Revolution Lullabye

January 14, 2011

Slevin, Depoliticizing and Politicizing Composition Studies

Slevin, James F. “Depoliticizing and Politicizing Composition Studies.” In The Politics of Writing Instruction: Postsecondary.” Eds. Bullock and Trimbur. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991. 1-21. Print.

Slevin argues that the unethical labor practices in¬†composition (primarily the reliance on underpaid part-time adjuncts to teach most required college writing courses) is a major problem for the field. He contends that part-time instructor’s low pay, poor working conditions, absent contracts, and lack of benefits contribute to low morale, which in turn affects students, departments, and the university at large (3). He rejects the argument that the hiring of part-time instructors is a result of poor economic times and downturn in student enrollment; instead, he claims employing marginal faculty is a choice universities make in part because of the literature/composition split in English department history, which makes the academic field of composition – and in turn those who teach it – the underclass in powerful English departments. Slevin maintains that the labor situation and the perception of composition in the academy will not change because those in the field think it should, say that it should, or write that it should. Instead, he argues that the field take up professional activitism and work towards these goals in the institution (15).

Notes and Quotes

problem with course catalogues – they detail the number of courses but not the sections. So first-year writing is just one course, but we overlook that it could be 70% of the sections taught in the department.

composition textbooks – how a lot of knowledge about writing and writing instruction is published to the field – is not looked as scholarship by the rest of the academy.

“We should no longer hide from ourselves or from others that our profession, as it is now practiced in this country, rests on, is based on, a foundation of despicable inequality…It is not a peripheral, temporary problem that is somehow going to go away by itself” (2).


Bullock and Trimbur, Preface

Bullock, Richard and John Trimbur, eds. “Preface.” In The Politics of Writing Instruction: Postsecondary. Eds. Bullock and Trimbur. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1991. xvii-xx. Print.

In their preface to their edited collection, Bullock and Trimbur explain the history of the collection, which came from the NCTE’s Commission on Composition’s charge to understand the teaching of writing in all American classrooms, K-university. Their collection focuses on the state of the field of composition and rhetoric circa 1990, addressing questions about the identity of the field, the social, cultural, political, and economic implications of teaching writing, the history of teaching writing and its effect on current practices, and how writing instruction can be improved. They explain their own values and what they privilege in writing instruction: collaboration, critical thinking, multidisciplinary writing, democratic values, and making the political in writing overt.

Notes and Quotes

“Writing is value-ful, and all teaching built on and through a set of values is inherently and inevitably political” (xviii)

Their goals for this collection: 1. raise awareness among comp/rhet scholars about some of the political, social, cultural, and economic issues as a way toward working for change 2. provide graduate students with a portrait of the challenges in the field and 3. argue that “politics drives curriculum” and is a necessary part of all institutions, even the academy, and argue that those in comp/rhet need to embrace that fact in order to move ahead and work in the system.

Ohmann, Foreword

Ohmann, Richard. “Foreword.” In The Politics of Writing Instruction Postsecondary. Eds. Bullock and Trimbur. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991. ix-xvi. Print.

Through juxtaposing his personal journey as a writing scholar and teacher during the civil rights and anti-war events of the 1960s and the social and political turn in composition in the late 1980s, Ohmann, in this foreword to the edited collection of The Politics of Writing Instruction Postsecondary argues for the politicizing of composition. Ohmann reflects on the essays included in the collection, which include arguments about the economics of writing instruction, the labor practices in college composition, the social justice work done in the writing classroom, and the professionalization of the field within the academy. Ohmann argues that writing is always value-laden and therefore political; what has happened in the field is that scholars have overtly pointed out how it is so. He points out the revolutionary rhetoric in the current comp/rhet literature and asks how such global revolution is possible while comp/rhet and writing instructors are part of a larger and entrenched capitalist, patriarchal, and hierarchal administrative structure in the university. He does contend that keeping the revolutionary spirit and ideas alive is an essential part of being intellectuals and teachers of rhetoric.

Notes and Quotes

In the 1960s, 1970s: “Writing instructors didn’t have to politicize the field, though some did: politics flowed into the classroom, and only then did we begin to ntoice that politics had always been there” (xi)

“Surely the politicization of writing instruction must be in part understood as the insurgency of an underpaid, overworked, and disrespectd occupational group” (xi)

“With professionalization came more organizations, more meetings, more seminars, more journals – an arena within which the writing instructoriate could consolidate¬†its anger as well as share discoveries about rhetoric” (xi)

January 10, 2011

Connors, Overwork/Underpay

Connors, Robert J. “Overwork/Underpay: Labor and Status of Composition Teachers since 1880.” Rhetoric Review 9.1 (Fall 1990): 108-125.

Connors looks at the change in the institutional position of composition teachers from 1880 to the present (1980), tying composition’s current low status to broader changes in society and American higher. Connors explains how the structure of the composition course in the late 1800s – which most often contained the entire freshman class, not split into sections, and which was based on frequent essay-writing and individual attention to students – butted up against the rise in American university student population. Professors of rhetoric were overworked, often moved on to another less laborous field, and rhetoric was not considered a desirable field for a scholar to enter. The growing graduate student population provided a large pool of cheap labor, which extended after the graduate students graduated and became poorly-paid instructors (disproportionalty more women than men compared to other fields) in order to have a foot in the door for a more well-paying assistant professor position. Connors uses historical documents and reports to construct his history, including reflections written by and about the Boylston Chair at Harvard, the Hopkins Report of 1913 (which published the results of a nationwide survey of over 600 composition teachers about their working conditions and expectations), and the NCTE “English and the PhD” report from 1925 (which argued that literature PhDs were not trained to teach composition)

Notes and Quotes

“Rhetoric has changed in a hundred years from an academic desideratum to a grim apprenticeship, to be escaped as soon as practical” (108).

Connors explained the first American college literacy crisis, which originated at Harvard in 1874 and resulted in the institution of hte required basic freshman writing course.

late 1800s: coeducation (men felt more comfortable writing arguments to women than debating them); rise of business and industry that demanded consistent written communication; larger debates of linguistic correctness; university student population growing rapidly and the emerging notion of writing instruction that should be individualistic (and hence labor-intensive.)

Hopkins Report estimated that, given how fast a teacher could read (2200 words an hour, 10 hours a week), a composition teacher could only effectively teach 61 writing students.

“While teachers in other fields were dealing successfully with the larger numbers in their classes by evolving techniques of discussion and lecture, composition teachers were tied to the reading of thousands of themes” (115).

mismatch between the work required to get a PhD (investigation, research) and what the TAs were then expected to do (teach, often sections of freshman composition.) TAs were assigned multiple sections of labor-intensive composition while trying to complete their dissertations, and they hated rhetoric andcomposition as a result.

Why did people agree to be part of the composition underclass? 1. “Surplus” PhDs who wanted to stay doing something academic in the hopes of getting a better job 2. Women who did not have a fair shake in competing with fellow male PhDs for academic jobs 3. Women who had the added burden of raising children and couldn’t compete in scholarly production 4. Women who needed part-time jobs to raise children. 5. People who wanted part-time flexibility

“Unless and until teaching and studying writing can be made work the entire English faculty wants to share in, irresistable social forces will maintain the underclass and all of the unhappiness and poisonous inequality that have always followed in its train.” (one solution – give extra credit to faculty who agree to teach writing)

uses late-19th and early-20th century reports, articles in English Journal, monographs, surveys on the teaching of English and composition

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