writing focused anything at the Cs (I haven’t been at the party as long as you have, but I am a quick study) I do think attention on the how of writing needs to remain necessarily rhetorically framed. Toward that aim digital tools in the hands of capable instructors who can lead students to be critical observers and writers – in visual or lexical modes – is not a fad, or a new shiny object; it is the understanding that the ability to guide students to purposefully engage in issues that effect them and their future can also be served in modes other than an essay.

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